Have you ever been searching for airline tickets online, returned to that same search a day or less later to find that the fare has gone up significantly or even vanished? The phenomenon happens all the time, but is there something sinister at work here? Some claim that travel deal sites track your computer and raise rates based on anything from your shopping habits, the type of computer you own, or the browser you are using. So can travels sites fix prices this way, and more importantly, are they?
Is it Legal?
It should be noted at the beginning that charging different prices at different times of day or from customer to customer is not against the law. It would be perfectly legal for Starbucks to charge you $4 for your coffee and then charge the person behind you in line $10 for the same drink. Of course this is not a strategy that will win you customers. But when the shopping is done online, who would be the wiser?
Testing the Theory
Testing by numerous individuals and consumer advocate groups have gotten mixed results. Some found that using a browser that had been cleared of cookies showed lower prices, while some searches from browsers with a long shopping and browsing history displayed better deals. Some people searching travel sites using Mac computers have found that the lowest prices they are offered on some sites are significantly more than those provided when using a PC computer. It is a fact that Mac users as a group spend more on hotel rooms on average that their PC counterparts. So some travel sites have opted to raise the price floor a bit for these users. So if you and your apple-fanatic brother in law both schedule a trip to New York next month, he will probably end up paying 20-50$ extra regardless of whether or not he chooses the cheapest option he can find.
The problem is that the online travel sales industry is vast and complicated. Some of these differences could be due to random chance or may simply be a misleading coincidence. Also, as flights fill up, the prices rise which may be the cause of some of these discrepancies. Some argue that dynamic pricing and not a cookie conspiracy are to blame here. Dynamic pricing involves adjusting pricing based on demand, traffic, or the time of day/month/year. With sophisticated software, dynamic pricing can adjust prices down to the minute if desired. Dynamic pricing is used in the travel industry to raise the price of airline tickets that are searched for often, or to raise the price of flights around holidays when travel is predominant.
So, while it is not clear exactly whether there is a cookie conspiracy or not, there are a few things you can do to ensure you are getting the best price you can. The best strategy is to use at least two different browsers. Use one with the cookies erased. Avoid using a Mac computer or set it to identify as a PC. You can also try meta search sites such as Kayak.com that search several travel sites at once. Microsoft’s Bing search engine also has a flight price history feature that can let you know where the current price is in relation to previous prices.
Lydia loves exploring hidden shops and finding local hidden treasures on her travels. She writes blogs for the New York travel blog http://newyorkbigappletravel.com.