Josh Martin is a London-based Kiwi journalist.
Here I was thinking the myriad Covid travel rules were the holy grail of tourism minefields: it pales in comparison to the murky world of airfare pricing.
Marketing and consumer behavior academics theorise that travel companies are tracking your internet behavior to make you pay a higher price than other potential passengers, but it’s harder to prove given the real-time pricing changes and complexity of the market.
In the name of unscientific research, I tried to test the so-called travel hack of using private or incognito browsing and clearing cookies to avoid airlines and travel agencies stealthily hiking the cost of your airfares after tracking your searches or online activity.
Like many expats, I’ve been researching airfares home for Christmas. Thanks to several devices, I use Chrome, Firefox and Safari which are all tied to my Gmail and social media accounts, so any travel bots worth their salt should know that I’m keen for a Kiwi Christmas – and will probably pay through the nose .
I chucked in Opera and Microsoft Silk (the new Internet Explorer) for good measure. Was there a difference when I spent a morning searching for flights in open, private and cookie-free internet browsers for a trip departing London, December 22 and returning January 4? No, not really.
I wanted a scoop, but any price difference between searching on Google Flights or Kayak or an airline was fairly miniscule.
It could be a currency conversion difference, or, as the airlines argue, in the time between looking and booking another traveler swipes your lower fare.
Those hoping for a vast Big-Brother-is-watching conspiracy can take my experience with a pinch of salt – since I’m browsing from England, I’m more protected by privacy laws than Kiwi consumers.
UK data privacy rules mean companies can’t track your online movements without freely given, clear, granular and unbundled consent and face a hefty £ 500,000 fine for every breach. Is that worth the risk for bumping up your airfare by $ 200?
However, my armchair experiment did find huge differences in airfares – I just wouldn’t call it gouging.
That same route, on those exact dates, was quoted at anywhere between £ 1133 ($ 2204) to as much as £ 3996 ($ 7776) within the same hour of perusing.
Google Chrome and Skyscanner would frequently (in both open and private modes) lure me in with low airfares only to have them disappear when I tried to book. “We’re sorry, it looks like that airfare has increased” …. by a casual £ 500, no biggie. I’m not calling it gouging, rather false advertising, since it was never really there.
So what made a real difference to how much you’re stung? The airfare aggregator, and the airlines and online travel agents (OTAs) they include in the search.
It wasn’t incognito mode and clearing cookies that made a difference, it was comparing Kayak, Expedia, MixandMatch, Skyscanner and Google Flights that got me a reasonable, legitimate £ 1300 quote.
I was more likely to save hundreds by comparing similar airfares, timings and routes widely, than be gouged hundreds of dollars by some sinister airline bot or rotten cookies.
In saying that, algorithms, AI and machine learning are omni-present and expanding at a faster rate than what academics or law-makers can study or legislate, so perhaps a small dose of skepticism is warranted – if bots can sway elections, the tech is certainly out there to make you pay a little more for a seat.
However, even if we uncomfortably accept that one particular airline, OTA or tech giant is keeping tabs on our behavior and occasionally offers us slightly different airfares, we aren’t destined to use just that one website to book. It’s quite the opposite. There are dozens of ways to book airfares. Expand your flight research beyond one website.
Even if eventually proven, these “social media or search engine behaviors” are just one factor affecting the final price you pay; seasonality, competition and capacity matter too.
A happy medium would be to set aside some time to research, shop around and book all in one go, rather than to obsess over every $ 10 price increase or dip. Although it’s not overly comforting when you’re seeing plane ticket prices creep up with every hour of screen time, there is some solace in knowing that, actually, airfares globally have seen some of the smallest rates of inflation compared to other goods and services.
In the US in the last 25 years, average airfares have increased only 0.5% annually, compared to 2.5% average inflation across the economy. In New Zealand, the reopening of international borders combined with surging global oil prices and less competition have led to recent above-average annual rises, but this isn’t necessarily typical. The Stats NZ international transport index trended downward throughout the last decade.
A cursory flight search to track down a one-way flight from Auckland to the UK similar to the $ 1000 I paid back in 2014 returned comparative airfares than were $ 10 cheaper than what I paid back then. Hopefully the browsers haven’t been tracking me for that long.