Q What do you do when a relative who plans to make an airline trip dies before the trip can be taken? Does nonrefundable mean nonrefundable?

A When airlines say "nonrefundable fare," they usually mean it. Except when they don't.

Don't get excited. This doesn't mean you'll get your money back if, say, you change your mind about going to (fill-in-the-blank place) because you're worried about (fill-in-the-blank anxiety-inducing issue). Keep in mind, too, that you can usually change your ticket -- for a hefty fee -- and you will also pay the difference between the new fare and the old one.

But in cases of death or an illness that grounds you by doctor's orders, "Most airlines do not want the PR nightmare," said Joe Brancatelli whose "Joe Sent Me" newsletter is the bible for business travelers.

That doesn't mean the airline won't require some documentation or that it won't be difficult about it. But, said George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com, you can usually shame an airline into action.

You may recall that in May, Spirit Airlines relented and agreed to refund the money of Jerry Meekins, a terminally ill Vietnam vet whose doctor had told him not to fly. In his apology, Ben Baldanza, the CEO of Spirit, said, "I did not demonstrate the respect or the compassion that I should have, given his medical condition and his service to our country. Therefore I have decided to personally refund Mr. Meekins' airfare, and Spirit Airlines will make a $5,000 contribution, in his name, to the charity of his choice, Wounded Warriors."


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There was also the case of British Airlines' refusal to acknowledge a flier's request for a refund after his doctor told him he shouldn't fly because he was having chemo. The man began trying to get a refund in 2007. He died in 2008. His widow took up the cause and, after this column chastised the British for three years of foot-dragging, she got a refund.

Shame aside, be prepared to provide a death certificate (or a doctor's note if it's because of illness), and be firm but polite. You also may be asked to pay a small fee.

Also, try to figure out how the ticket was paid for. American Airlines recently responded to a request for help for a reader whose father had died before he'd had a chance to make an airline trip. It turns out that the father's ticket had been booked using credit card reward points.

That situation pointed out yet another of the many not-so-obvious facets of dealing with finances after a loved one's death: If a loved one dies, you may be able to inherit his or her miles. There may be fees involved, so check with the airline. Those miles do have value for goods or services, and if you are the inheriting individual, you may be able to use them for a celebration of life.

Today's column comes from Catharine Hamm of the Los Angeles Times.