Do flight prices change daily or are websites tracking me?

One of the things I read all the time are flight search engines, like ours and others, raise their prices after a user repeats their search for the same flight on the same website. To avoid the price increase, many believe using incognito is the solution. Both are untrue, here's why

1.  Incognito doesn’t block your information

Incognito mode does not do the following,

  1. It doesn’t hide your IP address
  2. It doesn’t prevent third party tracking
  3. It doesn’t stop browser Fingerprinting

So, companies can still track what you searched, when and what price you got. The catch is that they will be storing the information instead of you in your cookies. So what does Incognito mode do? It does a bunch of things but the two most important in this case are,

  1. It keeps your search history private locally
  2. It doesn’t store any cookies after your session

So, companies can still track what you searched, when and what price you got. The catch is that they will be storing the information instead of grabbing that information from a cookie. So what does Incognito mode do? It does a bunch of things, but the two most important in this case are,

Using Incognito mode does block a website from grabbing your search data from your computer but does not prevent them from storing it on their servers when you are on their website.  If you're curious. You can also see the cookies that websites store on chrome. Just go to the shish kabob menu on the top right of google chrome, click settings and type in cookies. Click 'Cookies and other site data' then click 'see all cookies.' In this menu, you can see all your cookies that are stored.

Still curious on incognito mode, check this out,

How anonymous is incognito mode really? | VPNOverview
Many people use incognito mode under the false assumption that this will keep them anonymous online. Find out why you’re better off getting a decent VPN!
How does Incognito mode work 

Bottom Line: Cookies make it cheaper and easier to track previous visits but it doesn’t stop companies from tracking you.

2.  Prices change for all customers all the time

Hopupon uses a pricing service where no information is sent about you, your IP address or browser history. The only information that they receive is what you enter on the home page of www.hopupon.com.  Therefore,  the price you get is the same, no matter the device or previous search history.

The price you see on any website, including directly with the airline, is based on complex pricing systems that change dynamically on facts such as flight route total sales and which groups of seats have sold (ex. business or Economy+) etc.  There are possibly 1000's of different factors. There are also thousands of travellers on hundreds of travel sites worldwide, all searching the same inventory. Any booking action from any traveller can change the flight price.

According to research by flight price predictor Hopper, on popular routes such as New York to Los Angeles, the price can change up to 70 times in 2 days for flights on high demand.

In the Race for Cheap Airfare, It’s You vs. the Machine
Travel providers now use software to re-price their offerings, sometimes dozens of times a day, putting travelers at a big disadvantage.
Prices can change up to 70 times in 2 days

One of many possible reasons flights fluctuate so often is the process of going through an online cart and then abandoning it.   For instance, if you've held the last seat price at a specific price point, the next traveller will see the price go up. If you then abandon the price, the next traveller will see the price go back down. In less than 8 minutes, there could have been two price changes from one user.

The price can go up or down quickly - although when getting closer to flight departure date (2 to 3 months or closer), the trend is almost always up. However, It is possible airlines will release a lower bucket of seats at any time.

Bottom Line: If you see a reasonable price...book it….it changes when you come back somebody else got that price.

3. Logged in users can get unadvertised lower prices

According to a study done by Northwestern University in 2019, they found that on Expedia, Hotels.com, Orbitz, and Travelocity that logged in users often got better prices than anonymous users?

Why? Keeping loyal customers is a lot cheaper than acquiring new customers.

How does it work? There is a ton of information about this practice by companies. However, The gist of it is that most companies will use past purchase behaviour - often in an RFM model (recency, frequency, Monetary value) to predict future behaviour by putting customers in different segments.

A classic example of this was when a Target customer knew a customer was pregnant before the family - which led to an upset farther—full story in the video below.

Target Customers previous purchases can predict if a customer wanted new baby items

For example, in the travel industry, the same type of model could segment you as a business traveller and link you to specific perks a business traveller persona would like when they log in. Examples of that and others  in the link here

Psychographic Segmentation: A Definitive Guide [Infographic] | CleverTap
Psychographic segmentation, different from behavioral segmentation, boosts engagement by grouping customers based on interests, values, and more.
More about pricing segmentation

4.  Price change by browser is possible but doesn't happen often or at all

There have been some stories where companies experimented with different experiences based on browser attributes such as mac/pc or iPhone/Android, which is technically more straightforward to implement than repeat visits.

