Twenty-five years ago it used to be so easy.
There were two classes of airline travel: first-class and economy. And two kinds of flights: nonstop and flights that made stops en route to your destination.
There were just a few major jet aircraft types--a Boeing 707, Douglas DC-8 or, in Europe, perhaps a De Havilland Comet.
Those simple days are long gone. Today there are dozens of fares, fare designations and restrictions for each individual airline seat.
There are still nonstop flights, but now you can add direct flights, connecting flights, interline flights and equipment-change flights to the descriptions. Perhaps the most confusing terminology is in the area of flight class and fare designation.
The traditional "F" (first-class) and "Y" (economy) tickets remain. But there are also "C" or "J" (business class) tickets and the even more confusing "P" class tickets.
Myriad Economy Fares
The biggest problem comes in trying to decipher the myriad economy fares that may be listed on your ticket. The codes begin with letters like B, H, M, Q and V. Learning some of the special codes listed on the part of the ticket marked "fare basis/ticket designator" can help you understand what restrictions may be on your ticket, when you can fly and when you can't, without incurring significant penalties or extra costs.
For example, a "QXE7P25" code on your economy ticket can be one of the most restrictive. "Q" means that you're flying at less than the full published coach fare. "XE" indicates that the fare you paid is only good on weekdays. The "7" means you had to buy your ticket at least seven days in advance. And any time you see a "P," beware: It indicates a penalty if you cancel or otherwise change your itinerary or dates.
In this case the "P25" means a 25% penalty. Any time you see an "X" followed by a number, that usually means you can't use the ticket on a specific day. A ticket with an "X6" would mean you can't fly on Saturdays.
The codes have another useful purpose. They denote whether the ticket is fully or partially refundable, or nonrefundable. And they give a pecking order, a caste system to determine which passengers would be accommodated first should a flight be delayed or canceled.
A False Assumption
Many travelers make the false assumption that just because a ticket reads "nonrefundable" it has no value if it is not used. Not necessarily.
Often an unused, nonrefundable ticket can be used as partial or full payment toward the purchase of another ticket. How do you know? Look in the upper left or lower right corner of your ticket, where there is space reserved for "endorsements." If the fare-basis codes haven't thoroughly restricted you enough, the endorsements will.
Check the area on your ticket marked "method of payment." It's in the lower right corner. At the time of ticket purchase the airline will note whether you paid cash for your ticket or paid by check or credit card, whether the ticket was bought by exchanging another ticket or whether the ticket was prepaid by someone else (and again, the method of payment).
For example, if you bought your ticket with your credit card and later want to refund it, don't expect the airline to give you cash. The refund is made directly to your credit-card account.
(Note: This process can take many weeks for the paper work to wend its way through the airline's accounting system. To avoid hassles with your credit-card company, photocopy the credit receipt the airline agent gives you at the time you ask for a refund, and enclose the copy with your next credit-card bill if the credit doesn't appear on your statement.)
The same applies if someone else paid for your ticket. It's not like returning a gift to a department store for a credit in your name. Under airline accounting procedures, the credit will be issued to the account originally used to buy the ticket.
Exchange Over Refund
Therefore, if you don't want to use a ticket that was bought for you but also don't want to lose the credit, don't ask for a refund. Instead, exchange the ticket for another ticket of equal value. If the new ticket is more expensive, you will only have to pay the difference.
One important caution: Each airline ticket has its own ticking clock; it is valid for only one year from the original date of issue. So if you're sitting on any unused tickets while reading this, check the date of issue. Once the year has expired, the airline will not reissue a new ticket against it.
Some tickets might also read "non-endorsable." What this means is that the ticket can't be used on any other airline. And the most restricted endorsements are on some discount tickets where the fare paid is so low (usually sold by consolidators in the United States or by under-the-counter "bucket shops" overseas) that the ticket reads "nonendorseable, nonrefundable, nonnegotiable."