How travelers are tricked into booking

By | February 13th, 2016

Derrick Lawson had been looking far and wide for an airline ticket from Atlanta to Bangkok when he contacted me in exasperation.

No sooner did he find a reasonably priced flight than the online site showed the fare was no longer available or that the new price was significantly higher.

“This is so frustrating,” he told me. “I honestly can’t believe these companies can get away with this.”

But they can. The fare-no-longer-available trick is just one of many perfectly legal travel industry ploys designed to convince you to make a booking decision now and to pay more. Travel companies use methods that range from decoy prices to creating the perception of product scarcity to persuade you to push the “book” button.

And travelers keep falling for it, which makes you wonder: Are we willing participants? Do we accept being deceived?

Industry analysts say travel companies must engage in these pricing shenanigans. Travel products — and this is particularly true of airline seats and hotel rooms — are considered “perishable” products, which is a fancy way of saying you can’t make money off an empty airline seat or hotel room. So the industry created a sophisticated system to ensure money isn’t left on the table.

“Airlines are maniacally focused on squeezing every penny they can out of their travelers,” explains James Filsinger, president of Yapta, which can track price changes in airline tickets. “This approach is known as yield management.”

And that’s why you see such dramatic price differences on many travel products, depending on when you buy them. A complex algorithm, not a linear pricing structure, determines how much you’ll pay. More often than not, you fall for it.

But the games don’t end there. Here are a few other schemes they use to make you buy:

They make you think they’re about to run out. You know those warnings: “Only three rooms left!” Be skeptical, says Vassilis Dalakas, a marketing professor at Cal State San Marcos.”This is a simple way to create the perception of a deal and a sense of urgency for the consumers that will motivate them to make the purchase soon,” he says.

They make you nervous. Travel companies know that changing prices plus or minus 20 percent can make consumers uneasy, according to Aleksei Udachny, the founder of Airhint, a site that helps consumers find cheaper fares. Often, they’ll raise or lower prices in order to prod you into a purchase. “Customers buy because they’re afraid that the price will increase even more,” he says.

They send a decoy. This happens when a company wants you to make a particular purchasing decision. It’s a lot like labeling something “popular choice,” except that the company will offer a less appealing choice — a more expensive seat or room — knowing it’s likely to pressure you into buying the one they really want you to purchase. “Travelers are more likely to be swayed in one direction or the other,” says Mariah Menendez, a spokeswoman for, a travel agency.

Maybe the worst pricing trick is what the Federal Trade Commission calls “drip” pricing. That’s when you find what appears to be a low price — rooms for $99 — but then, as you go through the booking process, it adds taxes and mandatory “resort” or “parking” fees. In the end, the same room costs $139 a night.

Here’s the interesting thing. As reprehensible as creating a bogus offering, obscuring the number of rooms they have in their hotel, randomly raising or lowering their prices to make you uncertain, or showing you a low, and unbookable, initial rate may be — we keep falling for it.

When the government, which is supposed to be protecting consumers, rolls over and allows these tricks to happen, it makes you wonder: Do we want to be lied to?

Perhaps, says Dalakas, the marketing professor. “I think we want to be deceived into thinking we make rational decisions even when, in reality, we don’t,” he says. “The tactics used by the travel industry all cleverly capitalize on that desire by framing the decision in a way that will make it seem more rational.”

Reason has nothing to do with it. If it did, then none of these methods would work. In the end, you’re better off walking away from a company that plays games with you. That’s what happened to Lawson, the county worker flying to Bangkok.

“I never found a reasonable ticket,” he says. “Ultimately, I decided to cancel my trip.”

How to avoid pricing tricks

Watch for price changes. The price you’re quoted initially will almost certainly change as taxes and fees are added. If it’s too much, click off the site and find a company that will quote a complete and gimmick-free rate.

Mind the nines. Pricing experts know that nines can push you into a purchase. For example, a $199 hotel room will get three times as many bookings as a $200 one, according to Tim Brady, a pricing strategist with Mondo Mediaworks. “We don’t really know why,” he says. But you can resist this so-called “charm” pricing by becoming aware of the nines. If you see them, chances are you’re being manipulated.

Just say “no.” The only way these pricing lies will end is if you stop falling for them. So the next time a company offers an attractive rate or fare, but you end up having to pay more, walk away — but first, don’t forget to send a note to the FTC ( letting it know about the deceptive price you found. It’s the only way things will change.

  • Flywisely

    No way. ATL to BKK can be cheap if you search wisely.

  • Flywisely

    Even Delta is not that expensive.

  • sirwired

    The Case of the Disappearing Online Fare is easy to explain…

    Full, up-to-the second real-time fare availability is expensive, and agencies are billed based directly on their query volume. (As in, if a query is issued, but not ticket is bought, that costs the agency.)

    To reduce this expense (and make the entire Online Travel Agency business model possible), online travel agents use cached fare data. Instead, an airline data company (Google’s ITA is the largest) performs queries periodically and stores that information for passing on to their clients. Since the queries to the expensive real-time systems only happen every once in a while, the service is much cheaper.

