For you, a special price: more!


Mark Hegeberg thought National would reward him with a lower price in exchange for his loyalty to the car rental company. So when he was looking for a car in Mexico, he clicked on the company’s website and volunteered his Emerald Club number.

“I checked reservations using my Emerald Club number and thought the charges were high,” remembers Hegeberg, who works for a packaged goods company in Mill Creek, Wash. A one-week, full-size rental in Los Cabos during August came to $246 with his membership, he says.

“Then I checked rentals without using my Emerald number and found them to be significantly less,” he says. The site returned a rate of $126 for the week — almost half the amount.

“Quite a difference,” says Hegeberg.

What’s going on?

Hegeberg emailed National, and it offered a cryptic response: “The Emerald Club is a US- and Canada-based program only,” a representative said. “Therefore, when you are adding your Emerald Club number to an international reservation, the system does not recognize the Emerald Club program for international rentals and generates a higher rate.”

I contacted National to see if I could get a few details about the price difference. It didn’t respond.

Would a travel company offer you a higher price because it knows who you are? Actually, it’s not only legal — in the future, it may become common.

Already done

For years, travelers suspected online agencies of serving up higher fares and prices when they recognized your browser “cookies” — those invisible electronic breadcrumbs that identify you. Even though nothing could be conclusively proven, I thought the cookie conspiracists had valid concerns.

This year, the discussion moved from tin-foil-hat territory to almost-reality when the International Air Transport Association (IATA) proposed establishing a new standard for selling airline seats called the New Distribution Capability (NDC). The NDC would allow an airline to collect personal information such as your address, birthday and frequent-flier information to offer you a special or custom fare based on what it knows about you.

Critics say that if the NDC is approved by the government, then it would essentially give airlines the ability and the license to do what they’ve denied doing for years: to offer you a “custom” airfare based on the information you share with it. You might not be able to compare prices between airlines, making airfare shopping virtually impossible.

If they can pull it off, this kind of Middle Eastern bazaar pricing could become common in travel. For you, we have a special price: more!

The right way

At the heart of the problem is this: The data used to make our purchase decisions is considered “proprietary” by travel companies. It’s only released to reservation systems and through the company’s own website, where it is subject to display bias and other shenanigans. And here’s where the government can step in and do some good. The federal government could always tell travel companies to release this information to everyone.

If that happened, then it could allow other companies to search the prices to find the best one for you, as opposed to an airline showing you only what it wants to. For someone like Hegeberg, there’d be no doubt about where the least expensive car rental rates would be found, and every car rental company would know it. Displaying a higher rate to a frequent renter just wouldn’t be possible.

Of course, that assumes that we can trust a company to give us the tools to search for the lowest fares. I’m not convinced any company is up to that challenge, not even Google. Been to Google Shopping yet? Then maybe you know it allegedly doesn’t always play fair.

No, what we need — and what doesn’t yet exist — is an open and unbiased platform that uses crowdsourcing to overcome the travel industry’s DNA-level desire to ask you to pay more for less. It is also up to us to persuade our government to free the data, which will be a tough sell indeed.

Maybe it’s up to us, the travelers, to find a solution.

Should a company be allowed to change a priced based on who you are?

View Results

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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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  • Cat

    Given the way they are using (abusing) this information they should not be able to gather and use it at all.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    The poll posts an interesting questions. Companies already give discounts to people because of who they are. Have a AAA membership, get 10% off. Be a graduate of such and such school, get a discount. Some hotels have age rates, i.e. pay your birth year. In my early 20s, I got a 5% discount from my car insurance because of my undergraduate science degree.

    Elite members of airlines don’t pay baggage fees. Elite members of hotels often don’t pay for internet. When I was a Hyatt elite member, some Hyatt’s resorts waived the resort fee.

    So, we already pay based in part on who were are. I think this ship has already sailed. So really what we’re talking about is how the fares are presented.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    pt 2.
    Up until last month, I was convinced that the cookie conspiracy people were nuts.

    Now I’m not so sure. Recently I booked a room at the Intercontinental. I originally got a room rate of $116. Then I remembered I had a Holiday Inn account so I wouldn’t have to enter a bunch of information. The rate jumped up to $160. I spent a good hour trying to get back my $116 rate.

