This guide was originally posted in 2016 but has been entirely updated in July 2019 with Google Flights’ new features and functionality.
A perk of being a points and mile junkie is the ability to travel extremely comfortably. And I truly feel fortunate to be able to fly in premium cabins, whether it’s a flat bed seat across the Atlantic, or even a shower at 30,000 feet. However, with great
power travel habits comes great responsibility. I often get asked by friends about the “secrets” to traveling in style. “Where do you find these awesome deals?”
Breaking It Down:
The Power Of Google Flights
That brings me to Google Flights, which is what I usually use (and recommend to people!) for all flight bookings. For some people, this sounds like a cop-out, especially since the site has become increasingly popular over the past few years. However, and hear me out, it remains one of the most comprehensive and user friendly tools out there. Skip the next two sections if you’re not interested in why I decided to write this guide and get to the meat and potatoes of Google Flights.
Background On My Types Of Trips
In the past, I have written 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 airline statuses. That model doesn’t quite work well anymore, given that airlines now mostly reward miles based on the amount of money spent, instead of distance flown. As a result, earning miles has shifted to leveraging credit card sign-up bonuses or day-to-day earning multipliers.
With some airlines running appealing sales on their miles, I now find myself buying miles outright sometimes, since they often amount to just a small premium over buying an Economy fare outright, but, of course, I’d be flying in First or Business Class.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a guide on using Google Flights, my (not so secret) weapon for booking virtually any flights. The post has remained one of the most popular on this site, and with the introduction of new features over the past few years, here is an updated guide.
The Premise: 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 that you always seem to get?”
They are of course talking about the mistake fares, like the $450 Business Class fare to Beijing, Cathay Pacific First Class for less than $1,000, 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 because of the serious consequences that come with it) aside, there isn’t a “coupon code” or “secret trick” that will magically knock significant dollar amounts off your flight.
What Is 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.
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.
Let’s say I am headed to Atlanta from Philadelphia for a few days. I input my destination, travel dates, and Google spits out a selection of flights.
It first shows you what it considers to be the best departing flights, usually ones without a connection (but still reasonably priced), or ones with desirable times. If those don’t fit, or if you want to take a deeper dive, scroll down and you’ll find other departing flights.
Up to this point, Google Flights feels like searching for a flight on Expedia or Priceline, piecing together an itinerary to your needs.
Google Flights: The Flight Info
But expanding each flight shows you more information that might help you make a decision. In this instance, the American Airlines flight is almost double the price of Spirit Airlines. However, more legroom and the ability to connect to Wi-Fi onboard might be worth the premium to some people. You can also tell that the Spirit airlines flight does not come with overhead bin access, so that could potentially be a consideration.
Throughout the booking process, Google Flights will also show you a ton of stuff if you want to be extra informed. For certain city pairs, Google Flights will also show you if the current price is considered expensive.
For airlines with Basic Economy pricing (which is basically most legacy U.S. carriers at this point), Google Flights will show you what’s included in your fare on the “checkout page” once you have selected all the flights in your itinerary. You can even play with the number of checked bags to see how much the ticket will actually cost.
Scrolling down to the bottom of the page will show you a comprehensive view of baggage charges.
While many of these features are convenient, none of them are truly ground breaking. But frankly, the true power of Google Flights lies far beyond booking a set itinerary with rigid departure and return dates (you know, the ones that I DON’T HAVE A TRICK FOR). Most third-party booking sites can do the same thing for you.
Playing With Dates, Trip Lengths, & Nearby Airports
If you have even a little bit of flexibility, Google Flights can work wonders for you.
Date & Trip Length Flexibility
Say you are flexible on departure and return dates. There are a few ways you can find out if leaving (or returning) on a different date might bring down the price.
1) Calendar View
You can simply click on the departure date, which will load up a two-month calendar showing you what the price of the ticket would be if you departed on any other day. In this view, the prices shown assume that you keep the return date the same (or vice versa if you clicked on the return date). This is the view I find most useful, since I often have to be back on a certain day but could head out a bit earlier or later.
Here, you can see that the ticket price drops by $30 if I left on June 22 instead of June 24.
2) Grid View
Alternatively, you can click on “Date Grid,” which will show you the a grid view comparing ticket prices on different days of the same week.
3) Price Graph
Meanwhile, “Price Graph” lets you change the length of your trip. Perhaps counterintuitively, this is the best view if you have a rigid trip length in mind. Say you are visiting your family and would like to take 3 days off to do it, but is otherwise flexible on which 3 days. You could set a 3-day trip length and compare prices between, say, July and October.
Flexible On The Airport Or Region? Perfect.
Finally, if you are willing to drive a little bit, or even purchase a positioning flight, Google Flights can be tremendously useful. You can simply search for flights to/from multiple airports. My favorite way to do this is by typing multiple airport codes separated by a comma, or simply clicking on the + symbol.
This feature is equally useful if you don’t really care where you’re going.
For instance, let’s say I want to visit some Balkan countries. I may not care where I start, as long as I can get a cheap flight there. Those airports may not be super close to one another, but are in the general region I want to travel to. I can just type in a bunch of airport codes and see which one comes up cheapest. Here, you can see that Dubrovnik has a much cheaper flight option to start my journey to the Balkans on my specific dates.
The magic of Google Flights is that you can layer multiple search functions on top of each other. This is tremendously helpful if, say, you are planning a trip “from somewhere in the East Coast to somewhere in Eastern Europe that lasts about a week in either June or July.”
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 a Pittsburgh-Chicago flight, and I received an alert from Google Flights when the price dropped by $22.
There are a few ways to activate the “Track Prices” feature:
- You can do so on the flight result page, where you can track the prices for your city pair
- You can also activate it on the “booking” page, which allows you track prices for a very specific itinerary.
