The Travel Advisor: Death never takes a holiday

Whether you’re across the country or residing on a different continent, the ability to make rational travel decisions under extreme duress is never easy.

By
December 6, 2015 02:52
Terrorist victim Ezra Schwartz

Terrorist victim Ezra Schwartz. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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I had never heard of Ezra Schwartz until that windy Thursday evening as I was driving home and a call came crackling over my car phone. But I knew hundreds of Ezra Schwartzs – 18 years young with life ahead of them. Confident and self-assured, brought up in an environment where the prevalent “Me First” philosophy did not exist, and giving something back to society was part of his DNA . No cavorting in Cabos, no basking in the Bahamas; this Boston teenager chose, before he commenced university studies, to come to Israel, and to spend some of his down time distributing food to Israeli soldiers.

I had only vaguely heard of Michael Kotzin, 74 years young who had worked and was one of the preeminent leaders at the Chicago Jewish Federation. But I also knew hundreds of Michael Kotzins – brilliant, erudite, innovative people whose steadfast commitment to the entire Jewish people benefited their communities in ways too numerous to recount. These role models invest unparalleled passion and energy in every facet of their work.

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When his sister living in Jerusalem reached out stating that her brother was dying, no stones were left unturned to get her to the US.

Whether you’re across the country or residing on a different continent, the ability to make rational travel decisions under extreme duress is never easy.

For Ezra Schwartz’s family living in Israel, the need to alter arrangements immediately was pure hell. Having a nephew spending six months in Israel learning at a yeshiva gave them the chance to enhance their family circle, but it didn’t prevent them from traveling abroad; sadly, they were vacationing in Italy when they received the news that their nephew was wounded by a terrorist who opened fire while the youth was distributing food. Their first instinct was a good one: Get to the closest airport, which in their case was Venice. One of their closest friends in Israel contacted his travel consultant, who quickly determined the fastest way to get them back. Inside the Venice airport, they were instructed to head to the Swiss counter where a flight was due to depart in 60 minutes.

Simultaneously, they learned that their nephew was not just injured, but had been murdered. With no time to spare, the travel consultant issued two tickets, utilizing some stratagem to keep the fare as low as possible. Speaking to the Swiss representative, who initially said she couldn’t see that tickets were issued but after 30 seconds saw that they magically appeared, the bereaved uncle and aunt made their way back to Tel Aviv.

Morissa, Michael’s sister, had more time to plan for her brother’s death. He was at the end stage of a debilitating illness and she elected to travel to Chicago to say her fond farewells. For expats living abroad, this decision is the toughest part. Residing thousands of miles away, one must rely upon family members and distant doctors who are trying to determine how serious the illness is.



Morissa decided that departing right after the Jewish holidays would be an opportune time to see him. Purchasing the ticket with a travel date one week later, she could only hope that the timeline given was sufficient.

Unfortunately the best made plans are often laid to waste, and just 48 hours passed when her nephew called and told her that his father was dying NOW and that she must get on the plane.

Once more she called her travel consultant, and with a few hours’ notice, she flew out the next morning to be with her brother one last time. She arrived in time to say her proper goodbyes, attend the funeral and sit the shiva mourning period, as the stories of her brother’s achievements were slowly and dramatically brought to her attention.

Little had she known what a deep impact Michael had on thousands of people.

Death can come suddenly or gradually, but being prepared will make it easier to handle when one lives so far away. First and foremost, make sure your passport(s) are valid. Failure to do so borders on the negligent, and while a last-minute passport may be procured, the time wasted is time one can be spending on getting to the airport.

Death stops families in their tracks, forcing them to drop everything and cross oceans to grieve together.

“Being there” really is everything and some pay a high price for it.

In times of emergency, when you have to fly for a family funeral or to see a terminally ill relative, shopping around for airfares is probably the last thing you want to think about. Only a real cynic would suggest airlines realize many people will pay whatever the fare to get home.

Airfares are subject to the laws of supply and demand, but it seems strange that an industry obsessed with customer loyalty doesn’t have even a blanket 5 percent discount policy for grieving families.

While many airlines do have a special bereavement fare, or compassionate fare, which is offered to family members traveling for a death in the family, these rates should only be considered as a last resort. These discounted fares are based on a full-fare economy-class ticket. Almost always, using a travel agent, one will find far cheaper air fares using all the tools at their disposal. You can also seek out cheaper options through an airfare aggregator, which will likely point you to a no-frills airline. You are hardly going to be worried about in-flight movies or food when you’re grief-stricken and heading to a funeral – although perhaps the same can’t be said for the bar service.

