By December 2, 2004 column
Special to msnbc.com
updated 1/10/2005 2:50:18 PM ET 2005-01-10T19:50:18

When Hank Greenberg's sister dies and he must fly to Pittsburgh for the funeral, he's offered an expensive "bereavement" fare through the major airlines. Travelocity's price is half that - or so he thinks. After he tries to buy the ticket, the cost just keeps going up. Is Travelocity to blame for the rising fare? Is he? And what's the deal on airline bereavement discounts, anyway?

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Q: My sister died unexpectedly last summer and I had to fly to Pittsburgh for the funeral. I called several airlines to request a bereavement fare, but the best they could do was $625 roundtrip, which didn't seem like a good price.

Then I found what I thought was a last-minute fare of $313 on Travelocity through Travelzoo. I bought it.

But half an hour later, I received an e-mail from Travelocity saying that I wasn't eligible for the ticket and that I should call the online agency. I phoned back and was told that my ticket required a 14-day advance purchase.

If I wanted to fly tomorrow, I was told the fare would be $369. I reluctantly agreed.

It took about 15 minutes for the reservations agent to get all of my information. And wouldn't you know it, by the time he had finished the fare had jumped to $465.

I had no choice but to book the seat. But by the time I had returned from the funeral, the price had gone up to $575, because I had to make a change on the ticket, which cost me another $100.

I stopped by the airline ticket counter on my way home and asked about bereavement fares. An agent told me they don't really offer them anymore because so many people ask for them who aren't entitled to them. I wrote to Travelocity twice, but received two form letters.

What's the lowdown on bereavement fares? And can you get Travelocity to send me anything but a form response?

-- Hank Greenberg

A: Bereavement fares are mostly bogus. Technically, they're discounted walk-up fares that are meant to lessen the financial burden to someone like you who has to attend a funeral.

But your ordeal - and the maddeningly fluctuating prices you encountered when you tried to buy through Travelocity - show that the system often doesn't work.

Bereavement fares are ineffective because the fare structure of the major airlines, which tries to charge last-minute travelers the most money, is obsolete. Even the way in which airline tickets are priced (they use sophisticated computers to change prices literally by the minute) is as outdated as a biplane.

The major airlines know their system needs to change, and from what I've heard they're working on simplifying their fare structures.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that what you encountered with the Travelzoo referral to Travelocity could easily repeat itself. Airlines and online travel agencies pay Travelzoo to publish its specials, but as they appear on the site, the bargains are long on promises but short on details.

You have to click through to the deal to find out about the fine print. And evidently, when you followed the link to the Travelocity fare, you didn't have a chance to review all the details.

But that doesn't explain why you would still get an initial price of $313 from Travelocity. If you had input your dates correctly, it should have given you the correct price for a last-minute ticket. Something doesn't add up.

A Travelocity representative agreed that you were under the mistaken impression that you were entitled to the $313 fare, but insisted that at every step of the way, you had consented to the higher fare.

"We will not offer him any compensation due to the fact that he agreed to the fare prior to booking," she told me.

Does that mean you're out of luck? No. Although you agreed to the fare, that doesn't necessarily mean you also had a positive customer-service experience. Travelocity acknowledged your frustration by sending you a $150 voucher, which nearly covers the fare difference.

Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman and a nationally syndicated columnist who specializes in solving your travel problems. Got a trip that needs fixing? Contact him directly via email or visit his Web site. Your question may be published in a future story.

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