Online Airfare Booking Conspiracy
No Airline Cookie Conspiracy? What About This Trail of Crumbs?
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
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.
But what happens when someone accuses a big American online agency of the same behavior?
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
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
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.
"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
He makes a good point. I've heard of only one or two cases where the fare dropped.
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.
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