A Guide to Google Flights: My (Not So Secret) Weapon for Booking Any Flight

I am fortunate enough to be able to travel in premium cabins once in a while, using point and miles. We’re social animals—when I find something good, I tend to share. As a result, I sometimes get asked by friends about the “secrets” to traveling in style. “How can I travel like you do? Where do you find these awesome deals?” About a year ago, I wrote about the three types of trips I take: ones I do to earn miles, ones I do to burn miles, and ones I do to earn statuses. It definitely isn’t something that works for everybody, but it’s something.

Mistake Fares Don’t Work with Specific Trips

But more often, I get asked very specific questions. “I have a Labor Day wedding coming up. Where can I find these secret deals the you always seem to get?” They are of course talking about the mistake fares, like the $450 Business Class fare to Beijing, or when I flew across the country for $75 roundtrip. And it’s one of those times that I often have to say, “there are no truly secret deals.” I know I disappoint a lot of people by saying that, but those in the points and miles game understand it to be more or less true.

See, over the years, there have been some truly awesome deals. But in many ways, mistake fare bookings don’t work like regular bookings. In most cases, you don’t get to pick the origin, destination, dates, routings, or airline. There is also a very limited window where these fares are usually available. Most people can’t travel solely on mistake fees—you can’t hold out for a mistake fare to hopefully pop up to specifically fit your Labor Day wedding. Fuel dumping (which I won’t cover) aside, there isn’t a “coupon code” or “secret trick” that will knock significant dollar amounts off your flight magically.

That brings me to Google Flights, which is what I usually use (and recommend to people!) for all flight bookings.

What’s Google Flights?

One of the most prominent tools for researching airfares was ITA Software, which was developed by a group of MIT computer scientists. The Matrix is an awesome and powerful tool that lets you search for airfares. You could customize airline pairings, input multiple possible destinations, and search across variable trip lengths to find the cheapest ticket.

Matrix Airfare Search via ITA Software

Matrix Airfare Search via ITA Software

In 2011, Google purchased ITA Software, and subsequently used it to power Google Flights. More or less, you have access to the same tools in Matrix via Google Flights, but in an arguably much more user friendly interface, and one that works much faster.

Google Flights: Quick Start

The quickest and easiest way to search for a flight is much like booking through a travel agency. Enter your origin and destination, as well as desired travel dates, and Google Flights will show you the possible routings and prices. Of course, you can fine tune it by selecting specific airlines, number of travelers, and cabins.

Use Google Flights like you would use an online travel agency

Use Google Flights like you would use an online travel agency

Let’s say I am headed to Beijing for a few days. I input my destination, travel dates, and Google spits out a selection of flights.

Google Flights show you a number of routing options with prices.

Google Flights show you a number of routing options with prices.

Up to this point, Google Flights is basically just acting like Expedia or Priceline, piecing together an itinerary to your needs. But here’s where the magic of Google Flights come in. It intelligently suggest alternative travel dates or nearby airports that might have a lower airfare. For example, for this particular trip, I can save $90 if I depart 2 days later and return 3 days later.

Google Flights intelligently suggests alternative flights that might be cheaper

Google Flights intelligently suggests alternative flights that might be cheaper

Google Flights can also suggest alternative, nearby airports if the flights are significantly cheaper. For example, if I could save $400 from departing from New York instead of Philadelphia, I might be willing to pay for a train ride to get there!

Google Flights can also suggest nearby airports with lower fares.

Google Flights can also suggest nearby airports with lower fares.

Playing with Dates and Trip Lengths

Alternatively, you can also click on the calendar, on either the Departure or Return date. Google will show you what the prices would be it you leave (or return) on each specific day. If you are flexible enough to say, move a trip a month back, that could potentially translate into huge savings.

Clicking on the calendar reveals pricing for different departure or arrival dates.

Clicking on the calendar reveals pricing for different departure or arrival dates.

You can also play with the length of your trip to see if the airfares change. Google has a nifty chart to show you what the prices will be.

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Price Tracking and Predictions

If you think the ticket is too expensive, or think you can hold out for a potential price decrease, Google Flights can track airfares for you. For example, I have been tracking the prices of flights from New Delhi to Chennai, and Google alerted me when the prices dropped by $10.

