Using Google Flights To Find Cheap Fares

When it comes to planning mileage runs, or looking for great fare deals, the go-to tool for most of us has been the ITA Matrix. ITA is a powerful tool, and makes searching for specific inventory buckets or fare combinations more practical. However, ITA is also becoming slow and glitchy, and the interface isn’t exactly beginner-friendly.

Part of the reason for the slowness of ITA has to do with the new tool Google has developed for finding flight deals. Google Flights is designed to be more approachable to the general population, so I thought it might be helpful to talk about how to use Google Flights to save money on airfare.

When you first visit the Google Flights page, you’ll see a map, along with highlighted deals to popular destinations based on your current location, or from your home location if you’re signed in to your Google account.

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While your current location will auto-populate, you can select additional airports by selecting the drop-down menu. You can either type in the airport codes (up to five), or check the boxes for the airports you’re interested in.

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Using Google Flights with a set destination

You can, of course, put in a specific destination as well. Let’s say you’re looking at going to London over New Years.

Google Flights will show you the available fares to London for the dates you’ve selected, but I like to click “Expand Map”, which then gives you a bar graph that lets you know the least expensive travel dates in your general window.

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Google Flights also shows the fares to nearby destinations, which can be useful if a particular route is much less expensive than the one you were originally considering.

Using Google Flights with fixed dates

This is one of my favorite features, and can be especially useful if you find yourself short a few miles towards elite status, or even just want to take a weekend getaway.

Enter your departure airports, along with your dates, but leave the destination blank. You can then expand the map, and will see lots of cities with red dots and prices:

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You can also click and drag the map, which is the way to go if you’re looking at cheap fares to Europe.

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Copenhagen has been the city for great deals lately, and this is no exception. It’s also worth noting the bar graph in the upper left corner — again, Google is showing you a range of fares around your dates, and in this case it looks like the price drops by about a third if you can move your trip a week later.

Clicking on the shortest line in the graph will pull up the new results, which also lists the available flights:

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Let’s say you don’t want to fly Norwegian, despite the cheap fare and convenient routing. You can also use the filters at the top of the screen to select a particular number of stops, a specific departure time, or your choice of airlines or alliance:

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If you select SkyTeam, for example, the price bar goes nearly flat, and you’ll only get results on SkyTeam carriers.

Booking mileage runs using Google Flights

As another example, let’s look at fares on oneworld carriers to South America. Using the tips above, we can quickly find fares to Sao Paulo over a weekend.

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Google automatically groups the “best” flights at the top of the results (again, you can filter based on your preferences, but these are the default settings), and highlights the lowest fare:

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Once you’ve selected your flights, you’ll see a blue box at the bottom of the screen giving your purchase options. In some cases there will be instructions to call the airline or your travel agent (in which case you can often still price the fare using an online travel agency like Orbitz).

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If Google has an agreement with the ticketing carrier, you can click on the price box and be taken directly to the purchasing screen of the airline website.

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This is basically magic, as far as I’m concerned. From here, you can purchase the ticket as normal, and if you’re logged in to your frequent flyer account you’ll have the options of auto-filling your personal info as usual.

You might still encounter the occasional glitch, but it works for me more than 80% of the time.

Price alerts from Google Flights

As part of Google’s progression towards world domination integrated product line, Flights works in conjunction with Google Now to send updates on destinations you’ve searched, track flight status, or even (and this is my favorite) send you price updates for specific flights.

Once you’ve used the tool, Google Flights will remember the routes you’ve searched, which makes it easier to quickly check the price for a trip you’re planning.

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The pricing alerts are really cool though!

To give an example, let’s say you’re interested in going to Puerto Rico. Even better, let’s say you know from past experience that premium cabin fares from California to Puerto Rico can be outrageously cheap in winter, and you want to be ready to book those as soon as the price drops.

Fill in the details of your trip, and select the dates you’re interested in. In the upper right, change the class of service to “Business.”

