Dear Lifehacker, Someone recently suggested to me that I should block or delete my cookies before I visit an airfares website, with the argument being that the price increases the more times that I visit the site. Is this true? Thanks, Frugal Flyer
Airport picture from Shutterstock
Dear Frugal Flyer,
The short answer: probably not.
However, there are several problems with this. Firstly, there’s not a lot of convincing evidence that fares are varied on the basis of stored cookies. I check flight prices constantly on Australian airline sites for work, and I’ve never seen evidence of this happening. I have certainly seen prices go up if I check the same date repeatedly over time, but that’s not evidence that I’m being ripped off or cookie-tracked: it’s a reflection of supply and demand. Airline tickets are more expensive the closer to departure date you book them. Deleting your cookies will not change that.
There are anecdotal accounts of people saying they saw different fares, but they don’t always stand up to close scrutiny. For instance, this post compares two fares and suggests the practice happens, but is actually comparing two different kinds of fares.
Secondly, cookies are not the only way in which airlines (or anyone else) can track behaviour and model their prices. We know, for instance, that some hotel sites will vary the prices and suggestions they offer based on the machine you use. The most famous example is Orbitz showing different and pricier hotel suggestions to Mac users as “recommendations” — but it’s worth pointing out that in that case, the actual rates weren’t any higher. If you sorted hotels by price, you’d see the same deals as everyone else. The core lesson here for our purposes is that even if you delete cookies, you can’t delete your browser identifying agents.
Finally, there’s the simple matter of logic. Flying is a competitive business. Airlines undoubtedly want to get as much money from you as possible — that’s why they try to convince you to pay for luggage upgrades, seat upgrades, travel insurance, hotel bookings, seat selection and all the rest. But putting up prices every time you visit isn’t likely to make you spend money — it’s just as likely to make you seek out a competitor. (If there isn’t a competitor, the prices are likely to be higher in the first place, but there’s still no logical reason to increase them because you’re a repeat visitor.)
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