You find an attractive airline fare on a travel website or airline site—but when you try to book it, you instead are offered a higher price. The site also claims that there are only a small number of tickets remaining at this less appealing price, nudging you to ante up or risk having to pay even more.
Airline and travel sites offer an innocent-sounding explanation for this apparent bait-and-switch—the low fare you found was “cached.” Fare-search sites don’t actually look up current prices each time a user conducts a search. To make these searches faster (and, in some cases, to save themselves money), the sites instead tend to supply fares that they found and saved in the not-too-distant past. Those fares occasionally are no longer available—something users learn only when they try to book.
Although caching is indeed a source of some of these “ghost fares,” there are reasons to suspect something sneakier might be going on as well. For one, even though most types of online searches have improved dramatically over the years, this ghost-fare problem appears to be getting worse, based on consumer complaints. Besides, if ghost fares truly were the result of random fluctuations in prices, consumers ought to receive unexpectedly lower fares as often as they do higher ones, which does not seem to be the case.
What to do: When looking online for fares, restrict how much the travel website or airline site can find out about you. It’s possible that some ghost fares might be a result of travel websites and airlines trying to impose higher fares on customers who these sites suspect will pay more based on analyses of customers’ Internet habits or hometowns. The easiest way to block websites from accessing your personal data is to launch your web browser’s “incognito” or “private” mode before searching for fares. (There should be an option along the lines of “new incognito window” or “new private window” in the browser’s menu.) Incognito mode disables your browsing history and the web cache. It also disables the storage of data in cookies.
And if you are offered a higher fare when you try to book, search for lower-priced alternatives on Google.com/flights. It searches almost all available fares, so if there is a better deal out there, it’s likely to locate it.