Is The Hassle Of Getting A Bereavement Airfare Worth Only Saving $15?

There is this notion — mostly a hold-over from an era when “customer service” was actually a priority for some airlines — that travelers en route to a funeral can have their airfare slashed by providing the information needed to receive a bereavement discount. But as some people are finding out, it may be more of a hassle than it’s worth.

Take the story of Consumerist reader Jennifer, who needed to travel from Ohio to Washington, D.C., after the recent, unfortunate passing of her grandmother.

After a quick check on Kayak.com showed that all the airlines seemed to be charging about the same top-dollar amount for this trip, Jennifer decided to contact United since she has the airline’s MileagePlus credit card.

“I inquired about a bereavement fare, and they said that their bereavement fares were only 5% off of the ticket price, not including taxes and fees,” she tells Consumerist. “That brought the ticket price down to just below $900,
minus the fees.”

This trip — only about an hour of flying time — usually costs around $300, so Jennifer mentioned to the United rep that she wanted to talk to her family before booking the ticket.

“I was told that there was only one seat left at that price and I needed to make my decision then,” she writes. “Being pretty emotional and not being able to think very well, I agreed. What could I do? I had to get to my family.”

She says he was also told that, even though United has a online form for requesting bereavement fares, the only way to guarantee she’d get the discount (around $40) and the quoted price on the ticket was to book over the phone.

So then Jennifer went through all the information — her grandmother’s name, the funeral home’s address/phone
number, etc, — needed to qualify for the bereavement fare. (This is the same information that a Delta reservation agent says no one ever checks.)

It’s only at this point that United happens to mention that there is also a $25 fee for booking your ticket over the phone, meaning she’d gone through all the hassle of gathering all the funeral information to save $15.

“They quoted the price without the fee, asked if that was okay and then mentioned the $25 fee… just as I was getting my credit card to give them the number,” she tells Consumerist. “Maybe I should have done more research, but honestly, I was frankly distraught about everything and only thought about how I could get to my family.”

As a final insult, when Jennifer boarded the plane — a small commuter jet — she says that most of the plane was completely empty.

“Telling me that they only had the one seat for me to jump on at the time was obviously a lie,” she writes. “And I don’t know if it was because they knew I could make a decision without thinking about it fully, as I was in a very emotional state, but I think it is horribly unfair to treat a long-standing customer like this. I obviously wasn’t lying to get a cheaper fare, as I gave all of the proof that they requested, and I really feel taken advantage of.”

As we’ve written before, bereavement discounts are often very minor — and sometimes not even discounts — when compared to what you can get by shopping around or trying sites like Priceline. Even the airlines that claim their bereavement discounts are “50% off,” it’s almost always 50% off the full, refundable fare, which is usually significantly higher than the standard non-refundable airfares most people purchase.

Comments

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  1. dush says:

    Sounds like bereavement fare is pretty profitable for United. They must love it when people die.

    • vnlindstrom says:

      Airlines are heartless profiteer bastards? What? Since when?

    • bdgbill says:

      Why is it that only airlines are expected to give away or discount their services for “bereavement”. Is there such a thing as bereavement hotel rooms, bereavement groceries or bereavement car isnsurance?

  2. penuspenuspenus says:

    Summer fares plus sales tactics is what I see here. If you call a hotel and ask for availability for a certain day, I am guessing most will tell you “we have a few select rooms available for that date” in hopes that it compels you to book now. I’m guessing the same thing happens with phone bookings for airlines.

    Beyond that, it does seem scummy to discount 5% then charge an additional fee for talking to a human when this is the only option to book with a bereavement discount.

  3. NotATool says:

    How much would it have cost to rent a car and drive from DC to Ohio? Would a plane trip save either time or money? I’m guessing not.

    • StarKillerX says:

      Yeah, my first thought was, depending on where she is in Ohio, it might be easier and cheaper to drive down.

    • jeffbone says:

      Not a whole lot of time savings associated with flying — DC area to central Ohio is about 7 hours; flying the same route takes about 3 hours, if you include TSA screening time, more if checked bags are involved. The rental car cost would be a wash if OP had to rent a car in DC anyway, as the only difference would be the increased cost of additional fuel.

