Wednesday, November 14, 2012


In Search of a Fair Fare

Can someone answer this important question, please? You know how you will search for a plane ticket online and find one at a price that is somewhat reasonable, and then call your mom to make sure the arrival time works with her schedule? And, lo and behold, she'd rather you take the red eye (moms!), but you check and one does not exist. So, the first flight you found will be fine, she guesses. When you go back to your computer to book it, the "session has expired" — or whatever it says that means you have to re-do your search. Once again, you enter the airports and dates, hit "search," and THE PRICE HAS DOUBLED! Five minutes later! It is no coincidence or bad luck, because this happens every time. Here is the question: is that legal? Is it legal to advertise the same service at a two different prices within a matter of minutes? And how is the doubled fare not evidence of price gouging?

Follow-up question: How? How do they do it, exactly? Something-something IP addresses?

101 Comments / Post A Comment

Reginal T. Squirge

Pretty sure it's legal. Also legal: offering one price for a thing to one person and then offering the EXACT SAME thing to the next person in line for a shitload more money.

Reginal T. Squirge

ETI: Price gouging is legal, as far as I know.


yay for the happy ending!@n

Toby Jug

Something something supply and demand on the micro level, I think?


@Toby Jug that's just good old yield management, but I don't think that would account for what Jane is talking about. Jane, ask your pal Richard Branson and report back!


@Toby Jug I remember reading somewhere that the more people who look at a particular flight, the more the price will increase. I have always read this as: don't check the price of your flight too many times before booking, or it will be crazy expensive! But I don't know if it's true or not.


@meetapossum this wouldn't make the cost go up - prices are based on supply, demand and analysis of historical data (and of course fuel prices). Actually, now that I think about it, the more people looking and NOT booking should make the price go down.


@Leanne I never thought about it that way, but that makes a lot of sense.

Anyway, I booked my last ticket through AerLingus, whose listed price on their website was cheaper than the same flight on Orbitz, and much cheaper than any other options I was given to get to London. So I guess, AerLingus FTW?


@meetapossum OMG always, always, always book EVERYTHING direct. The airline/hotel/car rental company has to pay a hefty commission to the third party and makes about half of the price on your room/seat/car as they do when you book direct, so you get treated differently (those are the first reservations that get bumped in an oversold situation). Also if something goes wrong, you only have to deal with one company fixing the issue, not two, so it will probably be resolved more rapidly. The way we look at it is, if you book direct you're more likely to be (or become) a loyal customer and not someone who just goes for the cheapest price, and thus it's super important to keep you happy.
Disclaimer: I am in the hotel industry so I'm speaking from this side of things and in vast generalities.


@Leanne I didn't have specific reasons for booking direct, but I knew it was the way to go. You've given me reasons for my reasoning.


@Leanne yes. sometimes I use flight aggregator sites to pick an airline, but then I always book with the company. It's often a few dollars cheaper, and way less of a headache for travel.


@meetapossum A lot of the folks over at Flyer Talk seem to think this is true (looking at the flight a lot makes the price go up) and those people are major travel industry nerds.


@Leanne Yeah, but if the price difference is several hundred dollars or even a thousand, I am definitely going with the third party. Today I am looking on a flight on Delta and the third party has it for about half the price. I don't care how many sweet nothings Delta whispers in my ear, it ain't worth $1200.


@Leanne Not always - maybe in certain countries it's different, but from working in the travel industry myself, too, I know some airlines/hotels will offload a bulk number of seats/rooms to 3rd party sellers (eg. Expedia) at a lower price per piece than their "standard rate" just so they can guarantee having that bulk number sold overall (better to sell 500units at $10 a piece than trying to offload them yourself at $15 a piece and only selling 300) and this way it's the 3rd party's responsibility to sell their share or lose out. Granted this won't always apply, especially in peak season when things are bound to sell out anyway, but off-season that can definitely been the case.

