Does Private Browsing Save You Money When Booking Flights?

We tested the age-old theory that incognito browsing and cookies can save you money when booking flights online. Here's what we found:

Because we know you love to save money so you can travel more, we decided to answer the Internet-age-old question about private browsing (also known as incognito browsing) and whether or not it actually saves travelers money when booking flights.

The common theory runs something like this: The online travel agency (OTA) booking sites and airline websites use cookies to track your regular browsing habits and study the flights you are seeking, and if those businesses know you're seeking the same flight and are coming back to book it, they may increase the price because they know you're serious and are ready to make a purchase.

Dave Dean, of the travel blog Too Many Adapters, said that incognito browsing can sometimes spare panic over a well-researched plane ticket fare.

“Incognito mode tends only to be useful when repeatedly checking the same or similar flights on the same sites over the course of a few hours or days,” Dean said.

Dean noted that he has seen prices inch up over time when repeatedly checking in nonprivate mode, but he found the flight was the same cost as its original price when he checked in an incognito browsing window.

In an attempt to test the theory, we ran an experiment where we sampled two flights, one domestic and one international, for several days at the same time each day in both regular and incognito browsing using Google Chrome on a Mac desktop.

Our international flight was leaving New York City out of John. F. Kennedy International (JFK) to the Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport in Paris. Our domestic flight for each test was out of Los Angeles International (LAX), flying to Hartsfield-Jackson International in Atlanta (ATL). All flights were booked in coach for one passenger, one way.

We made sure to book both westward flights exactly four months out from the travel date on Expedia and Kayak. We also tested the rates with airlines including Delta and British Airways via their own websites. Because we also wanted to try to get a straight answer, we directly asked Expedia and Kayak about the effects of incognito browsing. The word from Expedia was that they could not comment, and Kayak did not respond to our press inquiry as to whether it uses cookies to tailor flight prices. 

Here's what we found in our research: The flights we identified had little or no change between the days that we tested the bookings and no change at all between the prices offered simultaneously in incognito and regular browsing. When there were price changes between days, they were less than $5. After repeated tests, we're going say the myth of incognito browsing is fairly well busted.

Despite our admittedly limited research into incognito browsing's effects on flight prices, it's still possible that the tactic can work sometimes—with the key modifier being "sometimes"—and that's something that Dean and other frequent travelers stressed.

“It’s the kind of thing that’s true once in a great while,” said Chris Guillebeau, a travel and business writer who authors the travel blog The Art of Non-Conformity. He said incognito browsing generally only works "when there’s a mistake fare—and those only last a few hours now—so it’s not technically a myth, but it’s also not really a strategy that’s worth pursuing 99 percent of the time.” 

But before you go and start purging your cookies and browsing history after each flight search for the off chance you may save a few dollars, consider this: Scott Mackenzie, author and editor of TravelCodex, said browser cookies actually provide benefits for travelers.

“Attempts by customers to hide their browsing behavior are more likely to cause harm,” said Mackenzie. “The most common use of information about browsing behavior today is to offer discounted prices rather than raise prices.”

If that's true, then airlines and OTAs, might actually being pitching you slight deals to encourage you to book the flight today.


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