Shortly before booking my flight to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup, I happened upon Jose Casanova’s post on Gizmodo about hacking Kayak to book a cheaper flight. The described process was extremely straightforward (and logical) for anyone with a mid-grade level of computer knowledge, so I immediately set out to see if savings existed for my pricey flight to a mega event. I ended up chipping about $200 off my flight, or about a savings of about 15%. Not bad!
The trick is pretty simple and involves using a VPN to make the booking sites “think” a user is located in another country. Smarter computer savants than myself have posted articles on how airline websites might manipulate pricing. Claims of using cookies to increases the price for a user’s 2nd or 3rd visit on the assumption someone is more inclined to buy a ticket have been mostly debunked, but for whatever reason pricing does vary based on the assumed location of the shopper. A VPN enables someone to easily change their “location” and thus manipulate pricing from the comforts of their home.
What is a VPN?
A virtual private network (VPN) extends a private network across a public network, such as the Internet. It enables a computer or network-enabled device to send and receive data across shared or public networks as if it were directly connected to the private network, while benefiting from the functionality, security and management policies of the public network. (Source)
In other words, a person sitting in the United States can select a VPN in Hong Kong and whatever websites he or she subsequently visits thinks the person is located in Asia. Most people using VPNs simply want general anonymity when surfing the web in their day-to-day lives, but there are also a number of specific uses popularized by virtual private networks, including making a video streaming service think a user is located in an authorized country to view certain videos. Fans of American football in Europe or likewise viewers of European soccer in America can easily make services like NBC or Sky Sports think they are located in the correct country for viewing live sports. The benefits of a VPN also extend to making airlines think a user is located in a different country, which happens to affect pricing.
The Best VPN for Mac or PC Users
Options for VPN services on Macs and PCs are aplenty. My favorite available for both operating systems—taking into consideration pricing, ease of use, and reliability—is CyberGhost. The free membership gives users all the tools needed to get started, while people wanting a wider range of server locations (i.e. outside of Europe and North America) and other perks can spring for the premium plan at about $6 a month or $50 a year. Considering the service enables users to browse anonymously and change locations for a number of specific needs, the benefits should extend well beyond knowing how to find cheap flights using a VPN. People opting for another VPN service can still follow the general steps highlighted below to change pricing on a site like Kayak.com.
Travelers might also want to try the SoftEther VPN client using the instructions here. A wider geographical range of VPNs are available for free at the cost of a more difficult interface. Speed and reliability also tend to suffer compared to CyberGhost, but for simply booking flights and basic web surfing it’s another great option.
How to Find Cheap Flights Using a VPN
The following tutorial for how to find cheap flights using a VPN considers a real-world example for an upcoming itinerary from Miami, Florida to Quito, Ecuador from July 3-12, 2015. Kayak.com is used to show how a popular flight aggregator can display different pricing, but the same principles may be applied to any booking website.
1. Search for the Flight on Kayak.com Without Using a VPN
2. Launch the VPN Software (e.g. CyberGhost) and Select a Foreign Country
3. Connect to the VPN
4. Load Kayak.com on a Different Browser
5. Look for Different Pricing Results
6. What about simply toggling the Kayak location setting to “Spanish”?
Some people might ask about the language or country settings available on most larger websites to switch the website to another region without using a VPN. The question is valid, but the results don’t match:
Switching Kayak to the “Spain” option returns a much more expensive result than the other two methods.
The reasoning behind this method working is anyone’s guess. Any attempts on my part to say what region combinations work best or elaborate further would lean heavily on educated guesswork—I usually book a flight after trying 3-4 locations and saving 15% or more. Feel free to leave a comment if there’s some kind of insight I’m missing.
What I do know is the method works to manipulate pricing and most often saves significant money on airfare. I typically don’t bother for cheaper flights and have yet to try the method for domestic airfare, but am more than willing to spend the extra minutes for bigger trips. Play around with a few combinations and see how the pricing stacks up. Best of luck!