How to protect anonymity when booking a hotel room or flight ticket online

Cybersecurity experts often emphasize how important it is for users to hide the traces of their activities on the Internet. No wonder – professionals have always been obsessed with security. After all, what’s harmful about some tried-and-tested online service knowing you visited it, clicked something or filled out some forms?

It turns out that this data can be leveraged by online booking services to enhance the personalization of their offers.

Many websites harvest information on their visitors’ interests and activities and then provide it to advertisers. In an ideal world, everyone benefits for this: the users will only see ads that match their interests, and advertisers can cut the marketing costs and even make their products cheaper.

Unfortunately, the ecosystem of online services is rather reminiscent of a medieval market – the sellers measure the degree of users’ interest and try to sell their products at the highest possible price.

This mechanism is typically used in hotel and flight booking systems. These websites leverage complex price adjustment algorithms that take into account large amounts of information about every visitor.

This data is gathered by means of tracking user activity on web pages, search engine optimization and social media monitoring. Based on dozens of criteria, these systems hide some offers from certain visitors and may even use different price lists.

For instance, when you open a hotel booking service on an iPad you may see the most expensive offers at the top of the list for the selected category, and it takes quite some time to get to cheaper offers on subsequent pages. When you open the exact same service on a computer running Linux, though, the low-cost items will be displayed on the very first page.

Additionally, such systems keep track of user activity on the site and adjust the search results in real time. For example, if you check the airline prices first, move on to alternative travel options and then go back to flights, you may discover an offer you previously saw being no longer available or being more expensive.

How to secure your online booking experience

Researchers have come up with several tips to avoid potential extra expenditures related to artificially inflated costs at online booking services.

  • Don’t be in a hurry. When a hotel booking page says there are only two vacant rooms left, don’t click that “Buy now” button right away. Spend a few minutes to call the specific hotel and check the prices along with room availability with them. The direct phone number is usually indicated on the booking page, and you should definitely use it because hotels may ask for a much lower price than booking sites do in their “hottest” deals.
  • Don’t be in a hurry (continued). An offer to book a flight ticket in advance may look like a lure, but it’s not always a real offer. When you try to buy the ticket, it may suddenly turn out that the offer is no longer available or the costs are unreasonably high. If you are planning to take a long trip with several transfers, stay the nights in different places, etc., the system will identify this fact and take advantage of it by offering more expensive flights and hotel rooms. At the end of the day, the cost of the whole trip may be roughly 50% higher than you expected.
  • Don’t become the “customer of the year”. Special offers and sales for “loyal customers” are frequently used to sell flight tickets and hotel rooms that will bring the booking service more bang for their buck. Meanwhile, regular offers “hidden” deep down the search results may be much more attractive and cost less. Ignore the “hot deals”. Instead, take your time and analyze all the offers available.
  • The first impression is half the battle. In real life, people often estimate themselves by how they look and what they wear. Online services can easily figure out where you are and what device and operating system you are using. For example, if you are a Mac or iPhone user and live in Western Europe or the United States, then you likely have high income and can afford to spend more. Try using a proxy server that makes it look like you are visiting the site from a “poor” country or one whose population is known for scrupulous attitude towards spending, such as Germany. If possible, use an old computer running Windows.
  • Anonymity. Online services spend a lot of money on ads and try to lure as many potential customers as possible by providing attractive offers. However, if you spend some time doing your search, then leave the page and revisit it later, the system will “conclude” that you tried to find other offers but failed to. Then, you may discover that the great offers you saw just a few minutes ago have become twice as expensive.

If you visit online booking services via VPN, then the odds of finding cheap offers will increase considerably, besides there are many other reasons to use VPN services in 2019.


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