Special Airline Discounts That Still Exist

PHOTO: Passengers check in at the American Airlines counter at Miami International Airport in Miami, May 27, 2014.Alan Diaz/AP Photo
Passengers check in at the American Airlines counter at Miami International Airport in Miami, May 27, 2014.

Got a last minute emergency and you must fly? Some bereavement (or “compassion”) discounts still exist. Ditto for senior fares, military deals plus discounts for passengers too big for a single seat.

How good are the discounts? Let's find out by examining the policies of the Big Four (American, Delta, Southwest and United). It is truly a mixed bag.

One last thing before we dive in. If you don't know whether a discount exists, ask.

For example, an employee of mine had to change nonrefundable tickets at the last minute because of a death in the family. In the course of the call with the legacy carrier airline rep, she mentioned this was a bereavement situation but also said she knew such discounts no longer existed and braced herself for the change fee and additional fare cost. The airline rep responded by saying, “Let me see what I can do,” and wound up saving my employee hundreds of dollars.

The moral: Always ask. You may get nothing but you won't know if you don't ask.

Bereavement discounts

All information (unless otherwise noted) comes from the airline's website.

• American: The airline does not offer any bereavement or other emergency discounts.

Delta: The airline may offer bereavement fares on some routes, but even Delta admits you may find lower fares on its website, which "may serve as a better option in some markets".

Southwest: No, but at least the carrier lets you down gently with this kindly message: "We are deeply sorry for your loss. As you search our website to support your need for travel, please know that we do not offer a bereavement or emergency fare."

• United: No bereavement fares.

Best rated: Delta, simply for having any bereavement discount at all.

Senior discounts

These have been disappearing in recent years, but some airlines still offer them. Important: Do not accept a senior fare without first comparing it to the price a younger adult is charged. If you don't, you could be in for a nasty surprise.

• American: No mention of senior fares on the website's FAQ section (or elsewhere), but if you use American's “advance search” when pricing out a flight, you can select “senior” under the number of passengers. But the flights we searched revealed a senior passenger paid precisely the same as any other adult.

Delta: These are available only in certain markets and not online so you have to call the airline (and find contact numbers here)

Southwest: They do have them but may cost a little more because they are fully refundable. If that's not what you need, compare fares for the best deal.

United: United offers senior fares to “selected travel destinations” for passengers 65 or older who select the senior category when booking online. We did this, but saw no difference in price for seniors and older adults on the flight we happened to look at.

Best rated: All four have similar policies: They may offer senior fares, but they may not make much of a difference.

Military discounts

We're seeing more and more baggage fee discounts for the military (and sometimes family members). The following pertains to fares only.

American: Maybe. American's website says they "may offer government or military fares in some markets" but you have to call reservations to find out.

• Delta: Military and government fares may apply on certain routes but you have to call to be certain.

Southwest: Yes, but they must be booked over the phone. Don't forget to compare with the regular prices.

United: The airline's Veteran's Advantage program offers 5 percent off the base fares (taxes and fees don't change) for some U.S. or Canada flights; good for U.S. veterans, active duty military, National Guard and Reserve members. Learn more here.

Best rated: Let's hear from the men and women in the military; what do you say?

Two-seat discounts

For travelers who are too big for a single seat (or have been told so by the airline).

American: Its website says, "For the safety and comfort of all customers, if a customer’s body extends more than 1 inch beyond the outermost edge of the armrest and a seat belt extension is needed, another seat is required." Your choice is to buy another or ask a gate agent to try and find two seats together. There is no mention of any refund.

• Delta: The website says: "If additional seat space is needed for comfort, we will try to reseat you next to an empty seat if available. However, you may consider purchasing an upgrade to a First or Business Class seat or booking an additional seat to ensure your comfort on board." What they don't say is what happens if there are no extra empty seats.

Southwest: This is by far the most generous plan: If you pay in advance for two seats when booking, you can apply for a refund for the second seat. Warning: if you go to the gate without a second seat and are told you must have one but there are no extra seats on the flight, you'll need to wait for the next one that does have empty seats.

• United: No discounts. If you're too big for a single seat, the website says, you are required to purchase a second and do so during the initial purchase.

Best rated: No contest, Southwest wins this one. But no matter which airline you fly and what the official policy is, don't forget to ask. You might - just might - get a nice surprise.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of Rick Seaney and do not reflect those of ABC News.