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There are few things quite as satisfying as securing a great travel deal. You’re giddy with excitement as you anticipate your upcoming journey. But did you know that someone else had just bought an identical seat on the same flight or secured a similar room in the same hotel and paid a whole lot less for it, just because they had been browsing different websites?
Could your browser history really stand in the way of securing the best travel deals? It doesn’t sound fair, but experts say that it’s happening more often than you’d think.
According to USA Today, we’re not talking about small price variations here. Way back in 2007, it searched a major travel site for flights from New York City to Sydney. The paper’s journalists used two different browsers: one cleared of cookies and the other which had been used to purchase several flights in the past.
The cleared browser offered a range of fares ranging from $1,770 to $1,950. The second browser only returned fares of $2,116, a hefty $346 more than the cheapest fare on the cleared browser. A company spokesperson for the travel provider insisted that there is “no user differentiation” based on buying histories, but the evidence seems to suggest differently.
While USA Today conducted its study in 2007, there’s anecdotal evidence to suggest that Internet history is still driving prices up. Last year, renowned travel blogger Johnny Jet wrote about pricing a ticket from Los Angeles to Las Vegas on the American Airlines site using Safari. He put the $159 round-trip tickets on a 24-hour hold, a free American Airlines service, so he could think about his plans further. He returned to the site the following day to discover the price had jumped up by a whopping $189. That’s an increase of more than twice the price!
Unimpressed with the price increase, Jet decided to try the same search in Internet Explorer, which would have no record of his history with the website. His clever browser switch saw the ticket return to the original price of $159.
It’s thought that American Airlines and other websites that use this practice are attempting to make browsers believe demand for the flights has driven prices up since their last visit. Consumers are led to think that if they don’t buy now, at the higher price, then they may miss out on a fare altogether. The airlines don’t count on shoppers verifying this information and often pocket plenty of extra cash by playing on the emotions of their customers.
Consumers needn’t blindly accept these extra charges, though. There are several tactics that can help travelers secure the best rates.
As with most purchases, it rarely pays to shop on impulse. Shopping around and viewing fares on a range of travel sites will help you sniff out the best deal. Don’t just assume that third-party travel sites will offer the best deal either. In many cases, an airline’s own branded site may offer discounts, so make sure you visit to see whether there are lower fares.
Also make sure that you scroll through the search results, as there are no guarantees that the cheapest flights will be on top. In 2012, The Wall Street Journal reported that Orbitz controversially changed the default display for Apple users. The travel site found Mac users often spend as much as 30 percent more on hotels, so it began displaying more expensive options prominently.
Some supporters suggest Orbitz was simply giving Apple customers what they wanted, but critics believe it was a blatant attempt to charge higher rates to Apple users. Whatever you think about it, the story highlights the importance of scrolling through results to ensure you’re really selecting the option that’s right for you.
Once you’ve settled on the flight or hotel you want, clear the cache so you can shop anonymously, without your browsing history inflating the price.
It’s also a good idea to use more than one browser to shop online. That way your browser history isn’t bulking up with information about purchases. Using a range of computers and mobile devices is ideal, but if you don’t have access to a range of technology, different browsers will still work.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that browser location can also drive the prices of airfares up. Internet entrepreneur Jose Casanova observed this when he attempted to book a flight from Miami to New Orleans earlier this year.
Casanova searched Kayak for the right flight on consecutive days and found that flights were around $100 cheaper on the first day than the second. He noticed that he’d used a virtual private network, or VPN, on the first day, which led Kayak to believe he was from Toronto, Canada, instead of Miami. He wondered whether flights are discounted if shoppers don’t live in the departure city, and set about investigating it.
Casanova found that when he searched with his VPN, he saved around $70 on his flights. Most people only think of using a VPN to protect their privacy while they’re using mobile devices or public WiFi, but Casanova proves they can be useful even when you’re browsing on your home network.
Use a trusted VPN like Hotspot Shield when you’re buying travel tickets to make sure your location isn’t held against you.