Monday, May 9, 2011

Clearing Your Caches to Get Better Airfares: Good Practice or Digital Paranoia?

On this weekend's Travel Show, I interviewed Scott McCartney, Middle Seat Columnist for the Wall Street Journal, on his recent piece about one of the most annoying glitches in the travel booking process: airfares that jump just as you're about to book them. His explanation, and one that I've read from other's who have researched this (including Christopher Elliott), is that this is not a bait-and-switch move on the part of the airlines (or online travel agencies), but a simple case of older fares being "cached" and displayed to consumers, even though airfares have actually risen. One arm is, in effect, moving faster than the other.

Which raised the question: are the airlines and agencies looking at the caches of information on our computers and raising their prices for travelers who have done a number of searches (and thus are likely customers)? Does it pay to clear your caches before you start searching for pricing to ensure you get a more reasonable rate?

Though it wasn't in his current piece, McCartney said its an issue that both he and the federal government have studied. His conclusion: he doesn't think this sort of snooping is common practice, and neither do the federal agencies who investigate these matters. So clearing your caches is likely an unnecessary hassle.

But there are strategies one can follow that aid in airfare search:

  • Ignore the calendars given by some sites of cheaper and more expensive dates for flying your particular route. These are often based on historic data and guesses and often have little to do with the current pricing reality.
  • When searching for fares, compare apples to apples by clicking through to the last pricing screen. This ensures you're seeing the cost of the flight with all taxes and fees added in.
  • Search a number of sites. Often the prices will vary greatly from one to the next.
The DOT recently enacted new rules, which will go into effect at the end of August, to clear up some of the confusion on pricing. Among them are stipulations that airlines include all taxes in the prices they advertise to the public, and show fees on the first (rather than the interior) pages of their websites. Hopefully this move will make rule #2 (above) unnecessary. For now: search thoroughly before purchasing!


  1. Hi Pauline,
    I was planning to write about this very subject myself, I am not expert at all, but have had a number of situations where I have been researching a flight, again and again looking for a price to drop, on an Airlines Site, not an aggregator. The price did not change, but when I checked the same flight on a different computer, next to the search computer, it was significantly different. I don't really think that the Airlines cookies and such are tracking my searches, but I do believe that there is something that causes the information to be stored. Whether or not the Cache is the issue, I am not sure, but when I clear the cache it seems to fix the issue. Perhaps it isn't a conscious aspect of the Airlines pricing, but as a consumer taking just a moment to clear your cache before your final decision couldn't hurt either.

  2. Reading between the lines, I think Scott was saying that nobody really knows for sure. But he doesn't *think* this is going on and neither does the government, which has apparently investigated. But heck, if you have the time to clear the caches, it certainly can't hurt!

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  4. Ford: I'm writing a piece on short weekend trips and don't want to accidentally plagiarize anything. So I'll take a look after that's published in July. (I'm also under the gun with a ton of deadlines right now).

  5. Wow! You know, we were looking at an online discount travel website the other day and the ticket prices seemed to change every time we'd edit our selection to check for cheaper fares but then return to the original selection.

    At first I thought I was crazy or that I had incorrectly entered my original travel dates (thus getting the changed price) but I had a friend check the same dates, same airline, same everything on her laptop while we checked on mine. Sure enough, prices varied $25-$75 each time. Not sure what the reason was for that but your blog sheds a little light on the matter.

    I think next time we *may* go direct through the airline and ask if they will beat a price listed on a discount website and see what happens!

    1. I think that is plain digital paranoia there's no doubt it. awesome analysis, you are a clever person!