Briony Fields

@Leanne Really? Truly? I need tips here! The last few times I have traveled I've searched via skyscanner and booked via seat24 or something like that. And the prices were SO MUCH CHEAPER than the actual airlines! Like, my roundtrip Lufthansa flight was 900 euros and on the Lufthansa webpage I could only find flights for like, 1,400 one way. How is this possible!?

Anne Helen Petersen

COOKIES, Jane. It's all about the cookies.


@Anne Helen Petersen I was like, well, yeah, I guess some cookies could help you feel better about any situation, but what does that have to do w/...oh, right. Not everything is about eating sweets.
(it isn't.)


@Anne Helen Petersen Now I just remembered how the last time I flew to Denver I was excited for the warm chocolate chip cookies on Frontier, only to discover that they stopped serving them. Thanks a lot, AHP :(

ETA: I know you were not actually talking about the food cookies, but the word triggered my memory.


@D.@twitter I mean... ALMOST everything.

Hot Doom

@Anne Helen Petersen, I THOUGHT it was cookies too, and maybe it still is in some scenarios, but I tried to outsmart Virgin by going on a different computer (ok, two more computers that are not mine) to buy a flight that mysteriously doubled in price in a space of five minutes while I WAS ON THE PURCHASE PAGE and then it said my session had expired. It just turned out they had risen the price. I even called them up and the person I spoke to said that I should have bought the ticket when I had the chance (SMUG) because the price raises after a certain amount of people have bought tickets for the flight. Hrumph.

ETA: So yeah, it probably still is cookies, but still. Eff that shih.


@meetapossum They stopped serving them? But they're so good! They gave them to me in January!


@whateverlolawants I know! I overheard the flight attendant talking to another passenger about it; apparently they were throwing away a huge amount of cookies. (Who is not eating their cookies???) She said they may get them back, but as of May, they were gone.


@Anne Helen Petersen CORRECT! The best way to beat it is to use a browser with an incognito mode while you are on the site. I've found it works for many of the flight aggregator sites (eg skyscanner).


@meetapossum WHO IS NOT EATING THEIR COOKIES? I would have eaten them for them. All of them.


Also - how is it a thing when you put in all your flight preferences, and a slew of flights come up, all in a certain price range, but each one you click it will say, "sorry, this fare is no longer available, it is now.....much more expensive"

If the fare is no longer available, why are you showing it? and why are multiple travel websites doing the EXACT SAME THING? how does this happen?


@liverwortlaura THIS.

It drives me crazy! Trying to get a flight for Christmas for the past few weeks, couldn't find anything affordable, and then finally something affordable pops up. Go to book it and the price went from $475ish to FIFTEEN HUNDRED DOLLARS.


@liverwortlaura I KNOW!!! That drives me up the wall. And then you do a new search (or, uh, 20 new searches... Whatever), and they're still displaying that stupid non-existent low fare!! It's cheating to display a fake fare!! Freaking orbitz is the worst for that.
BUT- the other day I was booking with Vayama, via hipmunk.com, and as I was paying, they said, "Good news! The price just went down!" and I saved $20 and my heart is full of joy and faith in airline companies. That has never happened to me before.


Oh, I actually know the answer to this! It's cookies. Clear all your cookies and it'll go back down to the cheap price.


@shadowkitty Cookies track where you go, right? So why would going to a travel site for a second time make the price go higher?


@shadowkitty (Not questioning you at all, BTW-- that's great advice! I just really don't understand the logic behind it.)


@shadowkitty I've heard that, say you want to go to X place, the more times you look up flights there, the more they see that "people are interested in this flight" and so they mark up the price because they can. I have NO idea whether this is true or not, it's just what I've heard.

So supposedly it's not good to obsessively price check every week for your vacation.


@KatieBarTheDoor a cookie is basically a way for a web server to store a little bit of information on your own computer, and then check it again later. The server can store whatever they want in it (anything the server sends or has access to, you can't like, read someone's hard drive via cookie), usually an advertiser will use it to track browser history so they can show you ads related to those sites, but you can also do things like store the date you first visited a site, the number of times you visited, some piece of information that you entered like your location or a search term. Or they could store random crap in there that has nothing to do with your browsing, but most people don't, obviously. For a travel site, the cookie can tell the server you've already searched for the flight before, and now you're back so presumably you're really interested in the flight and are willing to pay more for it.

