The truth about third-party booking “scams”? Maybe hotels can’t handle the truth

I don’t know anyone who’s been scammed by a third-party hotel site. But I should have known better than to admit it — and in the Washington Post, no less. Read more “The truth about third-party booking “scams”? Maybe hotels can’t handle the truth”

Do travel sites use cookies to dupe you into paying more?

That’s the explosive accusation made by some travelers who book their trips online. They pull up a price quote on a travel site, but five minutes later the fare has doubled. Are airlines, car rental companies and hotels using cookies to track their movements and kick out a higher price?

I’ve investigated this alleged bait-and-switch tactic in the past, and the results were inconclusive. But reader Daniel Luby says he has no doubts that it’s being done.

When you do an online search for a flight a tracking cookie is placed on your computer.

If you do not buy during your initial search but come back 10 minutes later and do the same search again, the quoted price will be higher. This is because the tracking cookie tells them that you previously searched for the same flight and you are shopping for a better price elsewhere.

If online sites are doing this, they are being very careful about it. In earlier tests, I tried to duplicate this bait-and-switch routine, but couldn’t.

Which isn’t to say it’s not happening. A sophisticated cookie-tracking program would be practically undetectable, intentionally generating higher and lower prices at random so that no pattern can be detected. But like a Las Vegas slot machine, the odds would always favor the house.

Reader David Smith says it’s happened to him, but only on flights that are close to full.

I check a flight, then check some others, but when we go back, the cost is higher.

The way to beat this is to sign on through another browser (e.g., switch from IE to Firefox or another machine e.g., your laptop instead of your home computer.) I did this and got the original rate and booked it.

Luby says there’s another work-around:

You have to delete all tracking cookies before starting a new search. I have found that this applies to searches on Expedia, Orbitz and some of the airline Web sites.

Have you experienced any suspicious behavior while shopping for airfares, car rental rates or hotel prices online? Do you think a clever cookie-tracking application was behind it?

Whether these programs exist or not, I think Luby’s advice is solid. Clear out your cookies or browse in “privacy” mode to avoid any run-ins with the Cookie Monster.

Online travel agencies: bad, and getting worse

There’s bad news for anyone who is considering booking a trip online: the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index from the University of Michigan finds customer satisfaction has fallen to an all-time low. The online travel industry’s aggregate scored slipped from 76 to 75 last year, a drop of 1.3 percent. It’s the lowest reading since the ACSI began tracking online travel agencies in 2002.

Here’s how the major online agencies did:

Expedia (75) – 3.8 percent
Orbitz (73) -2.7 percent
Travelocity (73) -1.4 percent

(Only Priceline is on the rise, posting an increase of one point, or 1.4 percent, to 73. That’s up 10.6 percent from 2002.)

It’s interesting to compare these numbers to the Transportation Department’s annual complaint data. (Normally, people don’t know to gripe about bad service received from an online agency, so the fact that these numbers even exist must say something about the state of online travel.)

1. Orbitz (45)
2. Travelocity (35)
3. Expedia (30)
4. Cheaptickets (22)
5. Cheapoair/Priceline (tie) (16)

Why is customer satisfaction on the skids? The survey offers a few theories.

Online travel is an industry in flux. The “big three” online travel aggregator sites – Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity – once had a competitive edge on all fronts. They offered the convenience of booking air, hotel and car from one site with search capabilities and comparative information not offered elsewhere. And, they were offer able to offer discounted pricing not available directly from travel supplier sites. But this is no longer the case.

At the same time, customers are holding online agencies responsible for bad travel experiences, even when they aren’t directly to blame.

Fulfillment is out of the control of these companies. They may sell a ticket and provide excellent service, but if a change needs to be made or there is a problem with the schedule, they may bear the brunt of consumers’ ire, instead of or in addition to the airlines, hotels, or car rental companies involved. These aggregators are trying to innovate with traveler updates, travel support, and unique features like Travelocity’s Road Trip Wizard, but it may not be enough to stave off eventual marginalization.

Marginalization. That’s another way of saying one of these online agencies will go “buh-bye.”