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Airlines used to give discounts to passengers who were traveling to a relative’s funeral, but those days are just about gone.
Now buying a ticket to attend a funeral or visit a relative in the hospital is no different than last-minute travel plans for any other reason.
Among the largest U.S. airlines, only Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines still offer so-called bereavement fares. Those tickets, however, come with a big caveat.
“They are a very small discount off the walk-up fare” — a costly unrestricted ticket, said George Hobica, founder of the airfarewatchdog.com site. “Even if you can find one, they are not any cheaper.”
A spokesman said Virgin America offers 40 percent off, but the policy is not listed on the website of the smaller carrier, which flies to only 21 U.S. airports.
Whether you can find a bereavement fare to match your trip, experts have a few tips.
— Pick the airline that is most flexible about changing the ticket in case that becomes necessary.
— While more difficult to do in an emergency, be as flexible as possible with time of day, alternative airports and other flight details.
— Packages that bundle flights with a hotel room are often cheaper.
— It’s obvious, but don’t forget to check airlines and fare-tracking websites and Twitter accounts; you might luck into a last-minute deal.
— Cash in your frequent-flier miles or points, although that is harder during busy travel periods like summer.
Bereavement fares were once common, even a part of the pop culture. An episode of the 1990s television show “Seinfeld” featured a character who tried to cheat an airline for a 50 percent bereavement discount — he failed.
Airlines believed people were scamming the system, and the special fares complicated the jobs of reservations agents. Grieving travelers were put off by the need for documentation like a death certificate. But the biggest cause of the bereavement fare’s demise may be the growth of low-fare carriers.
“As low-fare carriers came into more markets, those bereavement fares ended up being higher than you could get elsewhere. It just angered people,” said Brett Snyder, who runs a concierge booking service and writes the crankyflier.com blog.
American Airlines and United Airlines ended bereavement fares in 2014. Southwest Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air don’t offer them.
Bereavement tickets aren’t dead yet, though. Snyder said one of his customers recently used one on Delta.
Bereavement fares might not be the cheapest, but they usually offer more flexibility to alter plans without a change fee — changing a cheaper, restricted ticket to visit family longer can mean an extra fee of up to $200.
Delta points out that consumers might find lower promotional fares on the airline’s website or by calling the reservations center. Delta does offer more schedule flexibility for the return flight by waiving service fees, but the customer must pay the difference if they change to a higher-priced flight. The policy covers a funeral or visiting a relative near death.
Alaska Airlines offers flexible travel dates for people flying due to the death of an immediate family member. The ticket must be bought within seven days of travel. Passengers get a 10 percent discount off the lowest available refundable fare, which adds flexibility, said airline spokeswoman Ann Zaninovich.
“If it’s the last minute and you won’t need to change your plans, you could probably get a lower fare by booking a non-refundable ticket,” Zaninovich said. “We tell people to call the airline and go over their options.”
A search on Alaska’s website showed the lowest price for a refundable ticket for a last-minute San Francisco-Seattle round trip on two randomly chosen dates was $423. With the discount, it would be $381. But nonrefundable tickets on Alaska were as low as $120.
Virgin America spokesman Dave Arnold said his airline offers bereavement discounts for trips within seven days. But passengers have to know to ask, and they must provide documentation.
Some other airlines, while not selling bereavement fares, have policies that might be a help. Southwest Airlines doesn’t charge change fees, so a passenger can change travel dates without penalty. Frontier Airlines will let passengers change travel dates or destination for up to 90 days from the date the ticket was bought without penalty. In both cases, passengers pay the difference if the new flight costs more.
Follow David Koenig at http://twitter.com/airlinewriter