Airline Booking Codes Explained & Everything You Need To Know

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The world of aviation is complex, chock full of information stored within airport kiosks. This is especially true within what’s known as the revenue management department. Simply put, this department is in charge of analyzing data and implementing practices that would optimize product quality and profitability.

Sounds complex and/or generic? You’re absolutely correct.

Over the years, airlines began bucketing the available tickets on a plane into discrete buckets, known colloquially as fare buckets. The tickets in each of these fare buckets correspond to different rules/policies, which ultimately results in a different customer experience.

Simply separating each cabin class (economy, premium economy, business, and first) is not enough to extract the most value from your airplane ticket, so this guide will be technical and complex.

We’ll explore what your airline booking code looks like and, more importantly, how it affects you.

There may be lots of seemingly random letters and numbers, but we’ll always be looking to tie back the knowledge to how it affects you and your exact situation.

Introduction

Airline booking codes are essential because they convey a tremendous amount of information in a succinct string of code letters and numbers. That way, an airline representative (or seasoned traveler) can look at the code and easily figure out what “kind of ticket” they’re looking at.

It’s important to note that although there are standard accepted practices on creating a code system for airline booking codes, every airline has different codes and structures that make unifying the system of airline booking codes impossible amongst all the airlines.

In other words, there are industry best-practices to building an airline booking code, but there are no industry standards (i.e. booking codes from Delta Air Lines will look a lot different than booking codes from South African Airways).

Let’s take a look at what exactly an airline booking code looks like.

What Is an Airline Booking Code?

Airline booking codes look like a bunch of gibberish, but they’re really code letters and numbers that have some sort of meaning depending on the key a particular airline creates.

For example, let’s say that you wanted to book the cheapest first class ticket one-way from San Francisco (SFO) to New York City (JFK) on American Airlines on June 20, 2020.

By using the ITA Matrix by Google, you’ll see the following result:

ITA Matrix Search for Booking Codes
ITA Matrix search for booking codes. Image Credit: ITA Matrix by Google

The exact airline booking code is boxed in red, and it reads AYAHJNFC. Doesn’t that look like gibberish? That’s because it is. Every airline constructs booking codes differently, and another example is the following ticket from JetBlue on their Mint class.

ITA Matrix Search for Booking Codes JetBlue Example
ITA Matrix search for booking codes, JetBlue example. Image Credit: ITA Matrix by Google

This ticket says CH2NNE, which has a completely different structure; there are 2 fewer letters and 1 number.

Let’s talk about what exactly the codes mean.

What Does Your Airline Booking Code Mean?

Each letter and number in the string of code represents a different concept. Let’s look at the American Airlines booking code, also known as the fare basis code: AYAHJNFC.

While it’s not essential to know what each of these letters means, it can go a long way in understanding what you get with your ticket. American Airlines, along with most other airlines, makes the fare basis codes extremely difficult to decode. This is mostly because they don’t have a “key” or glossary that helps with these letters and numbers.

It may seem surprising that there’s no international standard for what the structure/meaning of the airline booking code must look like, but even though American Airlines’ bookings codes are extremely nebulous, they typically contain:

  • Booking class
  • Seasonality
  • Day of departure
  • Cancellation policy
  • Booking/routing restrictions
  • And more!

If you wanted a spoiler alert for American Airlines’ alphabet soup known as the fare basis example of AYAHJNFC, here it is:

  • A — booking class (with the exception of upgraded fares)
  • YA — Advance purchase requirement (60 days)
  • H — day of the week (Saturday)
  • J — Time travel restriction (unknown)
  • NFC — nonrefundable first class ticket (cancellation policy)

It’s also important to note that even the American Airlines representatives we contacted didn’t know what most of these letters represented. The only reason why we’re pretty certain this is correct is because of investigations comparing similar fares and reading through the detailed fare information.

Booking Class

The first (and arguably most important) aspect of your fare basis code is the booking class. In the example above (AYAHJNFC), the first letter “A” corresponds to American Airlines’ A fare class, which is shown in the second row here:

AA Fare Classes
AA fare classes chart. Image Credit: American Airlines

As we can see, the A fare class corresponds to Discount First, which makes sense, seeing as how this itinerary in Flagship First Class prices out at around half the price of the full-fare Flagship First Class tickets (F).