    In the past, such a difference was because of my preferences, e.g. King bed. Sometimes the website won’t display cheaper rates because those rates are attached to rooms with 2 beds, or smaller beds. I methodically removed every preference, cleared my cache, and still, no $116 rate. I logged out, and voila, $116 re-appeared. So I booked the rate and added my FF number afterwards.


  • sirwired

    I’m having trouble coming up with a compelling reason why they shouldn’t be able to use customer information as part of pricing, especially given how “who you are” has been a part of pricing since, well, forever. Certainly, I think most people can agree that it makes sense for loyal customers to receive preferential pricing. If that’s the case, I don’t see why the reverse should not be “allowed”, and, in fact it’s quite common.

    We see it all the time in telecommunications and other “subscription” deals where new customers receive preferential rates vs. existing ones; this happens because you want to lure new customers in, hoping they’ll like your product or service enough to not cancel when they pay full price. Those promotional rates are usually not available to existing customers.

    We see it all the time where customers that are part of this or that group receive preferential pricing. Your Employer, Age, group membership, State of Residence, Gender, etc.

    In addition, it can make sense to charge people with an existing relationship more; you’ve already had a chance to experience their service, and they are guessing you liked it well enough that they think they’ll be able to get you to pay more for it. That may be an incorrect guess, but that’s certainly not a matter for deciding what should or should not be allowed.

  • Charles B

    Browser tips for cookie conspiracists. This is a good way to try a site without cookies, and yet without having to delete your entire browser history. I use these all the time in web development and it beats the heck out of having to stop and clear every time you want to try something new.

    If you use Chrome: go up to the three-bars icon in the top right of your browser. Click it to open a menu. Select “New incognito window” from the menu. (or try the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+Shift+N.) That will open a fresh browser with no memory of your current cookies or logins. Anything you do in the window will not save cookies. Close the incognito window to return to the normal browser.

    If you use Firefox: Click the Firefox menu, up in the top left of the window. Select “Start Private Browsing.” Same idea, except that Firefox closes the not-private window when it opens the private one. You’ll have to go back to the Firefox window and select “Stop Private Browsing” to go back to normal.

    If you use IE: first, why? :-) Try the Tools menu, “InPrivate Browsing” or shortcut “Ctrl+Shift+P”.

    Not sure what if anything Safari or Opera has for this.

  • Charlie Funk

    While only reported anecdotally, there are stories of airfares on some European discount air carriers going up when someone searched for a specific city pair on specific dates on that carrier’s website but did not book, then searched the same site again later. The inference I drew was that the searcher’s computer had cookies dumped on it by the site that served to teach the prospective passenger a lesson about not booking the first time.
    Is this the intent of NDC? Who knows. Is the possibility of this sort of thing becoming standard practice? Absolutely. That the possibility exists is sufficient reason to work to prevent introduction of the capability.

  • backprop

    “Should a company be allowed to change a priced based on who you are?”

    So based on the poll results so far, a widowed mother of three autistic children going to visit their dying veteran grandfather on his birthday for a trip-of-a-lifetime should NOT be given preferential pricing or treatment.

    Right? :)

  • ExplorationTravMag

    Chris, you know where I come in on this.

    And that screenshot I e-mailed you the other day? That was also Enterprise. I’m not a huge fan of government intervention but it seems the car rental business NEEDS it!

  • Miami510

    First a comment on the remark:Have an AAA membership, get 10% off. On numerous occasions, I`ve called a motel in AAA`s book and requested a quote for a room for the night… saying nothing else except I wanted a room on the ground floor that was non-smonking. The quote was given, and then I mentioned that I had a AAA card. Invariably I was told that the quote given WAS the AAA rate. This leads me to the opinion that the AAA rate is a non-existant discount… perhaps a fraud.

    Why aren`t airline fees marketed through an exchange, such as are stocks… with a transparency which didn`t exist in the days before the advent of the exchanges? In those days, brokers could quote anything and the consumers would have no easy way of making comparisons.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    And we, the consumer, should be given the ability to opt out. Websites won’t allow you to visit them unless you allow cookies (many don’t, but…) however, as the consumer, we’re not permitted to opt out of this information grab.

