Do travel sites use cookies to dupe you into paying more?

That’s the explosive accusation made by some travelers who book their trips online. They pull up a price quote on a travel site, but five minutes later the fare has doubled. Are airlines, car rental companies and hotels using cookies to track their movements and kick out a higher price?

I’ve investigated this alleged bait-and-switch tactic in the past, and the results were inconclusive. But reader Daniel Luby says he has no doubts that it’s being done.

When you do an online search for a flight a tracking cookie is placed on your computer.

If you do not buy during your initial search but come back 10 minutes later and do the same search again, the quoted price will be higher. This is because the tracking cookie tells them that you previously searched for the same flight and you are shopping for a better price elsewhere.

If online sites are doing this, they are being very careful about it. In earlier tests, I tried to duplicate this bait-and-switch routine, but couldn’t.

Which isn’t to say it’s not happening. A sophisticated cookie-tracking program would be practically undetectable, intentionally generating higher and lower prices at random so that no pattern can be detected. But like a Las Vegas slot machine, the odds would always favor the house.

Reader David Smith says it’s happened to him, but only on flights that are close to full.

I check a flight, then check some others, but when we go back, the cost is higher.

The way to beat this is to sign on through another browser (e.g., switch from IE to Firefox or another machine e.g., your laptop instead of your home computer.) I did this and got the original rate and booked it.

Luby says there’s another work-around:

You have to delete all tracking cookies before starting a new search. I have found that this applies to searches on Expedia, Orbitz and some of the airline Web sites.

Have you experienced any suspicious behavior while shopping for airfares, car rental rates or hotel prices online? Do you think a clever cookie-tracking application was behind it?

Whether these programs exist or not, I think Luby’s advice is solid. Clear out your cookies or browse in “privacy” mode to avoid any run-ins with the Cookie Monster.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Michael Morris

    From my experience I am almost positive that this is happening. Shouldn’t this sort of thing be illegal? This is companies pressuring people to think that if demand is artificially inflated, when it’s not. Just yesterday I searched for a flight that is months from now. There were many reasonably priced tickets available from several carriers. Today I search and both departure and return flights are all $100 higher for the days that I tried to book before. It’s also ridiculous that the airline sites don’t use ssl security (https://) so that browsers can feel secure in their purchase and that there connection isn’t being intercepted in some way. I am very disappointed in the industry as a whole because I used to think that it was only the deal sites that did this, but it is clearly also the carriers themselves. This experience in particular was southwest. They practically admitted to it when I was speaking with customer service on the phone saying, “We’ve actually had that complaint before. Unfortunately, we can’t do anything about it, but we will note down your claim and if we hear it enough we will make a change.”

    Pretty sad. Seems there is need for regulation against this sort of thing. It’s out of control.

  • dummy

    … and that is to gouge you.