No airline cookie conspiracy? What about this trail of crumbs?

By | April 18th, 2010

Airlines and online travel agencies surreptitiously use computer “cookies” they’ve implanted on your Web browser to track your activity on their sites and then raise prices when it appears that you’re interested in a fare. That’s the rumor, at least.

I inadvertently resurrected a long-simmering controversy over this rumor a few weeks ago, when I blamed airfare fluctuations on a practice called “caching,” which lets airlines or travel agencies store a copy of all fare information on their sites. Caching is efficient and cost-effective for the company, but less than 5 percent of the fares may no longer be available.

So what’s really going on?

Many travelers are convinced that the price changes are deliberate. “I am absolutely sure that there is nothing unintentional about these price switches,” insisted Bernhard Kaltenboeck, a professor of veterinary medicine at Auburn University in Alabama. “The online reservation systems track your computer and raise the price on you when you seem to be actually interested in the flight.”

For years, I’ve brought views such as Kaltenboeck’s to the industry, and for years, it has vehemently denied any tampering with prices. But a few weeks ago, a story that made me start to doubt everything I’d heard caught my attention.

A United Kingdom-based hotel site called VivaStay reportedly dinged customers by way of a special link from an affiliated Web site that showed slightly higher prices than those quoted to customers who clicked directly on the VivaStay site. VivaStay apologized, but said it was unaware that the price variation was frowned upon. Although the story was hardly noticed outside Europe, it’s the first time I recall a company admitting to tinkering with prices in this way.

But what happens when someone accuses a big American online agency of the same behavior?

Just ask Mike Turner, who booked a Cancun vacation package through Travelocity with a friend a few weeks ago. They bought the trip together at the same time, while on the phone. “When we finished choosing the flights, rooms, and other options, we went to finalize the purchase and a box popped up saying my price had changed and I could either accept, or pick another flight,” said Turner, who manages a tire store in Eagan, Minn. “My friend was picking the exact same hotel, flight, and options but did not get this message.”

So Turner and his friend started the process again, selecting their flights and rooms one more time. The same message appeared. Travelocity wanted Turner to pay an extra $500, which he eventually did. Turner phoned the company and asked for an explanation, but a representative offered only to cancel his reservation. E-mail appeals to refund the price difference were ignored.

This looked like a clear case of price bait-and-switch, so I asked Travelocity whether cookies were to blame. “Simply not true,” said spokesman Dan Toporek. The agency investigated Turner’s claim and found that the bookings weren’t identical. “It appears that Mr. Turner booked a package that included a junior suite, whereas his friend’s package had a more standard room. That was the reason for the difference in price,” he said. (Half a grand for an upgrade to a junior suite? That seems a little rich.)

Could these price fluctuations be our fault? Some of them might be, like my own recent efforts to buy an inexpensive flight, where I waited too long and the fare wasn’t available anymore. But can they all be written off as user error? No, they can’t.

Donna Brinkmeyer, a teacher from Sioux Falls, S.D., says that when she recently tried to buy a ticket to Vietnam, she handled her reservation through the Delta Air Lines Web site by the book. But when she was actually ready to buy her flights, the airline informed her that the ticket she wanted was $300 more than the original price quote.

“Disappointed, but curious, I returned to Delta’s home page and began the process again,” she said. “The same lower fare was still displayed, so I worked my way through the process again only to be informed once again that the fare was no longer available. Over the course of a half hour I repeated this process two more times. Same result.”

I’ve brought cases like this to other airlines in the past, and the answer is always the same. Even with evidence, such as screen shots and printouts, the only way you’ll ever prove the cookie conspiracy theory is with an affidavit from the head of the travel company’s IT department.

But customers think they know better.

“There must be a systematic process designed to lure the buyer with a price that the company does not intend to honor,” said Bob Flood, a health physicist who lives in Las Vegas. “Consider this: In the natural order of things, if there is no bias in a process, there are about as many negative outcomes as positive outcomes. The process of posting the lower airfares — that is, making them initially available — should result in as many surprisingly lower prices at booking as it does surprisingly higher ones because they have all been taken.”

He makes a good point. I’ve heard of only one or two cases where the fare dropped.

It may be impossible to prove conclusively that travel companies use cookies to raise their fares, or to bait us with low fares. But smart travelers have found a way around it. Caren Barnes, a teacher from Lincoln, Neb., simply logs off whenever a low fare turns into a high fare. “I go to another computer,” she says. “There’s almost a 100 percent chance you’ll see the lower fare you saw the first time.”

