Updated Monday, November 26, 2012 at 09:37 AM
When Gina Thorstenson searched online for flights in February to fly from Seattle to Istanbul in May, she booked a flight through Paris on Air France, a mileage partner with Alaska Airlines, so she could earn frequent-flier miles on Alaska.
She paid $1,200 each for round-trip tickets for herself and family members. Not exactly cheap, but a fare, she later found out, that was “N” class, a restricted economy fare ineligible for mileage credit.
Thorstenson hadn’t noticed the tiny “N” printed on her itinerary, or thought to check the fine print on Alaska AirIines’ website for the rules on earning miles when flying partner airlines.
Complicating matters was Delta Air Lines’ takeover of the Air France route to Paris in March. Delta, which has a more liberal mileage-partnership agreement with Alaska, operated the Seattle-Paris leg of the flight, but since Thorstenson bought her tickets from Air France, other rules applied.
“How is one supposed to figure out if a flight booked online allows mileage credit or not?’‘ she asks.
Great question, given that airline mileage programs are in constant flux. Frontier Airlines, for instance, recently halved frequent-flier miles for travelers who don’t book directly though the airline.
“I think it is becoming more common,” says George Hobica, president of the airfarewatchdog.com travel website. “It’s almost another hidden ‘fee’ since miles are valuable commodities.”
Hobica says “it’s safe to assume that if you find a crazy low fare, especially if it’s a code share (sold for less on Delta, for example, than on Alitalia, which is actually flying the flight), that you won’t get miles, or you will only get 50% of the usual miles.”
Travelers know the airlines have various classes of service such as first-class, business and economy, but few are aware of the lettered booking codes or “fare buckets” — as many as 15 or more depending on the airline — used to differentiate among fare types based not only on price, but also rules on upgrades, refunds and whether or not the flight is sold by discounter or consolidator.
How do you sort through this alphabet soup?
Let’s just say you won’t find the information next to the ads for fare sales and Hawaiian vacations.
Best advice is to “call the airline, and have them dig out the fare rules,” Hobica advises. Or you can start by finding “partners’‘ in a drop-down box on your airline’s website.
Under each partner airline’s logo will be a list of fare classes qualifying for bonus miles, elite qualifying miles, half mileage or no miles at all.
A check on Alaska’s website under “Earning miles while flying Air France,’‘ for instance, shows no mileage credit given for O, V, X, N, G or R classes of service. (Thorstenson did earn miles for the Paris/Istanbul leg of her itinerary which was “L” class).
The codes usually appear as the first letter on e-ticket confirmations. But that’s after you’ve bought the ticket. What’s trickier is finding the fare code that applies to the flight you’re planning to book.
“Not all airlines show fare codes,” Hobica warns.
Delta shows booking codes in initial fare searches. Alaska’s codes don’t show up until you put your itinerary into your cart, go to “fare rules” and click on “view all fare rules.” Expedia shows the codes when you click on “show flight details” in an initial search and also once you’ve selected your itinerary.
All of this leaves consumers with some homework to do.
“Certainly, it won’t deter me from traveling again next year,” says Thorstenson, “but I’ll certainly confirm what class I’m in prior to booking my flight.”
Carol Pucci is a Seattle freelance writer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Web/blog: www.carolpucci.com