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Bereavement fares worth looking into but do your research before booking: experts

When Cathy Olliffe-Webster's 90-year-old mother-in-law died suddenly last year, her family had to make the trek from Cold Lake, Alta., to Ontario in a hurry.

The jewelry business owner reckons the flight would have set her and her husband back $2,000 because it was a last-minute booking, but they scored a hefty discount.

"We ended up paying $400 each there and back," Olliffe-Webster recalled.

"I was happy with the price."

The savings her family landed came courtesy of Air Canada's bereavement fare program — an initiative the airline runs to offer discounts to customers travelling before or after the imminent death of a loved one.

Such programs are offered by several airlines, but many Canadians don't know they exist or are too distressed by their family situation to explore them.

However, Olliffe-Webster encourages people to research the policies when they find themselves needing to travel following a loved one's death.

"Most people, especially with a death that they're not expecting, don't have that money put aside for a trip, and it's expensive to go from one end of the country to the other," she said. "Having this (bereavement program) means that more people can go to their families, the funerals and be a part of it."

How much of a discount an airline will offer varies based on the length of your trip, how flexible you can be with when you fly and how often the carrier offers flights on your route.

Some, like Olliffe-Webster, found the savings on their air fares were sizable, but others on social media have lamented much smaller discounts.

"Bereavement fares tend to be considered really super affordable and bargain basement and that's not always the case," Jenny Kost, the Calgary-based global director of strategic sales initiatives at Corporate Traveller Canada, warned.

Airlines often only offer bereavement fares on their higher tier tickets and many advertise that flyers may be able to find cheaper flights online, she said.

Asked about its bereavement fares, Air Canada referred The Canadian Press to a page on its website detailing that the discounts are only offered on its Economy Standard, Flex, Comfort and Latitude fares. It gives bereavement discounts on its Economy Basic fares only to travellers flying outside North America.

"It’s important to note that lower fares offering less flexibility and subject to additional fees and/or restrictions may be available on our website," Air Canada warns in its bereavement policy.

While travellers might be tempted to grab the cheapest fare, Kost encourages people to look at the policy attached to the kind of ticket they're considering.

Some tickets are more costly or impossible to rebook, if plans change. Others booked through a bereavement policy may have limits on how long you can be gone for or how far in advance you can book.

WestJet's bereavement policy, for example, prevents people from combining their booking with any other discount codes or promotions and says anyone seeking bereavement fares must take their trip within 30 days of booking.

Air Canada's policy only offers bereavement discounts for trips that occur within 10 days of booking and do not exceed 60 days.

"Spending $100 on a flexible ticket so you can change your dates of travel might be cheaper than having to purchase a whole new ticket and lose the value of the original because things are taking longer than you anticipated," Kost said.

If you decide that a bereavement fare is your best option, you'll have to call the airline to lock in your flight, Kost said.

Julia Brunet, a spokeswoman for WestJet, said the airline only allows bereavement fares to be booked by phone and requires information on the reason for travel and the relationship between the flyer and the deceased to be disclosed.

Many airlines will also request travellers provide the name of the hospital or residence and the attending physician for the dying loved one or contact information for the funeral home and dates for the memorial service.

It is also common for airlines to seek documents like a copy of a death certificate, a note from a funeral director, a coroner's statement or a letter from a treating physician on official letterhead outlining your loved one's imminent death.

Sometimes, airlines limit who can access bereavement fares.

"Some (airlines) are a little bit more flexible than others when it comes to who is eligible for that," said Kost, giving the example that some carriers will allow bereavement fares for step-parents while others might not.

"It's always worth calling to ask."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 30, 2023.

Companies in this story: (TSX:AC)

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press