The Sneakily Brilliant Way Allegiant Air Uses Your Internet Searches Against You

Filed Under: Allegiant Air

Airlines pay a 7.5% federal excise tax on the fares of the tickets they sell. When multiplied across thousands and thousands of passengers each day, this really adds up. The key is that this tax only applies to the actual fare, and not the fees. Anything that is optional is a fee, and not part of the fare.

So the airlines, particularly the low cost carriers, have become very creative about shifting more of the cost of the ticket from fare to fee. There are fees to check bags. Fees to select a seat. Fees for food and drinks. And since they are all optional fees, the airline doesn’t pay the excise tax on them.

But one of the more interesting fees that a few low cost carriers have introduced is a fee to use their website. Spirit charges up to $18.99 per ticket in what is essentially a convenience charge for booking online. Allegiant similarly has a $13 website charge. That means you can save money on both Spirit and Allegiant tickets by buying them at the airport.

Of course, these airlines don’t actually want everyone to buy their tickets at the airport. It costs them money to staff the counter, after all. More importantly, they lose all of the $13 or $18.99 of revenue from those that ticket at the airport. Clearly, if they had to choose, they’d rather keep 92.5% of something (and give 7.5% to the government) than get nothing at all.

So ideally, they only want price sensitive customers to know about this option. In other words, they would prefer that their customers buy the ticket online. But if the choice is between giving them a discount or not making the sale at all, they’ll cave and advise them to buy their cheap ticket at the airport.

This is called segmenting the market, and is a staple of first year MBA programs.

Allegiant Air uses search terms to segment their customers

While researching Allegiant’s electronic usage charge for buying tickets on their website, I noticed some interesting tricks they are playing to get Google and the other search engines to help them segment their customers. This is going to require wading into the murky world of Search Engine Optimization, but let me explain.

If you search for Allegiant buy tickets at the airport, you’ll get a page that looks like this. 

Search results for buying an Allegiant ticket at the airport

The first result is a result from Allegiant Air that clearly says that you can purchase cheap airline tickets at the airport. The page title is actually Purchase Cheap Airline Tickets at the Airportafter all!

But if you follow the link, you end up with this page, that lists the hours that you can buy tickets at various airport locations. 

The purchase ticket at the airport page doesn’t actually say anything about getting a discount

You’ll notice that nowhere on the page does it say “cheap”. In fact, it says nothing about saving money at all. It makes it seem like you could buy tickets at the airport if you really wanted to, but that’s about it. Go load the page and do a search for the word cheap. It literally doesn’t appear on the page at all!

So how do they get this to show up in Google search results without putting it on the page?

  • They list cheap airline tickets as a keyword.
  • They make the page title Purchase Cheap Airline Tickets at the Airport.
  • They set the page description to Last-minute travel plans? You have the option to purchase cheap airline tickets at the airport. Please note the ticket counter hours of operation.

None of this shows up when you actually load the page, however. It’s all in the meta fields that help the Google robots figure out what the page says. So effectively they are telling Google it says one thing, when in fact it says nothing of the sort, and Google is basically taking them at their word.

Here’s the relevant source code. The word cheap appears five times in the source, despite never showing up on the actual webpage.

Allegiant Air sneaky source code to optimize their ranking for “cheap airline tickets” without actually telling you how to get cheap tickets

This is really textbook MBA-style market segmentation. Price sensitive customers — those who explicitly search for how to save money on airfare — will see the page description that says they’ll save money by buying tickets at the airport, while less price sensitive customers will be kept in the dark.

Allegiant Air’s FAQs are also deliberately misleading

If you simply browse the Allegiant Air website, you’ll find the FAQs that say that you can buy tickets for same day travel at the airport. That’s true of course. What it doesn’t say is that you can actually buy tickets for future travel as well.

Allegiant Air FAQ regarding buying tickets at the airport

So it’s doubtful that anyone simply browsing the Allegiant Air website would ever figure out that they can save money by booking their tickets at the airport. And of course, that’s probably the intent.

Bottom line

I’m sort of fascinated by the clever tech tricks that Allegiant has used to obfuscate the fact that you can save money by buying their tickets at the airport.

If you search for cheap tickets, you get the information. If you click around on the Allegiant website, you don’t. They use words in the meta fields for the website that don’t appear on the page, which seems to indicate that they only want customers searching for specific words to find this information. It’s almost like they are relying on Google to do their dirty work. I mean, I’m sure other companies are employing similar tactics — or worse — but it seems sort of shady to me.

What do you think of Allegiant’s SEO strategy? Sneaky or brilliant?

  1. Seriously Travis… I’m just not getting your posts…
    All of this is super obvious and common practice, how can you be so surprised?

  2. This interpretation is highly speculative and doesn’t seem to fit with the facts very well. The title of the page, “Purchase Cheap Airline Tickets at the Airport,” is visible to people who just “surf” to the page through Allegiant’s web site because it will appear in the title of their browser, so it’s not clear that the information is really being concealed from people who just happen to browse to the page.

    Moreover, nothing in the title of the page or the description that shows up on Google alerts people that tickets actually will be *cheaper* when purchased at the airport than what purchased online. Unless I already knew that it’s possible to avoid a fee by buying at the airport, from the title and description you quote above, I would assume that the tickets are equally “cheap” whether purchased online or at the airport.

    Keep in mind, Allegiant is a low-cost airline. They’re trying to appeal to cost-conscious consumers generally. Doesn’t it seem much more likely that Allegiant is just putting words like “cheap airline tickets” into various pages throughout its web site so that when someone searches for “cheap airline tickets,” they’ll be directed to *some* page on Allegiant’s web site (not necessarily the page about buying cheap tickets *at the airport*)?

