Dear Help Squad,
I booked a flight on Travelocity that was advertised all day for $60 to $79, but when I went to pay, it jacked up to $153. This was happening not only on Travelocity but also on all their partner sites like Orbitz, Expedia, etc. Travelocity says the rates change all the time, but they had all day to change the front end of the website (their “bait”). The next day the price didn’t jack up when I went to finish the transaction.
I know these sites track you with cookies and raise prices accordingly, but I think all of this is unethical. I have tried to block my cookies, but some sites will not work unless you allow them.
Thanks for looking into this!
I began my investigation with the source: Travelocity (which, like Orbitz, Hotwire and CheapTickets, is owned by Expedia). When I asked Travelocity spokesman Keith Nowak what would account for the price changes Markie experienced, he responded, “The dynamic nature of air pricing makes it more similar to the rapidly changing stock market — where prices adjust continuously based on supply and demand — than to a traditional retail setting.” He offered the below explanation for what may have occurred during Markie’s transaction.
On any given flight, he said, an airline has fares at various price points, e.g., five seats at $79, 25 seats at $99. All fares are housed in a central database (SABRE) from which all travel providers (online and conventional travel agencies, airlines) pull inventory. This enables online agencies like Travelocity to offer fares from the majority of airlines via a single search.
Nowak said Travelocity’s system looks for availability in near real time, which means by the time a customer starts moving through checkout, cheaper seats may already be gone. Conversely, he said, a lower fare might appear if a less expensive seat becomes available, either because a fare was put in a shopping cart and abandoned or the airline released additional seats at that price point.
In response to Markie’s complaint that the discounted fare was advertised but unavailable, Nowak said, “These kinds of ads will mention limited availability.”
To learn more, I contacted Christo Wilson, an assistant professor in the College of Computer and Information Science at Northeastern University. He and his colleagues published a study titled “Measuring Price Discrimination and Steering on E-commerce Web Sites” that analyzed several online retailers’ pricing practices, including Travelocity.
Wilson confirmed Nowak’s explanation about why the price of an airline ticket might change prior to purchase.
“This is not malicious,” he said. “The availability of [airline tickets] fluctuates. So by the time you get to checkout, the price can change. This might be what’s happening with Travelocity, but it would be nice if they were transparent about it … It’s because airline and online travel systems are so opaque that they lend themselves to folk theorizing.”
As a result of their study, Wilson’s team discovered that certain manipulations were occurring based upon consumers’ previous site interactions. For example, consumers who clicked on expensive items in the past were shown more expensive options in the future. People were also offered discounts if they purchased using mobile apps.
“Companies encourage people to purchase using apps because then they can really track you,” said Wilson. “You get exclusive deals, but you pay for it with your data.”
He explained that geo-location also matters. Consumers in different parts of the country can see different prices for the same product.
“So, if you can, phone a friend who lives in a different area, have them search for you and see if the price comes up different,” Wilson suggested. “Or if you really want to go crazy, you can use a VPN (virtual private network) to mask your IP address and location to see if that impacts the price you get.”
And one final tip from Wilson was this: The price of every flight offered by every airline in SABRE can be found at ITA Software. ITA provides each flight’s booking and fare code. Google Flights, which uses ITA, does the same. Consumers can take ITA information to the airline or travel agent to book; Google Flights allows online booking directly with the airline.
Send your questions, complaints, injustices and column ideas to HelpSquad@pioneerlocal .com.
Cathy Cunningham is a freelance columnist.