I have no idea if this is actually what's going on, but that's how and why it might happen with cookies.


@Lorelei@twitter I'm pretty sure you're right. It's a marketing thing to make you feel like you have to commit to something quickly. Hooray for incognito mode!


Ugh, I hate this!! Sometimes I try a different computer. American has this thing where you can hold a flight for 24 hours though which is nice if you need to confirm something with someone and they won't text you back and you can't call them while at work. For example.


also don't buy from Orbitz on a Mac, do it from a PC. It'll be cheaper.
(i'm a fan of finding cheap tickets from non-airline sources and then checking with the actual airline - often you can get the same price or lower if you buy direct)


@karenb Whaaat. Really? I've always ordered mine at work, so I've never looked at flights on my Mac.


I'm in the hospitality industry and I just found out (literally, moments ago, at a lunch event/panel thing) that there is technology in the works to price your airline ticket based on the average income in the location of your IP address - so if you're in Greenwich, CT, your ticket will cost more than if you are in say, Newark, NJ.




@Leanne good lord.

Michaela Daniel@facebook

@Leanne Oh no! I live as a poor-ish person in a town with VERY HIGH income. :0
Oh poop, I signed in as my real self. How did I do that.


@Jane Marie I KNOW. The person who said this heard about it at an APEX (Airline Passenger Experience) conference in Dubai. To be fair, the airline representatives on the panel were all "WHA?!?! THAT'S A RED HERRING!" - one of them actually said that, which made me think of Clue, hmm I forgot to take my Adderall - but then the conversation turned to ancillary fees, as always.

barefoot cuntessa

@Leanne What the hell?! I am such a cheap bastard I will totally give my credit card info to my mom to purchase from her IP address in a much poorer area.

Anchovy Cake

You will get charged more is you are using a Mac vs. a PC (ITS TRUE!) Always clear your cache/cookies before you price search online because all those sites will save cookies on you and you will not be able to see a lower price than the one initially shown to you.


@Anchovy Cake Does that apply to airlines, or just third-party sites?

Beatrix Kiddo

@Anchovy Cake How does that happen? Why??


@Anchovy Cake I receive this advice several days too late to help the thousands of dollars spent on plane tickets to south america for myself and colleagues :(


@Anchovy Cake WHAT

Anchovy Cake

@Anchovy Cake I work in online ads so I know the secrets! Your browser stores little pieces of data about you called cookies. This is how they save your login info etc. But other sites (ANY site) can drop cookies on you. Have you ever noticed that something you looked at online creeps on you as an ad as your navigate through the internet? That site dropped a cookie onto your browser to identify you as a potential customer. Airlines do the same thing to alert their system as to what rates you have received. Orbitz can't read a Kayak cookie, but it can track you as you go through the internet. If you are price shopping online for a good deal, always clear your cookies/cache. You will have to re-login to everything, but it will help you get rid of all the retargeting ads and will clear any cookies that have been dropped on to your browser. (to clear, go into the tools tab and go to "clear recent history" or you save do not track as a permanent option if you do not ever want to be tracked).

On an unrelated sidenote, airlines tend to post their cheapest rates on Tuesday so that is the best day to buy (after the weekend) :)


@Anchovy Cake You are blowing my mind.


@Anchovy Cake That Tuesday thing isn't true anymore :( I'm sure the rest of your knowledge is spot on, but, I do not know anything about computer related things, except how to read the entire internet.

Anchovy Cake

@Leanne That's disappointing! They must've seen a surge in Tuesday ticket prices or something.


@Anchovy Cake I think their inventory/pricing systems have just become more sophisticated, so there is no longer any posting of prices as much as constant fluctuation based on many factors.

Anchovy Cake

@Leanne That makes sense, but it doesn't make me happy, lol.


