Booking a Flight: Price Bait

This story serves as a prime example of how the Low Price hook is employed when booking flights online.

I’d like to reference Robert Cialdini’s “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” because it’s directly relevant to our discussion.

There are certain travel portals (some of which are essentially cloned from others) that are designed in a way to entice you with a Cheap Flight. They then use a combination of Commitment and Scarcity to extract more money from your wallet.

Commitment refers to the willingness to dedicate time and energy to something you believe in or a firm promise to do something.

Scarcity pertains to a situation in which something is challenging to find or obtain.

Before jumping to any negative conclusions, it’s essential to recognize that airlines have the right to adjust prices based on supply and demand. They categorize flights into various price brackets, and when the cheaper category is fully booked, reservations move to the next higher-priced category.

Now, let’s delve into a personal anecdote. One day, my friend Ben decided to book a flight online.

He initiated his search with the first result that appeared after a Google search on a well-known travel portal.

Ben diligently filled out a lengthy form with all his details: name, date of birth, number of passengers, travel dates, return options, seating class, and information about underage passengers.

The page displayed a message: “Searching For Your Flight.”

The portal presented ten flight options, sorted by price.

Naturally, the cheapest flight caught Ben’s eye. After all, who wouldn’t want the most economical option? He selected it.

On the next page, the portal requested his credit card details and email address.

Ben believed he had snagged an excellent deal. But, to his surprise, after submitting all his information, the flight at that price was no longer available.

An attention-grabbing orange call-to-action (CTA) button read, “Search Again for flights from…” This button included the departure and destination cities from the previous form.

Ben was in desperate need of a flight, so he clicked the button.

He had to re-enter all his details, except for the destination, which was conveniently pre-filled. However, this time, the cheapest result at the top was $200 more expensive than before.

“That’s OK,” thought Ben, “I’ll settle for that.”

He filled in his credit card details once again and hit “Submit.”

A message appeared: “Your transaction is being processed…”

But just 15 seconds later, another disappointing message showed up: “This flight is not available anymore.”

Instead of the “Search Again” button, this time another list of results popped up, ordered by price. The cheapest flight was now $500 more expensive than the initial result.

Something caught Ben’s attention in smaller but bold, red, and blinking text:

“Only 2 tickets remaining!”

Followed by a prominent orange button: “Book NOW!”

In that moment, Ben’s mind raced with thoughts:
“Only two left…”
“It’s so expensive!”
“I desperately need a flight…”
“Thousands of people are booking flights right now…”
“This is the cheapest available, and someone else might grab it…”
Ben couldn’t handle the pressure and clicked the button.

The next page had his credit card information pre-filled.

He quickly ticked the checkbox to accept the Terms and Conditions and hit “Buy NOW!”

Transaction successful.

Ben sighed with relief, saying, “Phew! That was intense…”

Why Did This Happen?

In his book, Cialdini briefly mentions that a low price is the most compelling weapon when making a purchasing decision.

“In my investigations, I frequently saw practitioners use…
Snapshot from the book Influence: (quote continued): (sometimes honestly, sometimes not), the compelling I can give you a deal approach. I chose not to treat the material self-interest rule separately in this book because I see it as a motivational given, as a goes-without-saying factor that deserves acknowledgment but not extensive description. Finally, each principle is examined as to its ability to produce a distinct kind of automatic, mindless compliance from people, that is, a willingness to say yes without thinking first

There isn’t much to say about this; we all want to pay less. But in Ben’s case, the low price was used as bait to reel him in further.

He filled out a lengthy form, making him a qualified lead.

Entering his credit card information on the next page confirmed his readiness to make a purchase.

When faced with unavailability, a personalized Call To Action (CTA) tempted Ben even more.

Since he had already committed once, the odds were high that he’d do it again. As he viewed the second set of search results, the prices were higher because the weapons of influence came into play.

Ben’s readiness to buy was tested once more as he had to enter his credit card information again. This time, the unavailability of tickets led to a different list of higher-priced results, combining elements of Scarcity (Fear Of Missing Out) and a Belcher button.

On the following page, Ben didn’t need to refill his credit card information; the form was pre-populated. Why waste time when a potential buyer is ready and impatient?

It’s a clever strategy, but it operates on a low level.

How to Avoid the Booking Trap?

Ben’s experience may not be unique and could happen to anyone. Online forms and persuasive copy act as automated salespeople for the website owner.

Before hitting that “Buy” button, consider taking a short 5-minute break and think about something else. If you can, that is – after all, you do need a flight.

Call two local travel agents and request a quote; that’s a price closer to reality. Continue your online “adventure.” You’ll be surprised by how many sites offer so-called “cheap tickets” just to lure you in.

Cialdini’s “Influence” is often read by marketing professionals, but let’s not forget that the book’s purpose is to educate the general audience on how to avoid persuasive traps. Don’t get lured in by a low price unless it’s genuinely a good deal.