Holiday prices are set by algorithms

An algorithm is just a set of instructions. Companies want to maximise their profits, but they know, for example, that if they sell all their holidays too cheaply and quickly, they won’t make as much as they could have.


Algorithms are used to constantly update prices according to what has already been sold, and to predict how likely people are to buy a holiday at a certain price. They’re based on the data that our online activities generate.

Clear your cookies

If someone looks at the same holiday three times but hasn’t bought it yet, the algorithm ‘knows’ the person is very interested. It might therefore increase the price in order to rush the person into a sale, and make the most money from that person that it can.

This is why it sometimes pays to clear cookies or browse in Private Mode, as it deprives the algorithm of the information that you’ve looked at the holiday before.

Need to know...

  1. Surf booking sites from the comfort of a non-local café, and you might just find a better deal for your holiday.
  2. Book the holiday at short notice and you’re more likely to get a great deal (as long as you aren’t fussy about where you go).
  3. Contact your local travel company, as they’re often able to unlock better deals than what you’ll find online.

Book in a local café

The algorithm ‘knows’ roughly where you are from the IP address of your computer network, so it can tell if you are in a more or less affluent area. It also ‘knows’ that the price a person can afford to pay affects whether they will book, so it might offer a lower price to someone in a poorer neighbourhood.

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You can exploit this by booking your holiday from the coffee-stocked comfort of a carefully chosen café.

© Kyle Ellingson
© Kyle Ellingson

Be prepared to go last minute

An empty room is worth nothing to a holiday company. As you get closer to the departure date, prices will fall. To get the best prices, pick a holiday that starts tomorrow! You might not get the exact location you want, but you will get a good deal.

Don’t be too choosy over where you go

Some websites only tell where you’re going after you’ve booked. As long as you’re not fussy about where you go, you can get some great deals. Hotels that buy into these schemes realise that sometimes it pays to sell a guaranteed number of cheaper rooms, rather than a smaller, less predictable number of pricier rooms.

Look across multiple websites

Sometimes different companies use different algorithms to price the same holiday. This means they may offer you different prices, but check you are being offered like for like. Do they both include breakfast, for example, or are airport transfers extra?

Read more from A Scientist’s Guide to Life:

Work out what things are worth to you…

…be it the presence of a swimming pool, the airline you fly with, customer service, or the amount of time spent you’re prepared to spend trawling different websites for the best deal.

If you’re honest about what things are worth to you, then an algorithm will never get the best of you because you already know what you’re happy to pay. And be prepared to walk away. There are few things that you won’t get a second chance to buy.

Talk to people

You can’t haggle with an algorithm. They’re not driven by emotion. They’re driven by data. We book online because it’s the easy option, but never forget the value of talking to an actual human.

Phone or visit your travel company. You might find that their salespeople are prepared to unlock deals that you would never get online.



Helen Pilcher
Helen PilcherScience writer, presenter and performer.

Helen Pilcher is a tea-drinking, biscuit-nibbling science and comedy writer, with a PhD in cell biology.