I often get asked about bereavement fares or other last-minute emergency travel discounts. My answers had previously been entirely academic, but this past week, I unfortunately had to learn about bereavement and compassionate airfares for myself.
It’s obviously a trip that I didn’t want to take: My grandmother passed away late last week, just weeks after celebrating her 99th birthday. I flew to her home — in Germany — and was fortunate enough to see her, talk with her, and bid farewell before she passed away. I am very glad I went. I will deeply miss her.
The trip was an education, in more ways than one. But thinking back to this blog’s modus operandi for the moment, let me share what I learned about booking flights under such circumstances.
There is wide variation in what airlines will do for you in a time of crisis. For starters, it seems bereavement or compassionate airfares are far easier to find if the travel is taking you internationally.
As such, it is perhaps no surprise that international airlines are far more willing to offer a discount during times of family crisis than domestic U.S. carriers.
As I’ve noted before, most bereavement fares need to be booked over the phone. An exception is Continental, which provides a great deal of transparency. Their compassion/bereavement website lays out the details, which are maximally 20% of the current airfare for your flight.
Documentation requirements vary by airline. Some will require death certificates or signed statements from the attending doctor or hospital. Others are less concerned with paperwork, and will take you on your word.
Some airlines offer compassion airfares for premium cabins: Lufthansa was ready to quote me a compassion fare for first, business, or economy. It can never hurt to ask.
Bill McGee, writing in USA Today, had an extensive piece of bereavement and compassion fares a few weeks ago. Read his whole article here. The current state of U.S. airlines offering these fares is quoted below.
• American Airlines. Compassion fares can be booked only by the airline, and details are available through reservations. Although tickets can be issued by travel agents, all changes must be made by American.
• Continental Airlines. This carrier is more forthright than most about its compassion fare policies, and allows bookings to be made through its website. It also clearly posts its bereavement discount policy: 5% off round-trip fares up to $499.99; 10% off round-trip fares up to $999.99; and 20% off round-trip fares of $1,000 and up. As for change fees, Continental states: “All rules of the fare that is being discounted apply. Some fares allow the waiver of penalties due to documented illness.”
• Delta Air Lines. Delta no longer offers bereavement discounts within the 48 contiguous states. In addition, the international discounts are not published on Delta’s site, and in fact they’re not available online; all such bookings must be made through reservations.
• Northwest Airlines. NWA’s website claims that “Because our prices are among the lowest around for last-minute travel, we do not offer bereavement fares.” However, a call to Northwest’s reservations department (800-225-2525) confirmed that bereavement fares are available. That said, there are two important caveats: 1) you must register as a WorldPerks member in order to obtain such fares, and 2) round-trip bereavement fares can require a Saturday night stayover (otherwise you’ll need to purchase two one-way bereavement fares, as I was offered).
• Southwest Airlines. A call to Southwest’s reservations line verified that the airline does not offer bereavement fares.
• United Airlines. Under the “Booking Travel FAQs” section of United’s website, the airline states: “Do you have any emergency or bereavement rates/discounts? United offers emergency fares for different situations. You cannot obtain these fares on united.com and must call United Reservations at 800-864-8331.”
• US Airways. US Airways does not offer such fares for domestic or international travel.
In my own case, flying internationally, I started with a search on Kayak.com and ITA Software to get a sense of the prices for normal, non-compassion fares. I then called only a handful of airlines who flew to Germany with a minimum of connections. I also made sure to follow my own advice and check with consolidators and look for discounted business class (Z-fares).
In the end, I went with Lufthansa, which offered reasonable ticket-change terms, a discount of about 20% off the 1-week advance purchase fare (even though this was booked within less than a week), and the best schedule. I wasn’t asked for any documentation, either, which surprised me, frankly. Alternatively, I could have saved a few bucks by purchasing from a consolidator and making it a two-stop instead of a one-stop, but that just wasn’t worth it.
My thanks go to Lufthansa for their flexibility. And their compassion.