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INSIDER SECRET: Studies show that it is a good idea to search for airfares using different browsers both logged in and “incognito” to find the best deal (but it’s not as bad as you think).
Have you ever researched the perfect travel deal for days or weeks, and then, as you go to purchase those perfect tickets, the price seems to have shot up out of nowhere? Sometimes, it might feel as if the travel companies are rooting against you.
You wouldn’t be the first person to wonder if hotel and airline companies are getting crafty with the pricing of their products. Are they using your long research sessions as indicators that you might be willing to pay more for the perfect vacation, and responding by raising prices?
So the question is, does this really happen? Let’s see if there is any truth behind the myth.
Fact or Fiction: Do Airlines Raise Your Ticket Price Based on Your Browser History?
“Price discrimination,” “dynamic pricing,” and “augmented pricing structures” are just three of the countless industry terms that software companies use to explain one simple and alarming concept: not everyone is shown the same price for the same airline ticket online.
We all know that this happens in the travel industry to the point that the entire business is built on top of variable pricing. There are 1,000+ factors that airlines and hotels take into account when calculating their prices. Available inventory, special events, seasonality and even customer loyalty all play an important role on the price you see for a ticket or room rate.
Because prices are based on so many factors, it is almost impossible to comprehend what might have caused a price to jump up between research sessions on a particular trip. Did the price shoot up because the travel site noted your increasing interest in this flight, or was it because other folks around the world pulled the trigger on the same flight before you did, causing decreased inventory and, therefore, higher prices?
Travel aggregation sites and travel providers have long denied the practice of manipulating pricing based on user search history. However, despite this denial, we have seen several instances where these same companies are working to identify (or “profile,” to use the industry term) users who are willing to pay more, such as business travelers.
Here are some cases we have seen over the past few years that help us determine if there is any reality behind the myth.
Mac Users Shown Higher Prices on Orbitz Than PC Users
Back in 2012, The Wall Street Journal investigated claims that Orbitz, a popular online travel agency, was showing higher prices for hotel rooms to users who used a Mac computer to visit the site, compared to those who used a Windows PC. They found significant evidence showing the Mac users were shown higher prices for hotels.
Orbitz later clarified the practice and admitted that it was, in fact, a user trait that they were targeting. However, they explained that Mac users were able to purchase tickets at the same price as Windows users, but Mac users were being shown more premium rooms that carry an extra fee as the default, compared to Windows users who were always shown the cheapest price for a room first.
Orbitz CEO Barney Harford told ABC news:
Just as Mac users are willing to pay more for higher-end computers, at Orbitz we’ve seen that Mac users are 40 percent more likely to book four- or five-star hotels … compared to PC users, and that’s just one of many factors that determine which hotels to recommend a given customer as part of our efforts to show customers the most relevant hotels possible.
Orbitz has since removed this feature from its site, claiming that users on all computer platforms now see the same search results.
Northeastern University Study Found Logged-in Users See Lower Prices on Hotel Rooms
Northeastern University conducted a study which tested six online travel retailers – Cheap Tickets, Expedia, Hotels.com, Orbitz, Priceline and Travelocity. They searched 10 popular destinations for a variety of travel dates, comparing results for both logged-in users on each site, and logged-out/anonymous users with no search history.
Here is what they found:
- Both Orbitz and CheapTickets (which are operated under the same company) showed nearly identical search results for logged-in/return users and anonymous users. Prices differed on about 5% of search queries and among these queries logged-in users usually saw prices averaging $12 cheaper than anonymous users.
- Hotels.com and Expedia (also owned by the same parent company) showed the same prices for all users, both logged-in and anonymous. However, they did sort search results in order to favor more expensive hotels to some tracked/logged-in user groups.
- Priceline dramatically changes its search result appearance based on user history, but shows no price differentiation between logged-in and anonymous users.
- Travelocity shows significant evidence of favoring lower prices on iOS device (i.e., iPhone and iPad) users. iOS users are consistently shown lower prices, averaging about $15 cheaper per night than users on other devices.