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The cheapest fares at present are on United, but let’s say I’m most interested in that American flight through Miami, which is currently the most expensive flight.

Once I’ve selected my flights, I’ll again see the blue pricing box with my ticketing options. I obviously don’t want to purchase these flights at that rate, but Google also gives me the option to save the itinerary.

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By clicking Save, the fare alert will be sent to any of your devices with Google Now installed, which makes tracking prices much easier. It’s not a foolproof system, as it only tracks specific flights, but it can give you a good general idea.

If you haven’t used Google Now yet, it’s worth noting that it’s a little Skynet-feeling the first week or so. I find the benefits outweigh the creepiness, but if you’re the kind of person that’s likely to flip out if your phone tells you that you need to leave right now or you’ll be late, when you haven’t even added that appointment to your calendar, you might want to tread carefully.

Bottom line

For advanced players, Google Flights isn’t at the level of ITA Matrix yet, but I’m not sure that’s the direction Google wants to go anyway.

For everyone else, this is a great tool that’s pretty easy to use, and is a good way to get your feet wet in searching for deals and great fares.

There are also many more features to explore and learn, so this is just a starting point. If you have favorite tips please share them below!

Have you used Google Flights? What has your experience been?

Comments

  1. Nice post Tiffany. I use Google Flights all the time. My main recurring trip is RDU-DTW (school-home) and I prefer to fly United since I have status with United. I find sometimes instead of a straightforward roundtrip search, I get cheaper results by searching for a multicity like:

    RDU-IAD,ORD,EWR
    IAD,ORD,EWR-DTW

    both on the same day. The result will be a typical connecting itinerary (no overnights) but it would be an itinerary that somehow a roundtrip query will not return on its own.

  2. Used it for years. Works on most airlines but not all. Doesn’t work for AC and most non-1st-world airlines.

  3. Sadly, it’s completely unpredictable when searching for premium economy fares. For weeks I’ve been looking for PE fares BOS>TXL on Google Flights, and I was baffled that they never fell below $3K. Turns out they were half that, but the correct price was only visible on Lufthansa’s website. Since then I’ve found similar problems with other routes offering PE. Frustrating.

  4. Google Flights is great to find deals on “that fixed dates you want to travel” and doesn’t have flexibility. Your main idea of holidays may be expensive, but another attractive destination is quite cheap! Of course you need to use the map functionality to find these deals.

  5. My friends/colleagues always bring up the valid complaint that WN doesn’t show up on OTAs. Enter Google Flights. When searching for a route WN flies on Google Flights, there will be a small note under the blue “Choose an outbound flight” box saying that prices are not available for Southwest. Scroll down, click on one of the WN departure times, choose a return, and then click the blue “Check Price” box. You’re automatically taken to southwest.com and all of the available flights for the dates selected are shown.

  6. I’ve never used this before. I was about to get excited, however It’s not pulling up Finnair or Qatar flights on LHR to BKK flights which I find very odd. They are certainly on Kayak and SkyScanner; and are cheaper.

  7. If you want to get good at using google flights you might as well learn its language (just like you learned ITA Matrix’s).

    Basic URL search is: http://www.google.com/flights/#search
    Then you add other commands preceded by a semicolon ‘;’ …
    f=ORD,MDW,MKE | Origin Airport(s) (from)
    t=WAS | Destination Airport(s) (to)
    d=2011-11-14 | Departure Date (depart) in YYYY-MM-DD format
    r=2011-11-17 | Return Date (return)
    a=AA,CO,WN,UA | Air Carrier(s)(airline)
    a=ONEWORLD, SKYTEAM, or STAR_ALLIANCE (airline alliance)
    c=DFW,IAH | Connection Cities (connect)
    s=1 | Maximum Stops (stops)
    olt=0,900 | Outbound Landing Time Range – Min-Max in minutes from 0:00 (outbound landing – arrival time range)
    itt=840,1440 | Inbound Takeoff Time Range – Min-Max in minutes from 0:00 (inbound takeoff – departure time range)
    md=1680 | Maximum Flight time in seconds
    mc=m | map the results
    mp=1450 | maximum price in USD
    sc=b b is business class, p is premium economy, f is first class
    px=2,1,1,2 in this order: Adult, Child, INF, INS maximum 6 passengers

    Did I miss anything?

