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Ryanair tricking passengers into paying more than necessary using cookies information?

Ryanair coming up with unexpected tricks on its website may not be that much of a surprise for people familiar with the company. After all, it’s quite well-known that the website has been purposedly designed so as to be the most unintuitive possible. Being the only gateway to the company’s airplane tickets it is also the most important link in the chain of ancillary revenues. Thus a website as confusing as possible, designed to push forward adverts for one of the many “partners” of the airline. 

A website, what’s most, built in such a way that unsuspecting buyers may find themselves buying more than they need – be that travel insurance or SMS confirmation. But that’s rather old news for those who’ve been there before. Even the European Commission recently singled out Ryanair for not providing a contact email address.

However, there might still be more to discover about the company’s booking system. Indeed, selling only one-way tickets, the airline doesn’t make money like most legacy carriers on fare-adjustments and trip construction. Yet, it seems to have its own trick up it sleeve, as shown in a tweet by @sampsonian (none other than the producer of stephenfry.com) this morning:

“Ryanair exhibit A. Looked up fare yesterday, total £123.00. Returned today and fare is £237.00. Flushed cookies. Fare back to £123.00.”

It seems that the company has understood that most people don’t actually buy their tickets the first time they check a trip’s cost – as they may take the time to check for other alternatives. So the company’s come up with a clever trick to get them to pay more. It seems that the website logs information relative to your visits in a cookie stored in your browser’s cache. That’s pretty standard on any website nowadays. Yet, where it gets really twisted is that, when you return, the website checks your cookie and – knowing what you checked the first time – artificially increases the price to “punish” you for not buying straight away.

It’s difficult to cross-check that information and, though it has been widely retweeted, nobody has came up yet to confirm it does work this way. That might also only be true on routes on which Ryanair has no direct competitors (otherwise it would be quite counterproductive). Still, knowing Ryanair’s habit of making passengers pay for every mistake they make, it wouldn’t even be that surprising.

[Update: Getinvisiblehand.com has done some homegrown research and testing and nothing seems to be wrong for them. As they say it's not definitive proof but it clearly hints towards a user and/or website bug more than a strategic feature on Ryanair's side.]

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20 comments

  1. well this story does not prove much … why do you single out Ryanair with it ? It the cookie trick is that i m sure some other businesses have used as well ….Not exactly a fan or Ryanair but the story needs a little more substance to it

    1. You have a point Agnès and I wouldn’t be surprised if other businesses used similar tactics.

      But Ryanair is the only one I’d heard of doing so. And, as this article is based on a single-user experience tweeted yesterday, I already have too little hindsights for my own standards and would rather not make vague allegations about other companies. So the reason why the only company I’m accusing is Ryanair is, well… because they’re the only ones who were caught doing so.

      Now I share your opinion, and I would love to have some more in-depth information on the subject. I’m just waiting for some web-technology specialist to don a Sherlock Holmes attire and start investigating a bit further.

      1. I’m fairly confident this is an urban myth. There are plausible reasons why one might find their seat costs have increased, if they leave off booking for an hour, such as selling out of all the seats in one price tranche.

        If you don’t believe me try out a dummy booking on a high traffic route for a flight in 1months+ time such as STN-DUB, and leave it a couple hours between bookings, I’d be amazed if the price increases.

        With many of the low-cost airlines fares increase incrementally as more seats are sold – the very nature of supply and demand…. I don’t think Ryanair has any mechanisms to reduce the cost other than a ‘SALE'; that’s why people usually only see fares going up. Besides, it’s not a very sensationalist story if someone was about to book and came back the next day and found their fare had dropped to £8.00 – that’s just as feasible.

      2. Your argument make sense but – although my post was based on a tweet – I tend to believe the source. However, and where I do agree with you, it might not be true for all routes / fares / timeframe.

        Regarding your point on sales technique, I believe its only half true. If you look at Ryanair’s fares, they tend to follow more or less the same model has any other airline over time. As the departure date closes in, fare get higher and higher. As you say, there might momentary drop in prices that we can chalk up on as the automated fare adjustment systems working, but that doesn’t mean Ryanair couldn’t optimize its price adjustment based on passenger’s behavior. Implementing a technique to read user’s cookies as they come back on the website to check prices doesn’t seem all that hard to do (from my point of view at least) and – granted it is adequately tuned – could yield great benefits by forcing consumers into either buying early (quickly filling up planes is always advantageous for any company) or paying the high price for taking their time.

        I’m still looking for some more news regarding that. Because the “simple bug” scenario still can’t be ignored…

  2. I don’t think it’s difficult to make price adjustments based on cookies but if it was true it would have to be site-wide – ie. act for every single customer. I have tried it today for a flight from Alghero to Bratislava on 5/5/11 to 8/5/11 and it’s coming up at 18 EUR return. And this was checked once in the morning and just now.

    What I think happens is that when you book a flight – ie put one into your basket, the system reserves one for you at that price and provisionally removes that seat from the inventory. If you don’t purchase the seat, that seat is released back into the inventory. Now, I certainly believe that number of seats left on the flight affects the price charged – supply vs demand.

    So what this twitter user could have seen is that the second time he logged on, someone else had already had the booking form on that page, which provisionally reserved the seats and pushed the remaining fares up to the next price level. By the time the person had flushed cookies, the other booking was cancelled and the inventory was returned, thereby reducing the prices.

    This would be a very rare scenario to occur, but I believe that this is matched by the very rare number of people complaining. If it was found that any airline was hard-coding this type of behaviour into their systems, it would be PR disaster for the company and one they couldn’t defend themselves on. I don’t believe O’Leary is a fool.

    One thing that is more likely the manipulation of ‘only x seats left at this price’, but having tried bookings of x, and x+1 people I think this is legitimate too.

  3. It’s not only RyanAir that are doing this. A number of budget airlines (including EasyJet, Tiger Air, Jetstar) use cookies to artificially inflate flight prices when you search their sites more than once for particular routes / dates. If you clear the cookies (or use a different PC / laptop / browser), you get the original quoted price. This is completely outrageous and means that customers not aware of this ruse are regularly paying more than they need to for flights with budget airlines.
    I’m surprised that this cynical “daylight robbery” does not seem to have been picked up by consumer groups or the media. Will alert some journalists and consumer groups to investigate.

    1. That’s a really interesting point. Do you have any sources/data to back that up? I would be interested in reading more about it…

  4. good morning pls help me my name is denise griffiths because when i book i didnt take my refernce number of my booking. when i try to see my booking i cant because i need the refernce nuber and when i give my e mail address i tink that i didnt rwite him properly because i didnt even riceve any e mail of the conferm tku

    1. I am sorry but I’m not affiliated in any way with Ryanair and have absolutely no control over their booking system. You should try to contact the customer service directly (be warned, it’s expensive)…

  5. It just happened to me- I tried to make a booking, but something went wrong in the booking process, and I had to restart. When I went back to the home page, the fares had increased. I cleared my cookies, and voila- they were back to normal.

    1. Thank you for sharing that.

      For the moment, I’ll stand by my second edit of the article. I.e: it’s still hard to know whether it’s a feature or it’s a bug. While I do believe Ryanair has all interest in pumping the maximum amount from their customer’s pockets, I tend to think the cookie “trick” is more of an involuntary bug (that Ryanair has no interest in correcting) than anything else.

      Glad you could get your tickets at the right price anyway…

  6. I booked 2 tickets with Ryanair which cost £149.96 and later on that day I checked the flight prices and the exact same tickets had gone down to £111.00. Curiosity killed the cat…. as they say! I was rather annoyed but nothing I could do other than wonder why?

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