Is there compassion in bereavement fares?

— -- For all the planning you may invest in booking travel, there are times when life provides you with no advance warning. A serious illness or the death of a loved one can mean you're suddenly at the mercy of the travel industry—and you need to depart now.

That's why the airlines traditionally have offered bereavement fares, sometimes referred to as compassion or compassionate fares. In recent years, however, bereavement fares have been revamped and even eliminated, so best practices have changed.

Having just watched my very large family unexpectedly gather for a funeral in a city where almost none of us live, a key factor struck me: Even the most savvy traveler doesn't have the time, energy or inclination to haggle over a low fare during such a difficult time. Subsequently, there are plenty of blogging cynics who claim most airlines take advantage of these conditions by making their bereavement fares opaque and available only by telephone, and therefore harder to comparison shop.

Even non-cynics, however, would have to conclude that searching for bereavement fares is not easy even under the best of circumstances.

Providing proof

Bereavement fares have a long history in the airline industry, particularly since in the past carriers traditionally charged more for last-minute or "walk-up" tickets. But, as noted in an infamous episode of Seinfeld, compassion fares can be obtained only if you provide proof of illness or death. In many cases, this is impractical at the time of booking, and it becomes an administrative chore to address after the trip is completed.

The standard policy for most airlines is that at the time of purchase, the carrier will require the name and relationship of the relative, in addition to the name, address, and phone number for the funeral home, hospice or hospital. If applicable, the name of a doctor may be needed as well (as if most doctors have the time to respond to calls from airline reservationists). For those who are distraught or grieving, this can seem like a cruel procedure, yet the airlines claim the world is filled with travelers who would take advantage of such policies if proof were not required.

In addition, several carriers require customers to book through their telephone reservations systems rather than online, and the details of the discounts can be hard to obtain without providing specific criteria about your family member's illness or death.

The death throes of bereavement?

As USA TODAY noted in 2005, a few years ago several carriers began cutting back or even eliminating bereavement fares while revamping their pricing strategies. This trend was accelerated after both Delta and Air Canada did away with domestic compassion discounts.

The irony, however, is that traditional bereavement markdowns of about 50% off the highest walk-up fares have been eclipsed in recent years by much deeper discounts found online every day. So for many consumers, the relevant question is no longer: Does the airline offer bereavement fares? A much better question is: Are bereavement fares any lower than what I can find myself on any basic online search?

Here's a brief rundown of the bereavement fare policies for the nation's seven largest carriers:

• American Airlines. Compassion fares can be booked only by the airline, and details are available through reservations. Although tickets can be issued by travel agents, all changes must be made by American.

• Continental Airlines. This carrier is more forthright than most about its compassion fare policies, and allows bookings to be made through its website. It also clearly posts its bereavement discount policy: 5% off round-trip fares up to $499.99; 10% off round-trip fares up to $999.99; and 20% off round-trip fares of $1,000 and up. As for change fees, Continental states: "All rules of the fare that is being discounted apply. Some fares allow the waiver of penalties due to documented illness."

• Delta Air Lines. Delta no longer offers bereavement discounts within the 48 contiguous states. In addition, the international discounts are not published on Delta's site, and in fact they're not available online; all such bookings must be made through reservations.

• Northwest Airlines. NWA's website claims that "Because our prices are among the lowest around for last-minute travel, we do not offer bereavement fares." However, a call to Northwest's reservations department (800-225-2525) confirmed that bereavement fares are available. That said, there are two important caveats: 1) you must register as a WorldPerks member in order to obtain such fares, and 2) round-trip bereavement fares can require a Saturday night stayover (otherwise you'll need to purchase two one-way bereavement fares, as I was offered).

• Southwest Airlines. A call to Southwest's reservations line verified that the airline does not offer bereavement fares.

• United Airlines. Under the "Booking Travel FAQs" section of United's website, the airline states: "Do you have any emergency or bereavement rates/discounts? United offers emergency fares for different situations. You cannot obtain these fares on and must call United Reservations at 800-864-8331."

• US Airways. US Airways does not offer such fares for domestic or international travel.

Are they worth it?

Even at a time of mourning, if you're up to the task of a quick fare search, it can be worth your while. Of course, many consumers are not at all concerned with cost at such a time, but blindly assuming that a bereavement fare is the lowest available rate can be faulty reasoning.

Last week, I searched for a bereavement fare from New York City area airports to St. Louis, with 24 hours advance notice and no restrictions on connections. When I called Northwest, an agent told me the fare would total "over $600" with taxes and fees, depending on which departure time I selected. That was certainly better than Continental's site, which produced a lowest fare of $1,254, which even with a 20% discount would come to $1,004. However, the same itinerary fed into Kayak yielded a $451 fare on AirTran through; thus a quick search beat the bereavement rate.

With the exception of Continental, it can be difficult to determine the percentage of savings provided by a compassion fare. Other carriers I contacted would not provide a range of discounts unless I inquired about a specific flight.

So I spoke to a veteran employee for a major carrier, who said these days bereavement fares usually are about 25% off full coach fares. Of course, deeper discounts than that are available nearly every day online, no? She explained, "The only time it's good to consider bereavements is if it's a very expensive market, where fares are usually pretty high. Otherwise, it's probably better to shop online."

Yet there is another important factor to consider as well. Among those airlines that still offer bereavement fares, price is just one component. In addition, the flexibility to change and even cancel travel plans without penalty is extremely rare with any type of discounted fare. So this should be weighed as well, particularly in fluid situations such as drawn-out illnesses. The ability to quickly amend your itinerary without having to pay extra fees may make a bereavement fare worth it—in some specific cases.

Just who is family?

Unfortunately, grief over losing a loved one can be compounded by additional concerns in some relationships. Among carriers that define "Immediate Family" on their websites, Continental offers the broadest definition of the term. In fact, the lengthy list includes adopted wards, legal guardians, foster relatives, half-relatives and step-relatives.

However, in 2007 a website devoted to the personal finance issues of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community took Continental to task for not including domestic partners in that definition of family. Today Continental's list includes the term domestic partner. Both American and Delta list domestic partners as family members as well.

The best advice is not to assume that all travel suppliers automatically recognize domestic partnerships. It's important to always inquire about this in advance.

It's not just airlines

As for other travel suppliers, bereavement rates are not as standardized for lodging and car rentals, but such discounts are available in some cases. Since many hotels and rental firms are operated by independent or franchised management, policies vary by location and are not always posted online. On the other hand, the Cleveland Courtyard by Marriott offers a clear and specific " Bereavement Package" on its site, so it can be worth a quick search. And it never hurts to ask about such discounts.

As with the airlines, however, you'll often need to call the hotel or rental company's reservations center, if not the specific location. For example, the Avis " Bereavement" page contains only this information: "Avis cares and sympathizes with you in your time of need. We will make every effort to promptly accommodate your requests. Please call 1-800-331-1212."

Travelers, have you had any recent experiences with bereavement fares? Share your stories below.

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Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports and the former editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, is an FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher who worked in airline operations and management for several years. Tell him what you think of his latest column by sending him an e-mail at Include your name, hometown and daytime phone number, and he may use your feedback in a future column.