Bereavement fares have been laid to rest. Our condolences.


Joyce Kosofsky was in Nairobi visiting her daughter when she received the tragic news that her mother had died back in Boston, 7,000 miles away.

“I am Jewish and had to get home and bury my mother within 48 hours,” she explains. “I immediately contacted customer service at British Airways to change our flight from Friday to Wednesday.”

That’s when she got more bad news. To change her return flight by just two days was going to cost $6,712.

“I explained that this was not a new ticket, but a change. It was essentially the same flight, same cabin, just a different date. The agent said that there was nothing she could do unless I could provide a death certificate.”

Which was impossible for her to do, because a death certificate hadn’t been issued yet. So faced with the need to be home within 48 hours, she paid the fee, then reached out to British Airways later with a plea for help. But there wasn’t much to be had. The airline offered to waive the change fee, but said that was all they could do.

Remember the story of the kid who was caught skipping school after one too many grandparents had died? Today we’re all paying the price for consumers who abused the bereavement fare programs many airlines once had.

For example, Southwest Airlines offered bereavement fares back in the nineties, but “…we had widespread abuse of the fare class as it wasn’t being used as intended,” notes Linda Rutherford, the airline’s Chief Communications Officer.

Still if you’re ticketed on Southwest you’re better off than you might have been. If you need to make a sudden change, their last-minute fares are better than those of many airlines, and they don’t charge a change fee.

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So what should you do if you find yourself in a similar situation? Kosofsky posted her problem to our forums at Elliott.org, which are monitored by travel experts. They offered some excellent advice, including writing a concise, polite email explaining the circumstances using the contacts also provided on the site, to ask for consideration of a refund. Start with the customer service contact and work your way up the ladder one at a time, giving each a week to respond. Someone may be able to bend the rules, and at least waive some of the fees. Our experts also recommended that in lieu of cash you consider asking for vouchers toward future travel, which the airlines may be more willing to provide.

Also, most travel insurance policies will cover costs resulting from the death of a close family member.

Of course, travel insurance only helps for a ticket that already has been purchased. Finding an affordable last-minute ticket in a family emergency presents another set of challenges. Southwest’s Rutherford recommends reaching out to a customer service agent and explaining the circumstances. “The agent might not be able to do anything but it’s worth it to share the nature of the emergency and allow the agent to determine if there are any options.”

Despite the fact that I’ve researched and written about budget travel for decades, when I got word a few years ago that my father was near death in a VA hospital, I was too distraught to focus on finding the best fare to get quickly to his bedside. Fortunately the hospital had a social worker on staff who was experienced in dealing with this exact circumstance and was able to work with her airline contacts to find me a reasonable fare. You may want to ask a friend or trusted travel agent to assist you in a time of grief.

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One last tip is that airline miles can sometimes be used for last-minute travel. This will depend on award seat availability, which is in constant flux, and some airlines charge a fee now for tickets purchased with miles shortly before departure. Still this is often a better value than buying a last-minute ticket with cash.

As it turns out, the credit card Kosofsky used to buy her ticket included travel insurance, so we’re happy to report she was able to obtain a full refund from them.


Dale Irvin

Dale Irvin is a semi-retired writer and editor, now living in south Florida after three years roaming around North America in an RV. You can read about those adventures at fabulousfifthwheel.com.

  • James

    I was in Seattle on business when I got word of my father’s impending death in Philadelphia. I first checked if I could fly home to San Francisco then fly out to Philadelphia, I was advised not to risk pending that much time. So I started looking for direct flights — the cheapest fare I found was $1748 for a same-day one-way ticket.

    Just for a laugh, I decided to see how much they were charging for same day first class — $760.

    Hmmm. Twist my arm. I also got off the plane faster from first class than I would have from coach, and got to my father’s bedside just an hour before he died.

  • Alan Gore

    Cases like this are one aspect of a larger problem in travel, the disappearance of spontaneity. All travel now has to be arranged a year ahead of time, paid up front, and cannot be changed for any reason. Of course, providers get all sorts of excuses to change YOUR plans whenever it suits them. And the only substitute for the missing flexibility is to buy layers of insurance against the various circumstances that might pop up – on their end as well as on your end.

    Would anyone else out there rather pay a little more in fares and room rates to get the old flexibility back, and perhaps actually save money by cutting back insurance to cover only the traditional major problems like medical evacuation?

  • sirwired

    It would have made sense for the airline to have a policy of “Okay, we gotta charge you full-fare right now, but we’ll issue the refund later when you have the death certificate.” (And, of course, document that this conversation took place.)

    I know that death certificates are often issued quickly, but I don’t remember them ever being issued before the funeral is even scheduled. (And certainly there’s no copies available that quickly; that takes a couple days or a personal trip to the records office.) They might as well just say “We don’t offer these to anybody.”

  • Randy Culpepper

    Nonsense. I routinely book flights 7 to 14 days out. Also, this wasn’t a weekend jaunt to New York–the op was in Nairobi. Who spontaneously travels from Boston to Nairobi?

  • Michael__K

    “Who spontaneously travels from Boston to Nairobi”

    Someone who already has tickets but needs to change their travel dates because of new unexpected circumstances.

