Emergency travel: What to do

When my grandmother passed away in England in the 50s, my mom, who had come to Canada as a war bride, couldn’t return to the United Kingdom for the funeral.There was no such thing as bereavement airfares or discount travel. And going by passenger ship would have taken too long. As a result, my mom spent the rest of her life regretting she never made it home to her mother’s funeral.

Times have changed, and so have compassionate travel costs. But just how easy is it to find immediate and reasonably priced transportation just hours after receiving word of a loved-one’s demise?

Get help
Most major airlines have policies offering bereavement fares, but you might do better by checking out the discount or chartered airlines first. Much depends on how far you have to travel and how quickly.

One thing to keep in mind is that the discount offered by most major airlines is taken off the full coach fare, something few travellers ever pay, thanks to advance bookings and sales.

How effective you’ll be shopping for a bargain will depend on your own emotional state. It might be better to put your arrangements in the hands of a trusted avel agent.

Telephoning airlines these days, even under the most ideal of circumstances, can be an exercise in frustration. When you’re emotionally distraught, getting through to a live airline representative and then haggling over airfare can shake your fragile sanity to the core.

Proof required
The common discount on most major carriers for bereavement airfare is 75 per cent off the full economy fare. You normally don’t get the discount up front. Upon your return, you must provide the airline with a copy of the death certificate or a letter from the funeral director providing details of the funeral date and place of burial/cremation as well as the funeral home’s name and address.

In the case of imminent death, you can either present a doctor’s letter outlining the prognosis, giving details of which hospital and in which city the terminally ill person is located, or provide this information verbally when booking the flight.

Airline staff will later verify this information. Imminent-death discounts are the same as bereavement discount on most airlines. If documentation is not available in advance, the same rules to submit them later may apply.

The deceased must be deemed a close relative – a spouse or partner, parent, child, grandparent, aunt, uncle or in-law.

Air Canada and Canadian Airlines offer 75 per cent discounts for both bereavement and imminent-death situations, covering travel within Canada, the United States and most international destinations.

Helpful agent
Bryan Dearsley, special features editor at CARPNews FiftyPlus, recently had to book air passage to Scotland after his wife received a phone call saying her mother was gravely ill. “We called a number of airlines and couldn’t find a space or a reasonable fare that would get my wife over there in time,” says Dearsley.

“We ended up talking to a very helpful agent at Canadian Airlines who suggested we use our air miles to book an immediate ticket to London. After that, it cost only $200 on British Airways my wife to get to Aberdeen, which the Canadian Airlines agent even booked for us.”

The key for Dearsley was the attitude and helpfulness of the agent. “It proves that not all experiences have to be bad ones. This agent came up with the easiest solution for everyone concerned.”

A runaround
Dan Horrocks of Stroud, Ont., on the other hand, found getting to his dad’s funeral in England nothing short of a nightmare. Horrocks’ expenses were mounting by the minute as he and his wife, together with his brother and sister, headed for England. He booked two tickets on Air Canada at 75 per cent off the regular fare for himself and his wife.

His brother then went to Toronto’s Pearson Airport (with a copy of the death certificate) to pick up all four tickets. But brother Horrocks was told he could only pick up two tickets at the reduced rate for himself and his sister, and the other two (for Dan Horrocks and his wife) would cost more than $8,000, and that a discount could only be claimed upon return.

“I had to call Air Canada to sort things out. After much angst, we finally got tickets for my wife and I at the originally quoted price. People flying overseas following a death in the family are stressed and vulnerable, and in all situations should be treated with respect and kindness,” says Horrocks.

Horrocks is also unhappy that nearly all of the major airlines set bereavement discounts on “inflated fares that are never charged in the first place.” He considers it taking advantage of the bereaved. Air Canada did call Horrocks to apologize and followed up with an apology card and a $200 voucher redeemable on any flight between now and next September.

Some deals
If you have the time and inclination to check the smaller carriers, you may save some money.

Canada 3000 doesn’t offer bereavement airfares as such, but its seats are often discounted at a rate lower than major carriers – especially on domestic and U.S. routes. The same is true for Air Transat and Royal Airlines.

The quickest way to find out what these airlines offer is to check websites for lowest fares, or contact a discount air broker or travel agent. Canada’s WestJet does offer bereavement fares, but it’s the lowest regular published fare – often working out to less than the discounted fare.

If you’re travelling within Canada and have enough time to reach your destination, you could consider the train. A 25 per cent discount is offered on Via Rail with presentation of a death certificate or funeral details (letter from funeral director, etc.). Just like the airlines, if you don’t have documentation prior to the trip, you can apply for the discount later.

And here’s a tip from Tom Parsons, editor of Best Fares Discount Travel magazine.

“You can request a compassionate discount for a hotel stay as well,” says Parsons. “There are no chain-wide policies in effect, but a direct call to a hotel will often result in a discount of 25 per cent to 35 per cent in a case where you explain the need to stay is due to a family bereavement.”