Yes, but at best you'll save only marginally, at least according to my own investigations. A VPN is a virtual private network, a group of servers that might be located in different countries, all linked together to operate as a private network within the public domain of the internet.
Downloading a VPN client to your device gives you an extra layer of security, similar to a firewall on your computer, and enables you to hide your identity and geolocation when you're on the internet. You log onto the internet using a server located in some other part of the world and browse using an assumed IP address that assigns your location to another country. Using a VPN has several advantages, for example shielding your online activity from prying eyes, downloading media from the US version of Netflix - although those heady days are numbered - and watching Dallas Buyers Club from a pirate site without receiving a nasty letter from Voltage Pictures.
Based on the lingering suspicion that airfares vary depending on where the booking is made, there is a conviction among some travellers that using a VPN will allow them to geo shop, taking advantage of the cheaper travel options that other nationalities are believed to enjoy.
See also: The 10 best ways to get a cheap flight
Central to this thinking is the idea that an Australian resident pays more for an airfare from, for example, Melbourne to New York, than a flyer booking the same airfare from the US, Iceland or Ecuador. Many US flyers maintain the same suspicions about their own airfares, and probably so too do Icelanders and Ecuadoreans.
The loudest voices spruiking VPNs as a means of scoring a cheaper airfare – and a better hotel deal as well – come from the VPN providers themselves, which is not surprising since they have a vested interest in talking up sales of their product.
Taking this hypothesis for a road test, I'm using NordVPN to log into the websites of online travel agents Momondo and Hipmunk. I'm logging in under the assumed identity of a traveller booking a Sydney-London return flight using servers in North America, Europe, South Africa and Turkey, comparing them against the price I get as an Australia-based traveller not using a VPN. Each time I log in to a new server I clear my browsing history, cookies and cache. I also check my IP address to ensure that it's different with every login.
On Momondo's website, the fares for this flight vary by $386. The highest price results when I use NordVPN's Norwegian server, followed by the Italian server. Using the US server, the fare is just $1 more than when I log in using NordVPN's Australian server. This Aussie fare is exactly the same when I input the same details without using a VPN to hide my identity, which is what you might expect. Cheapest of all is the fare when I use the South African server, a whole $127 less than a traveller logging in from an Australian location.
Using Hipmunk there is less variation in the fares, with a difference of $219 between the most expensive – Norway again – and the cheapest – Italy. Less than $10 separates the fares when I use the Canadian, US, South African and Australian servers. If I were to buy this ticket using the Italian server I'd save $90 over the Australian price.
There are suggestions that using online travel agent Kayak to search for fares will yield more dramatic results, with significantly cheaper fares to be found when booking from other parts of the world, but logging onto the Kayak website now requires either a signup or a login using Facebook or Google, undermining the anonymity which is the point of using a VPN.
To check whether a VPN might be a money saver when booking via an airline's own website, I use NordVPN servers to price exactly the same Sydney-London return flight on the Qantas website. The website shows identical fares, whether the flight is booked from Singapore, South Africa and Lithuania as well as Australia.
When I repeat this exercise with Cathay Pacific using servers in Hong Kong, the US, South Africa, Turkey and Australia, the result is the same, the fares all dovetail.
Irrespective of where you appear to be making a booking from, an airline website prices your trip according to the point of origin and in the currency of that country. All trips originating from Melbourne will be priced in Australian dollars, regardless of where the booking is made.
The belief that Aussie travellers are being massively ripped off on international airfares relative to what the rest of the world pays doesn't stand up. It is possible to find a cheaper fare using a VPN but you'll need patience to hunt around for the best deal and even then the saving probably won't be phenomenal.