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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