What’s the Deal with Bereavement Fares? (Ask Cranky)

Here’s an Ask Cranky question from a time long ago. Bereavement fares. Everyone knows about them, but are they any good?

I’d love to see you do a post on how bereavement fares have evolved (or not evolved) over the year. Back when I was skinny and had hair, and there were really only four classes of fares: F, FN, Y and YN, the bereavement fares gave a pretty dependable discount on the Y and YN fares. Now, with fares being an absolute alphabet soup, how to the majors and LCCs handle bereavement fares? I know when I did a short stint as an Alaska Airlines res clerk, I could usually beat the heck out of the bereavement fare – but that too, was a long time ago.

Frank V

There’s no question that times have changed. Back in the day, bereavement fares provided a tangible discount over the prevailing rate. The reason for this was simply compassion. People didn’t ever want to take those trips, but they had to and the airlines did what they could to make it a little easier.

As the industry’s fare Ask Crankystructure changed and low cost carriers brought lower last minute fares, bereavement fares started to become irrelevant. Oh, they still gave a discount off the full fare. It’s just that nobody paid the full fare anymore.

For low cost carriers, bereavement fares don’t exist for the most part. Southwest, for example, doesn’t offer bereavement fares. Other airlines have varying policies.

American – The website offers a very terse suggestion that bereavement fares may be offered and you need to call them for info. They tend to use an older school approach with flat rates that are very flexible. It tends not to be very helpful.

Continental – They realized that the old model wasn’t helping anyone, so they switched to something new. Now, tickets up to $500 get a 5% discount, tickets between $500 and $1000 get a 10% discount, and tickets over $1000 get a 20% discount.

Delta – They offer a lot more information on bereavement fares on their website but it’s the same end result as American.

United – Like Continental, United has gone with a discount structure, but they’ve opted for simplicity. You can get 10% off any ticket.

As you can see, some of these are good and some bad, but they’re all a pain in the butt. You’re only allowed to take advantage of this for close family members, and each airline has a list of what that includes. You need to provide documentation as well. If someone is sick, you need to give medical contact information so the airline can confirm that this is real. In case of death, you’ll often be asked for the death certificate. It’s not a fun experience. In fact, it’s unpleasant enough to have been a subject of a Seinfeld episode.

But the fares are still out there. They’re just not easy to take advantage of.


23 Responses to What’s the Deal with Bereavement Fares? (Ask Cranky)

  1. robert says:

    What, no ‘ask cranky’ logo? ;)

  2. Rob says:

    This was a big deal with UA’s offering before, would have guessed it would be gone by now but it’s still there: “If existing travel plans must be changed due to any of the above-listed situations, then the change fee will be waived.”

    (From http://www.united.com/page/article/0,6722,52994,00.html)

  3. Gary says:

    Let’s not forget that last minute fares aren’t nearly as expensive as they used to be. It doesn’t cost $2400 to fly a transcon without 14 day advance anymore…!

  4. tivoboy says:

    I used to use these pretty often back in the late 90’s, early 2000’s when my mom was sick and dying. Sometimes, they were better than what I could get in the open market and I didn’t have the miles. They USED to be cheaper but compared to some close in tickets today, probably not. The real beauty at least THEN and I think it is still true NOW is that United at least allowed one to CHANGE THE TICKETING, either later dates, other routings, etc. WITH NO CHARGES. That makes a lot of sense, one doesn’t often know exactly WHEN they need/want to come home, so they make it easier without dinging you. You should check if that is still the case since the unpredictability of the events could make such a fare worthwhile.

    I only SOMETIMES had to proffer hospital, doctor information and even then I don’t think it was EVER confirmed. Also, when my mom eventually died (2004) a number of my best friends came to the funeral and they were able to fly from SFO to IAD on pretty cheap 350$ bereavement fares.

  5. Dan says:

    I’ve really had need for bereavement fares twice in my life. My grandmother passed away late in 2002. I don’t recall the fare to be much cheaper than the published offerings, but it did come with flexibility. For me, that wasn’t very helpful, but I understand the value there (even if I was still looking for the cheapest fully-restricted ticket I could get my hands on.) I remember calling the airline at 3am trying to make my reservations, and they told me that all they were really going to do to verify my bereavement claim was call the phone number I provided and see if a funeral home answering machine answered.