The fare class will help you determine how many miles you’ll earn from flying on a specific ticket, but we’ll get to that in the later sections.

You may also find some discrepancies between the first letter of the fare basis and the booking class. For example, there’s a ticket with fare basis I7AUPNAC on the same exact day. You’d think the fare class is in “I” due to the fact that the first letter is I, discount business class. However, this is actually an instant upgrade ticket with full-fare business class upgrading to first class.

The main scenarios in which the first letter of the fare basis doesn’t match the actual booking class is when there’s an instant upgrade involved. Some examples of this are corporate fares, such as the well-known Y-Up fares. You will still earn miles equivalent to your actual flown cabin class. 

Bottom Line: Knowing your booking class from your fare basis is great because it can give you insight on your ticket type. Keep in mind that while most airlines denote the booking class with the first letter in the fare basis, some airlines actually tell you what actual seat you’ll be flying on, like Delta Air Lines.

Upgrade Eligibility

Many times, you need to have a minimum booking class in order for a ticket to be upgradable. The best way to illustrate this concept is by using British Airways tickets.

British Airways will not allow you to upgrade your ticket if your booking class is in the Q, O, or G buckets (the cheapest economy tickets). This makes sense because it would defeat the purpose of selling premium economy tickets. Why buy a $1,000 premium economy ticket when you can buy a super-cheap $200 economy ticket and upgrade it using a few Avios?

Additionally, some airlines, such as United Airlines, actually decide your priority on the upgrade list based on your booking class.

Check out this graphic, showing the official language from United Airlines regarding their upgrade waitlist placement:

United Upgrade Priority Waitlist
United upgrade priority waitlist. Image Credit: United Airlines

As you can see, fare class is the second most-important factor in determining your waitlist priority, so it’s a pretty big deal, at least on United Airlines flights.

With the case of American Airlines, all tickets besides economy and award tickets can be upgraded according to this chart:

AA Upgrade Chart
AA upgrade chart. Image Credit: American Airlines

Here are all the upgradable tickets:

AA upgrade eligible tickets. Image Credit: American Airlines

If you happen to buy a cheaper ticket, you’ll simply pay a higher co-pay to upgrade from a lower fare class. If you purchase a discount economy ticket from San Francisco (SFO) to New York City (JFK), such as in Q class, you can pay 15,000 AAdvantage miles plus $75 to upgrade to business class, provided that upgrade space is available.

Mileage Accrual

Figuring out the number of miles you will earn on your airfare is essential for those who want to get rewarded for their loyalty on paid travel. Let’s analyze our previously discussed SFO-JFK ticket on American Airlines in AYAHJNFC fare basis.

Hot Tip: Want to figure out exactly how many miles you’ll earn on your ticket? Check out our guide on where to credit your miles, which also teaches you how to figure out your mileage accrual! 

In our case, we’re flying in A class on our San Francisco (SFO) – New York City (JFK) ticket, which means we’ll earn AA miles as a multiplier of the total distance flown.

We’ll earn:

AAdvantage Status When Flying SFO-JFK A Class Accrual ($859)
None4,295 AA miles (5 miles per USD)
Gold6,013 AA miles (7 miles per USD)
Platinum6,872 AA Miles (8 miles per USD)
Platinum Pro7,731 AA Miles (9 miles per USD)
Executive Platinum9,449 AA Miles (11 miles per USD)

Other programs, such as Cathay Pacific, earn miles based on the total distance flown.

As I detailed in my revenue round-trip Cathay Pacific first class flight that I booked for ~$1,200, I decided to credit my miles to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, netting me the following mileage:

Alaska MVP Status When Flying HKG-SFO A Class Accrual (6,927 miles)
None24,245 Alaska miles (350% distance)
MVP27,708 Alaska miles (400% distance)
MVP Gold31,172 Alaska miles (450% distance)
MVP Gold 75K32,903 Alaska miles (475% distance)

The booking class that I was booked in, A, was instrumental in determining how I was going to credit my revenue travel.

Thanks to my strategy, I was able to accrue over 24,000 Alaska miles on a one-way flight, which is worth ~$480, according to our Travel Points & Miles Valuations.

Bottom Line: Knowing your booking class will help you figure out where to credit airline miles, which is essential for extracting as much value from paid travel as possible. 

