NEW YORK (MainStreet) – Death may occasionally take a holiday, but it rarely warrants an airport discount anymore.
The once-standard discount for grieving relatives booking last-minute flights for the funeral, memorial service or burial of a loved one has been reduced to an anomaly in recent years. American Airlines and United stopped offering bereavement fares, which were a discount from the lowest published coach fares. For that, you can thank some of the world's worst citizens.
“In the age of desktop publishing, anyone can produce a very convincing-looking doctor's letter or funeral home letter,” says George Hobica, founder of online travel pricing site Airfarewatchdog.com. “People were just scamming it and, for the airlines, it was just so time-consuming to confirm things by calling the funeral home and calling the hospital that they just said 'to hell with it.' People just abused it too much.”
That's reduced options for not only customers, but for third-party fare sites as well. The airlines that do offer bereavement fares typically book them only over the phone to limit fraud. That's cut booking sites such as Expedia out of the equation completely.
“Currently, Expedia is unable to process discount fares such as bereavement fares,” says Maureen Thom, spokeswoman for Expedia. “The only way to receive discounted airfare is directly from the airline.”
This year, while searching for bereavement fares from Portland, Ore., after the death of a relative, we found only two domestic carriers offering them. Delta doesn't have a standard policy for its bereavement fares, but has a lengthy bereavement policy in place on its website. It offers those fares only to immediate family members who are Delta SkyMiles members — though nonmembers are encouraged to apply immediately — and books them only over the phone (800-750-3284). Availability isn't guaranteed, and other standard charges such as baggage fees still apply. Delta, though, asks only for the name of the deceased, a passenger's relation to that person, the name and phone number of the deceased's funeral home, hospital or hospice and the name of his or her doctor.
Alaska Airlines also offers bereavement fares to immediate family, but restricts discounts to within seven days of the travel date. Aggrieved passengers get a 15% discount on a full-fare refundable coach ticket that can be changed without penalty, but is significantly more expensive than a nonrefundable last-minute ticket. They also can't book those seats online and have to call Alaska directly at 800-252-7522.
Those airlines aren't alone in offering bereavement fares, but they don't have a whole lot of company. When German carrier Lufthansa was asked about similar fares, it offered the following response:
Special fares in the event of a death (bereavement fares) are offered for the U.S. and Canadian market. Customers from the USA or Canada are kindly requested to contact their Lufthansa reservations office in the USA (800-645-3880) or Canada (800-563-5954) before the start of their trip for further information and to make a booking.
Lufthansa doesn't specify the terms of its discount, but it does make clear that passengers are tacking on $20 more just by booking their trip over the phone. Air Canada, meanwhile, reserves its bereavement fares for “select itineraries.” That means bereavement fares for immediate family members apply only for one-way flights within North America (you have to call back for a return flight), flights within 10 days of booking and only Air Canada, Air Canada Express or Air Canada route flights. Air Canada requires customers to call in their reservation (888-247-2262), provide the name of the deceased family member, the telephone number and address of his or her hospital and doctor and the phone number and address of the funeral home, along with the date of the funeral.
Those who show up at the airport looking for a bereavement fare will have to provide either a copy of the death certificate or a note from the deceased's doctor. Discounts apply only to unrestricted, full fares. They're flexible enough for last-minute changes but, as Air Canada notes in screaming bold type, they “are not necessarily the lowest fares available.”
“Don’t assume that an airline’s ‘bereavement fare’ is actually your best deal,” says Ed Perkins, consumer advocate and insurance expert for online travel pricing and advice site SmarterTravel. “Always check the alternatives first, including flights to and from nearby airports at both ends of the trip.”
The other options for fliers are plentiful and, at times, preferable to airlines' own bereavement fares. Expedia points out that the rates on its Deals and Offers page or its Last Minute deals page often exceed available bereavement discounts. Airfarewatchdog.com's Hobica says other online sources typically undercut those bereavement fares as well, with “opaque fare” sites Priceline and Hotwire heavily discounting flights without promoting specific airlines.
Hobica also tells fliers to consider Google Flights' “Explore” function to find low last-minute fares, especially to destinations abroad. Last week, for example, we found same-day and next-day flights from New York to Moscow on Delta for $488 round-trip, compared with $723 for the same flight booked in advance for April or May. A next-day flight from New York to London on Virgin Atlantic was $782, compared with $949 when booked for a later date. Same-day service from Portland, Ore., to Beijing came in at $719 round-trip, compared with $1,200 booked a few weeks in advance.
”It's a myth that last-minute fares to foreign destinations are more expensive,” Hobica says. “Actually, they're much cheaper. I'm not saying that they're cheap, but they're much cheaper than when they're booked in advance.”
Of course, those fares mean little if bereaved passengers don't get some flexibility with them. If you're going to see a dying relative and your return date is somewhat ambiguous, it helps to buy a ticket that doesn't incur penalties for changes. Hobica notes that Southwest Airlines doesn't penalize passengers for itinerary changes and will give them a credit to change flights without a fee.
— Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore., for MainStreet
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This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.