Updated July 13, 2016
Many airlines used to offer special discounts for certain passengers or for travelers in certain situations. Today? Not so much, but see our tips to find the best deals for last-minute emergencies at the end.
Airline Discounts & Special Fares
Senior discounts, bereavement fares, deals for the military and discounts for passengers big enough to need two seats are just some of the deals that used to be common but no longer and airlines keep changing these policies so check your carrier's website for the latest information.
This is what we know as of July 2016 and we focus on the biggest U.S. airlines because they're the ones most likely to offer such discounts: American, Delta, Southwest and United.
Deals for travelers age 65 and older are on the wane and when they are available, they may not be much of a discount. Important: Even if an airline has senior fares, do not book them without first comparing fares because you may find something cheaper.
- American: No. There is no mention of senior fares on the airline's website but if you look for flights using American's advance search, you can select 'senior' as a passenger category; however, when we tried it, there was no difference in price.
- Delta: Maybe. Senior discounts are available but only in certain markets and not online so call the airline to take advantage of them. Tip: See how much regular fares cost before you buy, in case the senior fare is no bargain. Find contact numbers here.
- Southwest: Yes. They do have senior fares but some senior fares actually cost more standard adult tickets since they are fully refundable. If that's not what you need, compare fares for a better deal.
- United: Maybe. United offers senior fares to 'selected travel destinations' for passengers 65 or older who use the senior category when booking online. We checked a couple of routes but saw no difference in price for seniors and other adults.
When there's a death in the family or last-minute emergency.
- American: No. No emergency or bereavement fares.
- Delta: Maybe. The airline may offer bereavement fares on some routes but even Delta admits you may find lower fares on its website which "may serve as a better option in some markets."
- Southwest: No. No emergency or bereavement fares.
- United: No. No emergency or bereavement fares.
Members of the military are more likely to find deals on checked-baggage (including waived fees) than discounts on flights.
- American: Maybe. American's website says they "may offer government or military fares in some markets" but you have to call reservations to find out.
- Delta: Maybe. Military and government fares may apply on certain routes but you have to call to be certain.
- Southwest: Yes. Military fares are available but there are no details on cost and they must be booked over the phone.
- United: Yes. Military fares are offered through the airline's Veteran's Advantage program – which offers up to 5% off the base fare on some U.S. and Canada flights. Learn more here.
Big passenger fares
Southwest has the best deal for anyone too big for a single seat.
- American: Maybe. As the website says, "For the safety and comfort of all customers, if a customer’s body extends more than 1 inch beyond the outermost edge of the armrest and a seat belt extension is needed, another seat is required." Your choice is to buy another or ask a gate agent to try and find two seats together. There is no mention of a refund.
- Delta: Maybe. What the airline says: "If additional seat space is needed for comfort, we will try to reseat you next to an empty seat if available. However, you may consider purchasing an upgrade to a First or Business Class seat or booking an additional seat to ensure your comfort on board." What they don't say is what happens if there are no extra empty seats.
- Southwest: Yes. By far the most generous plan; pay in advance for two seats when booking flights and later get a refund for the second seat. If you go to the gate without a second seat and the airline rep says you need one – but there are none available – you'll probably have to wait for another flight.
- United: No. If you're too big for a single seat, you are required to purchase a second and you should do so during the initial purchase. If you wait, and fares go up, you'll pay the difference.
Finding Best Deals for Last-Minute Tickets
You have to fly at the last-minute and ticket prices are horrendous. Is there anything you can do? Travel expert and FareCompare CEO Rick Seaney gave us these ideas:
- Try a low cost carrier: Discount airlines (such as Spirit, Frontier, even JetBlue and more) tend to have cheaper walk-up fares as well as cheaper 3-day advance-purchase fares.
- Connecting flights: These tend to be cheaper than nonstops but compare to be certain.
- Use miles: Your own or a friend’s because anyone can redeem airline loyalty miles for another person. If the ticket you want is over $460, see if redeeming miles is an option.
- Packages: Don’t overlook air+hotel or air+car packages which typically have negotiated rates with no advance purchase penalty. If you don’t need the hotel and/or car, don't use them.
- Ask: It never hurts to ask if an airline can help with your situation; one of my employees did and the Delta phone rep she spoke with slashed one-third off the price of her ticket. It doesn't always happen and may never happen again but sometimes miracles occur.