  • RG

    Of course the medical industry has been doing this for years. You pay one price if they are participants in your plan, a different price if you are not, a third if you are poor, a fourth if you are uninsured. That is how we get charges like $25 for 2 Tylenol.

  • jim6555

    I’ve seen just the opposite happen at a doctor’s office. My Chiropractor charges $75 for an adjustment. For patients who have insurance, he collects a co-pay (usually $10 to $35 depending on the coverage) and then invoices the insurer for the balance. When he gets paid, 60 to 90 days later, he does not receive the full $75 less co-pay. Instead, he is paid a lesser amount per his contract with the insurer. The chiropractor has decided that it is not worth having his staff prepare claims forms for the insurance companies. Sometimes, an insurer declines the invoice and a staff person has to spend much time holding on the phone waiting for a human to come on the line. He has decided that any patient who does not have insurance or does not wish to use insurance will be charged $35 per adjustment. He’s told me that he makes about the same amount of profit per patient when an insurer is not involved. Last year, I changed insurers and my Chiropractor is not in the new company’s network. I could go to a different Chiropractor and pay a $25 co-pay or I could go to the same doctor who I have been going to for several years and pay $35. I chose the latter.

  • Don Filiault

    To a rental car company, “Loyalty” means that you’re loyal to them. They don’t feel that they have to be loyal to you. It only takes a few minutes to use one of the many comparison engines to determine who is currently offering the best rental price for the car that you want, on the dates that you want. AFTER you do this, if you belong to the Company’s Loyalty Club (It costs nothing to join) sign in. You may then get a better price than the price shown on the comparison engine site, but maybe not. “To thine own self be true” is a good motto to use when dealing with travel companies.

  • Sam Varshavchik

    I do not understand how NDC makes it impossible to comparison shop. You can still go to different airlines, and get some prices to compare. Perhaps the price your preferred airline gives is going to be based on personalized data. How exactly would that prevent you from clicking on another airline’s web site, and getting a price from them?

    Perhaps the concern is that your airline is not going to show you the best price, based on your personal data. But you can still go and look at someone else’s price. That’s still comparison shopping. And if another airline gives you a better price, you will go with them, and that’s going to prevent your airline from giving you “too” of a custom price.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    Incorrect wording here; I voted YES because companies should be able to charge you LESS if they choose to based on your status. When I book at Hilton, for instance, I am given more choices because of my diamond status. Last time I checked prices, they were fair, often a little less; I’ll have to go back again after clearing all my little cookies. Bottom line, some travel companies are run by morons at the top level who think that making $17 more from a customer today is worth losing business in the future. One of these days they’ll wake up to the vast amount of communication and information that’s available to the consumer.

  • MarkKelling

    In Safari select the “Safari” menu and click “Private Browsing …” Click OK and there you are.

    If you run into a site that requires cookies, the page won’t load sometimes in Safari when you select this.

  • MarkKelling

    The AAA discount is real. It is easy to see when you book a room online. I almost never book by calling directly, and the hotels I book that way don’t offer AAA discounts anyway, so I’m not sure about that approach.

    However, sometimes there is only a small discount, sometimes it can be significant, and sometimes AAA can be higher than the “Best Available” rate if you are a frequent stayer and have a membership for that company. Example: I stayed at a Honolulu beach front hotel. The public rate for an ocean view room was around $300. The AAA price for that room booked online was $199. The frequent stayer rate, which had the bonus of an included rental car and breakfast for 2 each day was also $199. If you book just a basic room (i.e. the one overlooking the dumpster;-) ), the AAA price was also $199 but the generally available rate was $179.

    As the old saying goes “Your performance may vary.”

  • MarkKelling

    So would everyone be OK if the poll was reworded to say “charge a LOWER price”?

    I doubt anyone would care if the company being dealt with always charged a lower rate based on knowing who the customer is. But what is wrong with them charging you more? Maybe the company has collected enough info about you where it knows you never choose the lowest priced option. Maybe you always choose the middle price option. So to save you time, they give you that information. I would hope that the lower priced options would be available in case you are not going through your normal routine.