Elite Status Qualification

Not only does your booking class play a role in determining the number of miles you’ll accrue for traveling on the paid ticket, but it will also be huge in determining what elite status qualification thresholds you’ll get closer to.

As we have shown above, discount first class tickets earn fewer elite qualification miles (EQMs) than full fare first class tickets.

If you flew on the AA Flagship First Class ticket with fare basis AYAHJNFC, from San Francisco (SFO) to New York City (JFK), you’d earn based on the A fare class, which would net you 2 EQMs per mile flown (around 5,172 EQMs).

However, if you flew on the same ticket but in F fare class, you’d earn 3 EQMs per mile flown (around 7,758 EQMs). This is a huge deal because you need 100,000 EQMs to qualify for Executive Platinum and 75,000 EQMs for Platinum Pro.

Hot Tip: Want to learn more about AAdvantage? Check out our review of American Airlines’ AAdvantage Frequent Flyer Program.

Cancellation Policy

Travel plans change all the time. Whether it’s due to weather, a desire to stay in a place for a longer time, or an emergency, understanding your airplane ticket’s cancellation policy is probably a prudent thing to do.

The problem is that some tickets have different cancellation policies than others. You need not fret, however, as this won’t apply to a majority of travelers unless you’re a traveler with a specific expense policy.

Most of us book the cheapest ticket, and unless you’re booking right before departure, you’ll be getting a nonrefundable ticket. Our fare basis AYAHJNFC is nonrefundable due to the “NFC” letters. While NFC implies nonrefundable, the reverse isn’t true. Some nonrefundable tickets have different letters, and there’s no simple way to combine them.

Luckily, cancellation policies are readily displayed on an airline ticket page, so looking at your fare basis isn’t the easiest way to find out your cancellation policy.

If you’re a corporate traveler, your company expense policy may require refundable tickets; in that case, you’ll need to be cognizant of your cancellation policy before booking a ticket that violates your corporate expense guidelines. One of the ways to do this is to look at your fare basis. This isn’t the best way, though, since analyzing your fare basis is a technical exercise.

Hot Tip: See which cards have the best cancellation insurance so that you know you’re covered should something go wrong.

Booking/Routing Restrictions

The last major item we’ll be talking about is booking and routing restrictions. With the case of our AA ticket with fare basis AYAHJNFC, the YA letters represent a 60-day advance purchase requirement.

If you’re booking for travel on June 20, 2020, you must book at least 60 days before departure (April 21, 2020) in order to qualify for this fare basis.

Here are some other American Airlines advance-purchase requirement codes:

  • YA — 60-day advance purchase requirement
  • WA — 30-day advance purchase requirement
  • VA — 21-day advance purchase requirement
  • UA — 14-day advance purchase requirement
  • 7A — 7-day advance purchase requirement
  • 3A — 3-day advance purchase requirement
  • 0A — 0-day advance purchase requirement

Also, there might be more information on your booking code/fare basis regarding routing rules for round-trip or multi-segment tickets, such as stopover allowance, transfer allowance, and minimum or maximum stay requirements.

Since our ticket we’re discussing AYAHJNFC is a one-way ticket, none of these apply.

Bottom Line: Using a tool like ExpertFlyer is an excellent way to get the full details on all airfare rules pertaining to minimum stay requirements, stopovers, and more. Check out our ultra-detailed guide on how to use ExpertFlyer to check fare information.

How Can You Use Airline Booking Codes to Your Advantage?

Now that we’ve gone through all the basics and informational content surrounding booking/fare basis codes, let’s bring it back to reality and see how we can use them to our advantage.

Special Fare Classes for Added Award and Upgrade Availability

Booking award flights is often tedious and technically challenging. This is especially true for premium cabin flights. Sometimes, however, airlines incentivize loyalty by giving elite status members or cardholders access to extra award space that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.

One of the best examples of this is United Airlines where in many cases you’ll have access to added award availability that non-elites and non-Chase United Explorer cardholders don’t. This can be vital if the particular route/schedule you want is in high demand. Simply by holding the Chase United Explorer card, you can book more award seats than other people!