@Anchovy Cake I know. It's a bummer. I just sign up for alerts on Airfarewatchdog for a particular route I'm watching so someone else can do the heavy lifting for me. Also, follow the airlines/hotels on Twitter (or check their tweets) for short term sales.


@Anchovy Cake So with the Mac/PC thing, I thought it was just that travel sites would show you more expensive hotel options on a Mac (not charging you more for the same hotel -- just showing you the more expensive hotels first). I googled and found this ABC News article which says basically that.

Do you have another source about being charged more for the same flight on a Mac?

Anchovy Cake

@snowmentality Its about your browser. They vary from computer to computer based on the operating system. You are correct in that they are showing the higher options first to Mac users, but their data suggests that Mac users spend more therefore they are less price sensitive. This will affect how they are marketed toward. It may be more difficult for a Mac user to find the rates offered to a PC user. Since most people don't search through pages of results, they are much more likely to pick a more expensive option.


So which browser should you use if you want them to think you're poor? Internet Explorer????


@timesnewroman: Netscape.


@timesnewroman baha. duly noted.

barefoot cuntessa

@Anchovy Cake So, do I need to clear my cookies for the last couple hours that I was searching, or clear EVERYTHING? If I clear everything, will I lose anything important?

baked bean

@barefoot cuntessa Only thing you would lose is saved passwords if you clear everything, but if you don't do that or know all your passwords, you're ok.
It's actually a good idea to periodically clear your cookies, if I understand correctly.


All I know is that flying to Chicago this year is wayyyy more expensive than it was last year. :( I don't mind flying but I hate feeling screwed over and powerless every time I travel.



I only semi-jokingly believe that there is a wealthy person sitting at a desk somewhere, laughing and clasping his beringed fingers behind his head because he has gotten another couple hundred dollars out of me, personally, just because he can.


Actually we arch them, but otherwise yeah that's basically it.


@frigwiggin In line with my comment below, I refuse to pay those prices to go home this year. I could, but I'd go deeper in debt. I kind-of feel like Scrooge completely avoiding my family, but I still say FUUUCK. THAT. It's just too much money. I'm going to invent my own holiday that happens when nothing else is going on. Maybe the first week in February?


@frigwiggin It's all controlled by Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget.


@whizz_dumb The usual cost of a flight at Xmas, return, from current city to home city (both in Canada) is $600-700; this year, it was $800-950 when I was looking. As a result, I am flying current city -> home city -> Lisbon -> current city, for $1240. Damn straight I'd taking a 9 day detour to Europe for the extra few hundred dollars!! And I feel slightly less ripped off about the cost of the in-Canada flights. But only verrrrrry slightly.

Briony Fields

@swirrlygrrl In Canada flights are the worst, it was cheaper for me to fly Toronto - London than Toronto - Vancouver.


This isn't very helpful advice as far as Sneaky McSneakerson price gouging goes, but if you fly Southwest, you can purchase tickets for a flight, watch the prices periodically in the ensuing weeks, and then cancel your flight and buy them again if they happen to get cheaper. Because if you cancel a flight with them, you can use the credit towards any other flight as long as it's within 12 months of cancelling.


@olivebee haha twins


@Rock and Roll Ken Doll @olivebee Triplets! This is, sadly, one of my favorite things to do.


@olivebee: There is a huge drawback to this plan though - you will be flying Southwest.

Jessica Kay

@ejcsanfran What?? Southwest is my favorite! Their staff is so cheerful and pleasant.


@Jessica Kay oh, it's all fun and games until they kick you off a flight


@olivebee But when they ask you to line up numerically and all of a sudden 200 adults seem to have forgotten how to count from 1 to 50 my blood begins to simmer and I start to resent the otherwise nice-looking granny in front of me who actually should be standing several people BEHIND ME. And then worry about getting a crappy seat and I hate all the people forever. NO SOUTHWEST WHYYYYYYYY?


Yeah, I'm not really a huge fan of that policy, and otherwise I don't see Southwest as having an particular advantages, I just love MDW. It's so manageably tiny and I know where the secret bathrooms are (behind the fake Irish bar in the food court--now you know too)!


