Are Bereavement Fares a Myth or Urban Legend?

What's the best way to find the lowest cost on a flight?

Sad woman in airplane seat
Do airlines really offer discounted airfares to the bereaved?. Photo © Cultura RM/Antonia Saba/Getty Images

In today's highly mobile society, last-minute air travel often becomes necessary for many people when a family member or friend dies. This article explores the availability of "sympathy discounts " among the major airlines and whether bereavement fares are merely an urban legend or myth, or something worth pursuing to help you save money on last-minute flight costs in order to attend a funeral.

Do Bereavement Fares Exist?

The short answer is yes, a few airlines still offer a sympathy discount or bereavement fare to customers who need to make last-minute flight arrangements when a loved one dies.

(See "Bereavement Fare Info for Select Airlines" below.)

Unfortunately, bereavement fares will not necessarily provide the lowest fare you might otherwise find; you might face greater restrictions on your flight options; and/or the qualification requirements might prove burdensome during this difficult time. One airline, for example, requires that you submit a copy of the death certificate at the airport ticket counter in order to receive a bereavement fare; other air carriers even caution sympathy-fare-seeking customers that bereavement fares are not necessarily the lowest fares available.

Why are Bereavement Fares Scarce Now?

Two significant events changed how and why consumers purchase airline seats these days and, ultimately, affected the availability of bereavement fares. First, the U.S. federal government ceased regulating the airline industry in 1978. Before President Jimmy Carter signed the "Airline Deregulation Act" into law in the late 1970s, the government considered air travel a national "utility" and controlled which routes domestic airlines could service and the fares those air-carriers charged.

After deregulation, the airlines faced open-market competition and were forced to compete on the basis of airfare costs, destination availability, service, marketing effectiveness, etc. This led to the rise of discount, budget or "no frills" airlines that competed primarily on airfare cost, as well as the significant consolidation of air carriers.

Thus, airlines today compete for your airfare dollar primarily on price and routinely cut services and discounts in order to remain competitive. Unfortunately, this often includes eliminating sympathy or bereavement discounts for travelers.

The second significant change that affected bereavement fares resulted from the Internet. Before web-access became readily available in our homes in the mid- to late-1990s, most consumers made their air-travel arrangements by contacting the airline directly or a professional travel agent, typically via phone or by visiting a brick-and-mortar travel agency. At that time, consumers generally had no access to the flight information, seat availability and the costs involved for air travel.

The Internet, however, gave rise to airline websites that provided consumers with the same air-travel pricing and seat-availability information once enjoyed by only travel agents or the airlines. Moreover, third-party Internet providers also popped up, such as Expedia, Orbitz and Priceline, that promised even greater savings by allowing people to compare pricing and availability.

Because consumers can easily, conveniently compare their price/flight options today online, air carriers have increasingly eliminated discounts in order to offer more-competitive airfares. This, too, has resulted in the restriction or elimination of sympathy discounts for passengers.

The Bottom Line

If you have experienced the death of a loved one and need to book air travel at the last minute in order to attend a funeral or memorial service, your best bet is to use a third-party site, such as Expedia, Kayak, Orbitz or Priceline, to find the lowest airfare that meets your needs, and/or visit an airline's website directly.

While a few air carriers still offer sympathy discounts (see the list below), you will generally find that the few airlines offering bereavement fares typically discount the price based on the airline's suggested full fare -- similar to how car dealerships offer discounts based on the "manufacturer's suggested retail price" or MSRP. More than likely, you can probably find a lower-cost flight online using a third-party website, or by visiting a discount, budget or "no frills" airline's site directly. Southwest, for example, simply states that they offer "everyday value" to all customers on their fares to explain their lack of a sympathy discount. Delta, which still offers a bereavement fare, nevertheless cautions people that "other lower, more restrictive fares may be available here on delta.com" despite the restrictions and hoops customers must jump through when seeking a bereavement fare on this airline.

Therefore, you should do your homework and conduct as much comparison shopping online as possible, given your circumstances, because bereavement fares today are essentially an urban legend/myth.

Bereavement Fare Info for Select Airlines

Air Canada: Offers bereavement-fare discount but restrictions apply.
AirTran: No bereavement-fare discount available.
American Airlines: No bereavement-fare discount available, but does offer "flexible fare options when booking last minute travel for a variety of reasons."
Delta: Offers bereavement-fare discount but restrictions apply.
Frontier: No bereavement-fare discount available.
JetBlue: No bereavement-fare discount available.
KLM: No bereavement-fare discount available.
Lufthansa: Offers bereavement-fare discount for flights originating and ending in United States or Canada.
Southwest: No bereavement-fare discount available.
Spirit: No bereavement-fare discount available.
United: No bereavement-fare discount available.
US Airways: No bereavement-fare discount available.
Virgin Atlantic: No bereavement-fare discount available but will waive certain requirements/fees with valid death certificate.

Sources:
"Bereavement and Emergency Fares." Southwest Airlines. Retrieved March 21, 2016. https://www.southwest.com/html/customer-service/bereavement

"Bereavement Policy." Delta Airlines. Retrieved March 21, 2016. http://www.delta.com/content/www/en_US/traveling-with-us/special-travel-needs/bereavement.html

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