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Learn the ABCs of fare classes to reach your mileage goals

SmarterTravel

Occasionally, a bonus mile offer, special promotion, or perk is only available on select first, business, or economy fare classes. These offers generally display a list of letters that indicate applicable classes. While these codes and restrictions might mean something to travel agents and industry experts, you may be left scratching your head.

While most of the time you can travel quite happily never knowing the fare class of your ticket, there are times when knowing about fare classes can mean the difference between getting miles, upgrades, or elite status, and coming home empty-handed.

What are fare classes?

You certainly have heard of the major fare-class categories: first, business, and economy. Those classes are broken down into sub-classes (full-fare economy, discounted economy, deeply discounted economy, etc.) based on the restrictions associated with each type of ticket. A full-fare economy ticket will have fewer advance purchase, minimum or maximum stay, and refund restrictions than a discount economy ticket, but will also be more expensive. Each airline uses its own set of letters to represent various classes, so if you know which letters represent which fare classes on Delta, you can’t apply the same codes to flights on American or United.

Earning points and bonus miles

Most fare classes earn full flight miles, with business- and first-class tickets earning additional bonus miles. Airlines also have special fare classes for tickets that don’t earn miles, such as award travel, discounted or free employee travel, charter flights, and flights purchased on opaque travel sites. In addition, the most deeply discounted economy classes on certain airlines do not earn full flight miles. For instance, Air Canada’s Fun (fare classes R, I, or G), Econo (B, H, V, Q, or L), and Tango (E, N, P, or T) fare classes earn only 50 percent of miles flown.

Upgrades

Fare classes play a major role when you want to upgrade your ticket because some fare classes are nonupgradeable. For instance, regular WorldPerks members cannot use miles to upgrade Northwest’s discount T or K fare classes, though elite members are allowed to upgrade those fares. And on Continental, full-fare economy tickets (fare classes YA3 and Y8) earn elite or upper-class level benefits, including free upgrades to first class when available, priority check-in and boarding, and a “no middle seat” guarantee.

Elite qualifying points

If you’re trying to attain elite status, you’ll need to pay attention to fare classes. The higher classes earn elite-qualifying bonuses on most airlines, up to 200 percent of miles flown for first or business class. However, Continental and Delta offer only 50 percent elite-qualifying miles on deeply discounted fares (classes L, U, and T for Delta and Q, I, S, W, T, X, or L for Continental). But luckily, Continental will let you continue to earn 100 percent of miles flown toward elite status this year if you book discount tickets online at continental.com.

Determining the class of your ticket

If it’s important to you to book your ticket in a particular fare class, you’ll need to know how to find that information. Most airlines allow you to filter your airfare search based on general classes. For instance, US Airways has a drop-down menu for class of service, and Continental lets you choose cabin (economy, first, or business) and fare type (lowest fare, lowest refundable fare, and full fare), as well as fares that are eligible for OnePass mileage upgrades and OnePass promotions.

Once your search yields a list of fares, different airlines display the specific booking class in different places. For Delta or US Airways flights, you need to click on “view fare rules,” while Continental lists the fare class under each itinerary option. United only shows you the fare class once you’ve selected an itinerary. American is the least fare-class friendly; the fare class is not visible on any of the online booking pages, so you must book over the phone or through an agent if you need a ticket in a specific class. When in doubt, check directly with your airline before booking.

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