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Beware of last-minute air travel

When Janet Dillsworth's father-in-law died last month, she wanted her two sons to fly in from Colorado for the funeral.

So she told them to book a flight home the next day on United Airlines, the carrier her husband frequently uses for business travel, and to request a bereavement fare. She even gave her twentysomething sons her credit card to pay for it.

"I said just get on a flight as soon as you can," the Colden resident said.

After they arrived, Dillsworth asked how much the tickets cost, knowing full well that last-minute flights were expensive.

"My son said, 'It's pretty bad,' " Dillsworth said.

But she didn't expect it to be this bad: Each roundtrip ticket cost $2,562, plus a $50 ticketing fee. Together, the two tickets to fly from Montrose, Colo., to Buffalo cost a total of $5,174.

"Maybe I wasn't thinking straight, and maybe my son should have been more on the ball, but I never imagined it would be that expensive," said Dillsworth, who has tried to get United to reduce the fare without success. "I just want people to know: Beware, because they will take advantage of you."

For grieving relatives, last-minute airline tickets can be an expensive proposition. Most airlines have backed away from offering bereavement fares, and even when they're available, the prices aren't cheap. United's "compassion fare," available only by calling the airline, offers a 10 percent discount, but 10 percent off expensive is still expensive.

"Here's the problem with bereavement fares today: They just don't exist," said Tom Parsons, the chief executive officer of the Bestfares.com travel website.

Last-minute travel is always more costly than advance purchase fares, where a seat on a Montrose-to-Buffalo flight a month in advance can be had for around $660. "The walk-up fares are there for a purpose. That's where the airlines make their gravy," Parsons said.

In the Dillsworths' case, an almost perfect storm was working against them.

For starters, it was last-minute travel, and even last week, the lowest fare I could find on United's website for a next-day flight was more than $1,300. Complicating matters, the return trip fell within the highly traveled President's Day week.

As a result, United had to book a leg of the sons' return trip on Delta Airlines to get them back to Colorado on the day they wanted, the Wednesday of President's Day week, said Rahsaan Johnson, a United spokesman. That also meant the tickets didn't qualify for the 10 percent compassion fare discount, which only applies when the entire trip is booked on United.

"There were lower-priced options available on United, but the customers selected the option that they determined suited their needs best, and we offered the lowest fare available for their preferred itinerary," Johnson said.

Still, after being contacted by The Buffalo News, United agreed Friday to grant the Dillsworths the 10 percent compassion fare discount, giving them a refund of about $500, because the airline "thought it right," given the circumstances, Johnson said.

While distraught relatives may not feel like shopping for the best air fare, Parsons said it's essential.

Use an online travel site to compare fares on several airlines. If those prices are high, try different travel days, or consider driving to other airports, especially regional hubs that offer more flights. Making the five-hour drive from Montrose to Denver could have saved the Dillsworths more than $3,500 on a last-minute purchase, based on last week's prices, Parsons said. For some destinations, it might even be cheaper to book the flight as part of a hotel package, even if the hotel isn't needed.

e-mail: drobinson@buffnews.com

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