TAMPA, Fla — How many times has it happened to you?
You find a flight you want at a good price only to go back to purchase it later to see it at a higher price.
Some travel advice-type websites claim it’s because airline and booking websites are tracking what you’re searching and then using that information to jack up the price.
Social media is filled with posts like this, this and this with people who swear by clearing out your browser history or searching in private or ‘incognito mode’ to ensure you’re getting the lowest price possible.
Does clearing your search history or searching in ‘incognito mode’ guarantee you find the best deal on airfare?
No, clearing your history or searching in ‘incognito mode’ does not ensure you’ll get the lowest price. Experts say other factors are at work that impact pricing and some studies have found the best prices are often shown to tracked users.
WHAT WE FOUND
William McGee, an airline passenger advocate, has conducted studies on airline pricing for Consumer Reports.
McGee says he and his team conducted more than 300 identical searches simultaneously on nine airline ticketing websites. But some of the browsers had history and cookies intact while the other was scrubbed – or cleared of its history.
Slightly more than half the time the higher prices were on the scrubbed browser cleared of its search history, he said.
“That’s the fascinating part,” McGee told 10 Tampa Bay. “We found results on both sides – where the scrubbed browsers got the lower fare and the un-scrubbed browser got the lower fare.”
McGee has been pushing for greater transparency in the airline industry for decades. He says Congress needs to address the current rules for fare and fee transparency which he argues are not effective.
“The bottom line is if this was a more transparent industry we wouldn’t be thinking the worst all the time,” McGee said.
A Northeastern University study that tested six online travel sites found logged-in/return users on average saw lower prices than anonymous users. The study concluded it could be in your best interest to be logged in when searching for travel deals.
Kyle Potter, the executive editor of Thrifty Traveler, says it’s “flat out false” that you will find the lowest price by clearing your search history.
“Along with Tuesdays being the cheapest days to book flights, this is just one of those bits of conventional wisdom that gets passed around again and again,” Potter said.
If prices were impacted by search history, Potter argues his colleagues at Thrifty Travel who spends all day, every day searching flights, would never find a deal.
“I really do think it boils down to this being a convenient explanation and it gives people what they feel is power to get a better bargain with something as simple as opening an incognito browser or clearing their cookies,” Potter said.
The idea of clearing history or searching in private mode stems from the belief that airline and travel sites are tracking what you’re looking for and then jacking up the price.
Airlines have previously denied this practice is happening, McGee said. When 10 Tampa Bay reached out to these four major air carriers – American Airlines, Delta, Southwest and United – only American Airlines and Southwest responded.
“We don’t talk about our pricing strategy except to say that our brand promise is to offer all our customers low fares with no hidden fees,” a Southwest spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement.
An American Airlines spokesperson said they could not comment on how the company prices fares due to anti-trust regulations.
Neither directly addressed questions about whether they track users’ search histories.
So, then why did that ticket you were just looking at suddenly jump in price?
Potter says there are multiple explanations for frequently fluctuating airfare.
Airlines are constantly altering their prices as tickets sell and demand changes, he said. Prices also change the closer you get to the departure date.
There’s also something called fare classes.
Most of us are familiar with first, business, or economy class. But within each of those categories is a slew of subcategories — fare classes. Each fare class can have its own price.
“From the airline’s perspective they have an alphabet soup of fare classes,” he said. “So, when you search for a flight you just see that economy ticket for $99, but what the airline actually has is a fare class in an economy seat for $99.”
What you don’t know is that the airline might only have two tickets in that particular fare class at that price. Once it sells out the price will jump to the next, higher-priced class.
“So, it looks to you like the airline is just deciding to charge more, but in reality that fare class you were looking at – that best price – may have just sold out,” Potter said.
Buying multiple tickets at a time can also inadvertently cause the price to increase because of so-called fare buckets. Airlines have different buckets – or groupings – of seats. Each is priced differently. But buying more tickets could bleed into other buckets, Potter explains.
For example, a bucket might only have four seats priced the same, so a family of five purchasing tickets together could face a higher price.
With the holiday travel season kicking into high gear, McGee says there’s no secret to booking the best deal, you just have to be persistent.
“There are billions of airfares loaded into reservation systems worldwide every single day,” he said. “For this holiday season, you really do need to look more than once when you’re looking for fares.”