We had to cancel our flight because of a sudden death in the family. Will the airline issue a refund?

When there is a death in the immediate family, those who are grieving are oftentimes released from their obligations. This is done out of respect. There is, however, a question as to how the airlines treat those who experience a sudden loss or an unexpected emergency.

The answer varies by airline.

The sudden loss of a family member creates an emotional upheaval and can leave people feeling vulnerable and on edge. The last thing they want is to battle with the airline over a flight change, cancellation, or refund, but unfortunately, this may end up being the case.

There are ways to make this process (with the airlines) a little less difficult.

Leonard Zimkus and his wife know all too well how tough this time can be. His sister became seriously ill and was admitted to hospice in Green Bay, Wis. After hearing the news, he booked their flights and hotel through American Airlines Vacations so they could be with her. Sadly, she passed away before they were able to see her. That, in itself, is not easy to take.

Zimkus shared, “We were unable to purchase travel insurance through American Airlines Vacations’ website. We were told there was a holiday blackout, and we were desperate to see my sister.” Their focus was not on the financial ramifications, but rather on the possibility of losing a loved one.

After Zimkus received the bad news, he and his wife canceled their travel plans. It never even occurred to him that there would be a problem getting a refund. He found out differently.

“My sister passed on Dec. 15 whereupon my wife called and asked for a refund. The agent stated they probably could not do anything about the hotel but would work with us on the airfare. The rep said to send required documentation showing [our] relationship and a death certificate,” said Zimkus.

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Another painful task — asking family members for a death certificate.

Zimkus sent in the requested documentation, but American did not respond. “My wife called numerous times — Jan. 23, Feb. 3, and April 6. Every time someone said they would get back to us.” But they did not.

After almost four months of waiting, Zimkus used the American Airlines company contacts on Elliott.org. He sent a message to a vice president of American Airlines, but did not receive a response. Zimkus then turned to our advocates for support.

Airline policies have changed over the years when it comes to a death in the family. Bereavement fares have become a thing of the past, with the exception of Delta Air Lines and Alaskan Airlines (and possibly others). Many travelers facing an emergency end up paying the walk-up fare at the airport, because they are not aware of any other options. When travel plans need to be changed or canceled, such as with Zimkus, there is hope, but it may take some fortitude on your part.

Many airlines will waive ticketing penalties and may provide flexibility on the return flight if you have to change a flight or book a new one because of a death or serious illness. With several airlines, you can even request a refund on a nonrefundable ticket if you need to cancel your flight. For example, United, Southwest, Frontier, and JetBlue offer a refund (some may deduct fees) as a sympathetic gesture. American and possibly Delta will provide a voucher for canceled flights.

All of the airlines will require documentation as proof. This may be a death certificate, a letter (on letterhead) from the doctor of the seriously ill family member, or a funeral home’s confirmation of the death and your relationship to the deceased.

It is important to cancel your flight before it departs, otherwise, the refund process will be more difficult or even impossible. With some airlines, like American, if you do not cancel your ticket in advance of the departure time, you will lose the value of the ticket completely and no voucher (or refund, as the case may be) will be issued.

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Even though the airlines’ policies regarding a death in the family may not seem compassionate, many of their representatives are. It is worth reaching out and asking for their assistance. Hopefully, you will be pleasantly surprised.

If you should ever find yourself in a situation similar to the Zimkus’ (which I hope you don’t), here are some suggestions on how to ease the pain in regards to your airfare.

To begin with, purchase travel insurance that covers the death of a family member. Policies vary, so be sure to know what family members are covered and any other stipulations that may be required. If your trip is to visit a seriously ill person, this is especially important.

Contact the airline as soon as you realize you have to change or cancel a flight and inform the representative of your reason for doing so.

If prepaid hotel reservations are involved, contact the hotel directly and request a refund. An empathetic representative may offer to cancel the reservations and issue a refund.

Since this case involved American Airlines, according to its terms and conditions,

Nonrefundable Tickets: Nonrefundable tickets generally cannot be refunded. However, exceptions may be available under the following circumstances:

Death of the passenger, immediate family member, or traveling companion.

