Fare basis, also known as fare codes or fare classes, are the letters or numbers that airlines use to define the rules that are associated with different types of airfares or tickets. You may have noticed a letter in parenthesis on your receipt, that letter is the fare code.
What airlines (or gate agents) can or can't do for you in terms of upgrading you or making changes to your ticket is frequently controlled by the specific codes and fare basis that your ticket is based on.
Understanding fare codes are important only so that you can understand what rules are associated with the type of ticket you purchased, which can include whether or not you are able to change or cancel your reservation, whether you can get an upgrade, and how large of a frequent flyer award you will receive on the flight.
Fare Basis: A Shorthand Method of Describing Pricing Rules
The airline industry is certainly one industry that learned a long time before others the value of highly specialized pricing algorithms and pricing options. Chances are, you've probably been on an airline flight where the person sitting next to you has paid more (or perhaps less) than you have, and that's because of these fare basis codes.
In addition to dynamic pricing algorithms and strategies, which allow airlines to try and optimize seating prices based on how high the demand is for certain cities, flights, dates, times, and seats, the airlines have also used different fare basis and fare codes to differentiate all those similar seats on a single plane.
Business travelers can use these codes to understand what's available to them in terms of flight upgrades and to determine whether or not the flight they're on is going to be sold out or full. Also, instead of wasting time waiting in line for customer service, savvy travelers who know how to read the fare basis code can quickly assess whether or not they can get bumped up to a better seat.
Cracking the Code
Fare basis (or fare codes) are typically identified by a character, and change between airlines. However, there are some code characters that remain consistent across airlines. For example, letters such as "L, M, N, Q, T, V, and X" usually refer to discounted economy class tickets. Y is a full fare economy ticket, J and C refer to full fare business class tickets, and F refers to full fare first class tickets.
Usually, after the first letter specifying the fare class (such as Q or Y) is another set of characters. These follow-on characters usually specify other characteristics of the ticket, such as refundability or minimum stay requirements. Some airlines only have one or two characters (such as "YL") while others have more.
Your itinerary may contain multiple fare codes if you have numerous flights booked. However, keep in mind that if you have an itinerary made up of multiple fare codes, you may be restricted by the limitations of the most rule-bound portion. So, if one segment of your journey is non-refundable, and the next segment isn't, the entire ticket may be non-refundable. It's best to check with your travel agent or airline representative to know for sure and plan accordingly.
Fare codes can also impact how many miles and points you will be awarded on a flight, especially if you are flying with a partner airline. For example a flight that travels 1,000 miles could only give 500 awards miles or could give 1,750 awards miles depending on the code of your purchased ticket. Being familiar with your airlines fare codes will also help you maximize your frequent flyer miles.
Because fare codes vary between airlines, and because the perks associated with those fare vary, it's best to familiarize yourself with the codes of your preferred airline. If you're flying on a partner airline, such a member of SkyTeam or Oneworld, be sure to brush up on that airline's fare basis; it may be different that what you're used to.