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These days flying can be a real hassle. We're paying for meals and pillows and sodas and the ability to stow a reasonable amount of luggage. Forget about changing your plans at the last minute -- that's usually not possible without some kind of fee assessment and a whole lot of aggravation. What happens, though, when you a family member's health fails and you have to alter your flight plans or cancel part of a trip altogether? My mother, who had been battling cancer, suddenly took a turn for the worse this summer. It is my bittersweet hope that sharing the widely varying experiences of three loved ones who were traveling during these emergencies will help someone else.

My Husband John
The Problem: Last Minute Flight Change While En Route

John was en route to California from Allentown, Pennsylvania for work on a United flight with a layover in Chicago. I called him while he was waiting to board his connecting flight to tell him my mother had had a heart attack. John tried to change his flight with United so that he could come home. He was directed to the customer service desk, which was all the way in another terminal. So he scurried across the airport only to wait in line full of similarly disgruntled people for an hour. He found a flight to Philadelphia (which was closer to the hospital) that was leaving in ten minutes, and was told he could get on it. So he ran back to the proper terminal, but did not get very far without a boarding pass: Inexplicably, the customer service rep did not mention a boarding pass and, in his haste and distress, it did not occur to my husband to ask. The next available United flight was not until 8 o'clock that evening -- ten hours later. Disgusted and distressed, he gave up on United and called Emanuel Travel, the local agency his employer uses (tel. 610/252-7376; emanueltravelservice.vacation.com) and explained the situation. He was put on the next available flight, which was on US Air and departing within the hour.

Thus far, his story is not remarkable, but here's where things get interesting. While he was going back through security for his new flight, he was pulled out of line for a higher level of screening. The TSA agent put him in a Lucite cage and patted him down, asked him to turn on his laptop, etc. He learned that because he was flying alone, had bought a one-way ticket on the same day he was traveling, did not have any checked luggage (his bag was on hits way to California) that he warranted additional screening. I suppose I should be happy that the TSA is paying attention -- my husband even said the agent was perfectly pleasant about it -- but we keep hearing stories about dangerous items (and people, presumably), that slip through the cracks that John's experience seems sort of sad and misguided.

The Solution: Saved by the Travel Agent

Because he was traveling for work, the arrangements were made with a travel agent. This was serendipitous for a few reasons. In addition to finding him a flight quickly, she suggested that when he arrived home and things settled down that he should obtain a letter from my mother's physician, explaining the emergency nature of the situation, and that she would apply for a refund for the $200 he spent out of his own pocket for the flight. We're still waiting for the refund, but we're assured it's in the works. I learned via United's website, after attempts to communicate with United representatives were unsuccessful, that the airline charges $75 fee to change a same-day flight within three hours of departure on a discount economy class ticket; there is no fee for full fare economy or business class tickets. Because his itinerary was already underway, any changes became a new itinerary for him when he had to make changes, so refunds from United weren't even on the table.

But the most significant thing our friend at Emanuel did was to change the ownership of my husband's bag, which was on the way to California, to my husband's coworker, with whom he was traveling. Otherwise, Homeland Security would have seized an unclaimed bag and who knows how long we would have waited for its return. Travel agents, an old-school alternative, can provide peace of mind and advocacy that is worth paying for. In the words of Laura S. Gajewski from the American Society of Travel Agents (www.asta.org; www.travelsense.org), "if you use a travel agent, they're there for you before, during and after your trip, unlike an online carrier, and will be able to assist you in case of emergencies, on matter where you are when you get the news that you have to change your plans suddenly."

My Cousin Steven
The Problem: An Experience with Change Fees
The Solution: Calling Back Repeatedly Can Help

My cousin Steven List experienced the fewest problems. For both of his trips to the East Coast over the course of a month he requested a later flight -- in both cases, the next day -- because he wanted to stay an extra day. The first time he flew with American; the second time, with Delta. On his first visit in early July, my mother was not in the hospital. She unexpectedly went into the ICU during his stay here. When he called American about his flight from Newark to Los Angeles, he was initially told that they could only waive the change flight fee for immediate family members, not cousins.

Unsatisfied, he called back a few minutes later and a different person told him it might be possible to waive the fee but that he needed to provide information about the hospital for verification purposes. On the way to the nurse's desk to get the necessary information, the call dropped. He then called American a third time, was told no, and then he asked for a supervisor and explained that the call had been dropped and he had been told it would be possible. The supervisor made an allowance, even though he acknowledged it was not their usual policy. (Note: American, like United, was unresponsive to my requests for comment.)