LET’S BACK UP a bit though, and set up the framework.

The first decision one has to make is whether one is going to travel for the funeral or to simply say goodbye. Relying upon anyone’s sage advice that the person will expire in a short period is a fool’s folly. Too often people fly after having been told that the person has no chance of survival, only to discover the patient made a miraculous recovery.

This pattern can be repeated several times, and while the airlines are grateful for your patronage, it does little to ease the situation. I often ask clients in this predicament if they desire to fly to say goodbye to a loved one or wish to stay on the ground until they know a funeral is taking place. Everyone must make that decision themselves; there is no correct answer.

In most countries, while airports may be open 24/7, there are two main blocks of times when the majority of flights take place. In Israel, whether one is flying to North America or South Africa, late evening or early morning hours are when the bulk of the flights take off. If that phone call comes in the early evening; with a valid passport in hand and hopefully no more than a few hours’ trip to Ben-Gurion Airport, you can get out of Tel Aviv on several airlines that fly nonstop to key cities in the United States. EL Al departs after midnight to both Newark and JFK. Delta and United Airlines fly every night between 11:00 p.m. and midnight to JFK and Newark respectfully.

Turkish Air and Aeroflot also fly to New York, departing at 1:00 a.m. with stops in Istanbul or Moscow.

If you need more time, all of the European airlines that fly from Israel have morning departures with connecting flights to hundreds of cities in North America. Air Canada, with departures later in the morning, has an extensive connection to cities throughout North America. El Al and United can be also added to the potential options with their daytime flights to the US.

The question will always arise whether it’s most cost-effective to purchase a one-way ticket, as you most likely have no idea when you’ll be returning. Perish the thought! It’s far cheaper to procure a round-trip ticket estimating a return date and finding out exactly what the change fee will cost. Moreover, many airlines, in the case of a death while you’re abroad, will waive the change fee, some accepting the word of your travel consultant, others requiring proof of death.

My most memorable airline anecdote on this subject was when a call came in from a young client, 23 years old, who, sobbing uncontrollably, told me she had to get to New York because her mother had been killed in an auto accident. Unfortunately, it was the end of the Passover holiday and there was not a seat to be had on any flight that evening – in economy, business or first class. Secure in the knowledge that El Al would bump someone I made my phone call to reservations and pleaded my case. The first reservation clerk haughtily said the flight was so overbooked that they would be asking for volunteers to give up seats, and that she could not accommodate me. I asked to speak to her supervisor who chose to push back. “I’ll let you have the space if you can prove to me that her mother is dead.’’ Aware that it’s impossible to get a death certificate with such short notice, and that no obituary notice had yet been published, I replied in the affirmative: “By all means. Instruct your gate agent to ask her point blank if her mother has died, and if she doesn’t erupt into tears, rip up her ticket.” The El Al’s supervisor’s heart melted and her seat was confirmed.

HERE ARE the main steps to consider when booking that last-minute trip: Step 1: Contact a travel agent to make the last-minute arrangements for you. Travel agents have a variety of resources to search for the flight and free up your time so that you can focus on other aspects of trip planning.

Leading travel agencies will have a 24-hour customer service phone number that can connect you to a travel agent to explore all of your options.

Step 2: Compare prices offered by travel websites, such as hotwire.com, kayak.com or expedia.com. Visit websites that specialize in compiling last-minute airline tickets into search results that allow you to compare prices for several different airlines. Check with lastminutetravel.com, airfarewatchdog.com or cheaptickets.com.

Airlines often release last-minute deals to these websites in order to fill seats.

Step 3: Call airlines directly to purchase the last-minute airline ticket. Inquire about special deals and compare prices from several different airlines.

Step 4: Stop by the ticket counter of the airline at the airport if you need to fly out as soon as possible. They may have last-minute availability on a flight that leaves the same day.

All of us know an Ezra Schwartz or a Michael Kotzin.

Whether it’s your mother, father, sister, brother, best friend or someone who touched you deeply, there is something deep in your soul that screams out for you to be with other loved ones.

Dealing with the grief is the hard part; getting there should be as painless as possible.

The author is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments: mark.feldman@ziontours.co.il.

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