Different Tickets in the Same Cabin: Airline Fare Classes and Why They Matter

Spend enough time on places like FlyerTalk’s Mileage Run Deals forum, and you’re bound to hear people say things like “it books into J”, or “full Y fare”.   So what are these mileage hackers talking about, and why does it matter?

They’re talking about fare classes.  Fare classes are designations that divide individual cabins, and relate to how you purchased the ticked, and the restrictions and opportunities related to that ticket.   

Fare classes can affect:

  • The cabin you sit in (obviously).
  • The availability of upgrades.
  • The amount of miles you earn.
  • Your ability to get into an airline’s lounge.
  • Cancellation and change fees you’ll pay.
  • The cost of your ticket. 

If you want to become a successful travel hacker and get the most out of every dollar you spend with an airline, you’ll need to at least know something about fare classes.

Fare Classes You Should Know

Now, it’d be nearly impossible to memorize every fare class and its meaning.  There’s one for every letter of the alphabet, and many of them mean very different things on different airlines.  Take a look at this detailed chart of American Airlines fare classes as an example. 

But, there are some important fare classes that are often used across the industry you should be familiar with.

Full-Fare Classes

These typically give you the most opportunities for upgrades and mileage earning in each cabin, and are often the holy grail of the mileage runner.

Y Full Fare Economy
W Full Fare Premium Economy
J Full Fare Business Class
F Full Fare First Class

Award Classes

These classes are typically assigned when you redeem miles for a ticket.

X Economy Award Seat
I Business Award Seat
O First Award Seat

Why it Matters: Upgrades

If you’ve managed to earn elite status with an airline, you’re probably hoping to get upgraded from economy to business or first class every time you fly.  But your status is only a part of the picture. The other important piece of your upgrade eligibility is your fare class.

For example, if you buy one of the new and terrible basic economy “N” fares on United, it doesn’t matter if you have the airline’s highest 1K status, you’re still not getting an upgrade (or earning airline miles, or having a carryon, etc… etc…). 

On the other hand, even if you’re United’s lowest Premier Silver status, you can get in instant upgrade to first class when you book a full “Y” fare economy ticket, jumping ahead of higher-level elites who booked an “M” class economy ticket. 

Why it Matters: Mileage Earning

The other big variable in fare classes for mileage hackers, is how much your ticket will earn you in frequent flyer miles. 

We’ll use Alaska Airlines as our example here.

Fare Class
Mileage Earned
6-17 months .10% .10%
18-35 months .25% .25%
36-59 months .35% .35%
60 + months .70% .70%

Say you had a 1,000 mile flight.  Book a Q-class economy fare, and you’ll earn 1,000 miles.  Book an M class economy fare, and you’ll earn 1,250 miles for the same flight (plus get higher priority for upgrades and other benefits).

The differences are often even more important when you’re looking at partner airlines.

Alaska’s miles are some of the most valuable in the industry, so it’s often smart to credit trips flown on partner airlines back to Alaska.  However, you have to pay attention to fare classes.

The chart below shows fare rules for this particular partnership, and the sample earning potential of different fare classes a flight from Los Angeles to Paris, with a connection in London.

British Airways Cabin
Fare Class
Miles Earned on Alaska
LAX – LHR – CDG Miles Earned
First F 500% 59,560
First A 450% 53,604
Business (Club Europe and World) J, C, D 350% 41, 692
Business (Club Europe and World) R, I 250% 29,780
Premium Economy (World Traveler Plus) W 150% 17,868
Premium Economy (World Traveler Plus) E, T 100% 11,912
Economy Y, B, H 100% 11,912
Economy K, L, M, N, S, V 50%  2,956
Economy Q, O, G 25%  2,978

As you can see, the fare class you book into will have a drastic effect on your mileage earning potential.  Book into First Class A, and you’ll earn Alaska’s mid-level MVP Gold status in a single flight.  Book into Economy H and you’ll earn a respectable 11,912 miles.  Book into Economy Q, and you might as well not bother. 

Searching by Fare Classes

There are very few tools that actually let you search by fare classes.  The often slow but comprehensive ITA Matrix will allow it, with complex searches. ExpertFlyer’s subscription service will allow it, but you’ll have to pay $4.99/mo.

Beyond that, your best bet is to find a fare, then start the booking process until the airline or online travel-agent website gives you details about the fare class that you’re booking.

One More Tool in your Travel Hacking Arsenal

Fare classes are a useful tool to understand, and use for travel hackers.  Pay attention to your fare class every time you book, and you’ll not only avoid nasty surprises, you can game the system to make sure you’re getting the most from every flight you take.

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