  8. Tiffany,
    As a poweruser do use ITA or Google Flights for your personal airfare searchs?

  9. Just started using Google Flight to plan for my upcoming US trip. Loved it, easy to use, and it gives you recommendation to save by flying to a nearby city instead.

  10. I’m not such a fan of the “automatically remembering every search you’ve ever made” and then updating you forever. A lot of sites do that, which is annoying if you’re contemplating, say, a trip to Providenciales, but then decide to go to Copenhagen instead. I keep getting reminders for PLS for weeks afterwards. I deliberately stay logged out of Google to avoid that kind of thing.

  11. @ Brian G. — Hah, I am hardly a power user, but I am using both lately.

    For example, if I’m looking at a trip I’ll often use Google Flights to determine a few promising airports (say in the Caribbean), but will use ITA to massage the routing. I also like Flights for the “ZOMG business class deals to Europe GO” fares, just because it’s so much faster to test different city pairs.

  12. It’s great and I use it a lot. But it has glitches, more so it seems with premium cabins. I’ll get excited that a transatlantic J fare looks like maybe $2,600 (or less!) but even clicking the cheapest outbound, then all the return flights – all of them! – price $1K or more higher. Oh well. I end up flying Y, which is more realistic anyway.

  13. I prefer ITA for searching by flexible dates by Google Flights is definitely awesome when you know the dates are are just looking for somewhere to go. Would be nice if they included a CPM search or something like that.

  14. @ Aeroman380 — That’s a fair question! I rarely visit the BoardingArea home page, or read that blog (sorry Tim!), so didn’t see he’d written about this recently. I have had this post written for about ten days, but we did wait to publish it until today to coincide with the AMA.

  15. It doesn’t work very well on my iPad……very clunky. For example, the map tends to freeze when you try to move it around. Or I get a box I the upper left giving me a fare for an unwanted, unselected city and then I can’t get rid of the box and it’s in the way, over the top of the map.

  16. @Tiffany – understandable. I don’t mean to come off as snappy (as sometimes it can be interpreted that way). Just wondered why all the newsfeeds had google flights

  17. @ Aeroman380 — No worries! I didn’t think it was snappy at all, and truly appreciate you asking. 🙂

  18. I’m like Eric, I need PE fares and google flights is terrible for this. My company will pay for PE, so that is what I need to book. Besides ITA or Expedia, I dont know of another website that is good for searching for PE and even then, I need to use advanced routing codes to make sure it searches airline by airline on ITA.

    A post on searching for PE fares would be beneficial.

    Cheers.

  19. Great write up Tiffany, I really appreciate when you bring to our attention alternative ways to deal with our passion for travel. on great fares. Your Alitalia business class award piece comes to mind, and this one, even with the pointed out differences to ITA, is a great eye opener for me. Thanks!

  20. I am so fed up with “News you can use” than applies ONLY to US residents, I could just…

    Go ahead, prove me wrong. Show me non-US currencies in Google Flights. Be as insulting as you like. Flame me to death. Just be sure you’re actually right.

    The whole point of having a world to travel to, is that some of it, arguably rather a lot of it, is foreign, which to most of you means “not in/of the United States of America”. That means you, too, Ben. You may have by far the best blog in the biz IMHO, but you still manage to infuriate and depress.

  21. @ Denbigh — Sorry to hear about your disappointment. I can’t add an image to the comments here, but if you click on the three dashed lines in the upper left corner of Google Flights you can change the currency to pretty much anything.

