First off, I have to say that I regret whining to anybody about how much all this flight change was going to cost me. Once I realized that it was important to me to fly out for the surgery, I should have just left it there and not brought up the cost issue with my friends, since of course their response was to try to reassure me that I was making a good decision and offer me support -- which is where all the suggestions about how I needed to call the airline and get the supposed "medical discount" came from. If you're going to whine to your friends, you should expect them to offer advice. It's meant to help you. But really, if you want to know the airline's policies, you should call the airline and not whine to your friends. That's hard to remember when you're under stress and time pressure, but if G-d forbid there is a next time I will have a better sense of how I want to behave.
The first thing to know is that when you buy an airline ticket you are buying a particular kind of ticket with its own rules and costs regarding refunds and changes. So when you buy a no-refund ticket with a fixed cost for changing the flights, you are buying a no-refund ticket with a fixed cost for changing the flights. Perhaps if you yourself are ill there might be a medical exception -- I've certainly heard of such -- but that was not my situation and I have no good information on how that might work. Currently the standard cost to change reservations on Northwest is $150, which seems like a what-the-hell for those of us who remember $25 fees for changing flights. The cost to change just the return flight is also $150, not $75 because it's only half the flight you are changing, which is something a friend of mine told me it would be or at least had been in his experience.
Fortunately, I was flying from Minneapolis to NYC at a time when there are surprisingly inexpensive flights to JFK. This is in large part because we are in the nobody-flies season, but the current economy factors in there. This means that when I was deciding whether to fly east for my father's originally-scheduled surgery in February, I was able to find round-trip tickets for just under $200. The tickets were not refundable and carried a $150 change fee.
Two weeks in advance of my flight, my father was taken to the hospital and I needed to fly out immediately, as in the next day, which meant buying tickets that were quite a bit more expensive than the first set. Because of the $150 change fee, I could apply only $50 from my first ticket to the cost of these tickets, which meant that basically I was buying a second set of tickets entirely with a slight discount. But ok, you have to do what you have to do and I didn't look back once. I figured I got $50 back from the first flight, at least, a flight which had been so much cheaper than expected.
After I got to NYC it came clear that I would have to postpone my return by two days, and that's the point where I actually called the airline. At first I checked on changing my tickets online, but this was not possible. It turns out that after using half the flight, the value of my return flight was considered to be less than the $150 to change the flight so the web site does not let you do that (which is a good thing, really). I spoke to a couple of people at the airline and learned this:
- First of all, I learned the bit about when you buy a ticket of a certain type -- in my case a no-refund fee-to-change type -- you can't change the type of ticket. I mentioned this earlier.
- I learned that because my ticket was now worth less than the change fee, there was no value to apply to a new ticket. So I had to give up the cost of my return flight and start fresh with a new one-way ticket home.
- There is something like a "medical emergency" ticket, which you qualify for if you are flying to see somebody who is actually in a hospital. This is a no-restrictions ticket that you can change as many times as you want with no change penalty (although I assume that if you change it to a more expensive ticket you have to make up the difference). The medical emergency ticket is basically a discount on a no-restrictions ticket -- which is the same as what a grief ticket is in my experience, a full-price ticket with a $200 discount which is still very expensive at the last minute. I qualified for this ticket, and it would have cost me about $350.
- A new one-way ticket with change fees would only cost me about $140. Well, plus the extra $20 cost for making my reservations by telephone through an agent. Which was pretty darned cheap, all told.
I went with the one-way ticket with restrictions. I would have had to change my ticket two more times for this not to work to my advantage. And if something had gone terribly wrong I wasn't going to care a fig about the $140.
But the real point is this: There is such a thing as a "medical emergency" ticket, but that is not the same thing as changing an existing ticket because of (somebody else's) medical emergency. I probably didn't even qualify for this ticket when I made my original reservations, since my father was not actually in the hospital. I did qualify for this ticket for the second set of tickets I bought, but I'm not sure I would have gone with it had I known -- the cost would have been significantly higher than the tickets I did buy and at that point I didn't think there was a big risk for changing. It's all about balancing your risk, I think.
It's actually all pretty straightforward, if somewhat draconian and even miserly on the part of the airline. But those are the policies as they applied to me.