When is a travel ‘hack’ wrong?

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By Christopher Elliott

Nikolas Langes thought he knew every trick in the book for saving money on airline tickets. After all, he’s the founder of an online start-up called Tripdelta, which specializes in finding inexpensive fares.

Turns out he didn’t. One day, he noticed a discrepancy between fares based on the currency used to pay. And then another.

For example, when he was in Santiago, Chile, searching on LAN’s Web site for flights to Easter Island, he noted that the Chilean price was $374. But if he indicated that he was in Germany, where his company is based, he paid $693. And if he changed his Internet Protocol (IP) address to one in the United States, the site quoted him a fare of $699.

“The price seems to be best when you choose the currency of the home base of the airline,” he said. “Interestingly, the U.S. dollar is always the most expensive option.”

These price variations are not uncommon, and they have been around as long as airline tickets. But in a time when switching your stated location is as easy as changing your IP address, the question isn’t whether you can save money by pretending to be in another country, but whether you should.

All’s fair, right?

No, says Anne Klaeysen, a leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. “Travel hacking, or strategies for getting better deals, may be legal,” she says, “but they are not always ethical, especially when they involve deception.”

For instance, although Klaeysen holds a PhD, she won’t book a flight with the “doctor” title, because it implies she’s a physician, which may afford her preferential treatment.

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“Nor would I book a ticket from a fake location, taking advantage of lower prices offered to people in countries with lower standards of living,” she adds.

Government sides with airlines in hacking debate

The federal government agrees with her, at least up to a point. This year, when the Transportation Department investigated a fare error on a flight from New York to Copenhagen on United’s Web site, regulators sided with the airline, which refused to honor $142 round-trip prices.

In its decision, the government noted that the erroneous prices appeared on a Web site that was not marketed to consumers in the United States. “In order to purchase a ticket, individuals had to go to United’s Denmark Web site which had fares listed in Danish krone throughout the purchasing process,” it concluded, adding that there was “evidence of bad faith by the large majority of purchasers.”

Langes sees it differently. Switching addresses won’t necessarily deprive an airline of revenue, he says. “Airline pricing systems are highly complex and can adjust quickly,” he explains. “The airlines also have the means to react accordingly if it really hurts their revenues. What might happen is that prices of cheap currencies and expensive currencies converge, which might not be a bad thing.”

Let’s call that one a gray area. But how do you know when a so-called travel “hack” is ethical?

If it’s a strategy that’s publicly available, that’s a good sign for Chris Miller, a digital marketer based in Dallas. Finding an attractive hotel rate through an online travel agency and then calling the hotel to negotiate a better rate, he says, is perfectly fine. It’s no different than comparison shopping and doesn’t harm the hotel or the customer.

“If the hotel can’t beat the rate, they still get the booking,” he says.

Is a travel hack ethical?

Greenwich, Conn., diversity training consultant Natalie Holder, who has served as an ethics and compliance officer for companies including Starwood and Diageo, says travelers should make their travel arrangements by the book. “Getting a good deal should comply with local laws and the travel company’s code of business conduct,” she says.

For example, it might be tempting to buy a “hidden city” airline ticket, finishing your flight at a stopover instead of continuing to your final destination, a hack that can save you hundreds of dollars. But it also violates the airline’s fare rules, can get your travel agent in trouble and could lead to higher fares for everyone. (Related: I tried to hack the system when I flew to Australia. But the system hacked me!)

Andrea Eldridge, who runs a computer repair business in Redding, Calif., says the hack shouldn’t give either side an unfair advantage. So for her, doing something like clearing her Web browser’s cookies — a strategy that some travelers believe can result in lower airfares — is on the up-and-up. Although the cookie-clearing method is disputed by some experts as an effective method of saving money, it is nonetheless ethical in that it doesn’t try to mislead the travel company. “I saved $40 per ticket when I booked airfares to Hawaii,” she says.

There’s been a debate about travel hacking

As you might expect, there’s plenty of debate surrounding these issues. Robbie Sheena, who works for a London-based company called SaferVPN, says changing IP addresses is one of the hottest travel hacks — and completely legitimate. Perhaps not coincidentally, SaferVPN allows you to change your location to take advantage of this loophole.

“We have done testing with this, booked tickets on our own and seen major results,” he says. “We have saved hundreds of dollars on vacations just by changing the IP address to a different country.”

In fact, the company is developing a new platform that will automatically be able to find the cheapest price for people by simply changing their IP addresses.

Of course, money-saving workarounds come and go, and more often than not, travel companies get wise and put a stop to them. (Even my advocacy team can’t help mediate these cases.)

From cruising altitude, this looks like a ridiculous game of cat-and-mouse — and one that the travel companies will eventually win.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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