Aaron N. Tubbs bio photo

Aaron N. Tubbs

Dragon chaser.

Twitter Facebook Google+ LinkedIn Github

So Sarah and I have been toying with going to Paris for the last few days of 2005, because … why not? Ski or tropical vacations during that time period run 3-4x the normal price, and are hard to find (just for that week; the next one drops to pre-gouge prices).

I’d been searching through Hotel + Airfare packages on expedia, since they give a moderate discount when booked together, and because, you know, it makes things easier.

I fill in my details.

Leaving from: NYC
Destination: Paris
Departure: 12/26/2005
Return: 12/30/2005
Guests: 2
Rooms: 1

Search.

(wait)

Order by hotel class: 4 stars of above.

(wait)

Westin Paris – blah blah blah blah
AA JFK to CDG blah blah blah blah
total price: $2686

Cool. We’re talking real money, but all said and done that’s way cheaper than going to a ski resort in Colorado for that weekend.

I’ve finished this most recent search no less than 15 minutes ago, so I hit the “continue booking” option.

“We’re sorry ..” blah blah blah “… the price of this package has changed”

To $11,769.

!!

Ok, that’s crazy. I’ll start over and see if there’s another option that doesn’t run half the cost of a spare WRX after food and attractions.

Same parameters, same result. Westin Paris, $2686. I let maybe three seconds pass before booking.

Exact same page comes up, with my order of magnitude jump in price. What’s going on?

So I call Expedia, wait on hold for a few minutes, and then a destination specialist (groan) helps me on my way. She was friendly and polite, and that was nice. I explain my predicament, in that I don’t understand why my quoted price jumps from $2686 to roughly $12,000 in three seconds.

She says, “Well, I know prices for European trips have been fluctuating quite a bit; these things certainly happen, maybe we can find another option for you?”

I respond, “Oh, I know these things are volatile, but this particular fluctuation seems a little odd, in that it consistently reverts when I’m not actually trying to buy it.”

She replies “I’ll try and find the same flight…”

She takes down the flights and hotel package and starts running through the search; it takes a good eight minutes before she gets a result, at which point she says “I’m seeing $3700 for that, sir.”

$3686, to be exact. Some magic number out of nowhere, mysteriously a clean $1000 over the quoted price I was seeing. A coincidence, I’m sure. What are the odds, 1 in 1000? Oh, maybe fares and so forth just happen to round off to certain numbers, so it’s far more likely. Who knows. Like I say, a coincidence.

“Can you save that to your account?”

I had to go and create an account, because I didn’t have one before. Fine, I return now to my itinerary to save it to my new account, an lo and behold, my search is gone, and I have to reproduce the search. I go through the exact same steps, and suddenly out of nowhere, the $3686 fare is my only option. Hell, I can’t even price a configuration of hotel and flights to get me up to $12,000, even flying in a better cabin. After being able to repeatedly ride the 2686 to 12,000 hump, it’s rather strange that it’s downright impossible now.

Curious.

And, lo and behold, if I try to continue booking online, I’m no longer greeted with our lovely order of magnitude price bump, I now have a price that sticks.

Curious indeed.

After this, the destination specialist was of course no help — this was now the price and it is what it is; she was sorry but the markets do fluctuate this time of year, and she would be happy to assist me if I wanted to continue booking.

“Yeah, but no thanks, as you can imagine, I’m going to have to reconsider now that my fare has jumped $1000.”

Click.

Market fluctuation.

Sure.

No, reader, something evil is going on. This is all by design. Expedia piddles little too good to be true fares all through its system, a reasonable margin better than any comparable travel site (our quoted price was a decent chunk of money cheaper than Orbitz and Travelocity). They wait for somebody to start booking on this fare, and then they slap them with the fare that no sane person could ever justify. Not a tiny bump, but an order of magnitude. Something so ridiculous that even if you were on an expense account you’d balk.

Then, they just happen to have a phone number listed at the bottom of the “We just fucked you! Sorry!” page. In my experience, online stores and so forth do their best to hide telephone numbers, because talking to humans costs money. But, this is part of a sneaky business-stealing tactic, so they want you to call.

In fact, reader, they want you to call in, so they can enact stage two of their plan: Secret procedure Blue Alpha Niner: “We’ve got him in our grasps, sir!” The destination specialist quickly gathers where you’re trying to go, your dates of departure, and all the other vitals, and enters them into their bait and switch marketing machine. A page has been set up for employee use that makes it extremely fast to locate these planted price discrepancies and correct them. During the course of several minutes while “her computer was quite slow for some reason” she was actually working furiously to restore the natural price for this airfare system-wide, since the trap had been sprung, and leaving it out to be found would make this behavior far easier to detect. Then, after the “really strange delays had passed” a magic new price appears.

The new magic price that appears happens to be market-correct, within a few percent of the other travel sites (usually a small margin over the others). Curious. And it happens to be a very whole very human-generated delta ($1000) over the original price.

What Expedia is doing here is getting you in the door, and then correcting their mistake, and since you’re already on the phone with a pleasant operator, you begrudgingly accept paying the market-correct price, but getting it from them instead of somebody at random.

Fuck that, no thanks.

I know, this sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory, but I’m obviously not alone in this sort of behavior. Here are a couple examples that instantly popped on google without any effort:

Now, I know the argument that is going to come back — the prices just change, and its the airlines, Expedia doesn’t control it. Believe me, I’ve begrudingly accepted that airfares change in realtime many times before, seeing my prices rise hundreds of dollars in a few minutes. I was pretty sure I was being exposed to price manipulation then, and that it wasn’t just market behavior, but usually my inability to reproduce the price fixing at least slowed my opportunities to prove my point; it could all be justified and swept away before there was any proof in the past. Ghosts in the machine, and all.

Well, either this is wrong, or there’s collusion. I’m sorry, I tried this three times in a row. There is no way a price could go from 2700 to 12,000, to 2700, to 12,000, to 2700, to 12,000 all in the space of 10 minutes. The nicest possible explanation for that is that the price was always 12,000, and their database has a nasty cache problem, and that their software and database engineers are incompetent. That’s not a very good answer.

Is this an isolated incident? Has anybody else seen price fixing like this, followed by a mysterious adjustment once they called in?

Am I just crazy?