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Orbitz shows Mac users more expensive travel options

Travel site Orbitz is serving up pricier hotel results to those using Mac computers than those on PCs, according to a new report.

Orbitz CEO Barney Harford, however, said the practice is simply about providing "more personalized recommendations" to customers.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, Orbitz found that Mac users typically spend up to 30 per cent more per night on hotels, so the company decided to show the costlier results first.

As the Journal noted, the practice "demonstrates how tracking people's online activities can use even seemingly innocuous information ... to start predicting their tastes and spending habits."

Still, in testing the service, the Journal did not find that results were all that different on PCs vs. Macs. Hotel results in Las Vegas, Orlando, Philadelphia and Boston were the same on both operating systems. New York showed more expensive choices on a Mac, but only after the first 20 results.

In a Tuesday tweet, Orbitz CEO Barney Harford said the Journal's "confusing headline" and subscription paywall that prevented non-subscribers from reading the whole story sent a "distorted message about @Orbitz Mac users recommendations. Editors need to fix."

Harford said that Mac users are 40 per cent more likely to book a highly rated hotel - 4-5 stars. "We reflect this in our recommendations," he tweeted.

Mac users are not locked into the higher prices. Customers can still opt to filter by price, which will show options from lowest to highest price.

This seemed to be lost on those who took to Orbitz's Facebook page this morning to complain about the strategy. One user said that "charging Apple Mac users more for travel would be a mistake," but Orbitz is not actually charging Mac users more; it's just showing different search results.

If customer Mac and customer PC both searched for Hotel X in Los Angeles, for example, they would both be offered the same price on Hotel X. But if customer Mac and customer PC searched for Los Angeles hotels in general, customer Mac's search results might display the more expensive options first, while customer PC would see the cheaper options. Again, both customers could scroll to the top and filter by price to see the same results.

Still, some Mac owners were irked. "Not happy about your 'experiment' with Mac users, not happy at all," wrote one person on Facebook.

"I have a Mac. Smart move Orbitz. Now I'm going to unsubscribe," wrote another.

In an op-ed for USA Today, Orbitz's Harford said the company's customisation efforts are not restricted to Macs vs. PCs.

"Similarly, if you start a hotel search and tell us you want to visit Orlando this summer with your kids, you'd probably hope to see on that first page of results a list of hotels that include options like a swimming pool, rooms with two beds and free breakfast," he wrote. "On the other hand if you are a romantic couple traveling without kids, you're likely going to want a hotel that has a more stylish feel, and potentially one that specifically doesn't cater to families."

Looking at past booking activity, Orbitz can create a "kid friendliness" or "kid avoidance" score for specific hotels. "Those scores are then used by the algorithms that decide which hotels to put at the top of the list of results we show to customers when they're searching on our site, based on whether we see them traveling with or without kids," Harford wrote.

Update: Harford released a more detailed statement this afternoon, in which he said that it's "nonsense that we'd charge Mac users more for the same hotel."

"Unfortunately WSJ editors have chosen to hide the full story behind their pay wall, so most of the world is reacting to a confusing headline, while the key point 'the company isn't showing the same room to different users at different prices' is hidden because ... the WSJ is steering users to pay more to be able to read the full article and understand what's actually happening," Harford said.