Airfare pricing is something of a mystery.
Even if you know the logic behind a price, there’s never really a good answer to why a flight from the U.S. to Europe can cost $70, while a flight from Kansas to Colorado—two states literally right next to each other—can cost more than $400. Or why the price on a flight you’re looking to book is $300 one day and $700 the next. (Or why one you booked for $1,100 is available for $650 two weeks later.)
And since there isn’t a great answer, it has led to theories both on why prices change and how to get around the fluctuations.
You’ve probably heard one of the theories: Websites are tracking our airfare searches, some say, and hiking prices when they see us looking for the same flight again. This theory has created repeated advice that by using your web browser’s incognito mode, which can hide your search history, you can look like a new user to the airline website or search engine and you’ll get a lower price.
But guess what.
“That is absolutely not a real trick,” Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir.com, told Travel + Leisure. “I’ve never seen anyone provide an example where there are two different fares in incognito [compared to non-incognito].”
Not that there isn’t any reason to question airfares.
“It’s absolutely true that airfares change all the time, and sometimes within a very short period of time,” Klee said. “But the changes are in response to actual bookings, not searches.”
Maybe you’re saying, “No, really, I searched for this one flight to Chicago and didn’t buy it and then two hours later it was double the price.” Sorry.
“The price for the next seat on a plane depends on how many seats have already been sold,” Klee told T+L.
All search engines get their prices from the airlines’ systems, and there’s a single pool of seats: For a website to determine it should show you a higher price because you looked for the same flight before, it would have to incorporate the prices from that single pool of seats plus the last price you saw—and then guess at what price it could set a flight that you’d still be willing to pay.
So incognito is a no-go (at least for airfare savings). What’s a budget-minded traveler to do?
“From one to four months out is the sweet spot for domestic flights,” Klee added. “Within those three months, fares are likely to bounce up and down. The best advice I can give is start checking early, check frequently, and when you see a really good fare that’s lower than what you’ve seen: Grab it.”
If you know when you want to fly to a destination, and you’re planning with sufficient lead time (which you should be), set up fare alerts. CheapAir has a faretracker, the Hopper app will send you a push notification, and there’s Google Flights, to name just a few.
But really: Incognito mode won’t help.
“There are a lot of factors that cause price quotes to fluctuate, even on short notice,” said Klee. “However, the one thing that is not a factor is any sort of search history. It wouldn’t be possible or practical.”