There are a lot of variables in getting the best airfare, and comparison sites use different methods to hunt for them. But Google's new tool has a smart approach that's worth a look.
It’s called Google Flights, and it’s impressively fast and flexible. There are still a few kinks to work out: I haven’t found how to book one-way or international flights yet, for instance, and the list of destinations includes a lot that are currently marked “unavailable.”
So while it’s obviously a work in progress, it already puts some of its competitors to shame. Here’s why…
1. Regular search integration
An obviously flight-related search will turn up results from the regular Google engine. So if I type in “fort lauderdale to nyc,” the first non-ad result tells me there are 30 to 34 daily nonstop flights with an average flight time of 2 hours and 53 minutes, with a link to look at them. (There’s also a flight search link in the left sidebar of the results page.) Kayak thinks this is a monopoly, but I think it’s really convenient.
2. Instant results
Unlike most flight searches, where you type in what you want and then wait a minute on a loading screen while it “finds matching results” (and while they serve you an ad), Google’s service loads instantly. You type in the cities, your route is drawn on a map, and price results pop up below in about a second. Click a different city on the map to change the route, and you get new listings right away. That’s handy if you’re on a lousy Wi-Fi connection – say, at an airport.
3. Visual, interactive search
Sure, every comparison site spits out a table of times and prices for you to sift through. But Google gives you multiple intuitive ways to tailor those results on the fly by clicking and dragging on a calendar, map, or graph. Because you don’t have to keep reloading the page to get new results closer to what you actually want, it’s nowhere near as tedious to get a better fare.
This is especially cool for people who don’t have a fixed travel destination, and just want to see what they can get for their money. Start out with your origin city, set a max price and flight time, and the map will show you what major cities you can fly to and the best fare for each. And like most comparison sites, you can then narrow the results down by airline, number of connections, and time of day.
4. Less guesswork
I’ve written stories here before about getting cheaper flights: Airfares Take Off – 6 Tips to Land Savings and 7 Steps to Cheaper Airfares. One of the tips I offered in both – based on data and what experts say – is that flights are sometimes cheaper for certain times of the week.
With Google Flight’s calendar view (the little icon under the bottom right corner of the map), you don’t have to figure out the right time yourself. The tool will take the number of days you want to travel, and to the right of the calendar, graph out the cheapest price on each departure date over a several-month period. You can instantly see where the price spikes and where it dips, and plan accordingly.
I will say I haven’t actually booked any flights through Google yet, but in making a few random rate comparisons against other travel sites, I don’t see any price gaps. Let me know if you do, here or on Facebook.