    The last time I was in need of such fare was last August when my grandfather passed away. This time, I went the traditional route — YX/Frontier was selling DCA-MKE at the last minute for $150. I snapped it up.

  6. Back eons ago when I worked for TWA I think we gave people the -Q- fare, that letter seems to pop into my head right now.

    The hassle was always the elderly wanting their senor discount. The lowest fares didn’t permit a senior discount so you had to use a higher fare. But the lower fare may apply for what they were doing and they couldn’t get it in their head that the lower fare was less then paying a higher fare to save 10pct. You finally had to say do you want to pay $300 or $250.

    • Scott says:

      Having been on the reservations side (in a travel agency, back in the day), I can completely related to David’s experience.

      Also, from those days, I can say that part of the problem is that people totally used to take advantage of airlines’ generosity. I’d get an irate customer who just lost a close relative and, on top of all that grief, was furious that the airline was so anal about verification (of the relationship between passenger and the desceased and that the death in fact occured). But, I also saw PLENTY of people try and scam the airlines for cheap last-min fares. It’s really a shame, but customers (as a group) did it to themselves… :(

  7. JayB says:

    How did we ever get to the point where the fare basis/price was dependent on the purpose of the trip? You’re either flying “dead” or you’re not, but the “why?”

    Why is it legal to charge different fares for someone who travels for the purpose of burying his brother, as opposed to someone else who travels for the purpose of murdering his brother, or someone else who simply wants to give care and comfort to his nearly murdered brother and family?

    I know, that’s just the way it is!

    • CF says:

      It’s a good point. I think it’s just a legacy of the old days. It was set up that way long ago, because regular people just couldn’t afford to travel by air. This was the airline’s way of trying to make it possible for them Obviously, they airline wasn’t too interested in helping someone kill someone else.

      But yeah, it’s just a quirky thing today.

  8. David says:

    There bereavement fares have seemed to be irrelevant for years. I always wonder how an airline reacts if a customer asks for the bereavement fare and if there is a cheaper fare, do they offer that? I haven’t heard or seen the BF being any cheaper than a ticket off the airline’s website in years.

    David

    • CF says:

      Yeah, I believe that most agents will inform the customer of the cheapest possible fare regardless of whether it’s a normal fare or a bereavement fare.

    • Dan says:

      Well, one thing that is missed by a few is the flexibility. Flexible tickets can be *expensive* and a discount off of that is nothing to thumb your nose at (assuming the ticket is flexible, too.) But as was noted below, that doesn’t mean it’s the cheapest *possible* ticket if you know your dates.

  9. I actually had a really good experience with Delta and a bereavement fare. I was in the middle of a trip when my grandfather passed away. So I just wanted to change my return flight to be departing from a different airport (I rented a car to get over to where my family was). They simply waived the change fee and I was good to go. I did have to provide my grandfather’s name and the funeral home name and number, but it was all taken care of in one simple phone call.

  10. James says:

    When I worked at DL, the bereavement fare was 50% off a full Y fare. So it was in the interest of most passengers to take the lowest regular fare if they were sure about their dates.

  11. Bob Davis says:

    I was on business in Manchester, England in April, and my wife was taken to the hospital with what was initially diagnosed as a stroke (wasn’t, thank goodness). I called DL and asked to change my flight back to ORD to the following morning. They called the hospital to confirm she was there, and offered to change my ticket at no cost or fee.

    A couple of notes:

    1. I was prepared…I had the hospital’s and doctor’s numbers on hand when I called.
    2. This was for an existing itinerary, not a new one, so it was easier for DL to accommodate me.
    3. I have 3mm miles on DL, “so I got that going for me”. Yes, it helped that I am a Flying Colonel and 3MM.

    In the old days, DL and AA, along with BN and TW, would offer lowest published fare, period. No hassles.

  12. Ivan B Zhabin says:

    The bereavement fares do not really work internationally. My wife’s grandfather passed away in Ukraine, so wife and mother-in-law had to get there. The offer by US airlines (codesharing on various partners since Ukraine does not really get served from the US) was to pay a huge fare upfront and then try to get a refund after providing lbs of docs confirming the death. The idea of the death certificate in another language did not seem to be comprehensible to rez agents. The whole “funeral home name and number” thing would not work — that’s not how things are there.

