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Mileage Trap Forces Flyer to Forfeit Miles

SmarterTravel

Many of you continue to report frustration with frequent flyer programs—no surprise, given the way airlines jerk you around with their rules and limitations. Our latest complaint is an old favorite:

“Singapore refused to credit my United Mileage Plus account for my trip from Los Angeles to Denpasar and back because it said my flights were “ineligible” for mileage credit. I chose to fly partner-line Singapore rather than United because my travel agent told me the Singapore ticket would qualify for United miles. Had I known the flights would not qualify, I would have flown United. Is this just my tough luck/buyer beware, or do I have recourse? What can I do to avoid forfeiting these thousands of miles?”

Unfortunately, this reader got caught in a trap that has snared thousands of travelers, and it isn’t going to get any better.

The Basic Rules

Those of you who fly mainly within the U.S. are accustomed to a general rule of domestic frequent flyer programs: No matter what class of ticket you buy, as long as it’s on a published fare, you get full mileage credit. That’s been a bedrock principle since the programs began—and although the big U.S. airlines probably wish they hadn’t set the programs up that way, I see little chance that they’ll change.

The big foreign lines got their frequent flyer programs off to a much later start than their U.S. competitors, and, from the beginning, many of them gave only partial credit or even no credit at all for flights on their cheapest “discount” tickets. And, after that, some of them adopted even stricter limits on how many miles they would give travelers in partner-line programs. The end result: When you fly overseas on an airline not based in the U.S., you may not get full mileage credit for a flight on a low-end ticket in either the U.S. or the foreign line’s program.

The “Fare Code” or “Booking Code” Mystery

Whether you get miles—and how many you get—is determined by the “fare code” or “booking code” of your ticket. Even though the airplane has no more than four cabins—coach/economy, premium economy, business, and first—seats in each cabin might be assigned to several codes. Typically, economy may include more than a dozen codes, based on fare levels and restrictions. And except for three basic full-fare categories, F (first class), C (business class), and Y (economy), other codes are not consistent from one line to another.

The fine print in each line’s online frequent flyer information pages specifies which codes earn how much mileage. The websites also specify how much credit you get in different partner-line codes. But they usually don’t tell you what restrictions and limitations apply to each individual code, nor the relative fare levels. The whole code system can be confusing because maybe up to a half-dozen codes apply to fares that never qualify for miles: unpublished fares, such as group, consolidator, inclusive tour, and industry, as well as to frequent flyer seats. As a further complication, some lines award even fewer “elite qualifying miles” (“EQM”) than actual miles on their lower fares. Those are the miles that count toward elite frequent flyer status, much prized by travelers who fly enough to become elites.

Test Flights

For this report, I spot-checked the award picture for the four largest U.S. network airlines, for their own flights and for flights on a few key partner lines. In mid-May, I checked (1) the mileage each U.S. line awards for various codes, (2) the mileage each U.S. airline awards for various codes on each partner airline, (3) the codes for the lowest fares I could find on both the U.S. line and each partner line, and (4) the amount of miles the partner line would award in its own program for flights at the same low fare. The information is as accurate as I could find online, but I may not have found some special-sale fares that use different booking codes. In a few cases, I couldn’t find the booking code at all, but I did find whether the lowest fare earned mileage. You can easily duplicate this comparison for any U.S. lines and partner lines I didn’t cover.

American

  • American flights: Codes H, K, M, L, W, VG, Q, N, S, and O except for Latin America earn full mileage credit. The lowest domestic and international fares were code N, which earns full credit.

  • British Airways flights: Codes K, L, M, N, O, G, Q, S, and V earn 25% credit. Cheapest flight code N earns 25% in either program.

  • Cathay Pacific flights: Only code H earns credit. Cheapest flight code M earns no American credit but full Cathay credit.

  • Qantas flights: Codes M, V, L, G, O, S, E, Q, O, and M earn 50% miles. Cheapest flight code O earns 50% in American program but full Qantas credit.

  • JAL flights: Codes B, E, H, L, K, M, V, and S earn 75% credit and EQM credit. Cheapest flight code V earns 75% credit in either program.

Continental

  • Continental flights: All published codes earn full mileage credit.

  • Air New Zealand flights: Codes Q, V, W, and T earn full credit, other codes earn no credit. Cheapest flight earns no Continental credit but full ANZ credit.
  • ANA flights: Codes B, S, M, K, L, H, W, and G earn 70% credit. Cheapest flight code W earns 70% in either program.

  • Lufthansa flights: Codes W, S, U, and W earn 50% credit. Cheapest flight code W earns 50% in either program.

  • Singapore flights: Codes B, E, M, H, W, U, L, and K earn 100% credit. Cheapest flight code H earns full credit in either program.

Delta

  • Delta flights. All published codes earn full credit.

  • Air France flights: Codes L, N, O, G, and X earn no credit. Cheapest flight code N earns no credit in either program.

  • Korean flights: Codes A, B, D, G, Q, U, V, and X earn no credit. Cheapest flight (from Toronto) code X earns no credit; cheapest flight (from U.S.) code H earns full credit; same for either program.

    <liV Australia flights: Codes K, G, E, L, N, and T earn 50% credit, codes V and Q earn 25%, credit, and codes A, F, M, U, X, P, and Z earn no credit. Cheapest flight code V earns 25% Delta credit. (V Australia credit is not measured by miles.)

United

  • United flights: All published fares earn full credit.

  • ANZ flights: Codes Y, B, E, H, M, N, O, Q, U, V, A, W, and T earn full credit. Cheapest flight earns no credit in either program.
  • ANA flights: Codes B, S, M, K, L, H, W, and G earn 70% credit. Cheapest flight code W earns 70% in either program.
  • Lufthansa flights: Codes W, S, and U earn 50% credit. Cheapest flight code W earns 50% credit in either program.
  • Singapore flights: Codes B, E, M, H, W, U, L, and K earn 100% credit. Cheapest flight code H earns full credit in either program.

Possible Glitches

The code for the lowest fare I could find on Singapore was supposed to earn full United credit. So what happened? Presumably, somebody could have made a mistake, but that’s unlikely. Instead, I see one of two possibilities:

  • The fare our reader bought was in some other code—for a “sale” fare that wasn’t offered when I checked—that did not earn credit.
  • Our traveler’s agent sold her a consolidator ticket that didn’t qualify for mileage without disclosing that fact. Unfortunately, a few dishonest agents buy consolidator tickets, mark them up to the level of the lowest published fare, and pocket the difference.

Recovery Not Likely

United says that Singapore flights in codes X, I, O, G, Q, V, N, and T earn no credit. If her ticket shows one of those codes, she’s out of luck. The airlines clearly do not owe her any miles. However, if her ticket shows some code that is supposed to earn miles, she should get back to United with the evidence.

Her only other recourse might be with her travel agent. If the agent promised a ticket that would earn miles, our reader should consider asking the agent for compensation. Whether or not to pursue this vigorously depends on her relationship to the agent—and what evidence she can muster.

Booking for Miles

On most airlines, it’s almost impossible to search for the lowest fare that earns full mileage credit. If you want to assure you get full credit, you almost have to reserve by phone or in person with an agent.

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