Cheap flights – beware of ticket class

You have spoken to your travel agent and you got a price for a flight on a particular airline to a specific destination for a given day. Then you go online and you find seemingly the same ticket, on the same flight.  And it is much cheaper.  Hooray!

You book online.  You go on holiday and have a grand time.  After a while you are having so much fun that you decide to extend your holiday by a few days.

So you go online and try to change the booking.  The system seems to have a problem with accommodating you.  In desperation you phone the travel agent and say “I know that I did not book with you, but can you change the return leg for me?” you ask.

Image of eticket and passport

The words over the phone shock you “I always like to help but unfortunately the airline won’t let me change the booking.  You got a special promotional fare.  That is a non-refundable ticket, and no changes can be made.  All you can do is buy a new ticket to get home if you are really determined to change your return date.”

Sometimes the airline concerned will allow an (expensive) change if you have not yet flown at all on the ticket (in other words, if you have not commenced the journey), but the charge for this can make your eyes water.  On such tickets you usually cannot change the passenger name either, so you are stuck with it even if you are unable to use it.

Very occasionally, if you are very polite and very nice and you beg and plead at the airport, changes have been made, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule and airlines are extremely reluctant to make such changes.

In very exceptional circumstances, on production of official documentation, you may be able to make a change on humanitarian grounds, such as the death of a close relative, or a sudden severe illness in the family.  Then again, other airlines state in their rules, ‘no waiver for death or illness’.

Best ensure that you have a more flexible ticket class next time.  Here is a guide to IATA ticket classes:


A – First Class Discounted

B – Coach Economy Discounted

C – Business Class

D – Business Class Discounted

E – Discounted, No airmiles

F – First Class

G – Travel Industry Economy Class

H – Coach Economy Discounted

I – used by some airlines for free loyalty card tickets  (and by others for discounted business class, such as British Airways)

J – Business Class Premium

K – Thrift

L – Thrift Discounted (lots of restrictions)

M – Coach Economy Discounted (few restrictions, round the world fare)

N – used by some airlines for free loyalty card tickets

O – used by some airlines for free loyalty card tickets

P – First Class Premium

Q – Coach Economy

R – Business class discounted

S – Standard Class (may not even earn airmiles)

T – Coach Economy Discounted (usually with restrictions)

U – Deep discount Economy Class

V – Thrift Discounted (with restrictions)

W – Coach Economy Premium (with restrictions, airmile limits)

Y – Coach Economy

Z – Heavily discounted Business Class (not upgradable)


Airlines sometimes make their own rules and you will find that on the above list what IATA deems to be economy, is in some cases business.

The deeper the discount on the fare, the more likely you are to experience difficulty in making any sort of change, or the more expensive it will be to make a change if it is permitted.  The airlines may also offer reduced airmiles for the flight, with some classes getting only 50%, 25% or sometimes no airmiles.  So if air miles are important to you, ensuring the correct class should be a priority for you.

Generally only classes B, M and  Y are upgradeable at the airport.

Where do I find the code?

If you are booking via an agent then the agent can check and advise you before the booking is made.  If you are buying it online then, depending on where you buy it, you may only be able to find out by examining the eticket.  It is usually a solo letter, but can be the first letter in a cryptic code, known as the fare basis.  Unfortunately, by the time you have the eticket, if it is a non-changeable, non-refundable ticket, then you are stuck with it.  But at least you will know why!

Our DIY Travel Expert advice is to buy tickets online only when you can see the class before you checkout, unless it is a commuter flight or a flight that you really do not care about changing.

1 comment for “Cheap flights – beware of ticket class

  1. George Artemus
    28 August 2012 at 06:47

    My wife and I booked to fly to another city because we wanted to attend a convention and could not make the dates for the one in our home town.

    In twenty years the convention date had never been changed after having been announced. So we booked in a non-refundable ticket class.

    Guess what happened? They changed the date of our home town convention so it is on the same dates as we have booked for away!

    Now we have little choice to go anyway as we have paid and cannot get a refund or move the booking to another date! We are not bitter about it, but it does confirm the correctness of your article.

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