Are online travel agencies quoting higher rates because of your Web cookies?

By | February 26th, 2009

Are  online travel agencies quoting higher prices because of your personal information? It’s been difficult to prove that Web “cookies” were being used in that way. Until now, maybe.

Matt Ilardo stumbled across some interesting proof when he tried to book a rental car through Hotwire.

Here’s the rate quote from his work computer: $88 for a three-day rental in New York.


Later that night, Ilardo did the same search at a different computer. It quoted him a rate of $117.


I know what you’re thinking: Rates can change by the minute, and he just missed an opportunity. That’s what he thought, too. But before he booked …

I decided to check the price on the previous computer. I refreshed the search, and found the exact same, and cheaper, first price.

I performed this test several times, and if I logged on after I got the cheaper price, I would find the cheaper price. If I cleared the cookies on the computer and re-did the search, I would get the cheaper price. And every time I was logged on and did the search under my name, I would get the more expensive price.

He called Hotwire to ask why being logged in would result in a higher price, and a representative warned him to never search with more than one browser, as that “could affect availability and price, and that I should always clear the cookies before I search,” he says.

What’s going on? I asked Garrett Whittemore, a Hotwire representative, about Ilardo’s problem. He told me “as a general rule, we definitely do not use Hotwire customer information to generate increased price quotes, whether it’s contained in their cookies or otherwise.”

Related story:   Air travelers want up-front, all-in price for tickets

Hotwire promised to look into this. I’ll update this post when its investigation is done.

  • thomasdosborneii

    Well, how about comparing various options for a trip? Such as a trip to Italy, do you fly in to Rome, or Venice, or Milan (assuming you might like to visit all three cities)? Or maybe you would like to see the price difference of flying in to Venice, and out from Rome. Or some other combination of open jaws. When I did this, at first the round trip between Los Angeles and Rome cost $1,800. Round trip to Venice, though, was $1,300, and the same with Milan. However, I decided that I really wanted to leave from Rome, but by the time I began to check the prices of multiple destinations (such as arriving in Venice, but leaving from Rome), the prices for any of them kept creeping up until they all got into the $2,000s. But that is why one might keep looking over and over again.

  • thomasdosborneii

    Their algorithms are really terrible, by the way. For the trip to Italy that I commented about above, I also wanted to fly to Sardinia. If I searched for just flights in and out from Naples or Rome to one of the airports in Sardinia, the price would be a little over $200.00, which was about what they cost if booked directly with the airline. However, if I attempted to book the whole kit and caboodle (Los Angeles to Venice, Naples to Olbia, Oblia, to Rome, and Rome back to Los Angeles), it would come back with quotes of about $9,000! It simply couldn’t handle the Sardinia flights when looking at the others. SOME of those Sardinia flights (Naples to Olbia) were by way of places like Berlin!

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