Do Airlines Raise Prices Based on Your Location?

Carl Unger, April 22, 2015
Fares from Washington DC:

    In the great airfare arms race between airlines and consumers, there have been countless innovations aimed at getting either the best deal possible, if you're a traveler; or the most revenue possible, if you're an airline. For most consumers, it feels like the airlines usually come out ahead, and this drives intelligent people to explore and eventually market clever new ways of finding the ever-elusive "best deal."

    The newest of these techy airfare workarounds comes from a company called SaferVPN, and its proposal is simple: Airlines sometimes have different fares in different countries, so you can save money if you trick the booking engine into thinking you're in, say, Guatemala instead of Georgia. SaferVPN is not shy about the potential results—it boasts savings of $475 on one route using its "simple trick."

    Sounds great! But we at SmarterTravel are a skeptical bunch, so we decided to give SaferVPN a test drive to see if it can deliver on its promise of big airfare savings. Here's what we found.

    Related: Do Booking Sites Raise Prices Based on Your Search Habits?

    How VPNs Work

    When you use a VPN (short for Virtual Private Network), you are creating an encrypted connection to the Internet, usually for the purposes of accessing a company's internal servers. According to PC Mag, "Connecting to an encrypted VPN while you're on a public or untrusted network ... helps to stymie other people who may be trying to snoop on your browsing via Wi-Fi to capture your passwords."

    Is it a legal way to circumvent typical airfare booking channels? "There's nothing [in most airlines' contracts of carriage] against using VPNs," SaferVPN Marketing Manager Andre Eloznino told me when I spoke with him via email. "Many businesspeople are required to use VPNs when using their laptops outside of their offices for security reasons. An airline can't tell people that they can't use a security tool when booking their tickets."

    Getting started with SaferVPN is pretty easy. The company is currently running a free 24-hour trial (it starts at $72 a year or $7.99 monthly after that), so you simply register, download the software, and get started. I installed it on my Mac and the application lives in the top right corner of my toolbar. From there you just select the VPN you want, enter your username and password, and it connects automatically. Installation took me about five minutes and connecting to a VPN takes about 20 seconds.

    And that's it! A few clicks and the Internet thinks you're in Italy or France or Hong Kong. If only getting through airport security were so painless.

    Related: The 2 Cheapest Days of the Week to Fly

    How to Use a VPN to Search for Airfare

    SaferVPN offers some guidance on the best way to find lower fares. First and foremost, the company encourages you to use its product, preferably beyond the free trial period. Fair enough.

    Beyond that, they suggest clearing your cookies and using your browser's private mode. SaferVPN says airlines track your behavior and may hike prices if they see you making repeated searches for the same destinations or itineraries. (We've found this to be true in some but not all cases.)

    SaferVPN also suggests using the local version of a site rather than the U.S. version, explaining that "prices differ by which localization of a website you're using." So when in Rome (via a VPN), use the Italian site.

    The Tests

    My testing here is meant to demonstrate a real-world scenario of using a VPN to search for low fares. I wanted to find out what value a VPN could have for the average consumer. All flights were searched on the same evening on the same computer from my home in Massachusetts.

    Test # 1: Boston to Lisbon, Departing 9/23 and Returning 9/30

    Control Search (not connected to a VPN):

    • Kayak: $605 on multiple airlines
    • SATA: $625.33
    • Delta: $964

    Connected to a Spain VPN using Incognito mode on Chrome:

    • Kayak (Spain site): $573 on multiple airlines
    • SATA (Portugal site): $625.33
    • Delta (Spain site): $964

    The takeaway? Only Kayak offered any savings, but that $30 difference is pretty decent. Interestingly, the respective lowest-priced flights on Kayak were not matching itineraries. So not only was the price lower, but Kayak presented a wholly different route via the Spanish site and VPN.