    Other than that, I’m not sure which part of this post wouldn’t apply regardless of your origin? I used San Diego because that’s where I currently live, but the functionality of the tool works the same if you start in San Cristóbal or anywhere else.

  22. Thanks so much Tiffany! No I wasn’t complaining about your choice of SAN. My (unfounded) snark was based upon my (mistaken) belief that Google Flights was restricted to US dollars prices. Maybe it was once in the past, but I might be slightly less embarrassed if I’d checked, today, before posting.

    Sigh

    (You’re more diplomatic than I am. That’s why you’re blogging on Ben’s site, not me!)

  23. @Ivan, Google Flights actually works with AC. You might want to try again. I have used it for quite some time and have always found it helpful finding AC fares out of YYZ.

  24. One thing I discovered with Google Flights is you could actually enter a country or a region in your destination to search rather than airport/city, say from YYZ to East Asia, or Caribbeans, or Australia. It will give you results for destinations in the country/region sorted by price.

  25. I can’t see Airberlin flights on Google Flights – anyone else have this experience? Looking for NYC MXP Aug 20 – Aug 24th. I see airberlin flights in Bing, Kayak, etc. but not on Google. Thanks!

  26. Wow, Tiffany, what an awesome post! Thank you so much for taking the time to post such a thoughtful overview of Google Flights.

    I’m a Program Manager working on Flights, and (please forgive the delay), I’ll try to tackle a bunch of the comments here 🙂

    Jason, I’ve seen that workaround used, too. We’ll keep working to improve the results we show while minimizing ‘tweaks’ people feel they need to do ;).

    Ivan, glad you use Flights! And Ivan, Leo, we’re actively onboarding new airline partners and improving our data all the time 🙂

    Eric, RaflW, Derek, Premium Economy is a super-tough challenge. Please do send us specific examples (via Send Feedback from the Flights lefthand menu) as you come across ‘em, and we will continue to refine how we tackle PE searches!

    Whoa, Tony, that is admirably, impressively geeky! 🙂 (and even more than I, as a Flights team member, have played with :p)

    Lance, thank you for the kind words! We Flights team members are passionate travelers ourselves, and comments like yours makes us happy :).

    Lisa, I believe you’re talking about flight-related cards in Now, and we appreciate the feedback. I’ll share that with my Now colleagues, and I know they are continuing to refine Flights-related reminders.

    Robert, sorry that you had a bad experience with Flights on your iPad. We know mobile is super-important and will work to improve your experience!

    Huning, that is a great tip; I often use that to more affordably travel from my homebase in the SF Bay Area to Europe 🙂

    Anyway, Tiffany, thanks again for the great write-up, and also thanks to those of you who commented here. As I mentioned earlier in this mini-novel, please do give us your feedback / complaints / praise via our Send Feedback mechanism (google.com/flights, lefthand menu, Send Feedback option). Lots of us on the team read those notes daily and really appreciate the input!

  27. Hi Tiffany. Is there a website that allows you to track First class fares for a particular route and will email you when prices fall? I found some that track Economy but not that track First class? Thanks!

  28. @ Rich — Not that I know of, unfortunately. Maybe track a few flights using the tool above to keep a general eye on the route?

  29. I currently have several airline credit cards and the Starwood card. I can put a decent amount on these cards. I tend to focus on one at a time though. I’m SURE I’m not using them the best way I can unfortunately. Is it possible to actually talk with someone so I can explain what I have and do so I can be given suggestions for my specific situation?

    Also is there already an article concerning planning mileage runs. I’m ALL for paying for domestic flights and saving rewards for international travel upgrades. Just need to know the BEST way to go about doing it!

    Thank you,
    Ray

  30. Hi

    Does anyone know why “flights fron ESB to IST” search on google gives you a nice and useful list of flights but search “flights from SFO to LAX” gives you only prices and not the same useful info ? I noticed google.ru results also diiffers also from say google.com.

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