How Airlines Trick You Into Overpaying (Don't Fall for It)

Updated 05/18/19
The Chriselle Factor

When's the last time you scored an incredible flight deal only to find that you're paying just as much (or more) as competitors once you've added on hidden fees from baggage to meals to seat assignments? It's no accident—airlines know what they're doing—and it happens to the best of us, especially in an age of booking sites like Kayak and Skyscanner that aggregate airfare options from multiple airlines and rank them by price (sans add-on fees), and your brain just can't help itself. This psychological phenomenon is called "reference price," and despite your best efforts to stay smart when booking, these supposed flight deals catch your eye every time. Condé Nast Traveler recently highlighted the phenomenon.

"Essentially, people evaluate prices of flights (or anything) by comparing prices to an internal estimate for a typical flight in that situation," explains Nick Kolenda, whose book Methods of Persuasion delves into the psychology of marketing. Unsurprisingly, price is a huge driver in influencing individuals to purchase flights. A recent poll found that 83% of passengers said that price was the most important factor in buying a plane ticket, and 60% even admitted that they'd rather sit in the middle seat than pay a higher fare.

"This process often occurs non-consciously," Kolenda continues. "If a company separates various fees in order to emphasize a lower base cost, then customers will use that base cost when comparing it to their internal estimate—and the price will seem more appealing."

So how do you get your brain to beat the allure of the reference price trick? Approach your flight search with a wary eye, assuming that when something seems too good to be true, it probably is. When comparing deals across airlines, take these hidden fees into account, and calculate the true total of your purchase before checking out.

What to score a real deal? Here are 17 little-known hacks for finding cheap flights.

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