Farewell to bereavement fares.
Decades ago, when the skies were more caring, airlines offered grieving family members discounted fares on urgent travel to a funeral or a hospice bedside. Lately, however, the carriers have been quietly dismantling their compassionate programs. American ditched its policy in February; United followed suit in March. But a ray of sunshine brightens an otherwise dark situation: low fares that you can get on short notice.
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"Don't assume that last-minute fares are expensive," said George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatch.com. "You can find a surprisingly inexpensive fare with no advance purchase."
When bereavement fares first appeared 30 to 40 years ago, the price of a plane ticket typically increased as the departure date neared. To nab a low rate, a passenger would often have to book 14 to 21 days out. Of course, personal tragedies don't announce themselves in advance. To accommodate individuals who'd suffered a loss, carriers would sharply discount (sometimes by half) the walk-up fare on an imminent flight. The policy also allowed more flexibility to alter an itinerary.
At first, carriers required no proof of the sorrowful event, but then some bad apples rolled in and took advantage of the special arrangement. The airlines responded with stricter measures, such as requiring a copy of a death certificate, a letter from a funeral director or documentation from an attending physician.
Over the years, the rise of low-fare carriers, the growing popularity of discount travel sites and the shift in booking windows have eroded the relevance of bereavement fares. At the same time, airlines started to chip away at the savings. Before canceling its program, for example, United shaved only 5 percent off the published fare.
"Airlines changed the discount to laughable amounts," Hobica said.
A few carriers, such as Delta and Alaska, still maintain compassionate policies. But Delta's website states this frank caveat: "Lower promotional fares may be available on delta.com or through Delta Reservation Sales and may serve as a better option in some markets."
To test the special fares against the regular ones, I searched on a Friday afternoon for a Monday flight from Washington to Atlanta. On Kayak, I found a nonstop flight for $559 round trip on AirTran and a connecting flight for $414 on American. Delta.com listed $559. Through Delta Care, which handles the bereavement reservations, an agent quoted $505 nonstop from BWI Marshall, with a flexible return (the carrier waives the $200 change fee, though fare differences may apply). To qualify, you need to provide the name of and your relationship to the deceased, and the name and phone number of the funeral home. Finally, Priceline revealed a flight for $325. The trade-off: You won't learn the carrier's name or the departure times until after you've paid for the reservation.
Priceline undercut its competitors, but consider this: During an emotional period, you might want more comforting words than, "Your trip will start between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. and you will arrive no later than 12:30 a.m. the next day."