Bereavement travel: 10 tips for flying to the funeral


Two years ago, my mother was admitted to an intensive care unit with a fatal diagnosis. I was 500 miles away – nine hours by car, one-and-a-half hours by plane.

I wrapped up my work quickly and phoned airlines for the next available seat anywhere near her hospital bed. The winning ticket was a late afternoon flight to Charlotte. At the terminal, I earned the record for fastest sprint through security to the gate, scoping monitors for flights departing sooner than what I’d scheduled.

Flying for a funeral can be overwhelming — Photo courtesy of J. Dana Trent

I begged ticket counter personnel to allow me to standby on a then-boarding flight. A $75 charge a few minutes to go before closed doors, they obliged, sending me home earlier than planned. As I sat awkwardly between two businessmen in the bulkhead, kept my sunglasses on and sobbed behind tinted lenses, a movie of 36 years of memories with my mom looped in my mind.

Prior to this, any bereavement travel I’d done had been just that: flying home to funerals of loved ones who’d already died. I’d become accustomed to booking flights for those occasions, navigating airlines’ bereavement policies and rates.

This time, my mother was actively dying and I was racing a chaotic and frustrating clock. I now know there are two kinds of travel to the funeral: emergency and urgent. Here are ten tips to save you time, money and heartache on both.

Prepare ahead of time financially

In some cases, we know when the end is near. But in truth, we cannot plan for the exact timing of a loved one’s death. Travel tools like a credit card can help ensure you can cover a flight purchase in a pinch.

Ask to be included when choosing the dates of services. Weekends are often preferred for everyone’s schedule, as it’s less disruptive to work and school. Keep in close touch with family and friends when health situations arise so you can be part of the planning.

When death – or imminent death arrives – share clear expectations so you can be fully present in the next steps. Work out time away with your supervisor and place an away message on your email. Time spent with loved ones prior to their deaths (and in communal grief) is precious and a once-in-a-lifetime honoring of those relationships.

Ask for help

Let other people help you make travel plansLet other people help you make travel plans — Photo courtesy of E+ / skynesher

When a sudden death or diagnosis happens, stress, anxiety and grief muddles our brains. Don’t be afraid to ask a friend, colleague or partner to assist you with flight arrangements. This ensures that someone with a clear head is double-checking your travel dates, times and information.

Keep travel plans as simple as possible

Opt for non-stop flights. Avoid unnecessary connections, even to save money. You want the simplest route that ensures a timely arrival. Keep any and all travel apps on your phone to track delays and cancellations.

Request bereavement rates

Most airlines offer fare reductions with documentation. You can also get a discounted rate with documentation if you purchase the ticket over the phone or at the ticket counter.

Pack the necessities in your carry-on

Try to fit everything you need in your carry-onTry to fit everything you need in your carry-on — Photo courtesy of iStock / martin-dm

Urgent travel requires simplicity. Use a roller board carry-on if possible. If you must check luggage, keep your funeral attire, toiletries, medicine, technology, chargers and travel essentials with you.

If you are on standby, be visible and assertive

If you find an earlier flight to your destination or connection, approach the gate agent, let them know your situation and asked to be placed on standby. Remain visible and close to the gate. Check in with personnel as final boarding approaches to see if a seat has opened up.

Keep in mind ground transportation

Make a plan for when you land. Do you need a Lyft or rental car to your destination? Will a friend or family member pick you up? Download any apps and add contacts to your phone.

Be gentle during travel time

Let yourself off the hook while travelingLet yourself off the hook while traveling — Photo courtesy of iStock / AleksandarNakic

This is not the time to focus on regret, anger, resentment or any self-critical thoughts that cause unnecessary stress while traveling, especially if you’re alone. Most airports have meditation spaces and multi-faith chapels that offer quiet for prayer, contemplation or crying. Remember that it’s okay to cry in public; fellow travelers are empathetic – death affects all of us.

Practice self-care

Traveling is exhausting and hard on your body. Practice radical self-care. Listen to calming music, read a magazine, drink water, take vitamin C (my go-to is Vitamin Water, the best of both worlds) and avoid processed food, alcohol or excessive caffeine.

If you have a long layover, treat yourself to a sit-down meal with a salad or healthy entree. The goal of traveling to the funeral is to arrive in the least stressful way possible.

When you arrive, be present

Do not worry about work or return travel. Be present in the moment as you honor your loved one’s memory.

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