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Airfare Strategies for Bereavement and Emergency Travel

It's the type of airline reservation no one likes to make. A family member or loved one is seriously ill or has passed away and you need to travel immediately.

Juanmonino | E+ | Getty Images

A couple of decades ago, airlines used to have generous policies when it came to booking emergency travel. Known as bereavement or compassion fares, airlines offered steep discounts off regular airfares to ease the burden of last-minute travel. More recently, airlines began phasing them out.

But some still offer either a flat discount off current published airfares or a different type of rate determined by the carrier. Policies vary widely by airline.

Bereavement fares are typically available to immediate family members only. In many cases, passengers requesting such a fare must provide proof of kinship and details related to the illness or death. Documentation can include name, address and telephone number of the hospital, hospice or funeral home. In some cases, a letter (on letterhead) from a physician is required to qualify for the discount.

Here are the current policies by the four major U.S. airlines for bereavement fares:

American Airlines: American Airlines, American Eagle and AmericanConnection may offer Emergency or bereavement fares. For further information, call American Airlines reservations at 1-800-433-7300.

Delta Air Lines: Domestic tickets need to be purchased and travel has to start within three days (seven days for international) of the death or imminent death of an immediate family member. Documentation is required and subject to verification. Tickets must be purchased by calling Delta reservations directly at 1-800-221-1212.

United Airlines: United offers a 5 percent discount on fares (roundtrip or one-way) in the event of a death or serious illness (requiring hospitalization or hospice care) of an immediate family member. In cases of death, a copy of the death certificate is required. Serious illness situations require a letter (on letterhead) from a physician. Tickets may be reserved online, or by calling United reservations at 1-800-864-8331.

US Airways: The airline does not offer bereavement or compassion fares.

While the stress of the situation may not have you thinking clearly, there are some other options to consider.

  • Price out a regular ticket on the airline's website to compare it against the airfare you were quoted on the phone. It may be cheaper.
  • Check for specials on multiple airline websites. Last-minute web-only fares may be available.
  • Use a comparison shopping website, such as Kayak.com, to compare multiple airlines and booking sources at one time.
  • Consider discount carriers, such as Allegiant and Spirit .
  • If you live within a reasonable distance of more than one airport with airline service, check prices out of each airport. A short to modest drive to a less convenient airport could save a significant amount of money.
  • Use frequent flyer miles. Even if there are limited seats available, most airlines allow for award travel at a higher redemption rate that allows you to book any open seat on any flight.

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