‘Ghost fares’ haunt travelers

Craig Keffer is haunted by ghost fares.

He recently caught wind of a fare sale from Los Angeles, his home airport, to Denver. But when he tried to book the seats at the advertised $136 fare, the site notified him the fare was no longer available and that he’d have to pay another $20 to fly.

“You can’t trust an airline,” says Keffer, a purchasing manager based in Fullerton, Calif.

Jordan Bishop, the founder of Yore Oyster, a Toronto-based travel site, calls these now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t prices “ghost” fares. He and other experts say that instead of fixing them, airlines and their travel agency surrogates have leveraged ghost fares, plus sophisticated tracking technology, to squeeze even more money from you.

“It’s part of their business model,” he says.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Keffer tried to book the tickets for the next few days and then abandoned his plans to visit the Mile High City.

How does a ghost fare benefit an online agency or airline? Well, ever since the first web-based agencies flickered to life in the 1990s, they’ve “cached” fares, which means their ticket availability doesn’t always reflect the real-time inventory.

Even though technically that’s bait-and-switch behavior, government regulators let them do it because of the technological limitations of the reservations systems. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Transportation said an airline would have to “systematically and intentionally” use caching as a method of luring consumers to its website or increasing the price paid by individual consumers in order to fall afoul of its full-fare advertising rule.

Now there’s growing anecdotal evidence that travel sellers are taking advantage of this absence of government oversight. For example, they may suggest that cheaper tickets are available, knowing that once someone has decided on a ticket, like Keffer, he’s likely to go through with the booking even when an airline charges more. Or they may say “only one ticket left” — an assertion that is almost always impossible to verify.

To understand caching, I turned to Aleksei Udachny, founder of the travel site Airhint. Most major sites rely on either the short-lived cache or the results from a previous search to display information as if it is currently available, he says. “As the result, a user may see $50 and when clicking to book, the price jumps to $90,” he says.

Caching makes sense on several levels. The results are faster because the site doesn’t have to go back to query a database. That can also save the site money, since repeated queries can create added expense. But there’s also a potential for mischief, because if a site isn’t required to show a bookable ticket price, it could conceivably show any price.

Consider what happened to Gordon Empting, a facilities manager from Memphis. He tried to book a ticket from Orlando to Memphis for his daughter. His first stop was Expedia, which showed a Delta Air Lines fare of $315 for his desired dates. Just to be safe, he checked Delta.com, which showed a $500 fare. He returned to Expedia to book, but his fare had gone up by $70. Fearing another price increase, he bought it.

“It is not the first time I have found that Expedia shows one price when you try to research a flight and a higher price when you buy it,” he says.

Expedia says the changing fares aren’t its fault. “Airfare prices can change on a second-by-second basis, whether on Expedia.com or on any other site, including direct sites,” says spokesman Dave McNamee. He attributed situations like Empting’s problems to a number of factors such as an airline changing the pricing or available fare class for a ticket, or tickets selling out for a particular flight or fare class.

But passengers aren’t just frustrated by a single “ghost” fare. It’s a series of experiences over time that have convinced them — and me — that something is amiss. It’s hard to know exactly what is going on, but one thing is certain: Something is happening behind the scenes.

The latest stunt is the “availability” counter on fares, suggesting that only a certain number of seats or hotel rooms can be purchased. Keffer saw counters on all of the sites he consulted, which are meant to help shoppers determine if it’s time to book. But the “tickets left” number is meaningless because of caching, and since there’s no way to audit whether the number matches the actual number of tickets, the net effect is to pressure people like him into making a quick decision.

Are airlines or online agencies misrepresenting the number of tickets left? Consumers have no way of knowing.

And that’s the thing. It doesn’t really matter why ghost fares exist. The net effect is that it makes people book quickly, almost thoughtlessly. Indeed, that’s the conventional wisdom.

“Book now,” says Jared Kamrowski, who edits a travel deal site called the Thrifty Traveler, “ask questions later.”

Skittish travelers are fearful that they will lose a fare if they don’t book now. Regulation is light. Shenanigans abound but are difficult to show.

Another day in the travel industry, my friends.

How to avoid ghost fares

• Delete your cookies. Travel websites track you and your queries. No one knows exactly how — only that clearing your cookies may eliminate ghost fares. It’s worth a try.

• Check multiple, reputable sources. After you’ve queried your favorite booking site, try Google’s ITA Matrix, which doesn’t let you book a ticket, but allows you to search virtually all commercially available flights.

• Avoid frequent ghosters. If a site continuously offers ghost fares — either tickets that are “unavailable” or that display with a higher price — it’s time to look for a new search site. Better yet, try using a real travel agent. They often know their way around these tricks.

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