Subject to certain restrictions and fees defined in the rules of the fare, the value of a wholly unused nonrefundable ticket may only be used toward the purchase of a new nonrefundable ticket. Travel on such reissued tickets (or subsequently reissued tickets) must commence no later than one year from the date of issue of the original ticket. In any case, the itinerary for any unused or partially used nonrefundable ticket must be canceled before the ticketed departure time of the first unused coupon, or the ticket will lose any remaining value and cannot be used for travel or reissue.

Our advocates contacted American on Zimkus’ behalf. American responded by offering Zimkus two options: A voucher for $976 or a cash refund for $582. The original airfare and hotel package cost Zimkus $1,200. American was unable to offer a refund for the prepaid hotel expenses, since Hampton Inn would not agree because of the holiday season.

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According to American, since it received a death certificate, it was able to offer the alternative of a cash refund (minus about $384 in fees). A cash refund is over and above what is stated in its policy.

However, this left Zimkus feeling disenchanted over the lack of compassion displayed by American Airlines. For almost five months, he had to keep reliving the pain every time he had to follow up with American on the status of his request. He felt his treatment was, in his words, “disgraceful” and “they just want to wear us out.” Ultimately, he and his wife chose the voucher.

This is a tough situation. When people experience a loss, they are dealing with a lot of difficult issues, and contending with the airlines should not have to be one of them. On the other hand, the airlines are looking at the situation from a revenue standpoint. Unfortunately, they have had their share of passengers falsely using the “death of a family member” to get a refund or change a flight, when, in reality, that was not the case. If American had responded to Zimkus and followed through on its stated policies, this situation could have had a better ending.

Did American Airlines offer enough compensation?

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Stephanie Patterson

Stephanie is a published book author and travel columnist with a focus on preparation and protocol. She is committed to helping travelers be informed and avoid potential problems while traveling. Stephanie's most recent book is "Know Before You Go: Traveling the U.S. and Abroad". For travel insight when planning your trip, visit Know Before You Go Travel. Along with writing, Stephanie does interior designing. Read more of Stephanie's articles here.

  • Lloyd Johnston

    A holiday blackout for purchasing insurance? Abby idea why that would be the case? Doesn’t make sense to be, does time of year affect the likelihood of a claim? If so shouldn’t that just be a higher than normal premium?

  • cscasi

    One can always purchase travel insurance from another company every day of the year and the insurance from them would most likely be better than what American Airlines offers.

  • sirwired

    I think that AA should have done better if for no other reason than the continued broken promises to get back to him with their answer. That, and I’d like to know what these “fees” refer to for the refund.

    Also, the quote from AA’s CoC was unclear; The bit about “Subject to to certain restrictions and fees…” applies to the NORMAL situation, not the exception that earlier text refers to; anybody that calls them on the phone can re-use a non-refundable ticket, minus change fees (if the fare allows.) The death in the family is supposed to allow an actual refund.

  • Bill___A

    Sorry for their loss. It is regrettable that Hampton did not see clear to refund and that there was a “fee” from AA- and also regrettable that AA did not respond in a timely manner. However, the refund offered may be the best deal that can be given, This is something that should have been covered by insurance. From what I can tell, my travel insurance doesn’t have exceptions for certain seasons, it covers certain risks and that is it.

  • Bill___A

    It didn’t make sense to me. I wouldn’t book a hotel through an airline either…

  • John Keahey

    My adult son died while I was in Tuscany, Italy, nearly five years ago. I called Delta in the U.S., and a wonderful supervisor redirected my return flight, orrigionally set for a week later that had been ticketed with FF miles, to the next morning, creating a FF seat where there wasn’t one on the final leg to my son’s city. I was there fewer than 30 hours later. No death certificate required or any other proof. It was remarkable. Delta really came through for me on this one.

  • SierraRose 49

    You’re right. We usually purchase Travel Insured Int. through our USAA membership. But there are many others. But often when fraught with the thought of losing a family member, one does not think about insuring their trip. Glad Elliott team were able to get some compensation.