Does Southwest do this? I haven't seen it. I live near MDW, so I mostly fly Southwest.


@Rock and Roll Ken Doll Southwest absolutely uses yield management to determine pricing (as do any businesses with perishable inventory - hotels, airlines, car, rail) but I do not know about this cookie storing/price changing thing.


@Rock and Roll Ken Doll I've found SW to be pretty above board with the pricing. Nothing changes on me, flights are consistently priced depending on how far out the flight is/whether it's a holiday/how major-hub the airport I'm flying to/from is, and they don't charge you for changing your flight unless there's an actual fare difference.

I will never stop being absolutely furious at United Airlines for the time I booked a flight, realized one second afterward that I accidentally booked for the wrong day, and was unable to change the flight even though the flight I wanted to change to was the exact same flight, next day, same price. $100 to cancel the first booking, or $100 to change the flight. You, madam, she said to me, are fucked.

Not actually. But that was the tone.

Southwest forever and always I love you.


In May 2006, I thought my last exam OF ALL TIME was going to be Tuesday, so I booked my flight to London for Wednesday. But then oops my exam was on Wednesday! And BA would give me nothing. So I rushed through the exam, quitting 30 minutes early, and scurried to the airport. I made it, but I got my lowest grade ever.


@Linette Once UA cancelled a connecting flight on me (an international flight!) and didn't let me know. I only discovered when re-checking my booking a couple weeks before I left. They said they had to charge me for a new flight. I DON'T THINK SO.


@Linette I am a DIE HARD Southwest fan. I will basically only fly Southwest. I don't think I've flown non-Southwest in the past three years. I love everything about them.


@Linette good to know. I have messed up my own bookings on delta and porter, and only been charged the flight difference (like 10 dollars). I fly united sometimes because they are cheap to certain destinations, and in Mexico City fly to the more convenient transit terminal, but that is all. I don't have a particular love of Delta or American, but there hubs are sometimes a bit nicer. And sometimes not.


I used to work at a major travel info website. My understanding was that airlines/travel sites will not individually target you for fare increases but fares do change every 15 minutes. This happens both ways though, so it is possible if you wait a bit it might go back down.


When I learned that it would cost no less than $650 to fly into and out of Chicago anytime in the second half of December, I called my mom and gave her the bad news: I would not be coming home for the holidays. While I don't really mind and it actually saves me a lot of hassle, I feel pretty bad for my mom. This is the first Christmas I wont be spending with her ever in my life, and this bums her out. I'm flying home on her birthday in February to make up for it.


@whizz_dumb It's crummy, isn't it? I haven't been with my mom for Christmas in a couple of years, which is sort-of-sideways due to ticket prices because it costs so much to travel anywhere else that I tend to restrict myself to 1-2 flights/major trips anywhere per year. Grr and blast. I am tentatively planning on going to see her for Christmas next year, but I guess I better get that ticket booked good and early.


@frigwiggin Same here. 2 flights a year. I'd like to visit some cities I've never been to before because...duh, traveling--but I always go to Chicago twice a year (really do love it there) and that leaves me with no money to broaden my vacationing (spread my wings and fly?). It's probably not something to complain about, I just want to see the entire World is all.

Cat named Virtute

@whizz_dumb Hahahahahaha, that it what it cost me to fly roundtrip Montreal-Winnipeg most times of the year when I was in grad school (2010-2012). Domestic American airfare blows my mind compared to what we pay up here.

every tomorrow@twitter

@whizz_dumb When my grant got into a conference we originally all wanted to go (all four of us) but the conference was in Ottawa and we were in Seattle and it turned out airfare was going to be $900 EACH. NINE HUNDRED DOLLARS. Our travel budget was $350. The PI ended up paying for all her travel out of pocket and we sent one research assistant, who had to pay most of his own expenses.

Although really that's nothing on what my SO pays to fly us to Ireland to visit his family for the holidays every other year. Also, he inevitably finds that by the time he's found a decent airfare, called me to confirm, called his family to confirm, and gotten his credit card, the cost has increased by $500+ or the flight is sold out. I think next year we're going to have to pick a flight with me sitting next to him and his parents on Skype or something so we don't have to reload the page.