Award Availability for Chase United Cardmembers
Award availability for Chase United cardmembers. Image Credit: United Airlines

Having access like this can help tremendously if you’re in a schedule constraint or if you’re booking close to departure. Here are the appropriate booking classes for United elites/cardholders that affords greater award access:

  • JN — High-cost first/business class award for elites and credit cardholders
  • IN — Low-cost first/business class award for elites
  • YN — High-cost economy class award for elites and credit cardholders
  • XN — Low-cost economy class award for elites and credit cardholders

It’s impossible to figure out exact award ticket prices since United will be changing to dynamic award pricing on November 15, 2019, so keep that in mind.

If you’re in United Expert Mode, you can actually figure out the available fare classes on your exact flight:

United Booking Classes
United booking classes. Image Credit: United Airlines

Hot Tip: Using United Expert Mode is extremely useful. At Upgraded Points, we use it to find out if United upgrade space is available.

In addition to added award availability, you need to pay close attention to booking classes when looking to upgrade your flights.

For example, American Airlines treats premium cabin upgrades identically as discounted revenue tickets, meaning you can upgrade a paid business class ticket to first class as long as there’s A fare tickets available. This is phenomenal because you’ll be at a huge advantage in terms of upgrading your ticket if you know the exact booking class you need. They have several different ways to upgrade your tickets, including systemwide upgrades, using miles, or even using Business Extra points.

On the other hand, if you can figure out United’s upgrade fare classes, you’ll know which tickets can be immediately upgraded. United’s upgrade fare classes are:

  • PZ — Instant upgrades and Global Services upgrades
  • PN — All mileage upgrade awards and Platinum/Premier 1K certificates
  • RN — Premium Plus upgrades

Bottom Line: The importance of knowing what booking classes are available can’t be emphasized enough if you want to use airline booking codes to your advantage by getting extra award/upgrade space. 

Increase Your Chances at Upgrades

As we mentioned earlier, upgrading economy tickets to business class is one of the best ways to save big on miles while still offsetting loads of costs associated with booking revenue business class tickets. Most airlines don’t allow any economy ticket to be upgraded all the way up to business class, and one of the biggest mistakes travelers make when trying to upgrade tickets is buying a ticket in too low of a fare class.

If you are diligent in figuring out your booking class via the fare basis, you might save yourself the mistake of buying a super-cheap ticket only to find out you can’t even upgrade it. With the case of United Airlines, you may not upgrade deeply discounted fares or basic economy fares (in fare classes W, S, T, L, K, G, and N).

Remember, too, that your specific fare class is the second-highest priority in determining whether or not you’ll get a complimentary domestic upgrade. Unfortunately, the higher the fare class, the most expensive the ticket. All in all, you can use this information to assist in booking your tickets and doing everything you can to increase your chances of snagging an upgrade.

Save Big on Infant/Child Fares

Traveling with family members can be expensive, particularly infants, which are defined as under 2 years old in the aviation world. If you’re planning travel with your child, you’ll want to look for these fare classes to save loads of money:

  • IN — Infant fare (usually 10% of an adult fare)
  • CH — Child fare (up to 50% off of an adult fare)

Remember that these percentages are based off of the revenue ticket cost, unless otherwise stated. This means that even if you book an award ticket in business class that would have cost $10,000, you may need to pay 10% of that for a lap ticket, adding another $1,000 to your travel. This is much better than paying for a full additional ticket, and it can go a long way to preserving the thickness of your wallet.

Some frequent flyer programs such as Air Canada Aeroplan allow you to pay with either miles or cash, but most require cash payments.

Children Discounts
Typically, there’s a section in your fare information dedicated to children’s discounts. Image Credit: ExpertFlyer

Earn More Redeemable or Elite Status Miles With Better Fare Classes

We talked above about how different fare classes can offer more/less miles. If you’re particularly close to an elite status level and need extra EQMs/EQSs on American Airlines, for example, you may need a better elite status multiplier on your ticket.

This is a perfect example of using your knowledge of booking codes and fare classes to get yourself over the line for coveted Executive Platinum status, for example.

Say you’re extremely close to qualifying for Gold status with 30 EQSs and 20,000 EQMs. You’re going to be flying from London (LHR) to Los Angeles (LAX), which is 5,456 miles distance-wise. If you booked a basic economy ticket, you’d only earn 50% of that in EQMs, which is 2,728 EQMs, leaving you short of the 25,000 EQMs required to qualify for AAdvantage Gold. Instead, you might want to consider booking an ordinary economy ticket to earn 5,456 EQMs, putting you at 25,456 EQMs, which guarantees your Gold status.