Another technique worth considering is to clear the cookies on your Web browser. Each program handles this task slightly differently; consult the “help” option in your application’s menu for directions.

Bottom line: Don’t think of a travel site as a supermarket. Instead, picture it as a Middle Eastern bazaar. How much for the ticket? Whatever it looks as though you’re willing to pay.

(Photo: virtualpilot88/Flickr Creative Commons)

  • AceRoinox

    My wife experienced this personally. She had been researching a cross-country trip to see our new grandson for a couple of weeks, visiting the various airline and agency sites numerous times. When she finally decided to book after a price drop, she made the reservation on the airline site, only to have the price jump by $100 at the last minute. I was working on my computer at the time, and so I queried up the itinerary on my computer using the same airline site and was able to get the original price, which we booked for her on my computer with no problem. We now routinely do all our research on one computer then book on another (clearing caches and cookies does not always work).

    By the way, I have also had problems with Hotwire doing the same thing on hotel properties, so we use the same strategy with them.

    The real question is how to put a stop to what appears to be a widespread practice. It is classic bait and switch and clearly illegal under our current commerce laws. I have a theory: most of the online travel agencies and airlines use a rez system provided by ITA Software. ITA Software is a wholly owned subsidiary of Google. I don’t need to rehearse how much Google already knows about our lives–suffice it to say that Google does not charge consumers for any of its services because the data it harvests about whom we call, email, text (and what we say), as well as where we go with our Google-driven GPS-tracked phones and how long we stay, where we live, what we buy, what we research and read online, etc. all enable their extremely lucrative advertising model.

    Is it any surprise that Google knows enough about us to game us in the transaction stage of a travel purchase? And if you’re wondering why clearing the cache and cookies sometimes does not solve the problem, remember that Google can profile you with only a few hints once you begin again to browse and will pick up your identity independent of cookies in fairly sort order, as is evidenced by the customized and localized ads which begin again to appear in your browser.

  • TheOtherM

    I logged on Kayak several times researching non-stop to flights to Florida (non-stop being necessary for my elderly Mom). The price crept up every time, starting at around $300 and then moving up to $800. Resigned to having to pay $800, I called JetBlue rather than book through Kayak (only because I needed to arrange for a wheelchair for my Mom). Surprise! The JetBlue agent only charged me $600, NOT $800. Cookie conspiracy? Absolutely!!

  • ThisPerson

    “I am absolutely sure that
    there is nothing unintentional about these price switches,” insisted
    Bernhard Kaltenboeck, a professor of veterinary medicine at Auburn
    University in Alabama.

    So, I’m supposed to be trusting the opinion of web technology from a
    professor of veterinary medicine? Really? I’d think the author of the
    article would find a more academically reputable source.

  • Lane Yarbrough

    This has happened to me. I check prices within my Chrome browser. Then I start over with Google’s incognito window.

    “You’ve gone incognito. Pages you view in this window won’t appear in your browser history or search history, and they won’t leave other traces, like cookies, on your computer after you close all open incognito windows. Any files you download or bookmarks you create will be preserved, however.”

  • Chris

    I was working for an airline for some years and when things like that happened it was always a syncronisation issue between the reservation system and the online booking platform cache, which is used because of the high transaction/polling cost the reservation systems are charging.

  • Ben

    This would be trivially easy to prove if indeed airlines were doing it (using cookies to jack up prices).

    How to test

    1. Install Firefox
    2. Open travel website in your usual browser (IE, chrome etc)
    3. Go through path of making booking until last step before payment
    4. Note price you are presented with
    5. Open Firefox
    6. Repeat booking process until last step
    7. Compare price in firefox with price in your usual browser of choice.
    8. If price is cheaper in Firefox then the website is most likely using cookies to change the prices.

    The reason why companies probably aren’t doing this because it would be so easy to test and prove and there would be a massive public outcry against them. To all those people above who have said “I have seen first-hand evidence of this” etc either put up or shut up – show me a real life example of this happening right now using the method I just outlined above and you can convince me, otherwise what you are seeing is caching of prices (innocent explanation) or possibly a bait and switch. In short I find the ‘raising prices by tracking cookies’ extremely unlikely.

  • zenmaster43

    We got a quote on that was from Orbitz. We then repeated the search a few minutes later and the same flight went up by $30. We then cleared the cookies and tried again and the price for the same flight reverted to the originally quoted price. Call it what you want to, it’s clear to me they’re tracking your activity and cookies are involved.

