Do Travel Websites Increase Prices Based on Your Search History?

An oft-cited tip for finding the best travel deals online is to clear your browser history or search “incognito”. This is based on the idea that travel booking sites are tracking your search history and raising prices on routes you’ve looked at before. But if you do a bit more research, you’ll find there are just as many travel gurus insisting there’s no difference in price whether you’re tracked or not. So which is it?! I’ve had booking experiences that seem to lend credence to both sides of the argument. Read on for all the details, my personal experience, and my recommendation for what you should do to get the lowest prices.

How Do Sites Know Your Search History?

Websites use data files called “cookies” to store information about your location, device, the information you search for, and the data you enter. Cookies are set to expire after a certain amount of time (typically years) unless they are deleted first. These can be helpful for things like remembering your login details, quickly bringing up information you typically want, remembering your preferred language/currency, and recommending things that you will be most interested in purchasing. Whether this information is also used to increase profits and “trick” customers into paying more than others for the same product has not been conclusively confirmed or denied by travel companies. 

How Can They Use This to Control Prices?

The theory is that if you’ve searched a particular route/date/city more than once, you are more definitively set on that pattern and will purchase it even at a higher price. Thus, if travel booking sites know from their cookies that you like that pattern, they will increase the price just for you to try to make more of a profit, since they’re betting you’ll buy it anyway.

Of course, there’s the opposite theory that if a site knows you’re interested in a particular region/date/etc., they can use that info to show you deals to entice you to actually make a purchase on something you’ve looked at before but did not buy. It’s like they’re saying, “C’mon, we know you want this… would you buy it if it were slightly cheaper?” A smaller profit is better than no profit at all. 

Either way, it is certainly possible for booking sites to control prices based on your search history.

Can You Avoid Online Tracking?

If you subscribe to the first theory, or if you just don’t like the idea of companies knowing everything about your online habits, there are ways to avoid this tracking. Use a VPN to spoof your location. Clear your browser history or use a completely different browser. Do your research on one device and book on a different one. Delete and deny cookies. Use an incognito window. Learn more details about some of these methods in #2 and #3 of my post on tips for finding the cheapest flights.

Does This Actually Make a Difference?

Here’s the rub. My best answer is: sometimes. Not all sites are created equal. I’ve certainly searched a bunch of travel, remembered I haven’t covered my tracks, cleared my history, turned on my VPN, searched again, and found zero difference in prices. This is probably the most common outcome.

On the other hand, just today I was searching a specific bus route in Europe on a specific date. I had the site open in a browser in which I had previously searched for that specific pattern and the same site open in a different browser with a cleared history. The same route, time, and date was 20% cheaper in my untracked search. Basically, it boils down to personal preference. Is it worth it to you to put in a little extra effort to find those few sites and searches where it does save you money?

What Does Make a Difference?

Whether or not search history does influence travel prices, there are other factors from cookie data that go into the price that you see. Companies can use information such as your location and the type of device you are using to predict how much you will be willing to pay and may adjust prices accordingly.

If, for example, you are searching from a more expensive brand of computer/tablet/phone, the travel site might assume that since your electronics budget was higher-end, your travel budget will also be higher end. This may result in price increases or simply in which results they show you or the order of the results. Even if they do show you the budget deals, higher-priced routes/times/airlines/etc might show up first for those with higher-end electronics or searching from generally wealthier locations. They’re banking you won’t scroll down, just accept the more expensive price because you can afford it.

Why Is the Price Going Up?

Regardless of your personal data, prices may increase at any time for a variety of other reasons. Many transportation companies, for example, allocate a certain number of seats in several specific price ranges. 15 seats at $95, 10 seats at $110, 10 seats at $118, 15 seats at $130, etc. As soon as the first 15 seats have been purchased, the price automatically bumps up to the next tier.

When you searched the first time, perhaps 14 seats had been sold so you saw the first price. Then someone else bought that same route in the short time before you searched again, so now you’ve been bumped up to the next tier and are seeing a higher price. Also commonly, the closer you are to the date(s) you’re searching for, the site’s algorithm may be programmed to increase prices regardless of seats sold.

What Should You Do?

So after all that, how can you be sure you are getting the best deal? Should you let sites track you or not? The only way to ensure the lowest prices is to cover your bases. Check the same information on multiple browsers and/or devices. Keep your search history and cookies on one browser and clear them on another. Use a VPN and/or incognito window on one browser or device and let your true location show on another.

It would take a lot of effort to search using all possible combinations of these options, so I usually choose 2 or 3 and live with those results. For example, I might search the same pattern on my laptop using a VPN in an incognito window and in the site’s app on my phone where I haven’t deleted any history or cookies. Sometimes there’s a difference, sometimes there isn’t. Ultimately, putting in that little extra effort is worth it to me because it has added up to significant savings over time.

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