      • hoi-polloi says:

        I live in Pittsburgh, and some of my wife’s co-workers have to travel to DC pretty often. If there aren’t any delays, flying and driving are pretty much equivalent. Some fly down and work or relax on the flight, but most prefer to drive. I might hesitate to drive if I felt I was too emotional or distracted, but a $900 fare would make that choice a little easier.

        There may be other factors which weren’t mentioned in the choice to fly. Were I in Jennifer’s shoes and had to fly, I wouldn’t jump through all those hoops to save so little.

        • HSVhockey says:

          Yeah when I used to live in DC I would drive home to Pittsburgh at least once every couple of months. Renting a mid size car (~30 mpg highway) you can get back and forth easily on less than two fill ups. I hate flying and refuse to fly if the drive is less than 8 hours.

    • TheOP says:

      DC to Cleveland.

  4. Coffee says:

    I was going to make a snarky comment that involved taking the $15, dividing it by the length of the phone call, and determining that yes, the $15 dollars is worth it, but then I started thinking about it, and if it were my sister who died, I would be in terrible shape emotionally. I think at that point, the feeling of being shortchanged on a bereavement fare to my sister’s funeral would outweigh the ancillary benefit of $15 in my pocket.

    • George4478 says:

      >>the feeling of being shortchanged on a bereavement fare

      Perspective. Shortchanging is a criminal act. Giving a $15 discount is a sucky discount, nothing more. The airline was under no obligation to provide any discount.

      • Coffee says:

        I said “the feeling of…”, I didn’t say it was rational. Rationally, it would make sense to ask for the $15 discount, provided the opportunity cost wasn’t greater than $15, but people who are grieving are not rational.

  5. Vox Republica says:

    Let the market decide how much you love your dead mother.

  6. CalicoGal says:

    hold on a sec… if it was her mother who passed (“…after the recent, unfortunate passing of her mother,”) why did she have to give info about her grandmother (“…all the information — her grandmother’s name, the funeral home’s address/phone number, etc,”)?

    • TheOP says:

      My mother didn’t pass away, it was a mistake in the writing of the article by the Consumerist editors. My grandmother passed away.

      • TacoDave says:

        My grandmother died back in May and I tried to get a bereavement fare. It was actually *more expensive* than a regular ticket and the agent suggested I just book online. The only benefit: I would be able to re-schedule my flight at no cost. As if I’m going to re-schedule a funeral…

        • Brainswarm says:

          There’s actually some logic to it. Sometimes a family member will get caught up in all sorts of post-burial drama or estate related complications. My mother ended up having to extend her stay for her uncle’s funeral, who had unexpectedly left her as the sole beneficiary of his will. He didn’t trust any one bank with all his money, so she had to spend an extra week there tracking down all his bank accounts. Another relative at a different funeral had to spend a few extra days comforting the wife of the deceased. You have to balance possible change fees for a discount fare with the flexibility of the bereavement fare.

  7. hymie! says:

    “I was told that there was only one seat left at that price and I needed to make my decision then,” she writes.

    “Telling me that they only had the one seat for me to jump on at the time was obviously a lie,” she writes.

    These are two entirely different statements.

  8. dullard says:

    Did she try Southwest?

    • lcole07 says:

      SW doesn’t have “bereavement” pricing. Too many cheaters, seems like a lot of people die in Orlando and the wife and 4 kids all have to go!

  9. TheMansfieldMauler says:

    I was told that there was only one seat left at that price and I needed to make my decision then…
    when Jennifer boarded the plane — a small commuter jet — she says that most of the plane was completely empty…Telling me that they only had the one seat for me to jump on at the time was obviously a lie

    That’s not what the agent meant when telling you there was only one seat left at that price. It has nothing to do with seats that are occupied or empty.

    Airlines have a seat allocation for special cases, and it all depends on several factors like size of plane, number of flights to/from the particular airports, etc. For example, if you want to use miles to buy your ticket on a flight, you can only do so if there are mileage award seats left on that flight. A particular flight might only have 2 seats available for mileage awards regardless of whether the rest of the flight is booked or not.

    That particular flight only had one seat for emergency/bereavement/etc purposes. The rest of the seats are for regular fare purposes.

  10. Costner says:

    $900 for one hour of flying time?

    Ok so let’s make some assumptions and use a Boeing 737 which as a cruise speed of 485 mph. Chances are they would be using a much smaller – and thus much slower plane for that short of a trip… but I’m being generous. If flight time was only an hour, that means there is takeoff and landings to figure in along with altitude changes, so let’s just say average actual travel speed was closer to 350 mph averaged throughout the hour. This tells us she was probably 350 miles away from her destination.

