Refundable airline ticket, or last minute purchase for uncertain date?
March 25, 2014 8:40 PM   Subscribe

My dad was diagnosed with cancer in February. He lives in a different state. On a recent visit to see him, he suggested that my husband and I buy refundable airline tickets in case my dad's condition gets unexpectedly worse and I need to travel to see him on short notice. He thinks that this might be cheaper for me than having to buy tickets on very short notice. My impression is that nonrefundable tickets are fairly expensive, and I'm not sure if I can buy one that's open-ended enough for that purpose (my dad's prognosis is 1-3 years). I'm wondering if I should just wait and either 1) look for last-minute travel on Hotwire/Expedia/whatever or 2) accept being gouged for last-minute airline tickets. I'd appreciate any advice on what the best option is here, especially if there are some that I'm not thinking of right now.
posted by SockISalmon to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Or buy tickets on an airline such as Southwest that won't charge you change fees. That only works if Southwest flies where you need to go, of course.
posted by gingerbeer at 8:50 PM on March 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Last month, I needed to change my ticket (which was bought around $300), but was going to be charged $200. I ended up finding a last-minute ticket (as in, 12 hours before I had to leave) for less than the flight-change fee. Flying standby also works. I don't think it is necessary to pre-purchase a ticket; I honestly can't imagine a situation where you wouldn't be able to find one at a price less than a refundable ticket would be (since they are usually so expensive) at the last minute, even if you have to make a connection or something.
posted by obviousresistance at 9:08 PM on March 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm sorry about your dad.

I have done a fair amount of domestic travel for research, and my plans are usually fairly last-minute because I don't usually know how long I will need to stay researching in a given place until shortly before I'm done there. In my experience, looking into refundable airline tickets, I concluded that they were more trouble and cost than they are worth. I have actually bought domestic flights for anywhere between 24 hours and a few days before departure for not much more (if at all more) than they would normally cost. I buy my tickets on StudentUniverse (I don't think you have to be a student), or sometimes Kayak, but I imagine you could get similar deals on Hotwire, Expedia, etc. Booking on the sites that I do, I generally buy one-way flights, which allows me flexibility in the return, and the sites allow me only to pay half of what a round-trip should cost (so I'm not penalized for taking the one-way). A relative of mine flies Southwest for the reason that gingerbeer states, so that might also be something to look into. People might be able to give more specific help if you could give the specific cities in question: certain routes are far cheaper than others (and certain carriers with particular refund policies fly certain routes/hubs and not others), so this answer is somewhat dependent on which exact cities you're discussing. If the two cities concerned are a particularly expensive route and the carrier(s) who fly it most often have a very generous refund policy (e.g. Southwest), it might be worth looking into a refundable ticket. However in the main, I'd aim for a discounted last-minute ticket.
posted by ClaireBear at 9:08 PM on March 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

I had to buy a short notice ticket several weeks ago. It was not as expensive as I had expected it would be. Ticket was purchased very late on a Saturday for a Sunday 1:00 p.m. flight (so a little over 12 hours in advance, but technically, bought on the previous day). I'd normally expect to pay $400 or so to fly the route, I was (looking back at the receipt) charged $582. So more expensive, but not wildly so.
posted by gimonca at 9:09 PM on March 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

When shopping for tickets home this past Christmas, the conditions on my Southwest ticket said that if I needed to change my trip, the funds were good for a year. But as gingerbeer says, this only helps if you are in their service area. I'm sorry you are having to deal with this.
posted by Beti at 9:54 PM on March 25, 2014

Best answer: We are in a similar situation and found an offer to get a credit card on the airline with the best connections. The 50,000 free miles that comes with using the card plus regular points for using the card plus the miles we are getting flying back on and forth to visit the ill parent should give us at least 2 free anytime tickets or 4 free saver tickets. Since we are buying late tickets, the value of the frequent flyer points is higher than the usual 1% credit card reward for us. There is no annual fee the first year, depending on how things are the parents we may or may not renew it after that. Check it out, look for a good offer and see if it makes sense for you.
posted by metahawk at 10:45 PM on March 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Many airlines have discounted tickets available for last minute medical emergencies. Whether they will actually be cheaper than online shopping can depend, but it's good to know for just in case. If he's near a major airport, last minute tickets can still be relatively cheap.

