All About Fare Classes

Recently, we gave you a primer on airline fare codes: What they look like, what they mean, and how they're different from airline to airline. So you know how to go about deciphering those codes once you've already searched a fare, but how about putting those fare codes to work for you?

By Andrea Bennett

Why You Should Care About Fare Classes

If you care about earning points and bonus miles, or earning elite status on an airline, you should care about the class of service you book. Why? While most fare classes earn full flight miles (with business- and first-class seats often earning additional miles), certain airlines won't give you full-flight miles on deeply discounted economy seats. On one end of the extreme: Fly US Airways partner Virgin Airways in Upper Class (J,D,R, or Z class) and you'll get 200% of US Airways Dividend Miles. On the other end: Air Canada's Fun (R,I, G) , Econo (B,H,V,Q, L), and Tango (E,N,P, T) fare classes only earn half of the miles you'll actually log. Of course, the flights you book on opaque sites like Priceline and Hotwire carry a class of service code that earns no miles.

If you're trying to get to elite status on an airline, you'll really need to pay attention to booking the right class of service. Higher classes earn elite-qualifying bonuses on most airlines. For instance, on Continental, you can earn 150% elite qualification miles on every class all the way down from first through full fare economy, but you'll only earn 50% qualifying miles on deeply discounted fares (Q, I, S, W, T, X, L).  Similarly, American Airlines gives you 150% elite qualifying miles through seats booked in full fare economy, but deeply discounted economy fares (G,Q, N,O,S) earn only half, and strangely, O fares between North American and Latin America aren't eligible at all.

How To Search for Seats by Class of Service

Most airlines will let you search for general class of service, and going first to the page where your airline's mileage bonuses and restrictions are listed will give you a good general sense of what you're looking for. For instance, at Continental, you can choose by cabin (economy, first, or business) and then fare type (lowest fare, lowest refundable fare, and full fare), and even fares that are eligible for OnePass mileage upgrades and promotions.

Other airline sites don't give you such detailed information up front. United only shows you the fare class once you've chosen an itinerary, Delta and US Airways will let you see it, but you have to go through the extra step of clicking on "view fare rules." And you'll have to actually call an agent at American Airlines to find out which classes of service belong to which prices; it doesn't show them on its website. And remember, almost all the airlines now charge a fee for booking with a real live human being; so if you DO decide to try and get details from a call center, it's best to triangulate: find out the price of the fare on the exactly flight associated with the class of service you want, and then go online and book it through the website.

But there are ways to look for a specific fare class first (for instance, you read about a certain "K" class promotion on Airline X to Bangkok, or you're trying to get some elite qualifying miles on Continental without having to pay for a full-fare Y-class economy ticket).  First, you can see if there are any seats left in the specific class you're looking for by going to Seat Counter.  It's been possible to do this in the past by logging on to Expert Flyer,  an extremely useful (but not free service, at $99 per year). We got on to SeatCounter, plugged in an itinerary from Atlanta to Dublin, and found the exact number of seats available in 13 different classes. (Remember, these numbers change as frequently as the airlines sell seats.) Another place to search is through Amex's fare code search tool, which searches the class availability of most airlines worldwide and is, strangely, easiest to access by clicking here, instead of going to the Amex consumer travel section of

After you find out if your class of service is available, you can use the triangulation method above (call the airline call center, ask them what price a "Q" ticket is on your flight, then go to the website and find it). Or you can find it on one of the more fare-friendly websites, such as Continental.  Alternately, go to ITA Software, where you'll get fares, click on "rules," and get the code and every restriction you want to know about, laid bare on one page.

Q-Up, Y-UP, and Z-UP Upgradeable Fares

Now, for UP fares. Q-UP, Y-UP, and Z-UP fares are basically deeply discounted first class tickets, the beauty of which is that they use fare codes like Q, Y, and Z, which are usually associated with coach/economy class, but are actually booked in the first class cabin.  Some airlines, like United, are even "upping" M and B class fares now. It's not important that you know which airline "ups" what (Y-Ups are the most common, by the way), but it is important that you know how to find them. The easiest place to find them is through FareCompare,  where you can find the discount first class page from the homepage, which lists the discount first class fares from the city of your choice. Other online travel agents, such as Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz will let you search by fare class, but you'll need to click all the way through to the rules and restrictions to find the code.

For example, on Travelocity  if you click on the "First/Business Class and Refundable Fare Options" link and then choose "All Types" you'll see non-refundable business class "UP" fares. Beware though: unlike "real" business and first class fares, UP fares are not refundable, and if you change your travel dates you'll pay $150 on most airlines.

All in all, you'll be doing a fair amount of clicking around, but there's no booking satisfaction like finding that code in the veritable haystack the airlines like to bury it in. Happy hunting.

Andrea Bennett's work has appeared in Travel and Leisure, The Wall St. Journal, and the New York Post among other publications.