Bereavement Airfares: Flying for an Emergency

Has this happened to you? A sudden death in the family, or maybe your teenage son suffers a nasty fall while snowboarding and your only thought is, get on a plane and go.

Naturally, you're distraught so you don't worry about airfare. And yet, the last thing you need is to add financial burdens on top of emotional ones. Remember, last-minute fares are not cheap.

In fact, they can be stratospheric. This past week, I priced roundtrip flights on Continental Airlines from Chicago to Dallas for next day travel and was quoted a hefty $611. But wait a couple of weeks and the price plummets to $257.

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But you can't wait. I understand and I have seven ideas to help you save.

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1: Fly in and Out of Big Hubs

Readers of my column have heard this before but it's worth repeating: If you need a last-minute flight and live in a smallish community, drive to the biggest airport near you. You might save a bundle.

The simple fact of the matter is, if your airport is not a major hub, you'll pay a penalty of anywhere from $50 to $150 more than if you flew from a larger airport.

Bottom line: When purchasing last-minute airfare, check your airport plus those within two or three hours driving distance. But don't forget to factor in the cost of gas and parking along with the hassles of driving.

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2: Check Prices on Discount Airlines

You have to fly, so your first thought may be to turn to your old friend United or American or wherever you have a frequent flier relationship.

But if you must fly the next day, check out the discount airlines, too. Chances are, they'll have a better price. Example: again, I checked out flights from Chicago to Dallas -- on American this time -- for next-day travel and the cheapest flight was a non-stop for $593 roundtrip. AirTran, however, had a flight for just $451, although it included one stop.

Bottom line: If you are willing to connect, you may save anywhere from $50 to $250.

3: Follow Your Airlines on Twitter

Time to get on Twitter because, as Los Angeles Times travel blogger Jen Leo says, "It's the marketing tool of the day," a way for airlines and others to connect with customers.

Sometimes airlines tweet extreme last-minute deals; their PR and marketing departments monitor these accounts and may have more flexibility to offer promo code deals or other discounts. And I know one airfare shopping site that tweets deals for flights from your home airport.

Bottom line: Hire a neighborhood kid to teach you Twitter. Why should celebs like Kim Kardashian have all the fun?

4: Check Out Vacation Packages

An old trick that can be useful if your destination has any pretension at all to being a vacation spot. Here's why: Many last-minute airline packages offering hotel-car-flight combinations can actually cost less than an emergency flight alone.

If you don't need the extras, simply discard them and you still have a cheaper flight than you might have gotten separately (note: If you won't be using the car or hotel, don't forget to cancel them).

Bottom line: Check out offerings at sites like "Delta Vacations" before you give up on a cheaper last-minute flight.

5: Look for Bereavement Fares

Do any airlines still have bereavement fares? Yes, indeed, although sometimes the discounts are all but meaningless. Face it, 10 percent off a next-day $1,000 fare is still a hefty fare in anybody's book.

Of the "Big Five" airlines, only US Airways does not have bereavement or "compassion" fares. Here's what you get from those that do:

American Airlines: The Web site says they "may" offer emergency or bereavement fares but you have to call their reservation departments to find out.

Continental Airlines: Discounts are available in the event of a family member's death or serious illness but you must provide documentation (such as a death certificate); discounts are 5 percent on fares up to $499, 10 percent for fares up to $999 and so on.

Delta Air Lines: Discounts are available in the event of a death or imminent death, but you have to call reservations for details.

United Airlines: This may be the most generous policy, in terms of what is covered (death of a family member, attending a seriously ill or injured family member, or to obtain medical treatment). The discount is 10 percent off of "any published fare for tickets purchased within six days of travel."

Bottom line: Most discount airlines, including AirTran, JetBlue and Southwest, do not offer bereavement fares. As JetBlue says on its site, that's "because our fares are already discounted to all customers."

6: Use Your Frequent Flier Miles

If you can't find a cheap fare, now's the time to use your frequent flier miles. Call your elite hotline or try out the much-improved online, reward-redemption tools.

Bottom line: Using miles for expensive flights always makes sense, and if you don't have enough miles, buy more or barter with friends or family with miles to redeem a ticket for you.

7: Go Ahead and Ask

This falls under the category, "nothing ventured, nothing gained." Not long ago, an employee of mine called an airline and asked about their bereavement policy. The nice man on the phone told her they don't offer any but added, "Tell me about your situation, I'll bet we can work with you." That's the way to do business.

Bottom line: The worst they can do is say no.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.