@every tomorrow@twitter For Ireland, does British Airways fly where you're trying to go? I find that their prices are incredibly consistent.

Summer Somewhere

This is sort of off-topic, but: last month I flew Virgin and was delighted to see The Hairpin Spritzer on the drink menu. The flight attendant was really confused when I ordered it, sadly, and had me repeat myself 3 times. I was sort of hoping "Hairpin Spritzer Hairpin Spritzer Hairpin Spritzer" was the incantation to conjure a secret party of high-flying Hairpinners but in real life it's a mini bottle of white wine and a can of tonic water. (Although that's still pretty good.)


@Summer Somewhere HAHA! I read your post to my bf and he cackled like a lady! That makes me happy.

Summer Somewhere

@Rozebekistan Yes! That is amazing.


Also, dunno if this is price-gouging, or what.. but an experience I had just last week. I was booking a flight home for Christmas break, Tokyo to RDU, and found an ANA flight connecting through Chicago that seemed to be the cheapest one available. I made my reservation, then noticed that my confirmation email stated the Chicago to RDU portion of the flight, which was run by United, was TBD because they had to confirm with the carrier.
My Dad in the US helped out with this, calling ANA etc. and was eventually told that they couldn't get me on the Chicago->RDU leg of the flight. So he started looking around for another flight to get me on, and found one that was run by US Air (I think, or maybe American).
He was able to get me booked on that flight, by purchasing it separately -- only to discover that it's actually the EXACT SAME flight as the original ANA/United one that I "couldn't" get on.

I really really don't understand airlines. The only thing I can think of is that maybe there was some sort of quota, like the other airline was guaranteed a certain amount of seats, and United had already sold all of theirs?


This is a fascinating comment thread. My travel booking observations:

1. In my experience of booking with UK low-cost airlines, (Easyjet, Ryanair, Flybe etc), fares hardly ever get cheaper nearer the flight date. HOWEVER! Sometimes, just sometimes, they do, and this is enough to completely throw you off course and make you panic and wait it out next time to see if the same thing happens again. In my experience it won't, and therefore in the long run it's best to just book as soon as you can, knowing that the few times that happens probably won't outweighs the loads more times it doesn't. Also, you'll save yourself a shitload of stress.
2. Although I've always subscribed to the wisdom that you should always book direct, I book travel in my job via an agent and sometimes find that they can get better deals as they've bought loads of tickets/rooms that they hadn't sold, and now need to offload them. Having said that, they often stick their own commission charge on too so...swings and roundabouts. ALTHOUGH, the great thing about agents is that they can hold a flight for you if you need to check something, and sometimes that's worth twenty quid.
3. (slightly off-topic) On trans-Atlantic flights, if you can scrape together the extra pennies, it is soooooooo worth paying for premium economy rather than economy (IMHO). THE LEGROOM!
4. Even though broker sites such as Opodo, Expedia etc often don't get better airline fax than the direct sites, I would NEVER book car hire direct without going through a comparison site first (travelsupermarket.com, in the UK) - you can get some brilliant deals via that site.
5. This whole discussion reminds me of the time I spent bloody weeks scouring the Internet to get an eventual discount of £70 on a week's car hire, only to be charged £80 the day after, by my complete fuckwit of a boss (now ex-boss), for a mistake with the engraving on the brass plate of a mounted stag's head (that he'd shot and killed) that wasn't even my fault. I just had to get that out there.

Over and out.


@Filthyknitter Whoa, I wrote loads. Sorry dudes.


I haven't read all the comments so far, don't know if anyone has brought this up. I have heard that it is because your computer (and the websites) store cookies from your searches. In order to do a truly new search on a different website or get a "clean" search from a site you have already checked, clear out the cookies on your computer. (usually in the internet settings.) This will help clean your history and five you a fair search. I travel a fair bit and have found that this works well. Most sites require that you have cookies enabled to do a flight search, but you can empty them often. Good luck!


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