How does the price of an airline ticket vary depending on the booking class and fare class?

In this article we will try to shed some light on a subject that is obviously of great concern to our readers: the setting and variations of the price of an airline ticket and, incidentally, the earning of points/miles associated with this ticket.

Indeed, many people tell us thatthey don’t understand how ticket prices are calculated, why they fluctuate from day to day and even from minute to minute, why they paid more or less than their flight neighbor or are surprised they didn’t earn miles/points on their last flight.

To understand all the mechanisms at work on this subject, we must start with the basics: understanding what a booking class is. Indeed, it is your booking class that is the determining factor in all matters concerning the price of the ticket.

Do not confuse travel class with booking class

Oh but it’s so simple: “I fly economy and I don’t understand why my neighbor paid less for his economy ticket, and why the last time I flew economy I earned miles and not this time”?

Well no, that would be too simple to be true. There are economy class and economy class, business and business, and at the outset it is important not to confuse travel classes with booking classes.

Everyone knows about travel classes…or almost.

Economy: the most common, the one that everyone knows and uses in general. The only one offered by all airlines on all flights even if, with time, the service it includes varies according to the airline…and the booking class!

Premium Economy: this is the newest class of travel as a “product”. Halfway between economy and business in terms of both seat and service (and price). More room, specific benefits and even improved meals.

Business class: for many airlines this is the highest class proposed to customers. On long-haul flights (and medium-haul flights of Asian airlines) there are real bed seats, high quality meals… On medium-haul flights in Europe, you will find the same seat as in economy, often with the middle seat neutralized to have more space and improved catering. In all cases it comes with priority queues, access to lounges to wait for your flight, a higher baggage allowance…

First class: the prerogative of only a small minority of airlines, it is the ultimate in airline luxury. Private suites, hotel-quality bedding, meals designed by renowned chefs, caviar, fine wines, special airport lounges, private limousine transfers from home to the airport, transfers from the lounge to the aircraft in limousines… With the upmarket positioning of business class, First class is becoming increasingly rare and exclusive.

To put it simply, each class of travel is associated with a code represented by a letter that identifies them.

F: First class full fare

J : Business Class, full fare

Y: Full fare economy class

And recently W for Premium Economy full fare (at the beginning it was often a subdivision of the economy class but it ended up existing as such due to its success)

These codes are common to almost all airlines.

By the way, frequent flyers often call the travel classes by their code. “I’m in Y and I’d like to upgrade to J” means “I’m flying eco and I’d like to upgrade to business”. “5 hours in the Y? You’ve got a lot of courage”.

So much for the basics. Now it gets complicated. Airlines never shy away from complicating what is simple, marketing departments from segmenting what can be segmented, so put a marketer in an airline, introduce him to a “Yield” manager (in other words, revenue optimization under capacity constraints) and you will see the creation of booking classes.

Why booking classes

Not all passengers have the same constraints and needs. Some want flexible or somewhat flexible fares, some want to be able to make a “stopover” during a connection, some want to depart from a city other than the destination of their “outbound” flight, some want last minute availability, others are willing to buy in advance.

Therefore, for each class of travel booking classes have been created which correspond, basically, to a certain number of restrictions in relation to the full fare of the class of travel in question. You pay less but in return you have less flexibility, you earn less miles etc. Or conversely, the fewer constraints you want, the more you pay.

So our classes F,J,W and Y have founded families I won’t give you a table here because it depends on the airline. For example, at Air France the “P” is a first, at Lufthansa it is a discounted business which is called “Z” at Air France. .

23 booking classes on this Paris-New York Air France flight

Let’s take a look at this Paris-New York flight on Air France.

Data taken from

The ” available classes ” column shows us all available booking classes as well as the number of seats available per class. The number of available seats is displayed in a single digit so it cannot exceed 9 even if there are more seats available…so when you read J9 it means that there are at least 9 seats left in class J. If you read P4 it means that there are exactly 4 seats left in class P

Note that the same seat can be offered at several fares. We can see here that there are 4 P (full fare First) and 2 F (discounted First) while there are only 4 seats in La Première class on this aircraft. This means that all 4 can be sold at full price and only 2 of the 4 at discounted price.

That makes 23 booking classes for 4 travel classes on this flight between Paris and New York operated by Boeing 777-300ER.

So at this point you realize that when you are looking for a fare on a flight, you are not going to pick from an inventory of, for example, 300 seats available in economy but maybe 5 corresponding to your situation and your request. And when you are in “competition” with potentially all those who want to fly on the same route on the same day on the same flight and you are fighting for 5 places it makes that finallyyour reservation class can fill up between the time you start your search and the time you decide to buy and therefore the search engines will send you to the higher booking class as it will become the cheapest one actually available.

You will always look for an economy ticket between Paris and New-York and you will be surprised to see that it has increased by 200 euros in 1 hour or in one night. It’s not a case of the airlines artificially raising prices to force you to buy quickly (a true urban legend), it’s just that when potentially thousands of people are fighting unknowingly for 5 seats, they can be sold very quickly.

But I will come back on the subject more precisely in a future article, this one being already quite dense.

And now you think you’ve figured out the whole ticket price imbroglio! There is worse. This is just the beginning.

