Incognito Mode Does Not Help You Find Cheap Flights

Incognito Mode Does Not Help You Find Cheap Flights

Booking flights is an unfortunately stressful part of a relaxing vacation. The internet is full of tips and tricks on how to make it cheaper. One of the most pervasive “tricks” is to use incognito mode when searching for your flights to get a cheaper ticket. You wouldn’t be crazy for believing it, but this is a giant myth.

“I have come to terms with the fact this myth will still be widely believed the day I die,” said Scott Keyes, CEO of Going, in an interview with Gizmodo. He’s been searching for cheap flights every day since 2013, so he would likely know if the trick worked.

The myth stems from the use of cookies, the very real tool that companies use to track everything you do online. Folks believe that airlines use cookies to track when you search for flights, and when they figure out you really want a certain flight, the airline raises the price. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how flights are priced.

Keyes says to look at how cookies are used elsewhere, take jeans for example. If you Google “Levi’s”, the company may send you some ads, or even some discounts, to convert you into a buyer. But Levi’s definitely wouldn’t increase the price of jeans for you personally. With jeans, like flights, it’s all about converting your interest into dollars.

But I know what you’re thinking: jeans and flights are different, and you’re totally right. You need to take flights, but you don’t need new jeans. Plus, airlines have a long history of screwing over customers. What if the airlines are colluding together, and using cookies to push up prices on you across the board? Ok, taking my conspiracy theorist hat off again.

Economists from Berkeley, Yale, and the University of Chicago recently studied the pricing algorithms of an unnamed large US airline. The study found that the overall bookings for any given flight will affect the price, but your personal interest has no impact whatsoever. In fact, the study found that prices of other airlines’ flights don’t affect pricing algorithms either.

“Your search behavior almost surely does not affect anything,” said Kevin Williams, a Yale economist who worked on the study, in an interview. “But if you booked the last seat at the lowest price, then you could affect that flight for everyone else.”

Consumer Reports studied this myth back in 2016, conducting 372 flight searches on an incognito browser, and on a regular browser. The incognito browser produced a cheaper flight roughly 7% of the time, but it also produced a more expensive flight 5% of the time. 88% of the time, the flight price was exactly the same, regardless of your cookies. There’s no conclusive evidence that cookies make flights more expensive. In some cases, those cookies could be giving you a deal.

Origins of The Myth

Before 1978, booking an airplane ticket was remarkably simple. You went to a travel agent, asked for a flight, and they looked in a physical book where there was a flat fee listed. They then called the airline to make sure it was available, and you were done. It was great, but flights were often very expensive.

In 1978, Congress passed “The Airline Deregulation Act” which made airfare way cheaper, but also much more complicated. Suddenly, there was much more competition to have the cheapest flights.

By the early 2000s, a number of flight booking websites, like Expedia and Kayak, launched and made the space incredibly more complicated. Suddenly, there was not one set price to buy a ticket for a New York to Los Angeles flight, there were dozens of options.

Fast forward to today, and airlines engage in dynamic pricing, changing the price of flights throughout the day based on demand and a number of other factors. This makes the ever-changing ticket prices so unpredictable.

“I think this myth mostly stems from the fact that airfare is extraordinarily volatile,” Keyes said. “It’s so easy to confuse volatility with a sort of Truman Show belief that it’s because of you.”

Contrary to popular belief, airlines are not solely focused on maximizing profit on every person’s ticket. Loyal customers are hugely important to airlines in the long term, as evidenced by the luxurious lounges and benefits of frequent flyers. Economists have found these considerations baked into their pricing algorithms. There are a lot of factors affecting the price of flights, but your search habits just aren’t one of them.

Why It’s Pervasive

The first reason this myth sticks around is because it’s very believable that airlines are screwing us over in every way possible. We’re very dependent on airlines, and they certainly take advantage of that fact. They charge ridiculous amounts for basic necessities, like food, water, and a basic amount of legroom. Nowhere is wealth disparity more obvious than on an airplane. Screwing us on ticket prices is not much of a stretch.

Furthermore, we’re used to corporations using cookies against us. Social media companies cater to our insecurities, while advertisers sell us our dreams. It makes sense we would lump airlines in with the rest of this unsavory bunch.

According to the booking experts and economists I consulted for this article, there are a couple of things you can do to find the cheapest flights. The biggest factor is booking in advance. Ideally, start looking in the winter for summer vacations, and start looking in the summer for winter vacations.

Otherwise, just shop around at different airlines and websites. If you’re really committed, watch the price of flights over a couple of days. Regardless of whether you’re using incognito mode, a well-priced flight is likely the result of some decent planning.

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