International bereavement fares

By Philip Wagenaar

by Philip Wagenaar, M.D.

“I know, you just saw me two months ago,” my favorite aunt, Lenie, said. “I am in the VU hospital in Amsterdam now. My doctor says that I don’t have much longer to live. You think you could see me again? I would rather have you come and visit while I am still alive. You don’t have to come when I am dead.”

(Although my aunt Lenie died five years ago, I always refer to her statement when somebody might be reluctant to visit. “Come and visit me now,” I will say. “You don’t have to come after I am dead.”)

“Are you having a lot of pain?” I asked.

“I am adequately medicated,” she answered.

After talking to her doctor, I realized that I had to see her within the next few days.

I called Northwest Airlines, as it provides nonstop service from Seattle, my home, to Amsterdam. The charge quoted for the round-trip ticket was over $3,000. After I explained my circumstances, the representative offered me a slightly lower fare, a so-called “bereavement fare.”

Making a reservation

When traveling abroad on short notice to see a close relative who faces imminent death or who has died, you will have to attend to an infinite number of details, the most taxing of which is to find a flight at a reasonable cost.

If you prefer to make your own reservation on the Internet, go to and click on “Travel Tools, Flight Schedules,” which brings up all the connections between your departure city and destination cities.

To book a flight, visit the appropriate airline’s website, making sure that the ticket’s restrictions don’t interfere with your travel plans. Since, typically, you won’t qualify for an advance-purchase fare, you will be subject to the so-called walkup tariff, which is the equivalent of an unrestricted (very expensive) coach ticket.

To accommodate you, a number of airlines offer “bereavement,” or “compassionate,” fares.

What is a bereavement fare?

A number of airlines extend special prices to individuals who want to fly to a gravely ill or dying family member or who want to attend a funeral. Although the ticket may not be the cheapest, it usually is less expensive than an unrestricted coach fare.

On international routes, a number of carriers offer only a waiver of advance-purchase requirements. This means that you can take advantage of a less expensive ticket, which normally would require a 7-, 14- or 21-day advance purchase. (Note that a few airlines also offer domestic bereavement fares, which are beyond the scope of this article.)

Despite the carrier’s accommodation, you still have to abide by the fare rules (the restrictions built into the particular fare, such as change penalties, no stopovers, etc.) of the purchased ticket.

To book the bereavement tariff, you have to contact the airline’s reservation department by phone or in person. You also have to pay personally either at a carrier’s office or at the airport. Although travel agents may be able to make your reservation, they usually can’t ticket it. If you have to use more than one airline, you have to negotiate with each one separately.

Depending upon circumstances, you may get a refund only after your trip. Before you accept a bereavement fare, describe your situation. If you have an accommodating agent, she may be able to find you a cheaper ticket. I usually can tell the moment the representative picks up the phone whether she will be helpful or not. If she doesn’t sound cooperative, I hang up. In most cases, when I redial, a different agent answers.

You also may want to investigate other ways to find a low-priced fare, e.g., by googling “last-minute travel” or by looking for packages that include hotel and car and throwing away what you don’t want to use.

How is the fare structured?

To get the details of their offers, I called several carriers and received the following information. (Keep in mind that airlines can change the rules at any time).

Air Canada (phone 888/247-2262 or visit travelinfo/before/bereavement.html):

  • You have to give the Air Canada agent the reference number CIC*160/ 33.
  • Tickets are offered on Air Canada’s international routes only (not including Canada to/from U.S.).
  • Costs vary depending upon the itinerary.

Alaska Airlines (800/252-7522. No bereavement-related website):

The carrier, which flies internationally to Canada and Mexico, offers a 15% discount of the applicable fare.

American Airlines, or AA (800/ 433-7300 or agency/Booking_Ticketing/Fares/ Compassion_breavement.jhtml):

  • While tickets may be issued by travel agents, only AA can book the compassion/bereavement fares.
  • Arrangements must be completed within one day after the defi nitive reservation is made, and changes to bookings must be made by AA.
  • AA only grants a waiver of advance-purchase requirements. For any restrictions, you have to abide by the fare rule of the ticket you buy.

Continental Airlines (800/5250280 or en-US/content/travel/specialneeds/ compassion/default.aspx):

This airline offers a percentage discount of the ticket’s base fare (excluding taxes and fees). For charges from $0.00 to $499 you get 5% off, from $500 to $999 you get 10% off, and from $1,000 and up the base fare is reduced by 20%.

Delta Air Lines (800/221-1212 or reservations/special_travel_needs/ bereavement/index.jsp):

  • All bereavement fares, which are available only on Delta and Delta Connection® flights, are completely refundable if you cancel your trip. While changes, standby and open returns are permitted, stopovers are not. Other restrictions may apply.
  • Tickets need to be purchased and travel has to start within seven days of the death or imminent death of the immediate family member.
  • Visit Delta Cares™ (800/3522737 or programs_services/delta_cargo/ cargo_flight_availability/cargo_ products_services/delta_cares/ index.jsp) for information on professional services to funeral directors and family members responsible for transporting human remains and personal effects.

