Funerals are a significant source of last-minute travel plans. Memorial services are often scheduled at a later date, after cremation or burial.
Both the travellers and the visited guests can be affected by grief, as well as the practical burdens of a funeral and caretaking of the estate. Those who are further from the deceased are usually in better condition to plan and execute the journey, or to receive the guests. This can be a spouse or relative to the bereaved.
Travelling for a funeral or memorial service often involves planning a long-distance trip on short notice. If the event is not within reasonable driving distance, then most people will need to travel by air or train.
If driving is a realistic option, then consider whether you should be driving yourself. A sudden attack of grief while driving could result in serious injuries for yourself or others. Consider taking a bus or asking a friend to drive. Agencies for older people might be able to connect you with a volunteer driver.
Last-minute airfare can be quite expensive, especially during peak travel times. On the other hand, airfare search engines and discount travel websites (see aggregators) might have very good deals, especially if there happens to be a mostly empty flight departing in the next few days.
Only a few airlines still offer bereavement fares, which slightly discount the cost of last-minute funeral travel. Airlines that offer these include Air Canada, Delta Air Lines, Lufthansa for flights originating from the U.S. or Canada, and WestJet. In all cases, you must book by phone directly with the airline. Bereavement fares are limited to immediate family (as defined by each airline); you will have to provide the agent with the name of the ill or deceased person, your relationship to them, and possibly additional details such as contact information for their doctor, hospital or funeral home, a copy of the death certificate, or the date of the funeral service.
Particularly for international travel, travel agents at other airlines may be able to waive advance-purchase requirements or extend a discount, at the agent's discretion. You may have luck calling the airline and gauging how sympathetic the agent sounds; if they don't seem likely to budge, call again and try with another agent.
Frankly, bereavement fares aren't that good of a deal. They rarely save more than 5-10% of the cost of an unrestricted full-fare ticket, and may actually limit your options substantially. Many more options are available these days:
- There are many options for flying on a budget, thanks to airfare search engines and budget airlines keeping overall ticket prices low.
- Search engines for last-minute flights may help you find cheap flights, in exchange for maybe having to fly a different airline out than back or other tradeoffs.
- Late night or overnight red-eye flights may be cheaper than busy flights during the day.
- If you have frequent flyer miles, this might be a very good occasion to use them.
- Because of subsidies and other factors affecting price, it can sometimes be cheaper to fly to a small airport than a large hub. You may be able to save some money by flying to a small airport that's further away, even if you then have to rent a car to get to your final destination. (The same applies to the start of your trip.)
- Package deals can sometimes save quite a bit of money. Since you may need to rent a car anyway, it may be cheaper to get a package that includes airfare, rental car, and possibly a hotel — even if you end up not using the hotel.
In spite of all those options, you should keep in mind how flexible your travel plans need to be. Particularly when traveling to see someone who's ill or dying, you might not have a schedule to work from, and might need to change your tickets. In this case, be sure to check the restrictions or penalties for changing any tickets you buy. Most cheap airfares either don't allow changes or assess a fee for doing so, while more expensive unrestricted fares waive these problems. Depending on the price difference, and the degree of uncertainty in your plans, the additional flexibility of an unrestricted fare may not make it worth the higher up-front cost.
These days last minute train tickets can also be much more expensive than those ordered well in advance. However, the "spread" tends to be a lot less than for airfare.
Passports and visas
For last-minute travel, you may not have time to obtain a passport or proper visa. In this case, call your embassy or consulate in the country where the death occurred.
The family home, a hotel, or a last-minute group house rental? It depends partly on whether you think that you'll want more space to yourself, or if you will be comforted by being surrounded by other people.
If you are traveling to attend the funeral but have no particular responsibilities, then your stay might be relatively short and predictable. However, if you are a close family member or friend, then you may have some difficulty in predicting your return date.
In most of the world, people attending funerals are expected to wear dark, relatively formal clothing, such as a black or dark-colored business suit. Clothing, shoes and jewelry should generally be plain. In some cultures, family members are prescribed specific colors of clothing to wear, such as blue for Chinese people who are attending a grandparent's funeral. Wearing clothes of colors associated with happiness and good fortune (e.g., red in Asia, white in Africa) is generally inappropriate, although in some instances, it will be requested, particularly to celebrate the life of an elderly person. In most of the world, modest dressing for a solemn occasion requires that the skin from the shoulders to at least the kneecaps be covered. This means no bare shoulders, no tank tops, no bare midriffs, and no shirts unbuttoned to the navel. Short sleeves are often acceptable, especially on a hot day. Shorts and other clothing styles associated with athletic activities or fun events are inappropriate.
You will need to know where the funeral is happening before you can pack with confidence. A funeral in a church or temple requires more formality than a scattering of ashes after hiking to a remote beach. Religious ceremonies may have particular dress codes, such as requiring all women to wear a hat or veil, or for everyone to remove their shoes. Churches in Italy do not permit bare shoulders or bare knees.
Comfortable shoes or boots are always a traveler's friend and should not be forgotten on this trip. High heels are not recommended for walking through a cemetery. If the heel sinks down into soft earth, you may find yourself sprawling on the ground.
In many countries, although not in Africa, babies and very young children may be dressed entirely in white. Usually, parents are not expected to buy new outfits for children, so children should be dressed in the most suitable clothing they already own or can borrow on short notice. In the UK, children may wear their school uniforms.
If you will be attending graveside services, then you will be exposed to the weather. For warm weather, lightweight clothing or short sleeves may help prevent overheating. If you have dressed in layers, such as a jacket or scarf, then you might be able to discreetly remove an outer layer, at least until the service has started. For cold weather, you may need to add a coat, a hat, boots, gloves, and a scarf. If rain is in the forecast, then pack an umbrella.
Unless you are making a daytrip to a nearby destination and don't expect to change clothes after the services, you also need to pack clothes for the rest of your stay. If you are part of the family or a close friend, then pack at least some clothes that are suitable for receiving visitors. You may also need to take work clothes, if you will be helping clean or empty the decedent's home during this trip.
In many places, it's customary to send or bring flowers, food, money, or other gifts to the bereaved family. There may be specific traditions, such as sending chrysanthemums rather than daffodils, or pure white flowers rather than joyful yellow ones. In some cultures, if you cannot participate in the funeral or memorial, it's customary to send a condolences letter that is read aloud during the event. Some families may ask you to donate to a charity of their choice or your choice in lieu of flowers.
When people are unable to travel for a funeral, there are ways of helping them feel included. One is to videotape or livestream the services, so that they can participate remotely. Another is to have more than one event, such as a funeral in one location and a memorial service in another city. If practical, friends and family who are unable to attend can send a written memorial statement to be read at the funeral.
If you have the time and energy, a funeral could be combined with a more light-hearted activity, such as a tour of the destination.