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Minimizing costs for unexpected last minute travel

April 14, 2014
I took a quick trip home earlier this month due to a family medical issue.  Everything turned out well, but it was one of those situations where I needed to be there.  I found myself looking for flights leaving just 2 – 3 days in the future and was expecting the worst.  It didn’t turn out to be too bad.  My flight was equivalent to the cost of any flight I buy around Christmas ($500), but more expensive than the bargain flights I sometimes find ($350).  I thought I’d pass on what I learned in the process.
 
In short:
1.  Price shop in your usual way, checking low-cost airlines and choosing the best fit for dates.
2.  Call Delta or United to find out what the lowest cost medical/bereavement ticket is.  
3.  Keep in mind any uncertainty in the return dates.  Delta offers changes with no fees.
 
I first checked low cost airlines, including flying into a larger city four hours from home.  Since the flight was so soon, budget airlines didn’t have competitive rates.  The lowest rate was on Delta, so I called them to see if they had a policy for medical emergency discounts.  In addition to providing about a 15% discount, they allow you to change your return flight without a change fee.  Worth knowing for all situations:  You ALWAYS have 24 hours to cancel or change a ticket with no fees.  
 
Not many airlines still have discounts.  In fact, United JUST phased this out.  How much profit were they really losing on this?  Maybe the fact that verifying the incidents was taking too much effort?  I’d be interested to see the logistics behind that decisions.  Anyway, here’s a list of the policies.  In short, if you found a decent fare on Delta, Air France, or American, you might be able to get a discount. Check the cheapest airline’s site for policies, or just call and speak to a human about it.  Some airlines won’t even refund the ticket if the passenger in question has passed away!
 
Southwest is a good option for plans that might change – they never charge change fees.   When we were married long distance, T would book flights for every possible weekend during a sale, and we’d figure out what to keep later.   They also have some sort of partnership with certain hospitals, but I’m not sure how it works and it seems like it comes through the hospital.
 
Aside from airfare, I had booked a non-refundable hotel booked on Hotwire.com for the weekend I was going to be gone.  I was no longer able to use it, so I checked if they had a policy. With a faxed doctor’s note encompassing the dates of the hotel stay, I could get a full refund.  The hotel was >$200 (to be split with friends – the whole weekend plans fell apart), so that was a huge relief.    
 
On a similar note, I had a flight delay last month causing my flight to be moved out a day and had a similar non-refundable hotel from Hotels.com.  They were able to talk to the hotel and cancel the charge without much trouble, since the airline was the one that changed the flight. I am a pretty regular hotels.com customer, and I don’t know if Hotwire would have done the same.
 
I also had paid a race fee for the weekend.  I didn’t even try to get that back.  Races are notorious for not giving refunds for any reason.  I think it is part of the business model that a certain number of people will pay for the race and not show up!  Let me know if you’ve ever had a situation where you were able to get your entry fee refunded.
 
Please feel free to add any last-minute tips you have!
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4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 14, 2014 3:15 pm

    If you book directly with the hotel, ask for the bereavement rate. Your employer may also may provide bereavement days. Mine provides three. If it isn’t for a funeral, sick days should help I suppose.

    I’m sorry about the family medical issue. The last time I went to a family funeral, the bright side was that I got an 8 hour round trip road trip with my dad (plus the driving time to/from his place). Crappy situation, but some great time spent with my dad.

    • April 16, 2014 7:40 am

      That is probably true about hotels – I was able to stay with family, the hotel was unrelated and booked for another event.

      My last job let us use sick days for things like this. We got soooo many sick days, and some people abused the situation a bit, but they came in handy for things like this (I also used them for a funeral a few years back), and also for when you have a baby (so I hear).

      My current job makes this kind of a non-issue, since we use billable hours. My billable hours will go down a bit, but they don’t have to be super high anyway, and I typically work more than 40 hrs per week. Also, they give us good friday off, but my client is still working, so I’ll likely work then. I worked a little remotely, but far less than I expected to.

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