    Test # 2: Boston to Seattle, Departing 10/15 and Returning 10/20

    Control Search (not connected to a VPN):

    • Kayak: $332 on Delta
    • JetBlue: $391.96

    Connected to USA West Coast VPN using Incognito mode on Chrome:

    • Kayak: $332 on Delta
    • JetBlue: $391.96

    For this search I tested a West Coast VPN vs. the control. I didn't expect there would be any difference (it would have been strange if there was) and I was proven right. Identical prices across the board.

    That's boring, I thought. Let's pretend we're in Brazil instead! On its site, SaferVPN says, "Flights are sometimes pretty cheap from Brazilian sites." In fact, that $475 in savings I mentioned earlier was found on Kayak's Brazil site for a flight from L.A. to Sydney. Works for me! Let's try Brazil:

    Connected to Brazil VPN using Incognito mode on Chrome:

    • Kayak (Brazil site): $333 on Delta
    • JetBlue (U.S. site—there is no Brazil version): $391.96

    Identical prices.

    And herein lies the elephant in the room (or maybe the elephant in the middle seat, if we want to make an airline joke): There's a pretty substantial stabbing-in-the-dark element to this whole theory.

    If you're flying internationally, it makes sense to test both your home and destination VPNs. But for domestic flights, fares will be the same nationwide, and beyond that there's no intuitive choice for an alternate VPN. Same goes if you want to try a third VPN for an international flight. How do you know which VPN to choose? Sure, Brazil is cheaper sometimes, but that means sometimes it isn't, and today is very likely not going to be your day.

    "It's up to the searcher to do some testing," Elmoznino admitted, and he also noted that fares can vary with currency fluctuations and seasonal promotions in different regions. That's part of the point: SaferVPN gives you access to all those otherwise unavailable possibilities.

    But this creates the myth of the better deal, a sense that you'll find a miracle fare if you just keep searching. And hey, if you want to forgo sleep for a week and chase the great white whale of airfares, you are free to do so. But this is analysis paralysis waiting to happen, and I worry that having so much choice might encumber more than empower you as a consumer.

    Test # 3: San Francisco to Tokyo, Departing 9/10 and Returning 9/17

    Control Search (not connected to a VPN):

    • Kayak: $788 on Delta and United
    • Japan Airlines: $1,236.01

    Connected to Japan VPN using Incognito mode on Chrome:

    • Kayak (Japan site): $772 on United
    • Japan Airlines (Americas site): $1,236.01

    One important thing to note: When you change your VPN, many sites will read your location and automatically load the local URL. In the local language. Which is particularly challenging when the language is Japanese and you are not, in fact, Japanese.

    A more surprising wrinkle came when I went to search on JAL's Japan site—it wouldn't let me start my itinerary in the U.S.

    I had to be traveling to San Francisco, and there was no apparent way to reverse the order. I ended up using the U.S. version instead.

    After all that, I did uncover $16 in savings by using Kayak's Japan site via the Japan VPN. Not breathtaking savings, but $16 is $16, so nothing to complain about.

    To VPN or Not to VPN?

    Using SaferVPN did uncover some savings, and that's always a good thing, but it did not uncover the sort of savings that anyone would consider substantial.

    This should surprise no one. It simply isn't reasonable to expect any tool will deliver significant savings with any regularity or, more importantly, predictability.

    Which is not to say SaferVPN can't help you unlock those kinds of savings—it could. But at $8/month or $72 for a year, it is probably not a good fit for people who don't travel often. You could easily save less than you spend on the product.

    Look: There is no miracle elixir that cures all your airfare ills. SaferVPN is really no different than any of the tricks, tactics or strategies that came before it. Finding a good deal will always be about being in the right place at the right time, and that means checking fares regularly and often so you know a good deal when you see it.

    That said, SaferVPN is a legitimate option to add to your repertoire if it makes sense given your traveling habits and you're willing to put in the time to conduct multiple searches. It worked well and did find savings for me.

    Just keep your expectations in check.

    Related: When Should I Book My Flight?

    Read the original story: Do Airlines Raise Prices Based on Your Location? by Carl Unger, who is a regular contributor to SmarterTravel.