Forget What You've Heard: Stop Searching Incognito for Flights

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searching incognito for flights

Forget What You’ve Heard: Stop Searching Incognito for Flights

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Of all the myths surrounding travel and finding cheap flights, one stands out. We hear it again and again and again, from beginners to even so-called travel experts and social media influencers. You’ve probably heard it too – it’s practically common knowledge.

“You should search incognito for flights or clear the cookies on your internet browser because the website is tracking what you’re looking for and will jack up the price.”

Let me say this unequivocally: Searching for flights incognito does nothing. Absolutely nothing. Nor does clearing your cookies.


Pssst… that thing you’ve heard about booking on Tuesdays is wrong, too. There’s no best day to book flights, either.

It sounds like it makes sense, right? It’s an easy explanation for why the price of a flight you were looking at changed an hour later when you went to go book. Searching incognito for flights makes travelers feel like they’ve got the power – like they’re beating the airlines.

But it’s just not true. Airlines are not tracking your searches. Neither is Google Flights – the best search platform for finding good deals on airfare – or most other search engines and online travel agencies (OTAs) like Expedia and Priceline. Your flight searches aren’t being affected by your previous searches.

At Thrifty Traveler, we find flight deals for a living and send them to Thrifty Traveler Premium members. We’re searching all day, every day for flights. If airlines were tracking our searches, we’d never find cheap flights.

So what’s the answer behind the constantly changing flight prices, then? Why did that ticket you were looking at suddenly jump in price?


Explaining Changes in Airfare

The reality is that airfare pricing is fickle, and it’s always changing. Airlines are constantly altering their prices as tickets sell and demand changes.

One simple explanation behind a sudden change in price is something called the airfare’s fare class. While you just see economy and first class when you walk on the plane, airlines sell an alphabet soup’s worth of tickets called fare classes – and it’s literally an alphabet, as most airlines have a fare class for every letter.

Here’s a look at just some of United Airlines’ fare classes, for example.

united fare classes 

There are close to a dozen or more different fare classes for even a standard economy seat, each with its own set of rules for upgrades, earning miles, and more. Basic economy fares – the bare-bones tickets sans seat assignments or checked baggage – are represented by an entirely different fare class. Even award fares booked with miles have a distinct classification.

Here’s the important part: Every fare class has its own price. So when the cheapest fare class sells out – or an airline simply decides to remove that fare class – the price will jump up to the next, higher-priced class.

So let’s say you’re looking at roundtrip flights from Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) to Las Vegas (LAS) on Google Flights and you see a good deal for $157 roundtrip. Little do you know, there’s only one ticket remaining at that price.

delta flights 

So when you go back an hour – or even just a few minutes – later and find that price is gone, it’s not because Delta is tracking your searches. That cheapest ticket likely just sold.


Bottom Line 

If you really want to know how to find cheap flights, you need to know the facts.

You can search incognito for flights if you want, but it’s not doing you any good. And stop wasting your time clearing your cookies, too. These tips have been passed around for years even by so-called experts. But it’s simply not true.


Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

20 Responses

  • Agree to disagree about Google Flights being totally comprehensive…I recently spent about a week tracking prices on an international route using Google, Kayak, and Expedia. Several of those days there were ideal flights (including the one I ended up booking) on the latter two that weren’t showing up on the former. It’s a very useful tool, but it shouldn’t be the only one. Also, I think ITA Matrix (owned by Google) is infinitely more useful and powerful than Google Flights–not sure why they keep them separate.

    • I mean it is comprehensive compared to other OTAs. Google Flights typically pulls from the airlines, Priceline, and Expedia, which should generally find the cheapest fare (9 times out of 10). Yes, ITA is more powerful, as it’s the backend for Google Flights, but it’s:
      A. Slow as hell.
      B. You can’t book with it.
      C. The average joe sure won’t be able to figure it out.

  • NOOOO! The Tuesday thing can’t be true. I typically find the best deals on Monday and Tuesday. I have NEVER searched the same flight after a Tuesday and found a lower price. It’s typically around $100 more for the same exact flight every other day I look. When using the app Hopper to monitor flights it also typically shows the lowest prices on Tuesday. Coincidence or conspiracy who really knows?

  • The issue for me is not that the fare increases, it is that I Don’t always see the lower price. If I change computers(up address) I find lower fare. And what about point of sale

    • This will not happen if you use Google Flights. If it does it is only due to the variability of fare pricing.

  • My husband and I were sat on the sofa on separate devices. I was showing him a low cost flight ai had found earlier. However on his phone all the flights shown were £5 cheaper than mine. That’s £20 difference on a low cost return flight.

      • “this generally should not happen” haha. Don’t you mean “that is impossible! ”

        You have no idea what you’re talking about buddy. Just another guy trying to chisel out a new career as a blogger.

  • Travelport tracks ALL flight searches. They sell that information to all of the flight search engines.
    They all pull from the one database of tracked flights.

  • “Here’s the important part: Every fare class has its own price. So when the cheapest fare class sells out – or an airline simply decides to remove that fare class – the price will jump up to the next, higher-priced class.”

    I can’t believe it is mere happenstance that the lowest fare classes so frequently list “one fare remaining at this price” or “two fares …” or some similarly tiny number, regardless of whether my search is a month before the flight or six months. My suspicion is they are falsely stating the number of fares remaining in an effort to instill a sense of urgency in me. Now, it MAY be that it is not “fare classes” in which so few tickets at the listed price remain, but rather some kind of smaller bucket. If an airline has 50 different fare buckets, then I suppose they could truthfully claim only “one fare remaining at this price” (in this tiny bucket, after which we will list fares in the next higher tiny bucket). Though it may satisfy the letter of the law, it still feels less than candid to me.

  • This is categorically untrue. I know that some airlines do it because I have experienced it with Cathay Pacific back in 2015. I had the exact same flight on normal browser and incognito window and the normal browser was double the cost.

  • Sorry this is a bulls..t claim. I observed this actually couple weeks ago myself. I found a fare on Google Flight, by accident I closed the page. I quickly reopened it and do the search again and voila, the same flight cost couple hundred more. I did search again on a different computer with a different IP and got the old price back.

    Airlines most likely use the same techniques advertisers are using. They likely pay more to aggregators if they can uniquely identify users, then they provide an individualized price for each user. As the same user is searching for the same flight price is artificially increased, to give impression that tickets are being sold out.

  • This is all complete nonsense. I know first hand that there are better and worse times to book flights. This guy has no credibility after reading that.. Take what you read on the internet with a grain of salt people.

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