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updated 8/27/2010 2:12:07 PM ET 2010-08-27T18:12:07

There are a few bits of information to pay close attention to on an airline ticket: the flight number, gate number and boarding time. Fare basis code? Not a common concern.

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But the single-letter code can make a big difference in some parts of the travel experience, even though most passengers don't pay any attention. A fare basis code further divides passengers into classes based on how much they paid and how far out they booked. There are up to a dozen in coach class alone.

When you're on the plane, there's no difference in service between a passenger who has a "Y" or "Q" — a full-fare and a discounted ticket — if you're both in coach. But the codes are still important: Some indicate your trip isn't eligible for frequent-flier miles or an upgrade; others tell a ticket agent where to rank you on a standby list.

Deciphering the code
The letters airlines assign to certain levels of coach can vary widely, but a couple are universal. "Y" class is a widespread denotation for the highest class in coach among most major airlines, according to Jami Counter, senior director of TripAdvisor Flights and a former pricing strategist at American Airlines. These tickets are usually fully refundable, last-minute coach fares purchased mainly by business travelers. They're the most expensive tickets, but they have the most flexibility.

Some others that are generally used among the airlines: "J" or "C" usually indicate business class. "F" and "P" denote first class or premium.

Why are the codes there
Airline tickets weren't always so complicated. Codes were developed as the airlines created complex systems that let them make more money per ticket.

The fare basis code is found on most e-tickets by itself, but it can also be shown as the first letter of a longer code with a mix of other letters and numbers.

The rundown
The good news: The better code you have, the better your chance of not getting bumped. You also might receive more frequent flier miles if you're in the top tiers. The bad news: The main way to improve your code is to pay more. Most leisure travelers wouldn't think of forking over double or triple the usual fare for a refundable ticket or more perks. But there are ways to avoid hassles without paying through the roof.

One way to prevent bumping with a discounted ticket? Check in early. In addition to ranking by price, airlines also prioritize passengers by check-in order. Get in the habit of checking in online 24 hours before your flight. You can even check bags online through most airlines, and just drop them off at a counter when you arrive at the airport.

But fare classes aren't just important when it comes to keeping your seat. Fare classes are also key if you want to upgrade your ticket. Generally, "Y," "B" and "M" are the only fares that are upgradeable. You can search by fare class directly on most airline websites.

If building up frequent flier miles is important to you, avoid auction tickets on sites like Hotwire and Priceline where you name your own price, or don't see all the flight information before you book. Those tickets, like Hotwire "Hot Rates," are often ineligible for frequent flier miles. The cheapest tickets doled out to certain travel agents also aren't always eligible, either. It's important in these cases to always read the fine print, because whether you're going to the next state or around the world, you may be out of luck.

On the other end of the spectrum, Counter said passengers with the highest-ranked fare basis codes are eligible to get more than the standard miles, sometimes 150 percent, for their flight.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Airline passengers fight sky-high fees

  1. Closed captioning of: Airline passengers fight sky-high fees

    >>> safe to say the airlines this summer have travelers other over a barrel. they are trying to charge every dollar they can and that's rough on families with vacation plans. but tonight, as our own tom costello reports, passengers are finding ways to fight back.

    >> reporter: this is the trip the brahani family has been waiting for all summer. they're headed to orlando for three days at disneyworld and the water parks , but rather than pay to check their luggage, they have stuffed everything into just four carry-ons.

    >> we took what we need, not what we want.

    >> reporter: for three days? it's a half a bag?

    >> yeah. we squeezed it in.

    >> reporter: across the country, americans are lightening up to avoid paying up. baggage fees are run $15 to $25 per bag except on jetblue and southwest where bags fly free. if you fly spirit air your carry-on can cost up to $45. the fees to book your flight by phone, to board early, fees for leg room, an aisle seat and food, big fees to change a reservation.

    >> we want cheap airfares without the extra fees. that's just not the reality of where we are now.

    >> reporter: the airlines insist if you look at strictly the base fathe fares, airline tickets are cheaper than they were ten years ago. last year the airlines earned nearly $8 billion on fees. after a decade of losses they are starting to turn a profit.

    >> it is extremely important. it is a revenue stream that's a necessity. it's one that i absolutely believe is here to stay.

    >> reporter: in atlanta, ken schafer refused to pay extra to check his oversize suitcase.

    >> i could have paid $65 and not thrown anything away, but i wasn't willing to pay $65 when the ticket cost $160. so this suitcase is gone.

    >> reporter: he threw everything in the trash before flying to omaha. as for the brahani family, the $300 they saved on luggage will instead be going to school supplies. tom cost lello, nbc news, washington.

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