The good news, according to this study, is that it might actually be in your best interest to log in when searching for travel deals on these sites. In no case did it increase the ticket price, and, sometimes, it resulted in lower prices. Usually this data is used to “customize” the experience based on what the site perceives you might be interested in. For example, if you normally purchase four-star hotels, your top search results would probably favor the available four-star hotels at the top.
Although this is not always the case, when there were differences in price, the lower prices were always given to logged-in users across these top travel sites.
Consumer Reports Found Airfare Aggregation Sites Favor Lower Prices for Logged-In Users
In another study, Consumer Reports tested results across nine of the most popular airfare aggregation sites: CheapOair, Expedia, Google Flights, Hotwire, Kayak, Orbitz, Priceline, Travelocity and TripAdvisor.
Testers searched for the same airline tickets on two different browsers at the same time — one browser which contained a “robust airfare search history (typical of a comparison shopper),” and the other browser that was “scrubbed” to be completely anonymous. They conducted the same search queries, at the same time, on the same site, across both browsers and compared the results.
- Out of 372 different search queries, only 42 times did the search results differ between tracked and anonymous users
- When results differed, 60% of the time it favored (meaning the lower price went to) the tracked users
- At the extremes, the tracked users saw tickets as much as $84 cheaper than the anonymous users
- Google Flights and Kayak were the most likely sites to show different results between tracked and anonymous users
This showed that there is relative consistency between tracked and anonymous users when it comes to airfare aggregators. Only 11% of the time did the prices differ between the two user types, and, of those, the results were slightly in favor of tracked users.
How Does Price Differentiation Work and How Can You Prevent It?
Again, even though there is no confirmation that airlines and hotels are actively employing this practice, you might be curious how this works and how you may be able to prevent being a victim of this price discrimination in the future.
A term you might have heard a lot recently is “browser cookies.” This got a lot of press with the introduction in 2018 of new privacy laws in the European Union. This requires sites in the EU to request your permission before storing cookies on your computer. This is why website banners about “cookies” seem to pop-up out of nowhere recently.
Cookies are a basic browser technology that has been around for decades. They are tiny bits of code that a website can give your computer when you visit it. Your browser holds onto this “cookie” until it expires (often set to expire YEARS later) or is deleted. Whenever you visit the same site again, they can request any cookies you might have that belong to to that site. This technology is how websites remember that you are logged in over multiple visits to their sites.
The easiest way to search the web without cookies is to use the “Incognito Mode” or “Private Browsing Mode” on your browser. This pops open a new browser mode which will refuse any cookies that a site tries to give you. This means there is no history of previous visits when you visit a travel site, making you look like an anonymous user, even if you have been on their site all day.
You can usually activate this mode under the “File” menu or by clicking the three-bar icon on the right side of many browsers (as shown in the picture).
Is It Worth Clearing Your Cookies When Searching for Travel Deals?
Across all of the studies on website tracking, we found that, most of the time, there was no difference between being logged in or an anonymous user when searching for travel deals. The majority of the time, the only thing that travel sites use your previous search history for is customizing the appearance of search results. This means showing hotels or flights you seem (based on your history) to prefer over ones that you are less likely to buy.
Even more surprising, the few times when prices were different between tracked and anonymous users, the cheaper deals were usually in favor of the tracked users!
Overall, when searching for a great travel deal, it can be best to try a variety of browsers both logged in and anonymous to compare all the deals, because it CAN make a difference, but not as significant as the myth seems to dictate.
Surprisingly, there is actually very little evidence that online travel sites are raising prices the more that you search for a specific trip. In fact, they tend to show lower prices to logged-in users.
Studies show that it is a good idea to search for travel using many different browsers, both logged-in and “incognito” to find the best deal.
Unfortunately, travel sites stay very tight-lipped about the technologies they use to win your business over other comparable travel sites. So we don’t know the exact tactics they use. It seems that, as competitive as it is, they don’t want to raise your price to get a few bucks and risk losing your business. In fact, the opposite is true, travel sites seem to prefer to lose a few bucks in order to win your loyalty, favoring tracked users that they know have a strong history with the site.
Let me know your experience with this! And subscribe to our newsletter for more travel tricks and info.