Are online travel agencies quoting higher rates because of your Web cookies?

By | February 26th, 2009

Are  online travel agencies quoting higher prices because of your personal information? It’s been difficult to prove that Web “cookies” were being used in that way. Until now, maybe.

Matt Ilardo stumbled across some interesting proof when he tried to book a rental car through Hotwire.

Here’s the rate quote from his work computer: $88 for a three-day rental in New York.

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Later that night, Ilardo did the same search at a different computer. It quoted him a rate of $117.

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I know what you’re thinking: Rates can change by the minute, and he just missed an opportunity. That’s what he thought, too. But before he booked …

I decided to check the price on the previous computer. I refreshed the search, and found the exact same, and cheaper, first price.

I performed this test several times, and if I logged on after I got the cheaper price, I would find the cheaper price. If I cleared the cookies on the computer and re-did the search, I would get the cheaper price. And every time I was logged on and did the search under my name, I would get the more expensive price.

He called Hotwire to ask why being logged in would result in a higher price, and a representative warned him to never search with more than one browser, as that “could affect availability and price, and that I should always clear the cookies before I search,” he says.

What’s going on? I asked Garrett Whittemore, a Hotwire representative, about Ilardo’s problem. He told me “as a general rule, we definitely do not use Hotwire customer information to generate increased price quotes, whether it’s contained in their cookies or otherwise.”

Related story:   I want a refund for my canceled hotel room

Hotwire promised to look into this. I’ll update this post when its investigation is done.



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