The Travel Adviser: Death takes a holiday

Dealing with the loss of a loved one is hard; following this advice should-make the travel plans go as smoothly as possible.

Airplane (370) (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Airplane (370)
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
The call came right after the holiday ended. A day of celebration and feasting with family and friends brutally stopped short in its tracks. Rachel’s family, holding back tears, informed her that her father had suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage and was dying. With her dad based in Cleveland, she knew that finding any airline seat from Israel at the height of the Jewish holidays would be both costly and challenging.
Rather than call a travel agent, her friend got on the Internet to see what flights were available to get to Cleveland as quickly as possible.
Rather than try airlines at Ben-Gurion Airport, who, to be equitable, most likely wouldn’t answer the phones, her friend started ringing airlines in the US, where it was the middle of the workday.
Electing to fly via Europe, she made reservations for Rachel on Air France, KLM and Delta for the princely sum of almost $2,500. Rachel, informed of the plans by her friend, agreed and made her way to the airport, telling her friend that she would pay for it herself at the airport. This was not a good idea. Her horrific night was about to get even worse.
When she arrived at the airport, the booking office was closed and a quick inquiry told her it would open in one hour. While the hands on the clock slowly advanced, she received another phone call that her father had succumbed and as tears began to roll down Rachel’s face, the agent finally took her place behind the airline counter.
She quickly found the reservation but there was one gaping piece of information missing from her booking – a price. Typing furiously, the agent announced that the fare had found and that her economy class ticket could now be purchased for $3,600.
Yes in, the time between the reservation and her arrival at the airport, the price had risen by $1,100. Anxiously pleading with the agent that she had been quoted a far lower fare and that her father was now dead fell on deaf ears. Begging for an ounce of sympathy, she asked if there was anything else available, but with no access to other airline information she was tersely informed this was the best that could be obtained.
I’d bet my bottom dollar that their conversation went something like this: “Do you know when you want to return,” asked the sleep deprived airport representative “No idea,” cried our Rachel, “Just get me on the plane!” Feebly asking if there was a bereavement fare, a firm shake of the head from the clerk is coupled with another firm denial. Rachel was cogent enough to ask for a supervisor but was told none could be reached at this ungodly hour. There was a simple way to lower the fare by hundreds of dollars: choose a return date. One should never, ever purchase a round trip, open date return ticket. Even if you have no idea when you’ll be returning, it is advisable to pick a return date, confirm what the change fee will be if you have to change it and then close the deal. Why this shortsighted clerk felt no compunction to offer Rachel such a ticket escapes understanding.
No doubt incapable of thinking outside the box, she showed no inclination to be creative.
Emotionally spent, Rachel handed over her credit card to purchase the ticket only to be told that her card was over the limit.
Fortunately the friend who had initiated the entire process (and whom could have purchased the ticket for the original price) was able to complete the purchase on her own credit card.
I HAVE little doubt that a serious error was made by the airline and the fault lies with the original booking agent. Whenever one makes a reservation, one should first and foremost ask for the name of the booking agent. Just as flights cannot be reserved without making a booking, failure to ask the name of the agent can have serious implications.
Rachel spent several days after the funeral being shunted around from person to person as she tried to find someone in the US who would take responsibility for quoting the original price. In desperation she turned to this columnist, who instructed her to write her tale of woe to KLM in Israel.
Realistically speaking, without proof of whom her friend had dealt with, her chances of getting any reasonable refund is slim.
A similar story happened to Shelley, who, while visiting her father in New York, received the grim news that he would not live much longer. Her dad had arranged to be buried in Israel and Shelley contacted her travel agent to plan her journey back with her father’s body.
She and her children were visiting the US, having flow in on El Al knowing in that her father’s illness was irreversible.
Although the burial society would make all the arrangements for her father, she was told that flights back to Israeljust after a holiday were quite full but that El Al would get her on a flight.
Her father died on a Shabbat morning and Shelley jumped into action. His body was going to be on the 7:00 p.m. flight from JFK on Sunday and she and her children needed seats on that plane. Coupled with the fact that her sister and her family, who lived in the US, were going to accompany the body to Israel, El Al was put to the challenge.
Did it go smoothly? Of course not. El Al’s policy is that they will put immediate family (Shelley and her sister) on the plane, even if they have to bump another passenger.
Through the travel agent, the airline kept reassuring Shelley, but it was a very tall order to get seats for her children as well.
Shelley and her family headed to the airport.
They checked their bags and were told to be patient. Calls went back and forth until an hour before takeoff, space was found for everyone.
Did El Al waive the change fees? No. Did El Al offer reduced rates? Yes and no. They did offer a 10-percent bereavement discount on the new tickets that needed to be purchased, but they elected to charge exorbitant amounts to change the three tickets that Shelley had in her possession.
There were no Israeli El Al employees at JFK airport. The counters were manned by personnel who, while sensitive to her needs, had little leeway in waiving change fees or lowering the large reissue fees that she was forced to pay. Like Rachel, Shelley will contact El Al and request a complete explanation of what she was charged. As for anyone dealing with a death in the family, clear-headed thinking is a rare commodity, but she may be eligible for some type of refund.
While I don’t have empirical evidence, in my experience the holidays seem to elicit a higher death rate among the Jewish people.
One can never prepare for a death; too often it comes suddenly and without advance notice. Living in Israel with relatives around the world adds an extra challenge, but there are some basic principles that one can follow: Always make sure your passports are up-to-date.
If possible, attempt to work with a travel agent who has the ability to check all the airline options, as opposed to booking through one specific airline.
Make sure whomever you work with has a 24-hour help line.
Never purchase an open-ended return ticket.
Most importantly, always get the names of the people with whom you have spoken.
Dealing with the loss of a loved one is one of the most stressful times in a person’s life, but following this advice should-make the travel plans go as smoothly as possible.
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem. [email protected]