American also did not charge him for flying back on a different flight, but while he was on the East Coast -- a trip that began a few weeks earlier -- American's baggage policy changed and so he was charged for checking his bags. He also discovered when flying this airline that he would be charged $5 for a pillow, but that an extra blanket, which you could wad up into a pillow (as suggested by the flight attendant) was free. It seemed maddeningly inconsistent.

A few weeks later, he came back to the East Coast for my mother's funeral and flew into Philadelphia from Los Angeles on Delta. He was scheduled to leave on a Thursday and again decided to stay an extra day, through Friday. When he called the airline, the representative would not waive the fee -- it was not negotiable, but the agent quickly found him a new flight for no additional cost. Even though my cousin travels more than the average person and is therefore a bit savvier, it's worth noting that he is just a regular passenger and not a member of any frequent flier club. When he used to fly much more regularly for business, he had more miles and said he could often use that as leverage. Still, he acknowledges, "It's not as service-oriented as it used to be."

My Sister
The Problem: Third-Party, Online Travel Packagers

Here's where the story gets more complicated, and more unpleasant. My sister Christy and her partner Sasha Babarina planned a vacation to Curacao via Expedia (with whom they booked the hotel and airfare) before my mom had the heart attack. She had left the hospital when they were scheduled to leave, but she was still battling cancer. Faced with the possibility of losing the money, they decided to hedge their bets and go. (Here's where purchasing travel insurance at the time of booking their trip may have helped them; more on that later.) Three days into their trip, my mom was rushed to the ICU. My husband and I were at the hospital with my dad and we called my sister.

The Solution: Lots of Phone Calls

They called Expedia right away to alert them of the situation, and were put on hold for more than ten minutes. It was an expensive international call and they got tired of waiting, so they hung up. But because of the emergency nature of the situation, they called back and asked for a supervisor (and did not get one) and begged to not be put on hold again. Expedia could not get them on a flight that was, ahem, expedient, without losing nearly an entire day in travel, so they made arrangements on their own to fly back the next day as quickly and directly as they could. Managers and employees at their hotel, Lodge Kura Hulanda (tel. 877/264-3106; www.kurahulanda.com), suggested a quick puddle-jumper via Dutch Antilles Express to St. Maarten, and then a direct flight from Continental to Newark. It was the fastest way home.

My sister and Sasha were instructed to contact Delta for the refund, but that Expedia would be able to refund them once they received authorization from the hotel. So they called Delta and, as my sister puts it, "and oddly enough, they were helpful. They gave us the address to send the refund request, along with a letter from the doctor, and they said that was all they required," says Christy. In fact, they used a specific phone number (tel. 800/847-0578; www.delta.com) just for passenger refunds requests. "Their customer service has actually been pretty great," she says.

Their hotel also gave them no hassle about canceling the unused portion of their reservation -- four nights -- and refunded them fairly quickly. The hotel manager drafted a letter to Expedia, explaining the emergency at home along with the pertinent information so that the refund could be processed. Sasha and Christy signed the letter and Expedia told them they would each receive hotel refunds; they'd used separate cards to break up the cost.

Everything seemed to be moving along at this point, but after a week or so, only Sasha's card showed a refund. So they called Expedia to find out why some of the hotel wasn't on my sister's card, and were put on hold several times. My sister said that no one seemed to know what the company's policies were whenever they asked questions. In fact, someone told them, without knowing any details of their case, that they'd need to send a death certificate, even though the refund process was underway, my mother was alive when they left for their trip and did not pass away until several days after they returned to the States. Angry and upset, they hung up, regrouped and called back later. Finally, Expedia told Sasha that the majority of the hotel refund was on her American Express card, and that the majority of the airfare would go on my sister's debit card. "No one told us this, and because she used Amex, my half of the refund was not a liquid asset," says Christy.

As for the airfare? My sister sent off everything to Delta via certified mail in mid-August, including a death certificate even though it wasn't required (after those problems with Expedia she didn't want any trouble), and they were refunded in less than two weeks. They were satisfied with their hotel and Delta, but my sister says she will never use Expedia again.