This is just one example of how useful an in-depth understanding of airline booking codes can make or break your frequent flyer travel.

Understand Your Ticket Flexibility

Many of us don’t have the foresight of predicting changes in travel plans. However, if you absolutely need flexibility, and you’re definitely going to cancel your ticket, you don’t want to book a nonrefundable ticket.

Let’s say you’ve waitlisted an award and you think there’s a 99% chance that space will be available. Let’s also say that you realize the 1% could leave you with booked hotels and vacation plans that are fully unrealized. One solution is to book a fully flexible ticket and cancel it when the award space opens up.

In that case, you need to find a refundable ticket. One of the best ways to do that is by leveraging the fare information provided in the fare basis. Specifically, the fare details will go into great detail on the exact cancellation policy. Check out an example below:

Fare Basis Cancellation Penalties
Fare basis cancellation penalties. Image Credit: ExpertFlyer

Different airlines have unique policies surrounding cancellations, refunds, and changes. These altogether make up the flexibility of an airplane ticket.

If you don’t take the time to properly understand the policies of each ticket, you could soon be stuck with large fees for cancellation or worse yet, have a ticket that you have no choice but to throw away due to the nonrefundable, non-cancelable nature of it.

The most fool-proof way of understanding your exact ticket flexibility is to look up your fare basis on ExpertFlyer or ITA Matrix by Google. Then, you would use the Find function (Ctrl-F) and type “cancel”. It should take you to all the places in the fare details where “cancel” is displayed.

Final Thoughts

Whew! That was intense! Even the most experienced travelers likely have never heard of airline booking codes or fare basis and certainly don’t know what all the fancy letters and numbers mean. But, ultra-savvy travelers will understand and appreciate how booking codes can help you tremendously when it comes to planning/booking travel.

We’ve covered the main insights for booking codes with a focus on United Airlines and American Airlines, but there are countless other complexities in this matter. Specifically, the lack of an international standard for constructing fare basis codes makes interpreting these codes much more difficult.

Luckily, we’ve dissected everything for you, so now you’re fully equipped with the ultimate guide to airline booking codes.


FAQ

What is a booking class?

Put most simply, a booking class is simply a single letter or couple of letters in a pre-defined hierarchy. Also known as fare buckets, booking classes are used to lump tickets into groups that each have their own fare rules.

How do you read a fare basis code?

Interpreting a fare basis code is not uniform across all airlines. Oftentimes, the individual constituents of a fare basis is not made publicly available. One perfect example is American Airlines, which is known for frequently changing up fare basis structures. If you really wanted to learn how to read a fare basis code, you’d have to compare multiple similar fares and use induction to loosely figure out what letters/numbers stand for what.

What does W class mean on an airline ticket?

W class, specifically for United, is the lowest upgradeable economy ticket for United Polaris. Anything lower than that and you can’t upgrade to Polaris class. W class can mean different things on different airlines, but W is typically reserved for a mid-level economy ticket on airlines.

What do airline booking codes mean?

Booking codes are useful for determining upgrade eligibility, the number of miles you’ll accrue, and many other things. Altogether, airline booking codes form the basis for separating tickets based on a number of rules defined by the airline.

What are the different fare classes on United?

Here are the different fare classes on United based on Premier qualifying miles earned and Premier qualifying segments earned:

Fare ClassPremier Qualifying Miles EarnedPremier Qualifying Segments Earned
J300%1.5
Z, D, C200%1.5
B, Y, R, A, O, P150%1.5
G, K, L, T, S, W, V, Q, H, U, E, M100%1
Basic Economy50%0.5

What are the different fare classes on American Airlines?

Here are the different fare classes on American Airlines based on Elite qualifying miles earned and Elite qualifying segments earned:

CabinBooking ClassEQMs per mile flownEQSs
Full Fare FirstF31
Full Fare BusinessJ31
Discount First/BusinessR, I, D, A21
Premium EconomyP, W1.51
EconomyO, Q, N, S, G, V, L, M, K, H, Y11
Basic EconomyB0.50.5
Stephen Au

About Stephen Au

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Stephen has been privileged to enjoy many premium cabin products and 5-star hotels. A petroleum engineer by trade, Stephen caught the travel bug in college when he traveled to Asia several times. After 2 years of continual promotions, Stephen quit his safe and secure career path in favor of entrepreneurship.

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