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 us say this unequivocally: Searching for flights incognito does nothing. Absolutely nothing. Nor does clearing your cookies. And we are experts at airfare and finding cheap flights.

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. And trust me, we do.


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? The idea that you're being tracked is 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, Hopper and Priceline. Your flight searches aren't being affected by your previous searches.

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. Or Delta decided to pull it.

That's it. These quirks with airfare classes and pricing explain 90% or more of the frustrating fluctuations you may see.

In some cases, you might be searching through Google Flights and click through to book a good deal only to find the price has shot up. But again, it's not that you're being tracked. Instead, because flight prices are changing constantly, sometimes Google Flights will erroneously display an out-of-date price that has since changed due to cached data.

Those mismatches typically get fixed within minutes, if not seconds. But every once in a while, it may look like Google Flights or your airline have tried to pull a fast one on you.


What About Using a VPN to Find Cheaper Flights?

Right after searching incognito and clearing your cookies, using a VPN (virtual private network) to disguise the location you're searching from might just be the most frequently repeated travel tip for finding cheap flights. In this case, it can sometimes work … but not for the reasons you may think.

It's not about how you're searching: It's about where you're searching from. Some flight search platforms and even individual airlines can charge drastically different amounts based upon the point-of-sale – or at least where the website thinks you're buying a ticket.

Whether you use a VPN or simply navigate through an airline's website to select a different location, it can result in some savings … or additional costs. For example, when I needed to book flights from Bogota (BOG) and Cartagena (CTG) and back earlier this year, searching from the U.S. yielded roundtrip fares for just over $111.
bogota to cartagena

But after switching my location on Avianca's site to Colombia itself, it pulled up the exact same flights at 354,000 Colombian pesos – dropping the price by $30 apiece to $81 USD.
bogota to cartagena flights

If you're trying this money-saving method, make sure you've got a credit card that doesn't charge foreign transaction fees!

But don't assume that searching from the home country (and paying in its currency) is always the key to savings. For example, these long-haul flights from New York City (JFK) down to Buenos Aires (EZE) on Aeromexico clock in just over $1,000.
aeromexico flight buenos aires

By switching my point of sale to Argentina itself, the exact same flights cost 229,637 Argentine pesos. That works out to more than $1,719 USD – an extra $700!
new york city argentina

Let me be clear: This is incredibly hit or miss. You could run 100 searches around the globe and only run into this issue once or twice. It just depends on where you're flying – and where you're buying.

Is it worth trying? Yes, especially if you don't like the prices you see on a flight abroad, change your point of sale or fire up a VPN and compare the prices.

But though this technique can help at times, it's by no means a silver bullet to saving on flights.


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.

37 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.

    • Agree! It happened with me as well. The Author probably hasn’t experienced it yet and has put out a blanket statement saying its untrue *smh*

      • We search hundreds, if not thousands of fares, every single day. If airlines were tracking searches, it would have happened to us – and we’d probably never find flight deals.

  • 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.

  • I am a Thrifty Traveler premium member and I sadly have to disagree with a majority of this post. I too have experienced a price increase when I kept looking up the same flight several times within a day. There weren’t any notifications on the main class cabin I was looking at to say it was “only 1 seat left at this price” or such language either. After looking up that flight several times the price jumped 500 miles. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to take that flight so I kept waiting, checking on it several times within the same week. The more I looked it up, the price kept increasing. Finally I stopped looking at it for a week or so and boom, the price dropped back to the “normal” mileage cost for that flight. This has happened a few times to me, so I believe that the airlines ARE monitoring how popular a flight is in their searches and if it’s one that’s been searched a lot, they increase the price. They would easily have all that data from their website on which flights are poplar and which aren’t. I just don’t understand how every time it is mere coincidence.

