Sick at the cost of flight changes? How to cope in a travel emergency

Travel emergencies can be avoided with careful planning.

Travel emergencies can be avoided with careful planning.

It's easy to be enticed by rock-bottom flight deals, but what happens if you can't travel because of an emergency?

Auckland woman Caroline Gray was recently charged $248 to transfer her Jetstar ticket to her husband after she fell critically ill so he could accompany their young son on a long-awaited trip to Napier. 

While she described the added cost as "very harsh" for what was a $140 return flight, especially as the seat was already booked, a Jetstar spokesperson explained that base 'starter' fares ordinarily can't be transferred to someone else or be refunded.

Caroline Gray - pictured with sons James and Benji and husband Haydn - said hassles with Jetstar were the last thing she ...

Caroline Gray - pictured with sons James and Benji and husband Haydn - said hassles with Jetstar were the last thing she needed while recovering from pneumonia.

The airline does have a compassionate policy for those who find themselves unable to travel, with requests considered individually. Gray was offered a voucher to the value of the flights she'd already bought but really wanted her husband to be able to take their four-year-old to Splash Planet - a trip that's become a bit of a family tradition. 

Jetstar charged critically ill mum more than her ticket's original cost to change name
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The $248 bill she landed reflected the difference between the flights she'd originally booked and her husband's new ticket. 

We all know we should read the fine print before booking flights but, let's face it, sometimes we just want to nab that sweet deal.

Here are a few tricks to keep up your sleeve if sickness or some other horrible unforseen circumstance destroys your travel plans (and help you avoid getting into a sticky situation in the first place):

Consider more flexible fares

If you're on a budget, opting for the cheapo fare across the Tasman over a flexi fare that's twice the price is a no-brainer, right? Not always, it seems. Sean Berenson, general manager of product at Flight Centre, explains that if flexible fares are booked early enough, they're not as expensive as you might think and can actually compare pretty well to lower-grade options booked later. They also give you peace of mind that you can make changes without incurring hefty fees. Generally, the earlier you book, the better the price. 

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Take out travel insurance

Sure it's a bit of a hassle, but it could save you mega bucks if your budget ticket doesn't allow changes. Both Berenson and House of Travel commercial director Brent Thomas stressed that travel insurance is a must to ensure you aren't left out of pocket if disaster strikes. If you don't, you're generally at the mercy of the airline to decide how best to handle your situation.

Thomas said that while many are sympathetic and do their best to help, at the end of the day they are running a business. If there are a lot of spare seats on your flight, you could be in luck. But if there aren't, the airlines are going to want to extract as much value from them as they can. Berenson said there are plenty of good options out there at affordable prices - it's just a matter of doing your research. 

Get supporting documents

Even without a flexi ticket and travel insurance, there are options if you or a family member fall seriously ill before a flight. While you will have to plead your case to the airline concerned, Thomas said you'll be in a much stronger position if you have hospital or other medical documentation (such as a diagnosis, bill or death certificate) to prove you're sincere. 

Claim back extra fees

If all else fails and you land a massive bill or have to forgo your flight altogether, it's tempting to either curse the airline and swear never to travel with them again or try to block out the whole traumatic experience entirely. But all is not lost - necessarily. Lodging a claim for added costs such as airport taxes could save you a few dollars at least, particularly on international travel, easing the pain somewhat.

Consult a travel agent

As much as we love the internet, many of us just don't have the time or patience to scroll through the fine print on multiple airlines' website. A travel agent will talk you through your options before booking, explain airlines' different fare options and policies, and help you select the right flights for you. Feeling confident that you will be covered even in the very worst circumstances can be priceless. 






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