    Your theory also presupposes that Allegiant is trying to “bucket” people based on whether they want to buy tickets at the airport. But willingness to go to the airport to purchase tickets doesn’t reveal meaningful information about price sensitivity. At least in New York, even going by public transportation from the city to the airport, round trip, would cost more than the fee. The only people who would be willing to take advantage of an airport purchase option are people who live or work relatively close to the airport. So advertising this doesn’t really help them price discriminate based on willingness to pay — it just lets them sort people based on how close they are to the airport, which isn’t particularly helpful for revenue maximization.

    Bottom line, this speculative assertion strikes me as implausible. But if you think that’s what Allegiant might be doing, why didn’t you ask Allegiant for comment, at the very least, before posting this?

  3. What’s different is the extra charge for booking online, which means they don’t show you their best fare if you search online. It’s scammy and sneaky.

  4. This is basic digital marketing – they noticed people were searching for that and optimized the page info to get click throughs.

    Speaking of segmentation – it seems like that is what OMAAT is trying to do with all these Spirit and Frontier articles. Curious how that is working for you guys on clicks – most of us are here to maximize our points for higher classes of travel not game Frontier into giving us a free exit row seat to save $25. Then again, I don’t see your analytics so I could be wrong.

  5. Very Seinfeldian article. All the other bloggers are busy writing about something, but Travis is writing about absolutely nothing. Love the unique perspective!

  6. What’s funny is that it costs Allegiant more to sell a ticket at the airport than it does online, but they charge less at the airport. They’re just counting on very few people dealing with the hassle.

  7. Lucky – Used to be a huge fan of your blog but stopped reading as of late. Do we really need another article on buying tickets at the airport?! Talk about beating a dead horse. Your blog is (or at least used to be) about aspirational travel and not about driving to the airport to buy a ticket for same day travel to save all of $14!

    Please get rid of Travis and do yourself a huge favor before you start losing readers…

  8. I agree with the author. It is all about the bottom line and if they can double talk the public why not!.
    As for those defending the carriers do you work for the company or get some sort of premium for the kind words?? Or just OK with today’s indifferent service and boosting the company’s bottom line (stockholder?).
    Travel to the airport to save money? In my case it would cost me all of $2.75 to get there by public transportation (or $5.50 round trip) so if I am buying 2 tickets and traveling on an ultra low cost carrier why would i not elect to save the $20.50 difference for two tickets???
    Bottom line the fare page should show the various prices for tickets. By online pay $ purchase at airport up to 1 year prior to travel and pay $ (whatever the time limit is) and let the consumer make the informed choice. Why do they have to “jump through hoops” to figure this out???
    As a “mature” traveler I recall the glory days of air travel and then was nothing like today (nor did it cost more so don’t even go there) . It seems being treated like dirt, charged excessive fees on cramped dirty planes not to mention having to endure invasive security is fine as long as you can wear whatever and have access to wi fi. It might work for you guys but not for me and I don’t fly anymore unless necessary because of it. In any case I would not consider choosing any of these ultra discount carriers, a flying Greyhound is not for me!!!

  9. I heard Lucky has thrown in the towel on Lufthansa,Cathay Pacific and Emirates in First Class
    and will be buying Allegiant Air tickets exclusively at the airport
    and become a 100k Frequent Flyer with them ;):)
    Can’t wait to read the trip reports 🙂
    Seriously time to merge with that other high end premium carrier Spirit!
    Marriage made in heaven

  10. Add in the cost of gas and expensive airport parking and buying tix without a booking fee at the airport is a zero sum game.

  11. I like hearing about any how to get tickets cheaper and I don’t care what airline it is. I have used the Spirit trick for buying tickets at the airport, but never Allegiant. Thanks for keeping us informed on how to keep more of our money. Please keep reporting on the little airlines as this helps the little guys afford travel.

  12. Isn’t the point that to make the online ticketing charge “optional” there has to be an option for avoiding the fee, which is buying the ticket at the airport, which in theory costs Allegiant money but in reality is a little-used option and Allegiant will profit from being able to charge the online fee in spite of the handful of people who buy at the airport.

  13. I think John nailed it:

    “Keep in mind, Allegiant is a low-cost airline. They’re trying to appeal to cost-conscious consumers generally. Doesn’t it seem much more likely that Allegiant is just putting words like “cheap airline tickets” into various pages throughout its web site so that when someone searches for “cheap airline tickets,” they’ll be directed to *some* page on Allegiant’s web site (not necessarily the page about buying cheap tickets *at the airport*)?”

  14. I side with Travis here.

    Instead of a 7th monthly reminder to apply for a certain credit card or a 5th review of the same luxury hotel, this Allegiant coverage is refreshing. Many of us don’t plan to fly low-cost carriers and we can simply skip the read as we wish… I mean the title says Allegiant so there’s no click-baiting involved.

    While this article doesn’t add to my knowledge for my future travels (mind you many OMAAT articles don’t), I have a lot of appreciation of the attention to detail and the nerdiness related to travel.

  15. Good article. Part of my travel philosophy is being better educated about tricks that travel companies use against you. I mean, sure, this isn’t an article about collecting rubber duckies from the Lufthansa first-class lounge, but it still has value to me. Thanks for writing it!

  16. Guess you haven’t tried flying Allegiant out of St Petersburg, FL. You’d have to wait in line an hour to get to the desk as they are so overloaded with flights and by the time you got your ticket, you’d probably miss the flight even with it being notoriously late.

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