  • SierraRose 49

    I am sorry for the sudden loss of Mr. Zimkus’ sister. He sent the requested documentation to AA. His wife called three times, and they were told “they would get back to us.” Then they never did. Mr. Zimkus hung up the phone and detailed his request for compensation by email to one of the AA contacts on the Elliott list. Still NO response, UNTIL one of the Elliott advocates called AA. And that’s what bothers me most. No response after several tries, Elliott advocates call, and swish, compensation.

  • Daddydo

    I have never heard of a blackout date on insurance.

  • greg watson

    The compensation was OK, but the length of time & the non-response from AA does nothing to enhance their image to to the consumer. Poor form AA !

  • Noah Kimmel

    seems they did a vacation package. These usually do lead to lower rates as both the airline and the hotel cut margin on them. Booking as a package might actually help them in case of an IROP.

  • Ted Hochstadt

    Travel insurance is a great idea, but it usually excludes coverage for “existing medical conditions.” Since Mr. Zimkus’s sister was seriously ill at the time he bought the air tickets, the insurance company may have tried to get out of paying because of that exclusion.

  • Rebecca

    There are two circumstances where you get the supervisor that can actually access the mainframe system and make it happen. This is one and the other is military orders.

    Whenever I see people whining about exceptions, I think it helps to see it from this perspective. There’s very few cases where it actually is warranted, and people will generally bend over backwards for someone that genuinely needs it. Thank you for sharing it.

  • James Moninger

    American offers one other thing that this couple chose not to use, and that is refundable tickets.

  • AAGK

    American Airlines Vacations????!!!! I’m confused. I thought they were flying last minute bc the sister was a hospice, in anticipation of her last moments. I assume he paid the walk up fare and you check j to the holiday inn next to the hospital. Insurance would’ve been foolish bc they were traveling in anticipation of a death.
    When she died in the small space of time between the booking and flight, then why didn’t they call the airline to cancel?
    When someone dies, the next steps are always about painful arrangements, funeral, casket, financial affairs, funeral service, etc, including flying or not flying to the burial.

    Everyone must do these things during their time of grief. Sounds like this guy received a tremendous amount of compassion. What more could the airline do? Grief over the loss of a loved one is a universal experience and equalizer.

  • michael anthony

    I too WOULD LOVE to know what the $384 in fees are for. We all know fees are a given now, but yhey should be required to list.

    For example, one if my utilities lists Taxes as $50.00. But then it states: 15.00 city tax, 25.00 county tax, $5.00 state tax, etc, to where it adds up to the $50.00. I’d love to see how a carrier would break out $384.00 in justifiable fees.

  • Lindabator

    travel packages usually have different fees than standard ticket — but I do not get why the failure to pick up 3rd party insurance

  • Lindabator

    but this was a vacations package – not sure why no insurance available – unless he booked last minute, at which case the vendor does not offer – but he could still buy 3rd party coverage

  • Lindabator

    I agree – when I worked for the airline, could NOT tell you how many called in with a “special” circumstance – but how few really qualified for consideration

  • Lindabator

    I think he may have confused the issue by contacting the airlines rather than the vacations number — then they go back and forth between the two. Might have been working on it, just no one figured out who should contact him — sometimes happens

  • Lindabator

    If he booked with AA Vacations, and booked close to departure, may very well be possible – but nothing stops him from buying 3rd party without those restrictions

  • Lindabator

    Since AA did not book, and would have had to go back to AA Vacations (run by a separate entity by the way, as most airline packages) – would have been a lot of back and forth between the two. Should have contacted the vendor he actually booked thru to avoid these hiccups

  • Lindabator

    that is true, as the risk of a bad situation worstening is high — not that they are “getting out” of paying, just they can assume the risk is too great to insure in the first place in those situations — HOWEVER, if he bought 3rd party within 14 days of trip deposit, those restrictions would have been waived

  • Lindabator

    can still buy last minute air and car or air and hotel for a lower rate — but this is probably why no insurance offered, as on last-minute trips they do not usually offer. But a 3rd party would work

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