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According to this website, this and a few others, apparently, RyanAir uses cookies to detect whether you've been to the site before and increases the price, presumably because it believes if you're checking it again, you're going to be more desperate to buy at a higher price.

My first impression is I'm skeptical as I would've thought it'd basically be illegal to offer two sets of prices to two customers at the same time. Also, doesn't seem very good business sense as the customer who've checked for the second time is more likely to have looked at other sites too, therefore, more likely to be deterred by a higher price.

Can anyone confirm if this actually takes place with RyanAir or with any other airlines?

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Dynamic Pricing –  Oliver_C May 26 '12 at 10:23
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I remember having a protracted, ridiculous argument with a former colleague, who refused to budge on the idea that it was illegal to offer different prices to different customers, citing "Fair Trade Laws". It isn't true. It's common practice to offer different rates to different customers. –  Oddthinking May 26 '12 at 15:11
    
@Oddthinking in which country? –  Andrew Grimm May 26 '12 at 22:18
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@Andrew: At the time I grumpily checked Australia and US (muttering under my breath about burden of proof, but he was a superior) but I will go out on a limb and say any free-market economy. –  Oddthinking May 27 '12 at 0:25
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@jwenting: if clearing the cookies or switching to a proxy immediately change the price you will know for sure. –  nico May 31 '12 at 15:58

3 Answers 3

This belief seemed to spread in April 2011 via twitter.

Due to Ryanair's reputation as being overly greedy at the cost of the consumer, I think many people have simply assumed that this claim was true.

It does not appear that it has been looked into too conclusively, but the investigations that have been done indicate that the claim is not true.

Popular travel blog tnooz investigated this, which has an unsourced quote from a Ryanair official denouncing the claim as untrue. tnooz refers to a company called Invisible Hand which make a browser addon of the same name which helps to find the lowest flights on airline websites.

Invisble Hand tested this claim by running 52 flight searches in Firefox and Chrome over 2 days, with cookies being consistently cleaned from Chrome but not from Firefox. The conclusion they reached was:

“If the price manipulation allegations were true, we would have expected to see price discrepancies in the results between Firefox and Chrome on day two. What we actually saw were exactly the same prices on both browsers.”

It isn't a comprehensive test and doesn't take into account the possibility of manipulation based only on certain usage patterns, but is interesting nevertheless.

Given the widespread attention this news item received, if it were the case it would seem reasonable that it would have been independently confirmed. However there were no reliable reports of reproducing what was reported, which along with the Invisible Hand results may indicate that some sort of bug was encountered rather than a deliberate action.

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your argument seems fair but I have a sample below refuting - complete with screenshots. You state that there was no difference between browsers but what I have encountered is a different price on the same browser one with a cookie from the previous day and one with no cookie. It looks to me like Ryanair are increasing the price when I return a day later with the same query on the same flight. –  DavidC Feb 23 at 23:55
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Edit - I deleted my post below with so-called refutation - looking closely I see that I made an error with the dates I was comparing. –  DavidC Feb 24 at 0:01

Can anyone confirm if this actually takes place with RyanAir or with any other airlines?

An indirect answer, but yes, Delta Airlines admitted to having made a similar system, in error, for a period of 19 days, in April 2012, where customers that weren't logged in were offered cheaper flights:

In late April we began testing a new search functionality as part of these enhancements. We phased the installation, to first offer the new search function to customers who weren’t logged in because we wanted to be particularly careful not to disrupt the booking experience for our best customers. As a result, over a period of about 19 days, logged-in customers were seeing different flight search results than customers who chose not to log in.

They further explain the discrepancy in prices was because the same search may have returned different flights, and hence the different prices.

please know that delta.com did not sell the same flight itinerary to different people for different prices. That very idea goes against the grain of how Delta treats its customers. And based on the way we file our fares it’s actually not technically possible. In fact, Delta’s fares are consistent in all channels.

Source: Delta Blog

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Downvoted, as whatever Delta did on their site has absolutely no relevance to what Ryanair may be doing on their site. This doesn't answer the question at all. –  Sonny Ordell May 31 '12 at 3:34
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@SonnyOrdell. What part of any other airlines is unclear to you? –  TRiG May 31 '12 at 3:44
    
@TriG I had missed that point. Even so, I think the question is referring to deliberate actions ongoing today, not errors in the past. –  Sonny Ordell May 31 '12 at 3:49
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@Sonny, I have no way of proving it, but I suspect this story from Delta quickly morphed into the rumour about RyanAir - company name changes appear to be a common mutation in urban legends. But, I agree: this is an indirect answer. –  Oddthinking May 31 '12 at 4:51
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@Sonny: Ha! Of course, you are right. I misread April 2011 as April 2012. It seems we are even with the misreadings ;-) –  Oddthinking May 31 '12 at 4:58

The French administration in charge of enforcing trade and advertisement regulations (DGCCRF) and the observatory of data privacy (CNIL) held an investigation on IP tracking on an unspecified set of vendors of train and flight tickets operating in France. Their conclusion was that they could not find any evidence that prices would rise when you check the same site multiple times.

I cannot find the details of the investigation, there doesn't seem to be a public report. In particular, I cannot find any information about the testing methodology or the companies that were tested (in particular whether Ryanair was included in the study).

I quote some relevant extracts from the press release (my translation).

Tests revealed practices resulting in sometimes large variations in prices: practices based on the number of seats offered or available in the desired airplane or train. This price policy (known as “yield management”) results for example in the price of a ticket depending on the date at which it was bought or the proportion of occupied seats.

Tests also revealed a practice consisting of adjusting booking fees based on the time at which the booking is made. The online shopper thus benefits from better rates when buying a ticket at “off-peak hours” chosen by the merchant.

Investigations were carried out with online merchants, then with their contractors in the domain of behavioral marketing. (…) None of the techniques that were observed took the IP address of shoppers into account as a decisive factor nor aimed to modulate the price of products or services offered to consumers.

A practice consisting of adjusting the offered price based on the site previously visited by the consumer was also observed. Thus a consumer coming from a price comparison site will sometimes see a more attractive offer, but with higher fees, resulting in no significant variation in the total price. This operation is carried out without anyone being able to determine the mechanisms resulting in variations in the displayed price.

The press release reads “the site”, singular, which hints at a decision based on the referer rather than based on cookies leading to cross-site tracking. But I wouldn't try to draw a definitive conclusion on this technical issue based on a one-paragraph layman's summary.

On the basis of this study, here are my personal conclusions:

  • If you visit the airline's site multiple times, you are not penalized (price-wise) for that.
  • However, given well-known yield management techniques, you are likely to see the price rise over time.
  • Variations such as the modulation on the time of day make generalizable comparisons harder.
  • If you browse the site in a fresh browser, you may see a different offer but the resulting price is substantially similar. This kind of makes sense as a marketing ploy — try harder to attract the comparison shopper, but sell them the same ticket in the end.

Travel Stack Exchange user Shane reports having observed the practice you describe, but sadly his testimony lacks methodology or concrete evidence.

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