Use Incognito Mode for cheaper flights

Published 25 February 2014

Edit added 22/03/14: After posting this, some people commented to me that this has supposedly be debunked online. I’m not claiming that every airline does this, but I certainly saw something rather suspicious in this case (with Air New Zealand). I observed the price difference reported below several times on two different computers. To me, it seems incredibly unlikely to be a coincidence.

Have you ever found a good price online, written it down, and come back later to find that the good deal has disappeared? It could be that the website sneakily increases prices if you search for the same thing a second time.

I recently witnessed this when shopping for flights. Here’s what I saw when my browser cookies indicated that I’m a repeat visitor:

In comparison, here’s what I see if I use Incognito Mode:

That’s a difference of $93, just based on your browser history.

To take these screenshots, I followed the same steps at the same time in two different browser windows. In each window, I opened a new tab, typed the URL of the airline, then entered the search criteria. I reproduced this behaviour several times. In a newly opened Incognito window, I’d be offered the cheap flights every time. If I used my normal browser, I’d be offered the more expensive flights every time. I am sure that they’re using a cookie to look at my search history.

In Incognito Mode, the website can’t detect that I’ve done this search before. It thinks that it’s the first time that I’m searching, and so it offers me a good price to get me hooked. I guess that they assume that people rarely buy flights the first time that they search. Usually you’d compare different airlines, write down an itinerary, and only then come back to buy their tickets. On the subsequent visit, you presumably have the intent to purchase and so you’re likely to just cough up the extra money.

I don’t know which websites do this sneaky price increase, but if you ever notice that you’ve just missed a good deal, it’s probably worth trying again in Incognito Mode.