Indeed, the airline may wish, for example, to offer cheaper flights within a booking class to those who book early, restrict access to this fare (or prohibit it) to people leaving from a given city or country ( do you remember the market fares ?), authorize or not this fare on code share flights, authorize the open jaw (departing from another city for the return trip than the city of arrival of the outbound trip), make special promotions, offer discounts for people traveling in pairs or couples, authorize the one-way fare or impose a return trip, require a minimum or maximum length of stay, limit the fare and/or the dates when it is available to certain periods of the year… The list is endless.

For that airlines have created the fare classes!

The complexity of fare classes

Within a travel class, a fare class is a fare that allows you to travel in that class provided you meet a number of conditions and constraints (see list above).

We are therefore in a level of finesse even greater than with the booking classes and to like “to assemble” trips at optimized rates at TravelGuys we can tell you that depending on the fact that such or such class is available on a connecting flight or not you can go to Australia in business class for 2100 euros or for 6000…. depending on the availability of a single seat.

Let’s go back to our Paris-New York on Air France. For a round trip in September there are no less than 171 fare classes!

Let’s look at the top and bottom of the table…

So you see that it is technically possible on this CDG-JFK round trip, to have a fare that ranges from 51 € in economy class to 13770€ in first class ! I say technically because some fare classes are so restrictive that they will never be available or will only be marketed in exceptional cases or not at all depending on how full the aircraft is! This is true for the cheaper ones as well as for the more expensive ones.

So depending on your booking class, travel class, date of purchase, flexibility required, country from which you are going to purchase the ticket, whether or not it is codeshare, flexibility required, whether or not the ticket is included in a connecting itinerarythe age of the captain and the availability of a fare class at the time of booking, your economy ticket may vary from €51 to €5646! Excluding taxes of course.

Your seatmate, traveling in the same class, may have paid three times more or three times less than you and that is normal. If you are traveling in Economy, you should know that some business passengers have paid less than you, and the same goes for passengers traveling in First Class! Sometimes you can even find seats in economy class more expensive than the cheapest first class.

For your information, here is an example of the rules applicable to a given fare class. It’s 6 pages long, it’s not as pleasant to read as the General Tax Code but it gives you an idea of the complexity of the subject.

The impact of the booking class on the loyalty program

In fact we have little power over the choice of reservation classes. We can ask for a flexible rate or the cheapest possible rate and then the booking engines send us to the cheapest available rate.

The clever ones can hack the system by searching themselves the available fare classes and going to a travel agency with an already established routing that they will have patiently built “by hand” using specialized tools (like the one I just showed you) but if it concerns 0,01% of the population it’s the end of the world.

But knowing which booking class you are in also has an impact on the loyalty program.

For example, before its latest reform, Flying Blue varied the earning of miles according to the booking class. With legitimate misunderstandings of passengers who did not understand why a CDG-JFK in eco was sometimes 100% of the flown miles, sometimes 75%, 50, 25 or … zero. In their minds they were still in economy, not realizing that they were perhaps in the same class of travel and not in the same booking class. Today the new program is based on the price paid for award miles and the class of travel for XP “status” so the problem is solved.

I remember a time when every year the maintenance of my Flying Blue status was hanging by a thread and I saw agencies proud to have found me a great fare…that didn’t credit anything when I absolutely needed a class that credited 100%. Anyway…

But this is not the case for all the airlines and all the programs. It is even more important when you travel on an airline “partner” of the one where you have your loyalty program. Indeed in this case the credit is linked to the booking class and this concerns not only the number of miles earned but also and above all the fact that we can or cannot credit our miles to a partner airline program.

Let’s take the example of flights on Lufthansa. I usually fly either economy discount (K) or business discount (P).

Let’s say I’m a member of Turkish Airlines’ Miles&Smiles frequent flyer program (both are Star Alliance members). Well, I will never be able to credit these flights to my account.

Credit for Lufthansa flights on Turkish Airlines Miles&Smiles
Lufthansa’s K and P booking classes, among others, do not credit at Turkish Airlines.

On the other hand, for my flights on Star Alliance, I chose the Eurobonus program of SAS…

Lufthansa credit table on SAS Eurobonus
Lufthansa mileage credit scale on SAS Eurobonus

Well, you can see that everything is perfectly credited.

My point here is not to say that you should push to fly in a higher booking class to credit on your usual program…but rather that you should choose your program according to the classes on which you travel with partners if applicable. And that there are reasons why even if the airlines are partners, you can’t credit.

As for why fly with one airline and credit with another….that will be the subject of a future article.

To know where to put your points according to your booking class on a given airline I refer you to the excellent WhereTocredit which I spoke about a little while ago.

I hope that after this you will be less lost in the jungle of fares or, at least, that you will not be surprised by the fluctuations in fares.

You’ve earned the right to take an aspirin

Photo : Booking a flight by Casimiro PT via Shutterstock

Bertrand Duperrin
Bertrand Duperrin
Compulsive traveler, present in the French #avgeek community since the late 2000s and passionate about (long) travel since his youth, Bertrand Duperrin co-founded Travel Guys with Olivier Delestre in March 2015.

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