The summer vacation season is in full swing. While some families secure their sunshine getaways months in advance, others opt to wait until the last minute to snap up cheap, last-minute deals offered by online travel services.
Alongside travel-hungry vacationers, a new study published by Tel Aviv-based cybersecurity firm PerimeterX has identified a steady increase in the number of bots surfing travel websites and even intentionally raising the prices of vacations through fictitious demand.
Every summer, the company says, billions of bots are unleashed by competing online travel agencies and travel aggregation engines seeking to gain an advantage for their pricing algorithms. In some cases, bots will even hoard plane tickets or hotel reservations in online shopping carts, preventing actual vacationers from making travel arrangements.
Seemingly boosting demand, the researchers said bots can actually drive up prices and even leave planes and hotels half-full during the holiday period.
The company found that the percentage of bot traffic to online travel sites grew by 37% over the past year, regularly exceeding 10% of total traffic for an extended period between February and May of this year.
Researchers said that the increase is likely driven by lower costs and barriers to operating bots, and the intensifying competition between large travel aggregators running bot-powered price scraping operations online.
“The findings of the study clearly show that the activity of bots on travel websites is growing steadily,” said Liel Strauch, director of Cyber Security Research at PerimeterX. “Every tourism business and organization must be aware of the trend and act consistently to prevent harm to customers.”
While the volume of bot traffic spiked at similar times to human interest in travel sites as expected, bots appeared to make up a smaller percentage of traffic during the summer months and a higher percentage during the colder, winter months.
This may be due, researchers said, to bots checking for summer travel during March and April, before the vacation season actually begins.
“The war over the hearts of consumers is one of the main causes of consistent growth in bot traffic,” Strauch said.
“We see clear indications that travel agencies and tourism websites are operating bots to influence their competitors’ pricing algorithm, thereby enhancing their own services. Bots have become a major factor in airline and tourism revenue maximization.”
During July, the researchers said, overall traffic – both humans and bots – focused much of their attention on the world’s most popular destinations. These included the three New York City metro area airports (LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy International and Newark Liberty International), three London airports (Heathrow, Gatwick and London City) and Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport.
In some instances, bot traffic actually exceeded human traffic.
Iceland’s Keflavík International Airport and Spain’s Palma de Mallorca Airport were heavily targeted by bots, likely driven by bot-powered price checking during a fare war between online travel agencies.