Donna Witkins was caught off guard when she got the call that her mother was dying. She ended up spending more than $6,000 to get to her. She reached out to NBC Connecticut Responds to share her story in hopes that others learn from her experience.
"We didn't know if she was going to live or what was going to happen."
Donna Witkins said her mom developed pneumonia and ended up in the ICU.
"She was a wonderful person. She would do anything for you,” said Donna Witkins.
Witkins told us she spoke with her mom hours before getting that call that turned her and her wallet upside down.
"I got a call about 2 in the morning from the ICU doctor saying, 'Your mom is taking a turn for the worst,'” said Witkins. "And so, I asked the question: ‘Do I need to get there?’ And she said, 'Yes if you want to see your mother one more time, you need to be here now.'"
Frantic, Witkins tried to book a flight on Delta Airlines to Mississippi for her and her son.
Witkins said she googled bereavement flights on her phone and what she thought was a Delta Air Lines 1-800 number popped up.
“She was checking on Boston. She was checking on New Jersey to see where I can go out of, put me on hold and was searching. Then, took a number and called me back,” said Witkins.
The agent told her they only had first class.
"When she told me the price, I couldn't believe it. It was $6,749 for two one-way tickets,” said Witkins.
“I thought it was crazy. I expected a high price because it was last minute, but I wasn’t expecting that much,” she added.
Witkins took the flight and reached her mother in time before she passed away.
"She was a wonderful person. She was giving. She would do anything for you." When she returned home, frustrated, Witkins contacted NBC Connecticut Responds.
We reached out to Delta who investigated and discovered Witkins had accidentally booked through a third party travel agency who charged her thousands more than if she booked directly with Delta.
“It was a Delta flight. So, I just assumed it was Delta,” Witkins said.
Delta discovered that Witkins contacted a travel agency in California that is banned from booking Delta tickets. Delta said as of 2016, the travel agency Witkins used was not allowed to do business with airlines because of their business practices.
Delta apologized for Witkin’s experience and refunded her $1,500 as a goodwill gesture for the cost difference if she had called and booked coach seats directly through Delta.
“It scares me that somebody else is not aware of this. They could easily be taken and have to pay these prices, too,” said Witkins.
“I think it’s something that we all need to be educated on,” said travel expert Lisa Martin. She recommends using a certified and trusted travel agent.
“Just like if you were going to get a dentist or an electrician to help you out, you want to find if you feel comfortable working with that person,” said Martin.
"Make sure that you're talking to somebody that you are comfortable with, that they're offering you every single choice available,” added Susan Aresco, director of Travel Sales at AAA.
She recommends speaking with an airlines supervisor when booking an emergency flight.
"Do they offer a bereavement fare? Are they an airline that has a discount for somebody that there's either a death in the family or an imminent death in the family?”
Advice that Witkins wish she knew at the time of booking.
"I don't want somebody to ever go through this,” said Witkins.
In the end, she was glad to get to her mother in time.
"That's priceless to me."
AAA said in some cases, airlines will offer a discount in this situation, though it may not be a huge one.