For emergencies, airlines offer some special fares


A close relative has passed away. As life would have it, you've had neither 21, 14 nor even seven days' advance notice of the unfortunate event. You have to be in Los Angeles tomorrow for the funeral.

On American Airlines, the standard coach fare from Baltimore-Washington International Airport would generally cost about $1,190 round-trip on such short notice. But if you jet to L.A. on the carrier's bereavement fare of $773, you could ease some of the pain in your wallet, at least.

With each new round of airfare wars, airlines bombard the public with hype on the latest dirt-cheap fares.

vTC But there's a class of special fares that routinely affords passengers cut-rate ticket prices and more relaxed restrictions. Though most major carriers offer them, bereavement fares, military fares, senior citizen discounts and other cut-rate programs are often the airline industry's best-kept secrets. Still, savvy consumers can uncover them.

How do you do it? You ask for it.

No ticket agent has ever asked a passenger up front if he was flying to a funeral. It's up to the passenger to tell the travel agent or airline reservationist the reason for the trip.

"You do have to explain and mention it," said Tim Smith, an American spokesman in Fort Worth, Texas. American's bereavement policy requires no advance notice and knocks 35 percent off the standard coach fare. Delta Air Lines' bereavement rate is 45 percent off the coach fare.

American, like most air carriers, requires that the deceased be a close family member. If you request that fare, you'll be asked to furnish the name of the dearly departed and the address and phone number of the funeral home handling the arrangements, so the airline can confirm your story.

"It's like the old school example . . . you cannot keep taking time off for the same grandmother's death," Mr. Smith said.

In some cases, airlines will permit travelers to fly at lower rates to visit a seriously or suddenly ill family member.

USAir, for one, offers "compassion fares," which a traveler can secure with little or no advance notice. These fares, sold at seven-day advance-purchase discount rates, do not require a Saturday night stay, and you can change flight plans without penalty.

Again, to receive this fare, you must speak up.

"We do not promote that because, unfortunately, in this world there would be people who would take advantage of that," Patrina K. Falcone, who works in USAir's Pittsburgh reservations office, said. The carrier, which operates a major hub at BWI, controls about 60 percent of the flights to and from that airport.

"I always encourage people to always tell us as much as they can, because we don't know what we would be able to find to suit their needs," she added.

To book the compassion fare on USAir, you must give the airline the name of the patient, the hospital, the attending physician and applicable phone numbers so that the reservationist can verify the situation, Ms. Falcone said.

And, yes, they do check.

"Otherwise, [the patients] would be people who had had a scar (( removed," Ms. Falcone said.

You don't always have to lose a loved one to death or serious illness to be eligible for special airline rates. There are discounts for less ominous occasions, too.

With the cease-fire in the Persian Gulf, many airlines increased their military discounts to 70 percent instead of the previous 50 percent off coach fares.

At Delta Air Lines and other carriers, the offer includes dependents of military personnel. Delta's fares are completely refundable and can be changed without penalty. Travel must be completed before Aug. 1 in the continental United States, and, as part of a special promotion to lure military vacationers to the Aloha State, the deal has been extended to Dec. 15 for trips to Hawaii.

Like military personnel, senior citizens can receive routine breaks on ticket prices. At USAir, travelers 62 and older are entitled to a 10 percent discount on any fare. And one person accompanying a senior citizen may also travel at that lower rate, according to Ms. Falcone.

Senior citizens can also buy coupons -- usually in books of four or eight -- which can be redeemed for one-way travel.

Typically, the coupons range between $80 and $90 apiece and can be used for trips within the continental United States, said Christopher J. Witkowski, director of Aviation Consumer Action Project, a consumer advocacy group in the District of Columbia. All senior citizen programs require proof of age.

Many carriers also will negotiate special rates for group travel, which may be useful now that family reunion season is on its way. United, for one, will fly as few as 10 folks to a common " destination at a reduced fare.

"That could be a family group, an association, a club -- any kind of association," Sara L. Dornacker, United Air Lines spokeswoman, said.

Delta's group programs, negotiated through its Special Meetings Network, usually cut 40 percent off the standard coach fare or 5 percent off any discounted fare. And travelers may leave from varying departure points.

"It's a wonderful savings for people," said Colleen M. Porter, district manager at Delta's Baltimore marketing office. "I've even known people to use the discount going to a wedding party."

Restrictions, rules and regulations on each type of special fare vary with each carrier. But one thing is the same throughout: You have to ask for them.

When using the special discounts, carefully go over the terms and restrictions with reservationists and travel agents.

Also, it's best to have the agent compare the special fares with any other discounts being offered by carriers at that time, to ensure that you're getting the best possible ticket price.

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