    In addition to her flight time, let’s add in an average 30 minute travel time to the airport which includes parking and/or waiting for a cab / friend / relative to take you to the airport. Add in at least one hour in the airport going through the checking, security theater, and getting to the gate, and another 20 minutes for delays due to the incoming flight being behind schedule.

    Let’s factor in half an hour for boarding and exiting the aircraft, perhaps another 20 minutes for taxiing and getting queued up for takeoff. For such a short flight I’m assuming no checked bags so I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt there. Once you are at the destination, factor in another 30 minutes to obtain the rental car after the reservation is screwed up and/or track down a taxi / friend / relative to pick you up, and another 30 minutes to travel to the final destination.

    This gives us a total time of 4:40 to travel via plane. If we were to drive that same distance and drove an average of 50mph it would take seven hours and assuming a typical 27mpg would take approximately 13 gallons of fuel (approximate cost $47).

    So basically she spend $853 to save herself 2:20 in drive time. I’m going on a limb and saying that was probably a poor choice.

    Yes I know I made all kinds of assumptions that can all be wrong including the fact she could live in an area where it takes twice as long to drive, or she may not even have a car, but I also didn’t factor in frustration with the TSA, the chance of missing a flight, the fact the real plane could be a turbo prop that travels at only 200 mph and thus makes the math even worse, the hassle of not having your own vehicle when you get somewhere, or the time or frustration involved with dealing with ticket agents over the phone (or drafting messages to Consumerist for that matter).

    Also, when we are speaking of a funeral it is doubtful she would only have a matter of hours to get there since most funerals are scheduled at least three to four days in advance.

    TL;DR: Just drive instead of flying – it is often a much less expensive method to travel and doesn’t actually take that much more time for shorter distances.

    • AustinTXProgrammer says:

      If she is flying in and out of smaller airports and on a smaller plane the taxi and boarding/deboarding times can be lower. Curiously my last flight arrived at the gate 45 minutes early. Somehow at JFK the plane departed the gate, went a very short distance to the runway and accelerated off without stopping 10 minutes before scheduled departure. It really doesn’t make any sense to me. Now this flight had 4.5 hours of flying time.

  11. Vox Republica says:

    Serious post: many people are pointing out the availability of a bereavement fare isn’t incongruent with an underbooked flight. That’s true. That doesn’t make it not-shitty, though. The market mechanisms for short-notice flights being exceptionally expensive are entirely incongruent with what would be normal market mechanisms for selling seats on an underutilized flight: the consumer is punished in both directions.

    Not to get too economics-heavy here, but the airlines are intentionally (for good or for bad) leveraging the asymmetry of information available to consumers in order to extract the greatest value. If there were greater symmetry of information (i.e., consumers were afforded more information about the availability of seats on each flight vis-a-vis how late a person tries to book seats), you would see more sensible price levels and, subsequently, increased competition among carriers. However, as airlines hold all the cards and have zero incentive to change this structure, consumers are only made aware of the price hikes due to short-window booking.

    Within their rights as a company? Sure. Consistent? I guess so. Ethical? Depends. Fair to consumers? Ha!

  12. HalOfBorg says:

    $900 freakin dollars to travel from Ohio to DC???!!???? Are you kidding me?? That’s like 2 mortgage payments! I am SO DAMN GLAD I don’t have to fly. Screw it, I don’t wanna go ANYWHERE that bad.

    • Chmeeee says:

      Two mortgage payments in… North Dakota? Where on Earth is a mortgage payment $450/month?

      • Aliciaz777 says:

        Probably small towns. My dad only pays about $500/month on his mortgage in a small town in upstate NY. But then again, with the current economy, even busy cities can have low mortgage homes. My mother in law is a real estate agent in Las Vegas and she’s put people in homes with $475-$600/month mortgages.

      • Pre-Existing Condition says:

        My mortgage payment is about $480/month. I just live in a city neighborhood, in the rust belt. Most houses go for between $70,000 – $120,000 around here.

      • Costner says:

        If you are 27 years into your mortgage it is very possible the payments are only $450.

        I knew of a older couple who bragged about their $200 mortgage payment… but that was something like 40 years after buying the house (they had refinanced at one point). I just couldn’t fathom how someone would continue to make those small payments and never consider making quadruple payments etc to get the thing paid off… but they thought it was funny so they just kept writing checks every month.