Google Flights can help you track airfares

Google Flights can help you track airfares

You can activate the “Track Prices” feature on the flight result page, or the “booking” page where you can see the entire itinerary.

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Booking the Ticket

Google is not a travel agent, so once you find something you like, you can’t actually book the tickets through Google. However, in many cases, they will show you a way to book the ticket.

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In this example, clicking on the price takes you straight to United’s website, where the itinerary is pre-populated. You simply have to continue on United’s site to complete the booking—quick and easy.

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Sometimes, the itinerary might be a little trickier. In these cases, there might be multiple options in booking the ticket, but they result in different prices. Take this example for a Philadelphia to Beijing flight, in Business Class, where you’d have to call Finnair to book. I should note, however, these prices might not always be accurate. I spoke to three different Finnair agents, and none could piece together an itinerary with the price Google quoted.

More complicated itineraries might have multiple booking options with different prices.

More complicated itineraries might have multiple booking options with different prices.

Other times, Google might also take you to a variety of online travel agencies (e.g. Priceline, Expedia) to book your ticket.

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Exploring all the Possibilities

Nowadays I rarely have specific, must-go destinations in mind when I plan trips. This is where the “Explore Destination” feature of Google Flights come in handy.

Let’s say you want to go to Europe, but don’t have a specific destination in mind. Simply enter your origin and dates, and the Explore Map can literally show you the airfare to every city. Here, I put in Philadelphia as my origin, and navigated the map to show just Europe. It looks like that while many popular destinations are going for over $1,000, I can visit Dublin for about half that! Click on Dublin, and you will be brought to a page showing all the flight options.

Google Flights' Explore Map shows you airfare to individual cities

Google Flights’ Explore Map shows you airfare to individual cities

What if you don’t have a destination in mind, but rather an activity or climate? On Google Flights’ home page, you can select special interests. Here, I chose “Beaches,” and Google Flights showed me beachy destinations across different continents!

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Building a Multi-City Trip

Another great feature of Google Flights is the ability to set up multi-city trips with ease. I usually find myself using this feature if I’m not sure whether it’d be cheaper to book an itinerary with a stopover built in, or if I should just book a separate one-way ticket.

For example, I want to visit Beijing and Hong Kong. Is it cheaper to put them all on the same itinerary, or would it be cheaper if I buy a round-trip ticket to Beijing, and then add on a separate ticket to Hong Kong? Can I book an open jaw, where I fly to Beijing, return from Hong Kong, and buy a separate one-way ticket from Beijing to Hong Kong?

I can launch the multi-city search tool, and input a framework of flights. Let’s say I want to fly from Philadelphia to Hong Kong, stay there for a few days, and then head to Beijing, and finally return to Philadelphia. What would be the cost?

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Hm…that’s not super cheap. Can I do it the other way around, visiting Beijing first, and then fly back from Hong Kong?

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Even more expensive. How much is just a round-trip ticket to Hong Kong from Beijing?

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Pretty reasonable! In this case, it looks like it’s actually cheapest to buy a round trip ticket to Beijing for $726, and add a $188 round-trip ticket from Beijing to Hong Kong—if you’re willing to back-track a little bit.

But ultimately, this just goes to show how powerful Google Flights can be, and how much time it could save you when you’re planning your next trip.

Conclusion

No, there are no magic tricks that I use to knock airfares down. But Google Flights come pretty close, as in if you have some flexibility, it allows you to easily compare prices across travel dates, routings, and even destinations.

What is your favorite Google Flights feature?

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Comments

  1. I use the ITA Matrix all the time to find the best priced options for my client and I’m a travel agent.
    I once found an option for business class tickets that were pricing over $9000 from Miami to Amsterdam. I used the ITA Matrix and found a fare for $3300 on Air Canada – my clients were amazed!

  2. I find a much better fare using skyscanner. Departing Portland Oregon November 1 returning May 1, 2017. Not even close.

  3. When you get the dreaded “Call to book”, you can then revert back to Matrix to pull up the itinerary you want. Then use bookwithmatrix.com, and it is often able to get one of a few online travel agencies (Priceline, Expedia, and Orbitz if I remember correctly) to price and sell you that ticket, letting you save on having to call the airline.

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