By Julian, author of Devil’s Advocate…
A few weeks ago I shared how the bank rewards programs, such as Chase’s Ultimate Rewards and Amex’s Membership Rewards, were quietly selling bulk fares via their travel portals.
Bulk fares can be problematic, though they’re not always bad news. In fact, they can be extremely useful in certain circumstances. For more info, see my post “Bet You Didn’t Know: Is Chase Using Bulk Fares for Sapphire Reserve Tickets?”
The problem is that banks are not clearly disclosing when a particular fare is in fact a bulk fare (as opposed to a regular “published” fare). As a result, often the only way a passenger finds out they’ve purchased a bulk fare is when they have an issue before or during travel and discover their fare doesn’t give them the same protections as a regular fare.
Even if everything goes as planned, a bulk fare can lead some pretty unpleasant surprises after the trip is over. Buy a bulk fare and you’ll likely find your flight crediting to your frequent flyer account much differently than you expected, especially when it comes to earning redeemable miles or elite status dollars.
However, I’ve been exploring the problem more in depth since my original post, and it appears there is a way to determine when an American Airlines airfare being sold on the various bank travel portals is in fact a bulk fare.
Find the fare rules.
Every airfare comes with its own set of specific rules that govern how it’s put together and what you can do with it. Very few people ever actually read these rules because they’re roughly a million lines long and written in Portuguese. (OK, maybe not literally, but they’re extremely dense and hypertechnical, so they might as well be.)
Fortunately, the info we want in regards to bulk fares can be reduced to a pretty simple word search. But first, we have to actually find the fare rules for the flight we’re considering.
Chase Ultimate Rewards offers a way to see these rules while searching, though it takes a few clicks. When you’re searching for flights in their travel portal, you’ll find a link on the left side under each flight in the results that reads “View Details.”
Clicking that link will reveal the specifics of the flights, but more importantly it will also show another link that reads “View Rules and Policies.” Clicking on that link will open up some basic rules about cancellations and refunds.
But we’re still not quite to the fare rules themselves. To get those, you’ll need to click on the blue “Airline Fare Rules” link. That will reveal each flight in your proposed itinerary, and for each flight, you can finally reveal the specific fare rule gobbledygook.
Unfortunately finding fare rules while searching can’t be done on either the Citi ThankYou portal or via Amex’s Membership Rewards. Instead, you’ll have to put the flight in your actual shopping cart without buying it in order to see what’s going on.
For the Citi ThankYou portal, once you’ve got a flight added to your itinerary, the fare rules can be found under the Summary side of the page on the left by clicking the words “Rules & Policies.”
And when using Amex’s Membership Rewards portal, after you’ve selected a flight, on the “Review Your Flight Booking” page you’ll see the words “Fare Rules” in the upper left corner…
When you click on that link, the fare rules will pop up in a separate box. Unlike Chase and Citibank, Amex’s portal organizes the fare rules into categories, which makes them a bit more readable.
But what the heck are we looking for?
“OK, great,” you’re saying. “But I don’t speak gobbledygook. So how do I read this to find out if it’s a bulk fare?”
Well, there are actually quite a few clues in the fare rules, but fortunately at least for American flights on the Chase and Citi portals, we can boil it down to one word…
Open up the fare rules and then just do a CTRL-F “Find” search for the word “wholesale.” If it comes up… bingo! That’s a bulk fare.
If you look a little closer at the fare rules, you’ll also likely see some other bulk fare indications. For instance, bulk fares are often sold as part of tours or vacation packages, so the language governing that may be listed as well.
Or you might see warnings that the ticket’s airfare cannot be applied to a published fare.
Now, for American Express, things appear to be a little different. To be frank, unlike the above examples, I have not yet confirmed this Amex portion with data points, so this is an educated guess and I may turn out to be mistaken. However, it seems that on the Amex portal, instead of seeing the word “wholesale” in the fare rules, if it’s a bulk fare you simply won’t find the fare rules at all. Instead, you’ll get a message that the fare rules are unavailable.
If your fare rules are there and you do not find the word “wholesale” or language about vacation packages or the like, you likely have a normal published fare. It won’t say “published fare” but it should have basic language about it being an economy fare and which areas it can be booked for. If you want to be certain, you can compare the fare rules to the identical itinerary on aa.com — if it matches, it’s a published fare.
Some very important caveats.
Just because a particular flight comes up as a bulk fare in one search doesn’t mean it’s going to be a bulk fare in every search. Bulk fares are sold for specific routes or combinations of flights, which means depending on what you’re booking, you can end up with either a bulk fare or a published fare on the exact same flight.
Here’s an example. If I search Ultimate Rewards for an American routing from Columbia, Missouri to Los Angeles on December 15th, the Ultimate Rewards portal comes back with an itinerary from Columbia to Dallas, then onwards to LAX. In this case, the flight from COU to DFW is a bulk fare.
If I search for Columbia to Hong Kong on December 15th instead, I get the same connection from COU to DFW to start. But now since it’s in combination with the Dallas to Hong Kong leg, it’s a published international fare with this language…
…which is identical to the fare rules you get when booking this flight directly on aa.com.
Same flight. Same day. Different rules.
Along the same lines, just because one bank is selling a particular flight as a bulk fare doesn’t mean every portal will have that same flight as a bulk fare. You’ll need to check the specific fare rules on each flight in each portal to be certain.
Finally, one other important note. Even when you buy a published fare, if there are any changes to your flights after booking or while traveling (for instance, due to a weather delay or mechanical malfunction) and your ticket is reissued as a result, it may end up accruing miles and/or elite dollars as a non-revenue ticket. This doesn’t make it a bulk ticket, but it may appear like one because it would credit to your frequent flyer account in a similar manner.
What about United and Delta?
Does this trick work for other airlines selling bulk fares? Well, let me tell you… I don’t know. I fly primarily on American so I’ve only been able to confirm how American’s bulk fare rules work. But I’ll continue this research and if readers would like to add their own data points to these experiments in the comments section below, I’ll be happy to write a follow-up post once we know more about other airlines.
Clearly, fare rules are incredibly complicated, but hopefully these tips will give you an idea of where and what to look for when booking American flights on travel portals. That way you can try to keep the surprises to a minimum.
Other Recent Posts From The “Bet You Didn’t Know” Series:
Find all the “Bet You Didn’t Know” posts here.