      • sponica says:

        my mother’s mortgage is about 400 or 450 a month….it’s her taxes and condo fees that are significantly much more than that

      • scoosdad says:

        (raises hand)

        Well, actually $473 a month but I don’t pay anything into escrow since I refinanced a few years back and changed it from a 30 year to 15 year term. I pay my insurance and taxes separately on my own. It was a small loan of just under $100k that I took out when I bought the place in the mid-90’s.

  13. DuckNCover says:

    My sister and her husband ran into this 8 years ago when my mother died. It was actually cheaper for them to rent a car and drive to Massachusetts from Oklahoma, including an overnight hotel stay each way and gas.

  14. There's room to move as a fry cook says:

    I assume the OP booked a round trip based on the $900 cost for the DC to Ohio hop. $900 also makes me think it wasn’t hub to hub there may have been a connection to a smaller airport.

    So “only one seat left at that price” could indicate a fully booked return flight or a fully booked leg on one of the outbound hops.

  15. eccsame says:

    “Take the story of Consumerist reader Jennifer, who needed to travel from Ohio to Washington, D.C., after the recent, unfortunate passing of her mother.”

    then

    “So then Jennifer went through all the information — her grandmother’s name, the funeral home’s address/phone number, etc, — needed to qualify for the bereavement fare.”

    So her mother died and she told them about her grandmother? Something doesn’t add up. Jennifer is a liar and that’s why she didn’t get the bereavement fare.

    • TheOP says:

      I am Jennifer. The person who wrote this story made a mistake- my grandmother died, not my mother, as stated in my original email here. I provided all information. I am not a liar.

      • eccsame says:

        So you’re saying the Consumerist writer is a liar? Now I don’t know who to believe. Somebody’s not telling the truth here.

        • TheOP says:

          No, I said it was a typo. Please re-read the story, and you will see that the corrected it to correctly relay my story. My grandma was my favorite person. I wouldn’t wish her loss for a fake story.

      • There's room to move as a fry cook says:

        There is tendency for Consumerist posters, myself included, to get snarky and nit-picky with “the OP” and forget that that they are regular people. Often this stems from lack of clarity or missing details from the quote or from Consumerist’s re-write. Mea culpa & my condolences on your loss.

    • Chmeeee says:

      I love how one little wording error leads you to make the massive jump to the conclusion that she’s a liar. Mistake? Nobody ever makes those, no sir. I’ve definitely never seen a typo on this site.

    • I look at both sides of the story says:

      @eccsame wrote: “Jennifer is a liar”

      By dog, people like you give forums a bad name.

      On behalf on all people who aren’t adolescent idiots, I apologize to Jennifer for the above remark.

  16. icerabbit says:

    The car rental and gas wouldn’t be that expensive, but you’re looking at 500 miles which will take, what 8 hours. Probably twice as long factoring one hour to airport, one hour security and pre-boarding time, one hour flight, one hour to destination.

    I know which one I would do and it isn’t flying.

    10 years ago I used airline miles for an international trip when somebody passed away instead of >$2000 for an international ticket on short notice.

    But, unfortunately the airline took the stash away two years ago when the miles – unbeknownst to us – were converted from never expiring to 18 month expiration when no activity on your account. They had already seriously devaluated because you needed more and more miles for the same trips, but still a few international round trip tickets worth of miles is tough to see “expire”.

  17. AustinTXProgrammer says:

    In the early days of airlines people found that seats got really cheap if a flight was under booked near departure. This caused people to wait and not book in advance, and hurt the airlines.

    They changed the fare structure to encourage early booking. This punished people traveling last minute so they introduced bereavement fares to allow someone attending a funeral a chance to fly unexpectedly at the advance purchase price.

    This all made sense, but I’m sure people abused it. Executives started looking at it as a revenue hole, and we are where we are.

  18. Pre-Existing Condition says:

    It’s important to compare the price of a bereavement ticket to a full-fare ticket. Otherwise, it’s comparing apples to oranges. The big advantage to bereavement tickets (at least, they used to be) is that they’re transferable and refundable.