I had a similarly frustrating experience with Expedia. I contacted the company a couple of times with my information request, and it took a week for someone to respond. Michael Eggerling, company public relations specialist, contacted me and said he would "look up exactly what happened and what could have been done to handle the situation better." I was optimistic, but I waited more than a week for him to relay company's official response and got nowhere. My story had to run. In our initial correspondence, Eggerling said that they recommend to travelers who "suspect they may run into a situation like this to purchase travel insurance." That's great, in hindsight. My sister booked this flight before my mom had a heart attack and before we knew the cancer had spread to her brain.

What You Can Do

Travel insurance has its merits if you are traveling at a time when someone you love is ill and there is a remote possibility that you may have to change your plans. It may help you if specific criteria are met. According to the United States Travel Insurance Association (tel. 800/224-6164; www.ustia.org), travel insurance typically costs between four and eight percent of your entire trip. It will typically cover cancellation prior to a trip due to illness, with some stipulations; if it is due to a pre-existing condition, the condition must be under control. Insurance must be purchased with 15 days of departure. Once you're already away from home and traveling, the trip cancellation/interruption portion of comprehensive travel policies reimburses a traveler for the unused, nonrefundable expenses of the trip and/or the return trip, such as airline tickets, if you or a family member is ill.

I tried to get a sense of the policies of other carriers and travel packagers for comparison. When I contacted Continental (tel. 800/923-2732; www.continental.com) for information about its policies, representative Mary Clark responded the very same day and told me that the rules vary depending on whether or not it's an international or domestic flight, and what type of fare it is. That's to be expected, and not unusual. But for domestic flights, the airline will "extend the validity of the customer's ticket due to the illness of the customer or an immediate family member or traveling company for 30 days, with a signed physician's letter. Additional charges may apply depending on the type of fare; however, some fares allow the waiver of change fees due to documented illness." And as for bereavement fares? The airline does offer special discounts in the event of a death or serious illness (requiring hospitalization or hospice care) of an immediate family member. Additionally, Continental says it works with Access America (tel. 800/284-8300; www.accessamerica.com) for trip interruption insurance.

I also contacted Expedia's competitors Travelocity and Orbitz to learn how they handle these situations. Orbitz (tel. 888/656-4546; www.orbitz.com) said what we already knew -- "the fares 'belong' to the respective carriers," so they set the rules. But, they also said "as a matter of policy, if a customer who is in transit has to change reservations due to a medical or death emergency, our agents will work with the airline to change the reservations at the lowest possible cost. If the airline will allow a waiver for any additional collection on the changed ticket or a waiver for the change fee, we would certainly try to obtain that for the customer. And we will also waive our fees with the appropriate documentation," according to public relations manager Abby Hunt.

Travelocity (tel. 888/872-8356; www.travelocity.com) gave a different sort of response, one that sounds more accommodating and perhaps explains their relatively high customer satisfaction rating from J.D. Power & Associates, second behind Hotwire but one step ahead of Expedia. Joel Frey, company spokesperson, says that "because circumstances often vary when dealing with situations like this, we consider each on a case-by-case basis. The principles that guide us through each of these cases is outlined by the Travelocity Guarantee (www.travelocity.com/guarantee) and bill of rights." Basically, the company will review the rules of the fare and try to pinpoint options available to customers based on whether or not the fare was restricted or unrestricted, and whether or not insurance was purchased, and whether the circumstances are covered. All of this sounds familiar so far. "We also check to see if DIM (death, illness, military) policies are applicable. Once this is worked out, we contact the suppliers on their behalf to aid in the resolution in the matter," says Frey.

And that, dear readers, is what my sister and Sasha wanted from Expedia. They learned pretty quickly that they were beholden to the policies of the hotel and the airline. However, they felt -- and I agree -- that given the emergency nature of the situation that Expedia, as the travel packager and middleman, could have been more consistent and responsive.

There is not easy moral to this long story. It may be worth booking your hotel and airline separately. It may also be worth purchasing travel insurance, and it may behoove you to use a travel agent. Read the fine print carefully. But don't be afraid to take matters into your own hands when you aren't getting satisfaction and you suspect you're being avoided or bounced around. The running joke in my family since my mother's passing is "What would Susan do?" As the most strident and fearless user of the 800-number I've ever met, she would fight until she got the answer she wanted. As a consumer -- and more importantly, her daughter -- I wouldn't have it any other way.