Incognito mode doesn't block this information from being sent to the website - they can track information such as operating system, browser version, installed plug-ins (plus versions), screen resolution, installed fonts, time zone etc.  

In one example, Orbitz ranked the hotels differently based on your online fingerprint, specifically the device you are on. Once discovered, Orbitz stopped doing it, despite it only being a minor adjustment to the order of the prices, as it seemed like they gave different prices to different users, based on the device in use.

Mac users pay more than PC users, says Orbitz
The travel site says Mac users will pay $20 to $30 a night more on hotels than PC users.
Dynamic pricing mistake with Orbitz

Depending on the company you go to this is possible but unlikely to occur as it doesn't make great business sense (reasons below).

Bottom Line: Travel companies have previously tried some dynamic pricing based on the device used but quickly found out, and the company realized it made a mistake. Doing dynamic pricing based on technology attributes is easier for a website to implement than previous activity, but the practice is unlikely to be done widely.

5. Prices change by country that you live in does exist

Flight prices change from what country you live in as the price people are willing to pay changes by country. Country specific pricing is all part of dynamic pricing. At one time, there used to be a way you could hack this - and maybe it is still possible on some sites. However, lately, most booking engines make sure you have a credit card with an address in the country with the price discount.

If you do happen to have credit cards in many countries, I will try VPN to that country to see if you can get a good flight deal!

Bottom Line: If you live in a different country it is possible to get a different price. However, VPNs usually won’t work anymore. You’ll need a credit card in that country

6. It doesn’t make business sense

Remember, there are probably over 1000 places to book the same flight, and they are all easily accessible. If a website were to keep increasing the flight price on repeat visits, there is no reason why you shouldn't go to any other site and book there instead. Losing any customer is expensive - especially since the flight provider might have paid upwards of $10, connecting all the data points, to get you to the booking stage.

Still don't believe me? Imagine for a second if you entered a market to buy a souvenir that every stand was selling, and you were going from a position to stand but found you liked the third one and they had the best price, so you go back and they have raised their price. You will go to a different table. No?

I read a comment on by Xasf on reddit that said it best,

“what type of business would say: 'Oh you came back to me after looking at other options, and decided I have the best offer for you to buy? Well guess what jerk, NOT ANYMORE I DON'T BWAHAHA' . I can assure you that the airlines want you to buy those seats, they are not going to turn you away if they have that original price still available.”
r/lifehacks - Use browser incognito mode to find cheaper flights
2,684 votes and 97 comments so far on Reddit

Bottom Line: A Business in a competitive market does not want to risk repeat business but raising prices above market value on repeat visits.

In an interview with the CEO of Fare Compare Rick Scenery quoted in this article as saying,

“If the airlines were to raise prices because of browser cookies (targeted individually) there would be air travel whistleblowers and senators running to microphones for legislation to prevent it,”

The statement makes a lot of sense. Price increases on increased visits has not happened because there is no consistent evidence of it occurring, and it would be easy to establish an actual trend if there was.

Bottom Line: Websites have got in trouble with a lot less. If they did do this practice, it would be well documented and likely regulated not to continue

8.  No Study has concluded that it occurs

Yes, there are a ton of anecdotal stories, but no large study has been able to prove it. The most well known produced inconclusive results.

After 372 searches with the same flights across many browsers and many flight companies (e.g. CheapOair, Expedia, Google Flights, Hotwire, Kayak, Orbitz, Priceline, Travelocity, and TripAdvisor), both with and without incognito mode, only 25 flights resulted in higher fares. But, another 17 flights showed lower fares. Overall, 60% of flights increased their price, given what we know now, the results are meaningless.

How to Get the Lowest Airfares
Do some websites offer lower airfares than others when you’re searching for the best deals on tickets? Consumer Reports investigates.
Read the Study here

In closing, a Reddit user posted a contest asking for visible proof of getting gouged on price because of previous searches. The poster set up proper ground rules, so if you think you beat the challenge, please share!

r/LifeProTips - LPT bounty: 1 year of reddit gold to the first person to provide video proof that airline prices are different in Incognito Mode
3,228 votes and 808 comments so far on Reddit
If you have proof of incognito mode go here
Bottom line: Only anecdotal stories are evidence that searching the same flight twice will increase prices. No actual study of this has concluded this to be true.

Author image

About Doug Creighton

Data Scientist in Toronto in the tech industry. I have travelled to 40 countries and used to build handcrafted stopovers. Built this algorithm years ago for me and finally got it online for everyone.
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