    In the case of Enterprise, I would think that their online system would simply ignore information that is not relevant based on where the rental will occur. I guess not from what is reported. Just shows that blindly assuming can cost you money.

  • BobChi

    What do you mean by, “the federal government could always tell the travel companies to release this information to everyone”? Companies I do business with have certain information about me that is pertinent to those transactions, but which would be a horrific invasion of privacy if released to everyone. I hope I’m reading this wrong, because I can’t actually believe you would be saying that the information United Airlines has about me should be released to every crook, con artist and spammer out there so that they can offer me better “deals”. Clarify, please.

  • LFH0

    I remember a few months ago walking into a Target store, and seeing that an item had been prominently marked as being on sale. I looked at the sale price and saw that it was actually higher than the regular price. I asked the sales clerk if I would be able to buy the item at the regular price instead of the sale price, and she said no problem. Unfortunately, she could not answer the question as to why a sale price would be higher than the regular price.

  • Maxwell_Daemon

    I use a nice little piece of software, a free add-on to my Firefox browser which takes care of such problems. It’s called “self destructing cookies”.

    What it does is it deletes cookies after a period of 10 sec, thereby letting you to login to the site and stay logged in after the cookie disappears. Believe me it works wonders .

  • whatup12

    I use IE because it is way better at protecting me from AdSense and google analytics than hmm…the google product. (!topic/analytics/iMBMCcrh4aU). Much to the chagrin of Google, IE blocks a lot of this out of the box. Firefox is better…
    Do you really think google is going to give you a product for free (ie chrome) that doesn’t make them money?

  • Phoenix Justice

    I have had that issue as well regarding the AAA membership discount as many hotels have a published AAA rate, which is often times higher than a regular discounted rate.

  • Charles B

    Fair points. I drink the google kool-aid, and not the microsoft kool-aid nor the apple kool-aid. Any way you slice it you’re beholden to some big company or another. Your free copy of IE browser with Bing search is all in microsoft’s hands instead of google’s.

    Mark, thanks for the Safari tip.

  • LonnieC

    Safari also has a “Private Browsing” setting. Right click on the word “Safari” at the top left of the screen. Then click on “Private Browsing” on the drop down screen. Click on “OK” on the next screen. That’s all there is. To go back to normal, just right click Safari, “Private Browsing” will be checked. Click on it, and you’re done.

  • whatup12

    Agree–still use google as default search provider in IE though stopped using gmail last year after always seeing ads targeting public health when indeed, the content of my emails related to public health. Trying bing more often since i also didn’t like the whole google shopping paid ads thing. but bing doesn’t work internationally so indeed, google still has me there!

  • MarkKelling

    Reminds me of a story my grandfather told about the local grocery store he worked at as a teenager. They got stuck with a large shipment of bath soap that sold normally for 4 cents a bar. No one was buying it and they were desperate to get rid of it. So they put it on sale on a display at 2 bars for 10 cents. And they couldn’t keep it on the shelf! People bought it just because it was “on sale” without noticing they were paying a lot more for it at that price.

    I’ve noticed the same thing you saw at Target. Usually the item is on sale where if you buy 2 you get a $5 gift card for use on your next shopping trip. When you subtract out the gift card, there is a savings. But if you only buy one you pay more than the normal price.

  • Alan Gore

    Travel companies are always bellyaching about the putative price sensitivity of the consumer. We will change airlines, they say, for a few pieces of silver. Well, if loyalty earns us a higher price than the newcomer, then hell yes.

  • Chris Johnson

    The travel companies can do whatever they want (within reason) and it may all be legal, that’s why I voted yes, it’s a free country. Doesn’t mean I agree with the practice itself or that it isn’t stupid though – he got punished for indicating he was an Emerald Club member. It makes no sense.