  19. n0cf says:

    Delta may be the last – but they were awesome when my Dad slipped into a coma on the last day of his life: I called (granted I had silver FF status) got a booking out of my 2-flight-a-day regional airport (Waterloo, IA) on the next flight (5 hours later) for $500-ish which at the time was $100-ish less than the 21 day/Y RT to Knoxville, TN ($600 less than the insane walk-up fare). Total time on phone ~7 minutes (FF number, confirm time, provide father’s name and hospital, confirm CC number, done). I miss Northwest which had more flights in/out of MSP, but Delta in this case was great.

  20. StatusfriedCrustomer says:

    If the person in the seat next to you dies, do you qualify for a bereavement fare?

  21. chucklebuck says:

    A lot of people seem to be trying to optimize this with math that, simple as it may be, I know I was not capable of doing while preparing for my mother’s funeral.

  22. Thyme for an edit button says:

    It’s unfortunate that there was not a less expensive rate, but I wouldn’t really call it unfair.

  23. bomble says:

    V. sad story, but as an Ohioan, I’d recommend driving. Cheaper and in many cases faster.

  24. Diosynus says:

    Refundable in case of resurrection?

  25. Uncle Don says:

    I’m a 2 million Miler with Delta and leave the country about 6 times a year so I do my share of flying. I don’t understand why some one thinks they should get a discounted ticket just because their Mother/Grandmother, etc. died. If it was my airline, I’d just say “Sorry” but no discount. What’s the deal and why do these people think they’re entitled to a lesser price than mine because MeMaw died?

    • VintageLydia says:

      It’s a curtoesy. Prices are higher the closer you get to the flight date which rewards those who plan ahead. Obviously, you can’t really “plan ahead” for a funeral so airlines opted to give those people a break. Apparently it’s not really worth it according to the article and the comments but that’s beside the point.

    • I look at both sides of the story says:

      “I’m a 2 million Miler with Delta and leave the country about 6 times a year so I do my share of flying. I don’t understand why some one thinks they should get a discounted ticket just because their Mother/Grandmother, etc. died. If it was my airline, I’d just say “Sorry” but no discount. What’s the deal and why do these people think they’re entitled to a lesser price than mine because MeMaw died?”

      Yeah, it really sucks for you that someone might have received a minor discount because someone died. I wonder how indignant you get when corporations get billions of dollars in military overruns?

      WASHINGTON (AFP) – A survey of major US weapons development programs found an estimated 23 billion dollars in cost overruns and an average two years delay in reaching production, a government report said.

      The Government Accountability Office, a congressional audit agency, said that of 23 major weapons program that it reviewed, 10 had already reported cost overruns of greater than 30 percent and production delays of at least a year.

      Most of the other programs were still too early in the development cycle to be effectively analyzed, it said.

      The report noted that the Pentagon plans to spend 1.3 trillion dollars on weapons development and procurement from 2005 to 2009, 800 million dollars of which still lies ahead.

  26. Professor59 says:

    Found out this stuff in 1994 when I asked for a bereavement fare so I could get to see my grandmother before she died. Regular tickets were selling for $150, bought enough in advance, for the same flights that I was quoted $700 and up. I had been unemployed for 9 months and was just starting a new job, so the price, plus the very good chance of getting fired thwarted the whole plan.
    Airlines should thank the Seinfeld episode with a bereavement fare plot for contributing to the fallacy that bereavement fares are half price or less.

  27. Robert Nagel says:

    Southwest Airlines will get you from Cleveland to Washington Dulles for around $500, round trip. This is for an immediate flight.

  28. madrigal says:

    My friend once worked at a university’s computer store. At the start of every school year, people would come in to ask for cables to connect to the wireless.

    • icerabbit says:

      And, your point regarding the story (bereavement airfare) is?

      Also, not all systems are equipped with WiFi (let alone 3G/4G wireless broadband) so then some type of peripheral like a USB stick or USB dongle etc is typically required to connect; and it is thus not uncommon for non-tech people to poorly formulate what their needs are.

  29. sailorstarfairy says:

    When my husband’s grandfather died, I called several airlines and asked them if they offered a bereavement rate. We would have flown from Albuquerque up to Devils Lake North Dakota. The most “discounted bereavement rate” I could find was 100 dollars off of a 1000 dollar ticket, which would only be refunded AFTER they received proof of the death via a certificate of death AND a proof of funeral from the funeral home itself. It was pretty disgusting how the woman was all pushy about it too, “Well that’s the best we can do, take it or leave it.”