    Bottom line, LOT had cheap same-day fares and they just flew via Warsaw (not an airline I would ever recommend, but it got them there on time and at a good price). Looking for a bereavement fare was just a waste of time.

  13. Bryan B says:

    Do you know if any airlines will accept a Polaroid of someone standing next to the coffin in lieu of a death certificate? You know like George tried to do in the Seinfeld episode you mentioned. :)

    • Bryan that would be one way for a funeral home to make extra money.

      Have you photo taken with a real dead guy $5.00
      Have us lie to an airline over the phone $25.00
      Have a video of you and your (wink wink) ‘family’ mourning your dead relatvie: video-$50, ten real mourners-$300, inflatable mourners $125 a dozen

  14. My Dad passed away in April of this year and there were no special bereavement fares to be had. I just surfed and surfed until I could find the best possible rate from LAS to ORL on short notice.

    I remember when my husband’s mom passed away the airlines gave him a discount. That was about six years ago. Life goes on and things change.

    Denise Michaels
    http://www.DeniseMichaels.com
    Denise Michaels’ Excellent Adventure

  15. So tell me, crankies, what other businesses offer anything like bereavement fares? Does the department store give women mourners a discount on the black dresses they will wear to a funeral? Does the florist offer the bouquet for half price if you promise to carry it to the wake? More to the point, do any other travel service providers, like hotels or car rental firms, give you dollars off if you tell them you’re going to visit your ailing grandmother or your recently deceased best friend?

    Why, precisely, should airlines do this at all? This is just another example of the goofy double standard that continues to characterize how you think about the airline industry, where, in the interest of full disclosure, I have worked for the last 26 years.

    • Bob Davis says:

      I was told by VP-level at DL (20 years ago) that bereavement fares were an admission by the airlines that their full-fare pricing was aimed at the business traveler, and was a way for the airlines to either gouge the business-fare payer or subsidise low-fares for weekend travelers (depending on your viewpoint). The compassionate fares (as they liked to call them) were because if you were going to visit your mom over the summer, you would plan ahead and get the lowest fare. If she passed away suddenly, DL didn’t want the bad press if you had to pay full-Y and told all of your business associates about it.

      We were made Flying Colonels because we “influenced” a large number of folks within our companies to fly DL. If they pissed us off and hit us with a full fare during our time of need (as he put it), we might take our business and all of our company’s flyers over to AA.

      As he told it, compassion fares were meant to generate good will from those of us who had to fly at the last minute. More like insurance against us grumbling, if you ask me.

      I suspect the last traces of these fares are hold-overs and admissions that they stick it to me when I fly at the last minute. I paid $1300 for a r/t MKE-PHL 2 weeks ago. That’s robbery. But at least it’s not my money. (“Oh yes it is”, says the guy perched on my shoulder. “It’s money they could pay you in salary and commissions if the didn’t have to pay so much in airfare”. And he’s right.)

      We’re not going to change their system…look at what happened when AA tried to move to mileage-based fares. How long did that last?

      The other thing that most of the airlines will do (sorry, over-generalizing here) is waive award-ticket restrictions. I’ve had them open up a seat when online says “none avail” to use miles for a ticket so my wife could get to her uncle’s deathbed.

      I don’t think the airlines “owe” anyone a compassion fare…but if they’re available, I say “good for them”. I’ve used them 3 times in last 5 years — sadly, as we get older, we tend to need them more often.

    • Rob — I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the store selling me replacement audio gear after a home break-in had an “insurance discount” specifically for customers in my situation. It didn’t matter that the insurance company had already paid me rather than paying the store directly.

      I’d never heard of such a discount until I was eligible for it. While one can argue that stores should be giving all customers the lowest possible price all the time, that crime victims shouldn’t get special discounts, both the insurance discount and bereavement fares are institutionalized ways of extending a little comfort, of easing the way, for people at times of loss. It’s a way of “knitting up the raveled sleeve of care” and I think that benefits society as a whole.

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