Use Private Browsing to Save Money on Flights

Travel2 years ago
Person using a computer on a coffee table to search google flights

You may come across many pieces of advice when looking for the best ways to find cheap flights to your vacation destination online. Some travel tips are more fanciful than others. One piece of advice you may have read about is that you should turn on Private Browsing before you buy a flight to save money and access cheap flight deals.

The theory goes that the website you are searching for a flight on will analyze your browsing history to calculate what prices you may be willing to pay for your flight. And the website will raise prices if the algorithm judges that there is more money to be made out of you.

In this article, we will offer some travel tips and look into whether this is true and whether you could see a substantial saving the next time you book your flight by hiding your browsing history from an airline.

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Do airlines offer different prices to different customers?

Unfortunately, airlines are in the practice of offering different prices for the same seat to different customers. This process is called "yield management," It is part of airline strategies to maximize their profits. Very often when you take a flight, if you were to check with the people to your left and right, you may discover that your neighbors have benefited from cheap flight deals that you were not offered.


How do airlines decide which price to charge their customers for the same seat?

Airlines will engage in customer profiling to select the price level they charge the customer. Primarily they will be profiling customers in terms of whether they are traveling for business or pleasure.

People traveling for their vacation are likely to book their plane seats months in advance, so when the flight first becomes available, airlines will take advantage of excited vacation bookers by presenting higher prices. As the time towards the date of the flight approaches, prices will start to decrease, presenting cheap flights to later bookers. For flights that see a lot of business passengers, prices will rise the nearer to the flight date as business flyers tend to book their flights at the last minute.


Do Airlines use browsing history to increase seat prices for certain customers?

So, we know that Airlines are in the business of adjusting seat prices according to the type of customer they are dealing with. Offering different prices according to what they think the customer will be willing to pay for the flight. But do they go so far as to employ this practice by accessing customer browsing histories?

There is no concrete data on this that will enable anyone to state conclusively whether this is the case. If airlines engage in this behavior, it is only expected that they would like to keep the practice as discrete as possible.


What do the airlines say?

Airline representatives explain the price changes for the same seats that have been noticed by consumers, on glitches and delayed price updates.They claim that looking at a customer's browsing history or using their cookies data does not come into play when offering the price for a flight. However, there have been documented instances of prices changing when they are presented to different customers.


Do prices change based upon whether you are searching with a MAC or PC?

The Wall Street Journal documented an instance of the online travel provider Orbitz offering different hotel prices to searchers based upon whether they were using a MAC or a PC to do their search. The journal reported that those looking for hotel prices while using a MAC were presented with higher prices than those using a PC. Presumably, this is because the website judged there was likely to be a difference in either the economic status of the users or how likely they were to be open to paying a higher price.

Flight taking off

Do prices change when you use a logged-in PC or do a search as a guest?

To test the claims that algorithms and browsing histories influence the price online travel companies offer you. Northeastern University conducted a study to see if there was a difference in prices offered when students were logged in vs. when they browsed as a guest.

There were six travel providers tested:

  1. Cheap Tickets – Showed nearly identical results for both logged-in and guest searches.
  2.  Expedia – Showed the same results for both searches but did list the most expensive options at the top for some logged-in searchers.
  3. Hotels.com – This company is owned by the same parent company as Expedia and showed very similar results by listing expensive options first for some logged-in users.
  4. Orbitz – There were no noticeable changes in the price offers between logged-in and guest searches.
  5. Price Line – The University's data stated no change in terms of whether a user was logged in or not. But the prices did change dramatically based on different user histories.
  6. Travelocity – The site displayed lower prices to people using an iOS system than those using other devices.

The study's data shows that travel sites are using algorithms that analyze certain aspects of your online behavior, such as your type of device and browsing history, to present the prices they think you will pay.


Summary - Should you use Private Browsing to Save Money On Flights?

So, given all the evidence above, there seem to be some indicators that certain travel provider websites offer different prices to different customers based upon what the algorithm classifies as lifestyle differentiations.

As we have seen, Orbitz was caught offering different prices to customers based upon the device they were using, with the assumption that Mac users were either in a better financial position or were simply more willing to pay increased amounts on their purchases. The North-eastern study also shows worrying evidence that our online behavior is being used against us by some companies so that they can maximize profits while offering the same level of service. These controversial travel tips regarding your browser may in fact be true.

Whether or not you believe it, this is enough advice to conclude that Airline companies are using our browsing histories against our financial interests; when it comes to looking for cheap flight deals, you should try all available tricks. It may be safer in the future to conduct a search when you are logged in and then when you are browsing in private and see if that makes a difference whether you can get cheap flights to your dream destination.