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United Airlines Ticket Pricing Puzzle

For the past few weeks, I've been plugging in different sets of dates - departing early to mid-June and returning early to mid-July - on United from Washington, DC to Shannon to see what fares are offered. My other parameters are an early evening departure and less than a three-hour layover in Newark. I've not yet purchased my ticket, as I don't yet know the availability of my travel companion. In the meantime, I continue to look around.

A few seconds after selecting the dates, each day on the calendars is populated with a range of round trip basic economy fares. I then choose the lowest fare - which has frequently (but not always) ranged from the mid-$500s to the upper $600s - and am taken to the next page to select the return fare. More often than not, that lowest departure fare (or even one close to it) has disappeared, and the fares displayed are now several hundred dollars higher than initially shown. Same for the return fares. Sometimes too that lowest fare now includes a seven- to ten-hour layover in Newark. To be fair, about a fourth of the time though the fare on both ends has remained the same and within my layover time parameter.

I'm thinking that with this ongoing and erratic roller coaster display of various fares, United's algorithms are playing games and even recognize return visits/visitors in order to effect a quick purchase. I've never seen anything like it before, including on other arilines' websites. And, again, it's been occurring over a span of many weeks.

Has anyone experienced this or something similar? Other than the alogrighms, what other explanation can there be?

Posted by
5161 posts

I don't fly United often, so this is just a possible guess. Many airlines don't allow you to mix their lowest fares (the super restricted ones with no seats, luggage, etc) with their regular economy tickets. Could this be a factor in what you are seeing?

Posted by
6 posts

Try using an igcognito browsing window when shopping for airfares, I've heard it helps.

Posted by
461 posts

Carol and Ruth,

Both good thoughts.

I got the same lowest round trip fare but once for the same dates as before using a private window. But changing the dates by only a day or three or four, that same low fare showed up only one time on the departure date - until I selected it. Then it popped up on a few other nearby departure dates, only to lead to it being found nowhere among 55-71 possible flights on the next page. I'd say it's darn close to a bait and switch, the different fare classes notwithstanding.

What are the advantages to - or differences in - using a private window over a regular one? How might that change the outcome?

As Churchill said of the USSR, "Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Ditto United's pricing scheme.

Posted by
21067 posts

I am not a believer in the clear-your-cookies-to-avoid-price-spikes tactic. I've never seen that suggested by a knowledgeable source (as opposed to some random journalist trying to fill out a column). I'm in no position to say with absolute certainty that it isn't helpful, though.

I do my price-shopping on Google Flights (which does not itself sell tickets). After I make my selection--after repeated searches over days/weeks or even months, I go to the airline website to make the purchase. I don't believe I've ever seen a fare change during a single browsing sessiont, but I absolutely believe that other people have.

My theory is that the initial fares displayed may not all be based on fresh data. I don't think all flight-search websites check every single airline database/website every time someone does a search. I think there may be some data cached from previous searches that can show up in the initial display. When the customer goes further into the transaction, the website refreshes the data and finds the currently available fare. (No, my knowledge in this area is not any better than that of a random journalist trying to fill out a column.)

The other possibility is that if you spend enough time browsing and thinking, another customer or two might hop in and buy the last ticket(s) available at the price you were looking at. I've certainly seen event tickets disappear off TicketMaster while I was trying to find the best seat available.

The suggestion that some upward price adjustments are due to rules against mixing some fare classes makes a great deal of sense to me. I have a feeling that's part of what is going on.

Posted by
461 posts

Thanks for chiming in AC.

The fares I've been seeing for many weeks now act like a bag of jumping beans or a classroom of kindergartners. They never sit still and even fluctuate wildly within a matter of seconds. And, as I noted before, they at times revert back to the same or similar low-low fare that was initially posted.

One of my thoughts when I first encountered this peculiar behavior was that others had bought up the lowest fares while I was searching. I discounted that theory when those fares reappeared on the same or nearby dates within a day or two.

I also search on Google Flights, then head right over to the airline's website where more often than not, some attractive fare I saw on Google does not exist.

To clarify, these roller coaster fares appear only on the United website.

Posted by
21067 posts

That does sound odd, David. I wonder whether there might be a technical glitch involved. But if so, you'd think it would have been fixed by now.

Posted by
1742 posts

We had premium economy plus airfare booked with United into Edinburgh and out of Dublin. Then United changed our itinerary a few weeks after I had booked them. Our flights coming home became economy seats on Lufthansa which was obviously not what we paid for. Plus on Lufthansa we would have had to pay to reserve our seats and their premium economy plus were not what I consider premium economy plus. I called United and they said wait a month and call us back and we probably will have changed your tickets back to premium. There were almost no premium seats on that return flight and they were lousy seats. I chose not to sit and wait. I kept an eye on the airfares for the return flight for a few days. I saw a premium economy flight for the return but it was $100 more for each of us. I waited another day and found another flight for the $2 less than the price that I had booked. I grabbed that flight, reserved good seats and got $4 back. My point is that flight prices change a lot from one day to the next. Everything flight wise is in flux right now. I expect between now and our scheduled flight I will probably have to rebook our flights again.

Posted by
461 posts

The constant changes (bait and switch?) occur only on the United site, not Google Flights, and it's been ongoing for many weeks. When I wrote that the fares fluctuate wildly like a bag of jumping beans, that's to say picking a date or changing a date appears to instigate that erratic fluctuation. But to have an attractive fare disappear entirely is, well, suspicious.