  • Randy Culpepper

    That person was on a planned trip and had insurance to cover the deviation (even if she didn’t realize it at the time).

  • Michael__K

    Correct. And Alan’s point is that layers of insurance are needed to offset the loss of flexibility over time (and sometimes that still isn’t enough).

  • Rebecca

    In my experience (and I’m the stoic, non-panicker in my family, so it fell to me a few times), the death certificate was issued when the body was released from the morgue. I had to go sign for the body to be released from the morgue to the funeral home/crematorium; where it was released is on the death certificate (in the 3 states I have done it in), and THEN it’s available shortly thereafter. They need to put where the body goes, and until someone signs the body over, they can’t produce a death certificate.

  • Rebecca

    While I wholeheartedly agree, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from this site (Other than to never, ever use Expedia. Ever.), it’s that people will put up with a lot to save a very small amount. They’ll SAY that they’d rather pay a bit more. But, at least 90% of the time, probably more, they’re lying. They’d rather have the $5. It’s like they’re teenagers almost. It won’t happen to them. Until it does. And I’m also willing to bet that those same people will make the same choice again, despite saying they’ll never book an OTA/Spirit flight/etc again. Save a few bucks now and it won’t happen to them.

  • Rebecca

    I say this as an agnostic, for all practical purposes I’m an atheist (you can’t prove the negative, that’s just a bit too presumptuous for me). People take it very seriously. When several of my family members insisted on having a pastor/reverend/some christian speaker at my agnostic/athiest father’s wake – which I planned and paid for – my mom convinced me to just let them. And I’m glad she did. For reasons I don’t identify with, it made them feel better. When people are grieving, they find comfort in the familiar and the belief that there’s some magic place the dead go. It doesn’t hurt anyone else, so if it makes them feel better, so be it. It certainly doesn’t hurt anything.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    Not exactly accurate. An observant Jew, during the period after being notified of a death for which mourning is required (like a parent) until burial is termed an “onen”, and are exempt from work, rituals like prayer, don’t eat meat, drink wine, etc. Also, the Torah commands Jews to bury the same day (see Deuteronomy 21:23) but as the poster above notes, this seldom happens outside Israel.

    So there is a strong preference to bury quickly, both out of respect for the person who died and so the living mourners can move into the next stage of mourning, the shiva period, which can’t begin until after burial. Less observant Jews, as with any ritual obligation, are more flexible, but we don’t know the observance level of the OP.

  • Alan Gore

    I keep hearing the argument that travel restrictions mean lower prices today, but whenever I actually book a trip, even months ahead as we have to do now, I never actually see those good rates. They must be for times and city pairs I haven’t searched because nobody wants them.

  • JewelEyed

    I’m very happy to hear that there was insurance, even if the LW was unaware. I sincerely hope that she will take this experience to heart and be sure that she has sufficient insurance for all costly trips like this. Hopefully, she won’t ever have to come home early from international travel for the death of a relative again, but I sincerely hope that she will be covered again if she does.

  • PsyGuy

    Sometimes if you have the right bank card you can contact them directly to change your flight through their concierge department.

  • PsyGuy

    I somewhat agree with you, but I think it’s only perception. It looks more expensive because you can see what all the competing prices are and how they are on the internet, but last minute travel is still about what you’d pay 20 years ago.

  • PsyGuy

    I agree

  • Rebecca

    I know what you mean. I was more speaking to the fact that if a hotel room is $3 cheaper if it’s booked through an OTA instead of the hotel’s website, or even worse if the person just “knows” what they’ll get and it’s $10 cheaper if they use an opaque site. Or if a Spirit flight is $20 less and includes 2 layovers to get to the same destination, and then they get charged for a carryon and 1 of the segments is canceled and they can’t be reaccomodated for 3 days.

  • Tigger57

    Wow – what credit card was that?? I want that one in my wallet!

  • Attention All Passengers

    Why do people do this ???? $6,000+ to change it ?……just go online and look for the lowest one-way fare NBO to BOS. I just did it for a fare – TOMORROW – and it is $739 on Emirates. There is no law that says you can’t use any other airline than the one you originally traveled on. She would have been better off just buying another airline’s one way fare and disputing the unused British Airways ticket for some or all of it back. Common Sense.

  • John McDonald

    in Australia right now, we’re heading for one massive recession WE HAVE TO HAVE.(everyone wants to be paid heaps, but no one wants to work for it)
    As a result, yield managers at airlines & hotels are having a hard time filling flights etc. So it’s a race to the bottom.
    Normally if yield managers do their jobs properly, there will never even be any last minute specials.

  • Skeptic

    As a resident of Alaska with elderly parents in New England, I am extremely grateful that Alaska Airlines has a policy that helps all Alaskans. We are all eligible for the airline’s “Club 49,” which includes decent discounts on walk-up fares to cover this sort of eventuality. AS has done away with true bereavement fares, but the discount is actually better, since it users don’t need a death certificate or other documentation. Most of us would rather get to the deathbed before the loved one passes . . .

  • Lindabator

    most airlines take all the funeral info and follow up

  • Lindabator

    no – it is just that most bereaved never shop around and grab the first thing they find, so since clearer heads at the funeral parlor can prevail, they can find cheaper fares

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