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How to Protect Your Computer from Airlines and Hotels that Keep Changing Their Prices | Frommer's Henry Hustava/Unsplash

How to Protect Your Computer from Airlines and Hotels That Snoop on You

It's called dynamic pricing, and it's how companies can offer you different rates based on who you are and what you're in the market for. Here's how to set your computer to get around it.
When you get a price from a website, that price is rarely fixed in stone. Many web pages are essentially created from the ground up each time you click based on algorithms that assemble themselves based on your preferences and past clicks. 

There's nothing legally stopping a company from offering you a quote that the algorithm thinks you will accept rather than one that is the same for all customers. The practice of fluid rate changes is called dynamic pricing
There are lots of ways companies gouge you for being who you are. The Wall Street Journal found that Orbitz showed more expensive results to Mac users. Jason Kint of Digital Content Next reported seeing different prices for the same flights based on which browser was being used. The Princeton Review was caught charging more for certain ZIP codes, which translated into higher prices for people of Asian descent. And a study from Northeastern University tracked instances in which prices were changed depending on whether customers were members, what type of device they used to access the site, and whether they had searched before. 

Websites store all kinds of information that companies can use to hike prices if they so choose, including whether you have searched for the same item before (if you're in the market, you may be willing to pay more) and what device you're on, and have also been known to change prices according to the time of day, reasoning that you may need an item more at one hour than another.

In addition, corporations are increasingly adept at scraping information about who you are and what you like in order to convince you to shell out more cash for services. 

The American government, increasingly hostile to regulations, does not carefully monitor the practice, and there are no signs that the current Congress has any interest in keeping an eye on dynamic pricing. We're on our own. We have to protect ourselves. 

Here's what you can do to trick companies into forgetting who you are so that the playing field is as even as possible.

Clear your cookies and history/cache between searches.
If a website knows that you're in the market for a flight to Chicago, it's entirely possible that it could manipulate that information during your comparison shopping. Little files called cookies store your personal details, so it's smart to make sure no vendor can read the things you've done before. On older versions of Safari, you can block clookies by going to Preferences>Privacy>Always Block, but be warned that this can mess up how trusted sites, like news organizations, remember your settings, so you should have your passwords written down somewhere just in case. Click "Remove All Website Data" to clean out your cookies. If you don't see that option, click "Manage Website Data..." and weed them out, site-by-site. On Chrome, go to Settings>Privacy>Clear browsing data to delete cookies. On Firefox, they're in History>Clear Recent History. 

You can also delete your browser's memory of which pages you have visited. On Safari, it's under Safari>Clear History. On Chrome, it's in the same place as the cookies.

Use a new browser for each search.
In addition to keeping your cookies and history clean so sites don't know what you're up to, you can also use a different browser each time you search for new flight during your comparison shopping: once on Chrome, once on Firefox, once on Opera. This is a pain in the neck and you will only get through a few searches before you need to use one of the browsers a second time, but it prevents sites from snooping on you.
Use “incognito” or “private” browsing.

Private mode isn't just for looking at dirty pictures anymore. As long as you're in a private window, your browser won't record what you're doing in the first place. On Safari, open a window that doesn't track you by going to File>New Private Window. With Firefox, click the menu icon and look for New Private Window (the option with a mask). On Chrome, it's called Incognito mode, but you do it the same way under File>New Incognito Window. 

Try searching both signed in and as a guest.
I have personally been offered higher prices on one airline once I signed in as a frequent flier. When I complained, the airline told me it was because frequent fliers might be shown additional classes of tickets that have different prices than the ones shown to the general public. But the net effect was that I was being asked to pay more because I was a loyal customer. Avoid this by searching both without signing into your account and after doing it, and compare what you're shown.

Use a proxy server, or a Virtual Private Network (VPN).
This won't take care of your cookies or your history, but it will trick the server into thinking you're from somewhere you don't actually live, which may affect the rates you're shown. Most VPNs require a semiannual subscription of about $60, but on the bright side, people also use them to anonymize their surfing habits when they're staying in hotels and to stream foreign TV programs while they're at home. There are a bunch on the market, but two of the most trusted are CyberGhost and HideMyAss.