A phone ringing in the middle of the night is usually bad news. Next thing you know, you're on a plane, and out about a thousand bucks for a last-minute ticket.
What can you do to ease the dent to your wallet? Airlines used to dispense bereavement fares and other special tickets like packs of peanuts but today most such discounts are as dead as the dinosaurs. Yes, a few are still around, but you may not want them, as I'll explain.
See who still has these discounts-in-decline, who doesn't, and which group of passengers is getting special fares or perks.
There are three things to remember before you go looking for any discount:
1. It never hurts to ask (though it might if your airline charges a phone fee - many do). 2. Be ready to back up your case (proof of age if you're a senior, or a document relating to a death in the family). 3. Compare airline prices even if a discount is available; you might find something cheaper.
The few airlines that still have death-in-the-family fares make you dig for them but they're not too hard to find; just type in "bereavement" or "emergency fares." But don't expect much. Some examples:
Alaska: This airline offers bereavement fares in the case of an immediate family member death but the discount is "only available within seven days of travel and must be booked in advance." No indication what the discount is.
American: The AA site says they "may offer" emergency or bereavement fares, but you must call reservations to find out. By the way, the airline charges $25 per call but it does not say if the fee is waived in such cases.
Frontier: No such discounts and here's the explanation: "Our philosophy is to offer the lowest fares available to all travelers. Therefore, we don't offer any specific bereavement fares." This is standard for most of the so-called low cost carriers so don't look for these discounts from AirTran, JetBlue, Southwest or Virgin America.
United: This airline offers "compassion fares" and they probably cover more ground than any other carrier; it includes a discounted fare for death or serious illness of a family member and this includes in-laws, domestic partners, nieces and nephews and more. However, the discount is only 5 percent. Better than nothing but you might find a cheaper flight on your own simply by comparing airfare prices.
Tell Aunt Betty to quit forwarding emails like "Senior Discounts Revealed!" because a lot of the information in those things is woefully out of date or just plain wrong. One that caught my attention recently claimed Alaska Airlines gives travelers 65 or older a whopping half-off all airfares. Sounds too good to be true because it is: Alaska's website explicitly states they offer no senior discounts whatsoever.
Nor do most of the discount carriers. As Virgin America says, its low fares are "for everyone" so no special interest group gets special discounting.
It's not that airlines don't like older folks. Are you kidding? They love them because so many older folks have time and money for travel. But airlines don't make much on most passengers no matter what their age (last-minute business travelers being the big exception). Blame it on a host of factors including the ever-fluctuating price of oil that keeps profit margins slim.
But don't give up hope altogether. Some senior fares do exist but usually there's a catch.
American: This carrier says it "may" offer an unspecified senior discount, but only on certain domestic routes. Which are also unspecified.
Delta: Same as above but you must call to learn more, and again, there's the possibility of a phone fee.
Southwest: This carrier does offer senior fares but you may not want them. A recent round-trip ticket from Los Angeles to San Francisco for a senior priced out at $398 compared to just $217 for a regular fare. Okay, so the senior fare is totally refundable; only you can say if that's worth paying nearly twice the going rate.
United: Senior discounts are offered to "select" destinations only, but you may have to dig to find them.
US Airways: More hedging: the airline says travelers 65 or older "may be eligible" for senior fares. Or maybe not. They don't say how much these fares are, either.
Suppose you do luck into a discount, for seniors or for anything; it will likely save you only about 10 percent at most. Again, better than nothing certainly, but as with any airfare, compare prices carefully. You may find a regular adult fare that's a better deal than the discount.
This is an area that's been growing but no surprise given the events (and wars) in the wake of 9/11. We are seeing a lot more specialty discounting on everything from baggage charges to pet transport fees and even a smattering of discounted military airfares. A few examples:
AirTran: Military personnel with ID (and recruits with orders) will be exempt from excess, oversized or overweight baggage charges and this is big since such charges are steep.
American: The airline offers discounted fares for military and also allows them (and their dependents) to stand-by for flights for free.
JetBlue: A variety of perks including discounted or waived fees but you must call the airline to learn more.
Southwest: Military passengers traveling on active duty or permanent change-of-station orders are exempt from the two-piece baggage limit and will not be subject to excess, oversize, or overweight baggage charges.
United: The carrier offers "military leisure fares" for personnel and eligible family members traveling on leave. The airline also discounted pet transport fees from Japan where so many U.S. military are based; when the airline switched to a pet transport vendor for non-cabin animals last year, the initial sky-high fees (thousands of dollars) brought howls of protests. These were quickly lowered, but for military only.
The opinions represented in this column belong to the author and do not reflect the views of ABC News.