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.

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.

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.

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.

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