    Regardless of the contents of the cookie, they are able to track the activity of a given user in this way. As a webmaster and website designer, I know the techniques available to them and could probably do a one-up on theirs to boost their profits, but I’m not that kind of guy.

  • zenmaster43

    For me, it’s not a “strong possibility”, but rather a certainty. We tested it and it’s clear the cookies make the difference between paying what you first were quoted or what they hike it up on a subsequent quote, just because you repeated your search.
    It is clearly bait-and-switch and is blatantly unethical in my opinion.

    Someone else said it’s like a middle-eastern bazaar, where you pay what they think you can afford. That’s actually a misconception. At least at a bazaar, you can haggle over the price. With these online sites, you either pay their first quote or you pay more. There’s no way to talk them into lowering the price, so they have all the advantages and you have none.

    The fact that a cookie only stores a session id means there is no way you can actually gather any proof directly from its contents.
    The server is where the real information they’ve collected about your visits is stored, and that’s off limits, (unless you can swing a court order to confiscate their servers for evaluation as evidence).

    You can be pretty much assured they’ve got their information encrypted and their server center totally secured in order to make it harder on investigators and you can be sure they’ve got offsite backups and could wipe their server’s drives clean of evidence at a moment’s notice, and some server elsewhere would take over to keep their site online, probably without even skipping a heartbeat.

    If everyone cleared their cookies before and after searching for prices, their trap would nab zero increased profits and they’d have to consider removing it from their servers, since all it would be doing then is wasting processing time and costing them a lot to keep more servers and network hardware online, without generating any added income.

    They can smugly deny any unethical activity, simply because they know you have about a snowball’s chance in hell of getting any evidence out of them directly and they can claim your experience was just an “artifact of the technology”, as was mentioned by one unconvinced columnist.

  • zenmaster43

    Vote with your feet, I say. Clear your cookies diligently, then buy the lowest priced ticket you can find on the first search thereafter. This will inevitably drain the more greedy companies and they’ll go out of business if they keep it up, or they’ll more likely trim their aspirations back and start to compete again, to keep from going out of business.

  • laura

    My dad was going to buy a ticket for me to hawaii with mileage the other night and decided to wait..the next morning he got on and it wasn’t available anymore to purchase with mileage…he decided to check his iphone and it was available there. There is obviously something going on with the cookies or whatnot…

  • Millunzi

    My wife just had a situation with Travelocity booking a flight on Sun Country Air. The price went up while she was finalizing the transaction. She called Travelocity and was told there were only two tickets left at that price and they must’ve been taken during her transaction. But then I went on to my computer at work and was able to book four tickets at the price she was originally quoted. A price that the Travelocity rep said no longer existed.

  • Poopdeck

    If the automatic raising of prices is not done by tracking cookies, which it may not be as you point out, then it’s by something else. When multiple people start searching for the same flight (not buying, but just searching), the price will tend to go up at the point of purchase. I’ve only bought 10 tickets in my life. And on all 10, this was the case. Same goes for anyone I’ve ever talked to who bought tickets. There is clearly bait and switch going on. Perhaps focusing on cookies is a mistake.

  • Steve Frank

    Travelocity engages in flash tracking. They know when you were looking for an hotel on say Priceline, a few hours later you will get an email from Travelocity about deals for hotels in that city. Travelocity tracks you via adobe flash and cookies.

  • Steve Frank

    Most cookies come from Israel NSA.

  • NRDA

    ZenMaste I agreed with you.. have recorder it .. now worse British Airways do not let you managed your booking online as it forces you to call them , then prices you wanted change to higher then a new ticket if you bought it on their Web, Also you have to pay the fee of 30 pounds ..
    BA staff are the only ones who can get into your booking online .. i have tried several days after 24 hours and i was right .. they are the only one who can change the tickets and by it charge you more. so when i tried to book new ticket for early day at reduce price BA did not allowed me. I called today again I was told BA does not allowed a passenger to have to tickets even this one was 2 days early. as it better to buy new ticket then changed it .. AGAIN i Feel this is a manipulation of British Airways against costumers as they want them to pay more. AS i have recorder my conversation with the staff and made a video when the did not let me to get into my booking despite written correct information, same as it did NOT allowed me book new flight… I am to complain to the Ombusdman.. I have lose the chance 2 times and now my holidays ruin as i can no go early as i wanted ..