The Dynamic Pricing Trap: What It Is, and How to Avoid It When You're Booking Travel

by  Darren Murph | Jul 22, 2014
Credit card
Credit card / Phatchara Bunkhachary/iStock

For as much as the Internet empowers, there’s a dark side to your Web browser -- namely in it's ability to identify you as you. While it’s mighty convenient to allow your computer to remember your password, recall your username for login fields, and even save your address for online shopping, doing so may come back to bite you when you're purchasing travel (and other goods and services). This phenomenon has become known as "dynamic pricing," where online retailers adjust pricing for different shoppers based on factors like where they live and even what computers they use. It's been around for a while, but the issue recently made its way into the limelight again thanks to Resolution 787 — a controversial proposal that could potentially further enable “customized” pricing.

So what's a consumer to do? In general, the less the companies about you, the more likely you are to get a fair price. Here are a few tips on maintaining a higher level of secrecy, which could very well save you a few dollars on your next ticket purchase:

1. Search with anonymous engines.
You’ll frequently hear airlines tout that the lowest possible price can be found by booking through their own website, but that’s not always true. To boot, you never want to indicate to an airline that you’re even considering a purchase until you’re absolutely ready to do so. I recommend using Kayak, Hipmunk, and ITA Software to search for possible flight options. Only head to the airline’s site once you’ve found the flights, times, and prices you desire. The more searching that you do on a carrier’s website, the more that they know about your desire to travel. Not surprisingly, they can easily bump prices up if they determine that you’re constantly searching for a certain route on a certain date. How? See the next point. (Sadly, this applies to award tickets as well, so I’d advise only searching for awards when you’re extremely confident in your ability to book.)

2. Clear your cookies and cache.
Forgive the technobabble, but “cookies” are tiny files embedded in your computer by websites to remember who you are. Most of these are innocuous, and they generally make life easier by remembering usernames and the like to save you a few keystrokes. But airlines also use this information to see if you’ve searched for a certain route and date before, and that information can be used against you. Each browser has a different way of clearing cookies, but a quick Google search on “how to clear cookies” for your browser of choice will lead you to an answer.

3. Disable your location.
Most modern browsers will show a pop-up informing you that a site is attempting to use your location. When shopping for travel, never allow this. Sites can figure out where your home base is quite easily, and then use that to bump prices skyward from airports that are most convenient to you. In other instances, retailers have been known to assign different prices to shoppers in different zip codes -- so if you're asked, try plugging in a zip code of a nearby area that you know has lower income on average.

4. Use a private browser window.
It's been reported that those shopping for travel on Mac computers are occasionally shown higher pricing than those on a Windows-based PC. It doesn't hurt to do a quick search on an old PC you might have lying around -- or even use your smartphone for another point of reference. Safari, Firefox, and Google Chrome are also popular browsers to raise rates on (while Internet Explorer tends to generate the lowest prices). But there’s a workaround here that’ll prevent you from having to switch browsers altogether: "private" sessions. Every modern browser now has a "private" or "incognito" option, which launches a new browser window that prevents any kind of tracking of cookie embedding. While every browser is different, you can usually find this option in the “File” menu drop-down for each.

5. Install a plug-in.
If you want to prevent any eyes from tracking any of your online movements, you can install a plug-in for that. This is a more advanced step, but isn’t terribly difficult for those with basic browsing knowledge. Disconnect is a highly regarded privacy plug-in that supports Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Internet Explorer browsers.

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