Joyce Kosofsky was in Nairobi visiting her daughter when she received the tragic news that her mother had died back in Boston, 7,000 miles away.
“I am Jewish and had to get home and bury my mother within 48 hours,” she explains. “I immediately contacted customer service at British Airways to change our flight from Friday to Wednesday.”
That’s when she got more bad news. To change her return flight by just two days was going to cost $6,712.
“I explained that this was not a new ticket, but a change. It was essentially the same flight, same cabin, just a different date. The agent said that there was nothing she could do unless I could provide a death certificate.”
Which was impossible for her to do, because a death certificate hadn’t been issued yet. So faced with the need to be home within 48 hours, she paid the fee, then reached out to British Airways later with a plea for help. But there wasn’t much to be had. The airline offered to waive the change fee, but said that was all they could do.
Remember the story of the kid who was caught skipping school after one too many grandparents had died? Today we’re all paying the price for consumers who abused the bereavement fare programs many airlines once had.
For example, Southwest Airlines offered bereavement fares back in the nineties, but “…we had widespread abuse of the fare class as it wasn’t being used as intended,” notes Linda Rutherford, the airline’s Chief Communications Officer.
Still if you’re ticketed on Southwest you’re better off than you might have been. If you need to make a sudden change, their last-minute fares are better than those of many airlines, and they don’t charge a change fee.
So what should you do if you find yourself in a similar situation? Kosofsky posted her problem to our forums at Elliott.org, which are monitored by travel experts. They offered some excellent advice, including writing a concise, polite email explaining the circumstances using the contacts also provided on the site, to ask for consideration of a refund. Start with the customer service contact and work your way up the ladder one at a time, giving each a week to respond. Someone may be able to bend the rules, and at least waive some of the fees. Our experts also recommended that in lieu of cash you consider asking for vouchers toward future travel, which the airlines may be more willing to provide.
Also, most travel insurance policies will cover costs resulting from the death of a close family member.
Of course, travel insurance only helps for a ticket that already has been purchased. Finding an affordable last-minute ticket in a family emergency presents another set of challenges. Southwest’s Rutherford recommends reaching out to a customer service agent and explaining the circumstances. “The agent might not be able to do anything but it’s worth it to share the nature of the emergency and allow the agent to determine if there are any options.”
Despite the fact that I’ve researched and written about budget travel for decades, when I got word a few years ago that my father was near death in a VA hospital, I was too distraught to focus on finding the best fare to get quickly to his bedside. Fortunately the hospital had a social worker on staff who was experienced in dealing with this exact circumstance and was able to work with her airline contacts to find me a reasonable fare. You may want to ask a friend or trusted travel agent to assist you in a time of grief.
One last tip is that airline miles can sometimes be used for last-minute travel. This will depend on award seat availability, which is in constant flux, and some airlines charge a fee now for tickets purchased with miles shortly before departure. Still this is often a better value than buying a last-minute ticket with cash.
As it turns out, the credit card Kosofsky used to buy her ticket included travel insurance, so we’re happy to report she was able to obtain a full refund from them.