Northwest Airlines (800/2252525. No bereavement-related website):

  • All medical and bereavement travel requests must be handled exclusively by Northwest/KLM Reservations.
  • Northwest Airlines only permits a waiver of advance-purchase requirements.
  • For any restrictions, you have to abide by the fare rules of the ticket you buy.

United Airlines (800/864-8331. No bereavement-related website):

  • United Airlines only offers a waiver of advance-purchase requirements.
  • For any restrictions, you have to abide by the fare rules of the ticket you buy.

Which documents do you need?

To obtain the bereavement fare, you usually have to show the following documents, which, in the case of an imminent death, you may have to supply before flying.

  • The name of the deceased (or gravely ill person).
  • Your relationship to that person. Most airlines define family as parents and grandparents (including stepparents and in-laws), spouse, children (step and in-law), grandchildren, aunts/uncles, siblings (including step-siblings/in-laws) and nieces/ nephews. Most carriers (but not all) also include same-sex domestic partners and legal guardians as eligible family members.
  • The name and phone number of the attending physician.
  • The name, address and phone number of the hospital or health care facility.
  • The name, address and phone number of the funeral home, the date of the service and a copy of the death certificate (when submitting for a refund after completing air travel). Some carriers will, in lieu of this certificate, accept an obituary notice in the newspaper.

Obtaining a death certificate

To find out how to acquire a foreign death certificate, I visited the State Department website at http: // issues/death/death_600.html, which supplied me with the following information.

Since foreign death certificates are issued by the local authority, they are written in the language of the foreign country and prepared in accordance with its laws. As such, they are sometimes unacceptable in the United States for insurance and estate purposes.

Instead, the U.S. consular officer — who is located either at the embassy’s consular section or at a separate consulate — issues a “Report of Death of an American Citizen Abroad,” which provides the essential facts concerning the demise of a U.S. citizen, the disposition of remains, and the custody of the personal effects of a deceased citizen. It is generally used in legal proceedings in lieu of a foreign death certificate.

The Report of Death can only be completed after the foreign death certificate has been issued, which may take from four to six weeks or longer after the date of the demise.

According to the website, the U.S. consular officer will send the family up to 20 certified copies of the Report of Death without charge at the time the initial report is issued. Additional copies (for which there is a fee) can be obtained subsequently by contacting the Department of State, Passport Services, Correspondence Branch (1111 19th St. NW, Ste. 510, Washington, D.C. 20522-1705; phone 202/955-0307).

For additional information, contact the appropriate geographic division of the Office of American Citizens Services & Crisis Management, or ACS, Department of State (2201 C St. NW, Room 4817 N.S., Washington, D.C. 20520; phone 202/647-5225 or 202/647-5226 [Monday-Friday 8:15 a.m.-10 p.m.; for emergencies after hours and on Sundays and holidays, call 202/647-4000 and ask for the overseas citizens duty officer]).

Additional help from the ACS

The ACS (call 888/407-4747; from overseas, call 202/501-4444 or go to tips/emergencies/emergencies_ 1205.html#death) also can help you in the following matters:

  • Information on Deaths Abroad of U.S. Citizens
  • National Archives: Deaths of U.S. Citizens in Foreign Countries
  • Return of Remains of Deceased Americans
  • Estates of Deceased U.S. Citizens
  • Intercountry Transfer of the Proceeds of an Estate
  • Affidavit of Surviving Spouse or Next of Kin
  • Arrest/Detention of an American Citizen Abroad
  • Robbery of an American Citizen Abroad
  • American Citizens Missing Abroad
  • Crisis Abroad Involving American Citizens
  • After-hours Number for an Emergency Involving an American Citizen Abroad (call 202/647-4000 and ask for the overseas citizens duty officer)

The benefits of emergency medical evacuation insurance

Needless to say, the task of making after-death arrangements can be daunting. Fortunately, if the deceased person carried emergency medical evacuation insurance (EME), the EME company or its subsidiary will take care of all the logistics (such as getting the necessary papers, taking care of the repatriation of the remains, etc.).

To confirm this, I called Divers Alert Network, or DAN (800/4462671,, the company that handles my EME. I talked to Daniel Nord, Director of DAN Medical Services, who confirmed that DAN automatically enrolls its members in its DAN TravelAssist program run by MedAire, Inc., which handles all the logistics when somebody dies overseas.

As most ITN readers know, while DAN is a nonprofit medical and research organization dedicated to the safety and health of recreational scuba divers and is affiliated with Duke University Medical Center, it provides annual memberships ($29 single or $44 for a family) to the general public.

It stands to reason that other EME companies will furnish similar assistance.

Traveling overseas on the spur of the moment

While arranging your flights may keep you occupied, you also have to take care of other travel-related details, such as. . .

  1. Contacting the American consulate in the country where the death occurred (check with the deceased’s EME company first).
  2. Informing your credit card company where and on which dates you will be traveling.
  3. Stopping newspaper delivery.
  4. Organizing transport from your home to the airport.
  5. Getting accommodation in your destination city.
  6. Coordinating transportation in the destination city (such as airport shuttles, taxis and rental cars).

Even if you usually research and book your own journey, it is easiest to employ a travel agent you trust, since she can take care of all of the minutiae of your trip. Do keep in mind that most airlines will allow the booking of a bereavement fare by a travel agent but not its ticketing.