    (As a side-note, this problem even happens on airline’s own websites; they don’t usually use external data providers, but they have the same demarcation between expensive real-time data and cheaper not-so-real-time data)

    The obvious drawback is that the travel agent only sends a query to the actual booking system to confirm the fare and availability when you have signaled you are ready to purchase and need to pick a seat. If the cached data was a couple hours old, the fare may very well no longer be available. This isn’t malicious or evil; they aren’t purposefully trying to trick you into booking by luring you in with a low fare (remember the agency doesn’t even make any money off of airline bookings.) It’s just an artifact of how the system works.

    There’s no ready fix to this problem. If there were rules in place mandating a “hard” query to the actual booking systems for every fare search, the OTA industry as we know it (as in, the ability to perform a free fare search at a whim) would be over. Instead consumers would almost certainly have to pay a fee to a travel agency just to perform an airfare search.

    EDIT: But yes, resort fees are terrible. No excuse for that blatantly-deceptive practice.

  • Flywisely

    I suppose the vast majority of online searches do not end up as buys. I think most of the searches are for price discovery and shopping comparisons. That said if online searches have to hit live airline seat inventory directly, then the system will grind to a halt just to satisfy onlookers rather than those sure to make a reservation.

    Maybe we can help people by making them understand they are searching cached data first so the computer can show them hundreds of flight options. But when they click “Select”, the system will validate their selected itinerary against live inventory and real-time prices.

  • KanExplore

    I’m not sure what the alternative is in the case of the article’s main premise. Fares should always stay the same all the time? Now on false pricing like the addition of “resort fees” I fully agree there’s a problem. That’s simply lying about prices, rather than changing them as supply and demand change.

  • AJPeabody

    Price searching is not confined to travel. EBay searches, for instance, can have a small warning that actual price may be different due to bids made after the search data was compiled. On line travel price searches could have an analagous warning, eliminating the paranoia factor when the current price is different from the search price, especially if the warning is enhanced by indicating how old the data presented actually is.

  • judyserienagy

    What a shame that this guy just gave up. A visit to a real travel agent would probably have found him a flight at his price such as Flywisely posts below. There’s little that consumers can do about the way travel is priced except educate themselves on how things work. You have to figure out work-arounds for all the obstacles in your way. Perhaps it’s not too late for him to pursue his flights.

  • Alan Gore

    This is an argument for all airlines being made to use the 24-hour Hold convention, rather than the 24-hour refund convention most carriers use. A passenger could tentatively reserve that initial fare before committing on hotel and other arrangements.

  • Bill___A

    Resort fees should be banned. Also, there’s no reason for air fare caching. Instead of tying up OTA and other resources caching data, it should be more cost effective to access the real time data. Obnoxiousness on the part of the airlines and their computer systems is the cause of this. Technically it can be fixed. Banks run way more transactions, do they have “cached” data in your web banking? no…

  • John McDonald

    watch the 9’s ? What about the &7’s ?
    An experiment was done, where people had to answer the questions below quickly.
    1. is 7 close to 5 or 10 ?
    2. is 77 closer to 50 or 100 ?
    3. is 777 closer to 500 or 1000 ?
    In almost every case, they answered 5/50/500.
    The brain is slow.

  • John McDonald

    ~20 hours & 1 night accommodation not included in BKK ? Are you kidding ?

  • John McDonald

    a real life travel agent, if they know what they are doing can often make 4 cheap seats into 8 cheap seats, but doing 2 bookings Very very fast for 4 seats each. Apparently, this doesn’t always work, but does work much of the time, as computer res systems, aren’t instantaneous.
    How do I know this ? We wanted 8 cheap seats to USA & found 4 (looked online & when we asked for 5, the price went up a lot-we always check price ofr less than number we want to see if same. If not always call a person as a computer can’t assist).
    Called agent & they “found” us 8 at the lower price. Asked how they did it & said scenario above. They said not guaranteed til next day as sometimes airlines come back & cancel or adjust 1 booking. The airlines have 24 hours only apparently to cancel or adjust.
    So if searching online, always check price for say 1 person if more than 1 travelling.
    If you want X cheap seats & the airline has X minus 1, left, the computer is dumb, it’s just looks for availability for X+1 seats, so a higher fare will be shown. Computer doesn’t average fares, but a real live human can. It just means 2 bookings.

  • sirwired

    Banks have more transactions, but travel systems run more queries. Every time somebody hits “search” in, say, Expedia, if it went directly to the airlines, would be about six queries to the airlines, cascading to usually several dozen flights, each of which needs an availability/fare lookup. Now, repeat the process several times for something like Kayak, which hits a bunch of sites at once. That’s not cheap, and the airlines have no incentive to do this for free; why would they?

    Contrast this with your bank, which receives one query per transaction, and returns one result. (By the way, your online statement? Usually NOT real-time.)

  • Lindabator

    or use a travel agent – we can hold for 24 hours in most cases