Let mourning begin for bereavement fares

Bereavement fares

Bereavement fares (Dan Chung/Reuters)

We seem to be hearing the death knell for airline bereavement fares. The long-dwindling practice has nearly bottomed out in 2014, as most major American airlines have essentially done away with breaks for grieving fliers.

American Airlines eliminated its bereavement fares in February.

United ended bereavement fares a month later but continues to note on its website that refunds might be available "if you or a companion cannot travel as planned due to a serious illness or death." (If you're able to arrange a refund after dying, let me know.)

JetBlue, AirTran, Virgin America, Southwest and Frontier also do not offer bereavement fares, arguing that they already are low-cost carriers.

Among the few airlines still offering some form of a bereavement discount is Delta, though it's relatively slight.

Delta spokesman Paul Skrbec said the airline will waive change fees when presented with proof of death (such as name and phone number for a hospital or funeral home). The waiver can be granted only via phone, Skrbec said.

That doesn't leave much help when buying a ticket, but if you're due to fly back home Tuesday and the funeral is set for Wednesday, dropping the change fee is a plus.

So is the demise of classic bereavement fares the product of a less-caring industry? Yes and no.

Rick Seaney, co-founder of FareCompare.com, said it's just another belt-tightening measure.

"In an era of trimming every last thing, this was one of the last things in the glide path of being cut," Seaney said, noting that similar discounts (seniors discounts, child discounts and so on) also largely have disappeared.

Bereavement fares once offered significant benefit to consumers, he said, trimming the price of last-minute airfare to the cost it had been weeks in advance. But people rarely used them, he said, making bereavement fares more legend than an important piece of pricing.

Bereavement fares were used even less often when ticket booking migrated from phones to the Internet; they never were available as an online option (if it was so simple as to only check a box, that box would be checked for every flight booked).

Though airlines try to justify the disappearance of bereavement fares by saying the industry's prices are already low, Seaney is skeptical. Last-minute prices, in fact, often are extraordinarily expensive, and priced with business travelers in mind.

"You're caught up in being treated as a business traveler when you're actually going through an issue," he said.

But last-minute travelers do have a few options. Frequent-flier miles, for one, can offer strong value for last-minute travel (to determine the return, divide the would-be cost of a fare by the number of miles needed to secure the ticket). If you don't have miles, Seaney suggests buying miles from a friend — they spend the, say, 35,000 miles and you pay them, say, $400, instead of $1,000 to the airline.

It's also worth calling an airline to check options. For instance, American's website doesn't say as much, but a company spokesman said that, like Delta, the airline is amenable to waiving change fees. Also, money spent on upcoming reservations can be reallocated to new flights when faced with a death in the family.

Bottom line: It's always worth asking, especially if you have status with an airline. When in a bind, there might be more flexibility than what's apparent on a website.

jbnoel@tribune.com

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