No airline cookie conspiracy? What about this trail of crumbs?

Airlines and online travel agencies surreptitiously use computer “cookies” they’ve implanted on your Web browser to track your activity on their sites and then raise prices when it appears that you’re interested in a fare. That’s the rumor, at least.

I inadvertently resurrected a long-simmering controversy over this rumor a few weeks ago, when I blamed airfare fluctuations on a practice called “caching,” which lets airlines or travel agencies store a copy of all fare information on their sites. Caching is efficient and cost-effective for the company, but less than 5 percent of the fares may no longer be available.

So what’s really going on?

Many travelers are convinced that the price changes are deliberate. “I am absolutely sure that there is nothing unintentional about these price switches,” insisted Bernhard Kaltenboeck, a professor of veterinary medicine at Auburn University in Alabama. “The online reservation systems track your computer and raise the price on you when you seem to be actually interested in the flight.”

For years, I’ve brought views such as Kaltenboeck’s to the industry, and for years, it has vehemently denied any tampering with prices. But a few weeks ago, a story that made me start to doubt everything I’d heard caught my attention.

A United Kingdom-based hotel site called VivaStay reportedly dinged customers by way of a special link from an affiliated Web site that showed slightly higher prices than those quoted to customers who clicked directly on the VivaStay site. VivaStay apologized, but said it was unaware that the price variation was frowned upon. Although the story was hardly noticed outside Europe, it’s the first time I recall a company admitting to tinkering with prices in this way.

But what happens when someone accuses a big American online agency of the same behavior?

Just ask Mike Turner, who booked a Cancun vacation package through Travelocity with a friend a few weeks ago. They bought the trip together at the same time, while on the phone. “When we finished choosing the flights, rooms, and other options, we went to finalize the purchase and a box popped up saying my price had changed and I could either accept, or pick another flight,” said Turner, who manages a tire store in Eagan, Minn. “My friend was picking the exact same hotel, flight, and options but did not get this message.”

So Turner and his friend started the process again, selecting their flights and rooms one more time. The same message appeared. Travelocity wanted Turner to pay an extra $500, which he eventually did. Turner phoned the company and asked for an explanation, but a representative offered only to cancel his reservation. E-mail appeals to refund the price difference were ignored.

This looked like a clear case of price bait-and-switch, so I asked Travelocity whether cookies were to blame. “Simply not true,” said spokesman Dan Toporek. The agency investigated Turner’s claim and found that the bookings weren’t identical. “It appears that Mr. Turner booked a package that included a junior suite, whereas his friend’s package had a more standard room. That was the reason for the difference in price,” he said. (Half a grand for an upgrade to a junior suite? That seems a little rich.)

Could these price fluctuations be our fault? Some of them might be, like my own recent efforts to buy an inexpensive flight, where I waited too long and the fare wasn’t available anymore. But can they all be written off as user error? No, they can’t.

Donna Brinkmeyer, a teacher from Sioux Falls, S.D., says that when she recently tried to buy a ticket to Vietnam, she handled her reservation through the Delta Air Lines Web site by the book. But when she was actually ready to buy her flights, the airline informed her that the ticket she wanted was $300 more than the original price quote.

“Disappointed, but curious, I returned to Delta’s home page and began the process again,” she said. “The same lower fare was still displayed, so I worked my way through the process again only to be informed once again that the fare was no longer available. Over the course of a half hour I repeated this process two more times. Same result.”

I’ve brought cases like this to other airlines in the past, and the answer is always the same. Even with evidence, such as screen shots and printouts, the only way you’ll ever prove the cookie conspiracy theory is with an affidavit from the head of the travel company’s IT department.

But customers think they know better.

“There must be a systematic process designed to lure the buyer with a price that the company does not intend to honor,” said Bob Flood, a health physicist who lives in Las Vegas. “Consider this: In the natural order of things, if there is no bias in a process, there are about as many negative outcomes as positive outcomes. The process of posting the lower airfares — that is, making them initially available — should result in as many surprisingly lower prices at booking as it does surprisingly higher ones because they have all been taken.”

He makes a good point. I’ve heard of only one or two cases where the fare dropped.

It may be impossible to prove conclusively that travel companies use cookies to raise their fares, or to bait us with low fares. But smart travelers have found a way around it. Caren Barnes, a teacher from Lincoln, Neb., simply logs off whenever a low fare turns into a high fare. “I go to another computer,” she says. “There’s almost a 100 percent chance you’ll see the lower fare you saw the first time.”

Another technique worth considering is to clear the cookies on your Web browser. Each program handles this task slightly differently; consult the “help” option in your application’s menu for directions.

Bottom line: Don’t think of a travel site as a supermarket. Instead, picture it as a Middle Eastern bazaar. How much for the ticket? Whatever it looks as though you’re willing to pay.

(Photo: virtualpilot88/Flickr Creative Commons)

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