Delta's policy, for example.
posted by Candleman at 11:37 PM on March 25, 2014

Medical fares that Candleman references, or bereavement fares for those in a bit different circumstance - they are worth checking if the last-minute strategy is yielding extremely high prices. They used to be genuine deals back in the regulated era of commercial air travel, but they are mostly outdated legacy fare class these days.

I would agree with others that you may consider telling us the route so experienced travelers can tell you what to expect, and what strategy you should take.
posted by ccl6yl at 2:02 AM on March 26, 2014

Southwest's change policy is very simple and convenient (assuming they fly where you need to go of course). I've easily made flight changes online before. Keep in mind that the one year clock starts on the day you purchase the ticket and not the day of your flight.
posted by sevenless at 6:39 AM on March 26, 2014

Best answer: Last-minute trip pricing can be somewhat route-dependent. Your best option is to just do the research - look up the prices for your specific situation. How much does a cheap ticket cost, purchased well in advance (because you'll have several well-planned trips out there in the next 1-3 years)? If there's a main airline for that route, check out what their change fees are. How much does a fully-refundable ticket cost? How much does a ticket for next week cost? How about a ticket for tomorrow? Keep checking every few days for the "I must be there this weekend" cost, until you have a mental idea of the average.

Now you've established two prices, and how much mental effort it is for you to look for plane tickets, and you probably have a pretty good idea if one of those approaches is significantly better than the other.
posted by aimedwander at 6:49 AM on March 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have a co-worker who only buys last minute (ie within 3d of travel) tickets and he finds in general the price is no different than booking 6 weeks in advance.

If you need to travel THAT DAY then yes the price may be bad. Look into flying standby.

If you can travel within 1-3d then I would consider just booking it when the time comes.

Also call the airlines and see if they have a family emergency rate (some do).
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:19 AM on March 26, 2014

On my preferred airline at least, refundable tickets tend to be in the range of two to four times more expensive. I'd imagine that this depends on airline and route, but at those prices you would almost always be better off waiting until you knew you needed the ticket.
posted by wotsac at 8:00 AM on March 26, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone for the responses so far. This is helpful.

I live in Seattle and my dad lives in Phoenix.
posted by SockISalmon at 9:14 AM on March 26, 2014

Best answer: If you buy a Southwest ticket in advance, you'll still have to pay the difference in fares for your last-minute switch (even though you don't have to pay a change fee). It's often cheaper to just get a ticket when you need it. I really recommend checking on multiple ticket search sites (Orbitz, Travelocity, Hipmunk, etc) rather than just one, because I've found much cheaper fares that only happen to show up on one site. I flew multiple times in the last 12 months getting cheap tickets 1-3 days in advance, though of course everything various by location and exact date. If you're willing to fly at more inconvenient times of day or have an extra stop, that helps. There's also Priceline, if you're really flexible. Bottom line, I don't think it's worth it to get a refundable ticket.
posted by three_red_balloons at 10:41 AM on March 26, 2014

Best answer: When my brother got cancer and was very ill, I ended up needing to change a flight. I had no qualms explaining that my brother's condition had degenerated and I needed to be there. The rep didn't charge me a change fee. This was 3 years ago. I think refundable tickets are so costly as to not be worth it, but if I were you, I'd check it out by seeing what flights cost for a trip there tomorrow.

so sorry to hear about your Dad.
posted by theora55 at 10:42 AM on March 26, 2014

Best answer: Frontier sells a fully refundable ticket that is pretty easy to change. You would have to go through Denver, but it might be worth it.

Look for the Classic Plus fare.
posted by Sheppagus at 1:55 PM on March 26, 2014

Best answer: With that wide of a time range, are you even certain you'd be flying from home? I'd set the money aside and wait.
posted by teremala at 5:34 PM on March 26, 2014

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