Activating the “Track Prices” feature on the result page allows you to track prices for the city pair.
You can also activate “Track Prices” on the booking page to track a specific itinerary.
Booking The Ticket
Google is not a full fledged travel agent, so once you find something you like, you generally will have to book your ticket elsewhere. In most cases, once you have formulated your itinerary, Google Flights will show you options through which to book your flight.
For example, here, I have selected an itinerary from Philadelphia to Dubai. The round-trip ticket comes to $4,456 in Business Class, and there are a few options to book.
Whoa. That’s a lot of options! Let’s break them down.
Book “Directly” Through Google
You will see that I can book directly through Google (first option), but Google is not really acting as a travel agent here. Google Flights will simply ask you for the travelers’ information, and then pass those on to Lufthansa.
This might be very convenient for some people. However, many credit cards, like the Citi Prestige or the American Express Platinum Card, give you bonus points only if you book directly with airlines. As a result, you may not earn the bonus points if you book on Google.
Book With Online Travel Agencies
You can also check out other online travel agencies, such as Orbitz and CheapOAir. In my example, these agents charge a higher price. However, where applicable, I generally click through to see if they could potentially offer a lower price.
Book With The Airline Directly
Finally, you can make your booking with the airlines directly. Here, you will notice that Lufthansa and United both offer the same price. Your decision will mostly hinge upon the credit card you have, and what kind of frequent flyer miles you are hoping to earn. For instance, having a Lufthansa Miles & More credit card might incentivize you to book through Lufthansa to earn bonus points. Meanwhile, you can only earn Premier qualifying dollar (PQD) with United if you book your flights from United, so that could influence your decision as well.
At any rate, clicking “Select” will generally land you on the airline or agent’s website, with your itinerary populated.
Exploring All the Possible Destinations
Nowadays, I rarely have specific, must-go destinations in mind when I plan trips. This is where the “Explore ” feature of Google Flights come in handy.
Let’s say you want to go to Asia, but don’t have a specific destination in mind. Simply enter your origin and dates, and enter “Asia” as your destination. Up comes a map that can literally show you the airfare to every city.
Here, I put in Philadelphia as my origin, selected Economy as my class of service, and typed in just “Asia” as my destination. It looks like that while many popular destinations are going for over $1,000, I can visit Shanghai for about $800. Click on Shanghai, and you will be brought to a page showing all the flight options.
What if you don’t even have a region of the world in mind? You can select “Explore Destinations” on the Google Flights page and be taken directly to the map. Here, the world is your oyster.
Building A Google “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 Singapore and Bangkok. There are a few ways I could do this:
- Put all flights on a single itinerary (USA-Singapore-Bangkok-USA)
- Buy a round-trip ticket to Singapore, and then add on a separate round-trip ticket to Bangkok
- Book an open jaw, where I fly to Singapore and return from Bangkok, and buy a separate one-way between the two cities
These options might come with very different prices, and Google Flights has a handy tool to help with that.
Single Itinerary A
I can launch the multi-city search tool, and input a framework of flights. Let’s say I want to fly from Philadelphia to Singapore, stay there for a few days, and then head to Bangkok, and finally return to Philadelphia. What would be the cost?
Single Itinerary B
Hmmm…$1,500 is a lot to spend on a ticket, especially in Economy Class. Can I do it the other way around, visiting Bangkok first, and then fly back from Singapore?
Wow! Just by switching my destinations around, I can save more than $300! Now, what if I book an open jaw, where I fly to Bangkok, but return to Singapore?
Booking an open jaw might give you more savings, but keep in mind you will have to book your own connecting flights.
Even better. I can “save” $113 by not including my Singapore-Bangkok flight in the itinerary. Now let’s do some research to see how much it would cost me to buy that flight separately.
Use Google Flights to find out how much the connecting flight—should you need one because of an open jaw—would cost.
Booking The Separate Flight
Well, it looks like a connecting flight is just $47, far below the $113 I would be saving! If you are penny pinching, and don’t otherwise care about which airline you’re flying on, or the departure/arrival times, the best bet in this scenario would be booking an open jaw, and then buying a connecting flight separately.
Do keep in mind that there is a convenience factor when you have all of your flights on the same itinerary, and you would be foregoing that by buying some flights independently. Additionally, the amenities available might not be the same, since many of these shorter flights could be operated by budget carriers.
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.
Limitations of Google Flights
Google Flights is an extremely powerful tool that allows you price compare, explore destinations, and even track price changes. However, there are some important limitations to keep in mind.
Perhaps the most glaring limitation is that not all airlines show up on Google Flights. In the U.S., Southwest Airlines is a big omission. If you are booking flights to/from areas served by Southwest, you’ll want to price compare by visiting Southwest.com as well.
>> Related: Southwest Perks & Hacks: The Complete Guide
Google’s List of Amenities Might Not Be Fully Accurate
Additionally, I have found that Google is generally pretty accurate with the list of amenities when it comes to US-based airlines and larger foreign airlines. However, on lesser known airlines, the information might not be very accurate. For example, on this Ukraine International flight from New York-JFK to Kyiv (KBP), Google shows that the Business Class cabin has angled flat seats, while it is actually fully flat. So if you truly care about the amenities listed, make sure you do your own research.
No, there are no magic tricks that I use to knock airfares down. But Google Flights comes pretty close—as in if you have some flexibility, it allows you to easily compare prices across travel dates, routings, and even destinations. You can piece together multi-city itineraries, and track the prices if you’re not quite ready to book yet.
The bottom line? Google Flights can help you save some money, explore new destinations, and be informed about amenities available onboard or any potential upcharge for bags or seat assignments.
What is your favorite Google Flights feature?
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