  • This response is directly to what the author, Kyle, said. Your company might be doing thousands of searches per day, but I think you underestimate how sophisticated the cookies and data analysis and segmentation algorithms are. If your computer is doing thousands of searches per day, and not adding any itinerary to cart for lack of a better phrase, it’s pretty obvious you don’t have high intention of booking one particular itinerary, so the cookies are going to put you in the not serious bucket. If it tracks someone that is only searching los angeles to london, and maybe they even started to click through to the purchase process, it’s going to put them in the serious buyer bucket. Segmentation data analysis is exactly how FB and Google are able to provide such powerful ad targeting to get ads in front of the optimal eyeballs. I’ve definitely seen this play out with airlines, credit card applications and getting different sign on bonuses, car rental sites, just to name a few examples.

    Also in regards to what day you purchase your tickets, that is less of a factor than what day the flight is leaving and/or returning, but it is still a factor. There have been studies done that show there can be a difference sometimes. Maybe not all the time, but on average there does seem to be a bit of a difference with a large number of flights. Although from one article I read covering one of those studies, I don’t believe Tuesday by itself had any significant special lower rates. It said there were 2 or 3 days of the week that tended to be better than the rest. If memory serves me correctly, I believe it said certain routes are more sensitive to this because on average not only is business travel executed more on certain days of the week, but is also booked more on certain days of the week. Take that with a grain of salt, I’m no expert on that topic.

  • I just did a search for a Frontier flight today on two different browsers (Brave and Firefox) and the price for the Works was $30 higher on my second search. (Both were up at the same time) This has happened to me before when searching for Frontier flights (but when searching not for United or SW, the two other carriers I use) so I still am suspicious about Frontier’s antics. It’s happened to my wife as well. I find that their airfare doesn’t change when searching multiple times but their Perks and Works prices absolutely change. Maybe they can get away with this since these options don’t show up when using airline search engines like Expedia or Google Flights.

  • You’re FOS. And if you’re not , then the lobbying group who “set up this system” should be held accountable.

    Absolutely NO REASON why every good fare in the US should go through one city and don’t even try to play ” that’s where the people are” . That’s nonsense. There’s 300 MILLION Americans. They don’t all live there.

  • Oh and then of course ” the author ” has a picture of Emirates.

    So let me guess, you’re a loyal subject of Mohammed bin Salman?

    Absolute nonsense and having been in other countries and seen what level they get on “simple regional service” ? Americans should en masse revolt but they don’t know any better.

    • Emirates is based in the UAE. MBS is from Saudi Arabia. I am a “subject” of neither.

      Having flown airlines from many different countries, I absolutely agree US airlines can and should do much better … with the caveat that part (but certainly not all) of that is driven by the fact that many major international airlines are heavily and regularly subsidized by their governments.

  • American Airlines showed priced that were different of about $2 on all flights when using Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge on 12/28/22. With the Edge browser being $2 cheaper. Both on
    Obviously they are using dynamic pricing algorithms that don’t treat customers fairly.

  • I’m literally refreshing my browser on a given flight right now and watching it jump up $20 with each refresh. With the high demand of flights during this crazy holiday season, it’s so easy to see how prices are being manipulated real-time.

  • The airfare class thing makes sense… except when it doesn’t.
    Otherwise how would you explain a plane ticket go up in price since this morning, then down after a few hours, then up again when I refresh the browser?

  • This is the second time that I searched for a fare on Orbitz and received one price, only to return in less than 2 minutes (after checking with another site) to find the fare had DOUBLED. This happened to me last year – not just with Orbitz but with Hawaiian Airlines as well. There was a drastic and immediate increase in cost of the fares within minutes. This time, I researched this issue in advance and after reading blogs such as yours (Orbitz even has a online piece titled “11 myth busters, where they cite this sort of price increase as a myth) I decided to risk it. It is clearly the case that sites track and exploit consumers in this way.

  • So reading the comments… I agree with them more than I agree with the article. I just witnessed prices going down by 50% on a flight that I just purchased after it was going up daily for weeks. I bought it just due to the fact that I was afraid it might sell out…..OH I hate that feeling…So what is the bottom line here? How do we get the best deal. Based on what I am reading, just buy on the first mid week search and don’t look back to check the pricing later?

  • This guy is completely wrong. He is not searching for flights logged in to our account. We are. Big difference.
    Just happened to me 5 minutes ago. Searching for flights with miles. Closed browser and reopened and the cash prices were the same but the miles price on just the flight I had selected was 50% higher.

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