Ask LH: Will Deleting Cookies Make Air Fares Cheaper?

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.

The long answer: the theory that airlines use cookies to track people who have repeatedly visited their sites and then offer different (and higher) prices for return visitors is often circulated online. To eliminate this, it's suggested that people should either delete their cookies or use a different browser.

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.)

For some practical advice on scoring better fares, check out our top 10 tips for finding cheaper flights, useful apps for discount fares and when flight specials get announced. Happy travels!

Cheers Lifehacker

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Comments

    "you can’t delete your browser identifying agents."

    Can't you spoof your user agent? I think there is a Chrome plug in for that if you really wanted to.

    Use incognito mode on Chrome, problem solved

    Still doesn't stop them from storing the data (i.e your IP address) on their end and targeting that. That said I reckon it's very unlikely that they would actually use it for that reason.

    It can work on the flip side as well though not strictly for airlines, add a product to a shopping cart linked to your email address and wait a week, you'll be surprised how many online stores will spam you with "you saved product x in your shopping cart last week, order now to save 10%"

    The answer to the question is wrong. I was checking daily for a week straight on a flight from Minneapolis to Vegas. The rates started at around 300 round trip and then by the end of the week the total for that same flight was 703. Then someone at work told about cookies. We compared the same flight on his phone and his said 458. I compared the price to a computer and 458. I then disabled tracking cookies and deleted web data and the flight price dropped to 458 on my phone. My phone is an iPhone and the site was Expedia.

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