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What Frequent Business Travelers Should Understand about Airline Fare Codes

December 8th, 2016 /

As a frequent flyer, you’ve probably learned that business class is worth the splurge. But imagine, on a recent flight, that you overhear a startling conversation: the person sitting next to you paid $200 less than you did for their ticket. Or maybe you paid less because you know how to score an upgrade, but you learn that your seatmate is earning twice as many miles for the exact same flight.

Airline pricing is incredibly complicated. We all know that. So how can you ensure you’re actually getting the most bang for your buck?

airline fare codes can be hard to find

Every seat in an airplane cabin has a different price and mile payout–all due to fare codes. Image by Flickr user Hideyuki KAMON (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The answer basically lies in airline fare codes: these determine the price of your seat, how many miles you can earn, whether or not your ticket qualifies for elite status points, and a number of other factors. Your fare code can always be found printed somewhere on your ticket, but most frequent flyers never notice them or take the time to puzzle them out—and, of course, by the time you’ve made the purchase and printed your ticket, it’s too late to do anything about your code.

The trick is to locate your fare code before booking to make sure you’re choosing the seat that will benefit you most.

Where to Find Fare Codes When Booking Flights

Airlines are not in the business of giving away their profit-making secrets. They technically reveal your fare code during the booking process, but you often have to dig deep within the fine print.

check the fine print to spot your fare code

Fare codes are buried deep within airline websites. Finding them is key.

American Airlines, for instance, displays your “booking code” immediately, which functions as a much-abridged fare code, but it’s a pain trying to get to the full string of letters and numbers to display. In the example below, I had to get all the way to the Passenger Information screen (after selecting a ticket), then expand the details, then click “Fare Rules” before the full fare code became visible.

it is possible to find your fare code, it just takes persistence

Usually, clicking “View Fare Rules” on a ticket you’ve selected will reveal the fare code.

What Do All The Fare Code Letters Mean?

But finding your code is unfortunately the easy part. Next comes actually interpreting it. While there are some commonalities between airlines, each has an alphabet soup of codes that are specific to them. Below I’ve added a chart of common letters and what they often mean, but the list is by no means comprehensive:

Y: Economy
J: Business Full-Fare
D/I: Business Discounted
F: First Class
A: First Class Discounted
NR: Non-Refundable
H: High Season
L: Long-Haul
#: How many days ahead you booked

Carefully watching your fare code will benefit you most if you’re loyal to a particular airline. That way, you’ll get to know their quirks and won’t have to worry about looking up your fare codes for every flight.

Because each airline is different, it’s also probably most important to become familiar with the basic fare classes (the first letter of your code) instead of trying to decipher the entire sequence. Knowing the difference between F and A fare classes, for example, might allow you to consistently pay less for the same first class cabin seat—but at the cost of a lower mile payout or some other tradeoff.

Let’s look at an example. Taking the American ticket I purchased above, we’ll borrow the fare code DOAHZRJ1. Here’s what the entire string of code reveals about my purchase:

D: “Discounted Business” Fare. I can expect 50% extra earned miles to my AAdvantage account and will get 2 EQMs (elite qualifying miles) per mile flown. This first letter is called the “fare class.”
O: Purchased online.
A: One-way, with a possible award upgrade to first class.
H: High season.
Z: Plan AAhead Award eligible.
R: Operational upgrades apply.
1: Must be ticketed one day in advance.

If you’d like to search for seats by code letter to book your flight, I suggest using Expert Flyer—a subscription service for frequent flyers that make navigating fare codes much easier. If you’re going it alone, start by searching for a list of your preferred airline’s fare codes. While you’d need a travel agent to decipher every single fare code for every single airline, it’s completely possible to master your airline’s most common ones.

How Fare Codes Affect Your Flight Flexibility

One of the major red flags a fare code can give you is an indication of flexibility. Is your ticket refundable? Double check that your fare code doesn’t include “NR” or your particular airline’s indicator. Booking far in advance (with a fare code that might read “14” for two weeks ahead) often gives you more flexibility for itinerary changes. Can you change flights without a penalty? Some fare classes denote a massive fee for moving flight times.

don't waste your money on needlessly expensive tickets

The lowest fares are often non-refundable. Watch your fare code to guarantee flexibility. Image by Flickr user Tax Credits (CC BY 2.0)

The point of all this is, of course, to make money for the airlines. Though you might not realize that’s what you’re paying for, a ticket that allows itinerary changes is undoubtedly going to be more expensive.

The takeaway for the consumer is that you should book according to your priorities. If you’ve got a set itinerary, you don’t need to worry about flight cancellation fees and can purchase the cheaper seat. If you’re trying to earn as many elite status miles as possible, it might be worthwhile to spend a little more on your ticket.

Some fare codes also indicate the chances of being upgraded—certain letters mean that you’re higher on the priority list than other passengers and will be first in line for a seat upgrade should the occasion arise. For example, if you’re a United Premier member, buying a ticket in fare classes Y and B (full-fare economy) will award you an instant complimentary upgrade to first class. These particular codes vary significantly by airline, so, again, check out the particulars of your favorite.

Use Fare Codes Strategically to Earn Miles and Elite Status

If you’re a frequent traveler, here’s the real kicker: fare codes can be used by airlines to denote seats that earn more miles per flight.

For example, say I purchase an American Airlines flight and earn three miles per dollar using my favorite rewards credit card. However, completing that flight also earns miles to my AAdvantage account—so I’m earning miles from two different sources on the same transaction. Here’s where fare codes come in: depending on which exact ticket I purchase, I have the potential to earn 50-100% more AAdvantage miles. Flying American specifically, fare classes A, D, F, and J have an extra mile payout of 50%. If I’m looking to make my miles balance grow as quickly as possible, I’d look for one of these options.

On the flip side, you should be careful when booking flights on partner airlines. Some fares earn you less than 100% of your miles, reducing your points by as much as 50%, which is absolutely a waste of a good flight.

frequent fliers can benefit from a basic understanding of fare codes

Paying attention to fare codes helps you earn more miles than simply flying more often. Image by Flickr user sigmama (CC BY 2.0)

It’s also important to consider how your particular airline allows you to achieve elite status. With Delta, for example, you can actually earn elite Medallion miles when you purchase fares F and J, and these are the only miles that can move you up in status brackets. Pay close attention to what your airline pays out in elite qualifying miles or segments for the fares you purchase to see if you can spot a pattern.

You can easily get by as a frequent flyer without ever noticing or needing airline fare codes. You’ll earn plenty of miles by staying loyal to an airline and using rewards programs and credit cards. However, understanding fare codes can help you become an expert flyer. With this knowledge, you’ll never be surprised with flight change penalties again, and you’ll be well on your way to earning elite status.

If you’re looking for an equally game-changing way to book hotels once you land, consider a membership with JetLux. We offer unbelievably discounted rates and suite upgrades at luxury hotels across the nation. Reward yourself for savvy flying with a comfortable stay at a reasonable price.

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