Customised pricing is only a matter of time, say experts.
The experience is a familiar one to anyone booking travel on the internet. You find an affordable rate for an airline fare, a hotel or a package tour, step away from the computer to consult with family or business colleagues, and re-query only to find the price has doubled. Use another computer to check for the same dates – and the price is back at its original level. The suspicion is widespread, though providers deny it – that the computer recognises you using cookies or information on your browser and automatically ups the rates.
“We don’t target people with cookies,” insists a spokesman for Disney, one of the companies an interviewee had experienced this problem with. But the travel industry is starting to identify people who visit their websites and rearranging their prices accordingly. One UK hotel site was recently accused of showing higher prices to visitors who came to the site through links than to those who arrived directly.
Last month, an association representing major online travel agencies active in the US market told the Transportation Department that it had access to a system that would allow airlines “to differentiate the seats made available for selection through communication of the frequent flier number of the traveller.” Some carriers, such as American Airlines, already offer different benefits and services based on customer characteristics, which it tailors according to their knowledge of the customer and his frequent flier status. But airlines are not admitting to changing fares according to this knowledge.
However, the law does not currently prevent carriers from offering lower fares to special clients. One lawyer says that it’s a small step from this to recognising internet users’ home addresses, family sizes and favourite destinations in order to adjust prices. “The carriers stand to make millions, if not billions, of dollars on customised pricing,” he says. The best advice for users is to clear your cookies when price-shopping and only state your frequent flier or frequent stayer details at the purchase stage.