  • Wackiedon

    Clear your cookies hide your IP address if possible log on/in at a different location and see the results. These tasks have saved me hundreds as different from elected a special customer. AA and Budget Rent More Save More are cookie monster

  • Kevin Mathews

    Insurance is another example of a product where the price is directly impacted by WHO you are and you history.
    I don’t see why flying should be any different…
    Being able to see someone’s history of “No-Shows”, or in flight complaints against them, or average checked bag weight, or any number of other factors that could negatively impact a person’s flying history. Or the exact opposite where the customer has a “clean record”…
    The question I’ve got is how much personal information is acceptable?
    If Flight History is ok, what about personal information such as weight, height, etc…? Things that directly impact the flight costs, even if it’s minimally. Or is this getting too far into the personal detail?


    Airlines already charge fares based on who you are. Take international business class on many airlines. Travel in that class and it will be almost impossible to find 2 people who paid the same fare. And those fares often vary by thousands based on who you are and who you might work for or if you are simply a leisure traveler.
    It might be more common in the future if NDC is approved, but it would not be new at all. And I wonder how many people complaining about this are willing to give up a frequent shopper card at a grocery store, when that card gives them a discount that non-cardholders do not get. (I do not carry any store loyalty card as I do not like having my everyday purchases stored in someone’s data base and used for targeted advertising. I have taken to paying cash for groceries and other similar items.)

  • Don Spilky

    Chris, Enterprise’s response doesn’t seem to make much sense based on the details given. Can you please confirm that the OP did an “apples to apples” comparison without the Emerald Club number? Meaning that the second search was for the Los Cabos as well?

  • emanon256

    I see this all the time too. Often when I see the AAA rate as the same as the generally available rate, the AAA rate is pre-paid while the generally available rate is not. I also tried using the AAA travel agents once. They got us good prices at bad places. I then used an independent agent and got the same good prices, at much better places. I would rather pay $99 a night post paid for than Hayatt than $99 a night pre-paid for the no-tell-motel.

  • emanon256

    I just saw that this weekend. An item was marked as on-sale, but it was the same price. Then I noticed the whole, “Buy two get a $5 gift card”. Very sneaky. If I did buy two for full price, I would have to come back and buy more of something to use the gift card.

  • emanon256

    I am actually wondering if the OP used a coupon number. When I enter my Emerald club number and don’t enter my emerald club number, I get the
    same rate. When I enter a random made up coupon code, the rate goes way up. I wonder if they intentionally raise the rate if they think someone is making up a coupon code.

    Also, maybe the OP has insurance and a specific car size tied to their Emerald account. Saving settings for insurance, options, and a car size, causes only the bigger car and rates with insurance to show up. When you don’t use your Emerald account, it shows the cheapest car with no options or insurance yet.

  • Lindabator

    Its one thing to offer a DISCOUNT to a loyal client, but another to offer higher costs just becuase you live in a better neighborhood, more expensive city, etc.

  • Lindabator

    And therein lies the problem. IF they discount off the regular rate, it is a thank you. If you never even GET the original offer……

  • Lindabator

    That’s my point. If someone in Detroit is going to be pre-selected for lousy flights because they are cheap, and not see the more expensive, better schedule, WHILE the better schedule but NO lower fares are only available if you book from Bloomfield Hills, the only one who profits is the airline – they dump the lousy schedules by only offering those to those they think are “cheap” and sell more expensive options to those they think can “afford” more. Terrible!

  • Lindabator

    Because the discount is off the rack rate, so if you book far enough in advance, or stay a longer period of time, it may be the same cost, or even lower.

  • Lindabator

    Again – because the discount is always off the rac rate – which works great for last minute and busy times, not always.

  • Lindabator

    Sometimes, but there are other benefits, like no hassle checkins, no high pressure insurance sales, and free upgrades. Also coupons for free rentals based on productivity – my corporate clients LOVE the loyalty plans.

  • Lindabator

    But what the airlines WANT is to only offer selected flights – you don’t SEE the better priced options, so you purchase what you THINK is the best price – and if the NDC DOES go thru, no more Kayaks shopping for you, as they will no longer have to publish all airfares – EU has already tried to strike down this business, and are fighting right now to ensure it does not happen.

  • Lindabator

    That’s what I thought, since Mexico HAS no Emerald Club – probably thought it was a scammer. :)

  • emanon256

    Now, can you explain why that post was down voted? No more Yankees logo :) And I didn’t say anything other than what National does.