Searching for and comparing flights used to be a massive pain in the neck, even just a few years ago. You’d either have to check each airline’s website individually, or go through one of the many online travel agencies (OTAs) that often showed different prices.
Of course, this was the easiest it had ever been…before the internet became what it is today. Back then, your only choices were to call the airlines or go into a travel agent’s office!
Things got a lot better in 2011 when Google Flights launched following Google’s purchase of ITA Software, a travel and reservations software company.
In the few years since, a stream of improvements and innovations has brought the program leaps and bounds ahead, making it the single most useful tool for both deal-seeking travelers and those looking for luxury.
But what makes Google Flights different? What makes it worth your time?
Let’s go over the key features that make Google Flights a great option the next time you are searching for a deal on a flight.
Table of contents
- How Google Flights Can Save You Money
- Flight Insights
- How to Use Google Flights
- Discover Destinations
- New and Special Features
- ITA Matrix
- Final Thoughts
Table of Contents
- How Google Flights Can Save You Money
- Flight Insights
- How to Use Google Flights
- Discover Destinations
- New and Special Features
- ITA Matrix
- Final Thoughts
How Google Flights Can Save You Money
The first thing you might notice is that Google Flights isn’t quite as flashy as some of the online travel agencies like Expedia, Priceline, or Orbitz. Have no fear — it’s still a powerful search engine with lots of options!
Enter Multiple Destinations or Departure Options
Of course you start by entering your basic search criteria, just as you would on any other site. But with Google Flights you can do more.
You can enter up to 7 departure and 7 destinations in the search box! This allows you to do multiple searches at once, which can save you tons of time when you are doing a flexible search.
For example, let’s say you live in New York City and want to travel to Europe, but you don’t have a specific city in mind.
In the departure box you can enter New York City, which will automatically search all of the New York Airports (LGA, JFK, EWR) — or you can select the airports individually, including other nearby airports like Islip, Long Island (ISP) or Philadelphia (PHL).
For your destination city, start typing in any cities you might be interested in visiting like Paris (CDG), London (LGW, LHR), Brussels (BRU), etc.
Now you can search for the best option all at once, instead of looking up the price of each route individually!
Your results list will display options including all of the cities you added to your search. In my case, I could see the cheapest flight from Newark to Paris (EWR-CDG), but with a layover. For an extra $19, I could get a direct flight from Newark to London (EWR-LHR).
Search On Multiple Dates
Now you know you can search multiple departure and arrival cities — but what about dates. How can you find out the cheapest dates to fly?
After inputting your departure and arrival cities, look at the dates to the right side of the search box. If you click the calendar icon, you’ll get a calendar view showing you prices for the whole month.
Days that offer lower prices will be shown in green. Here you can see that by shifting my trip 5 days ahead, I can save $63.
Hot Tip: You can adjust the duration of your trip by using the arrows at the bottom of the calendar box.
If you would like to know what the prices are for your search on different dates after you’ve already started a search, click on Dates in the Flight Insights section right above your search results.
No matter how you start your flight search, you will see a graphic for Flight Insights above your search results. This is where Google Flights is showing you how to save money.
There are 4 different boxes you can click for more information.
When you click on the Dates box, a price graph will show up listing prices for different date combos. Any price lower than your current search will be listed in green, and prices that are significantly higher will be in red.
You can adjust the dates using the toggle buttons at the top and right side of the graph. But be careful — I found that when I changed the dates, the highlighted prices went a little haywire. Some were showing up in green but weren’t actually lower prices!
Hot Tip: Use the color indicators as guides, but pay attention to the actual price listed too.
The price graph shows you 2 months worth of prices in a visual graph form. You will easily be able to see price trends and how your specific dates fit in.
You can scroll further in the future with the arrow to the right of the graph. Change the duration of your trip using the plus/minus buttons by your selected dates.
This tab shows you any other airports that are near your origin or destination airport (you can toggle between origin and destination airport at the top of this section).
You will be able to view their locations on the map and get details including flight prices to the left of the screen. Click on any airport to see the distance from city center.
Here you can view vacation packages as well as destination guides, maps, and videos. If you plan to book a hotel as well, it might be worth a look at the Flight + Hotel packages.
These types of packages can often save you money, but it’s always a good idea to price out everything separately to make sure the package is worth it.
How to Use Google Flights
Although this tool lets you search for, compare, and purchase flights, it’s not technically an online travel agency like Travelocity or Priceline. Rather, it’s a highly effective metasearch engine that saves you the step of searching each airline and website individually.
So, while you will use Google Flights to search for the best flight, you won’t book through Google Flights.
Hot Tip: Google Flights finds fares and then directs you to the airline’s website or an OTA, so we like to use a card that earns bonus points on travel purchases. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card earns you 2 points for every $1 that you spend with the card on travel or dining purchases. If you’re a business owner, we’d strongly recommend using a rewarding business credit card when making a travel purchase.
How to Book a Flight
Scroll through the results and click on one that interests you. Some itineraries show just 1 flight option, but others may say something like “4 similar flights.” This means that the airline/alliance shown has a few different flights available for a similar price and the same number of stops.
When you click the result, you’re prompted to choose your actual outbound flight (if there are similar flights). If there’s only 1 choice on that result, you’ll be prompted to pick your return flight.
Keep in mind that the price shown on the initial results screen is the lowest possible price for that itinerary. This means that depending on which return flight you pick, it could be more expensive. This isn’t really an issue; just make sure to pay attention to the prices of each return flight.
When you’ve chosen your flights, Google offers a few options for booking — generally, these are the cheapest options it can find.
Usually, the first (and cheapest) option is to book directly with the airline operating the flight, but sometimes Google gives you the option to book through the airline’s partners or whichever online travel agencies offer the best deals.
Click the price button next to your chosen booking method; you’ll be redirected to that website to make your reservation. The travel details are already set, so all you need to do is confirm them, enter your personal information, and pay.
Google has a tool that lets you track flight prices. You can set an alert, and Google will send you an email if prices go up or down.
To set an alert, look under the booking sites after you’ve chosen an itinerary, and click the price tracker button (take a look at the screenshot of results above). If you’re logged into Google, the alerts will be sent to your Gmail. Otherwise, enter an email address.
You can access any flight price alert you set by clicking on the 3-line menu icon in the upper-left corner of Google Flights and clicking “Tracked Flights.” You can also see a graph with price changes from the day you set the price alert going forward.
Google also has an option to share your chosen itinerary before actually booking it. This is helpful if you’re looking up flights for someone else to book, or if you’re trying to make plans to travel with someone else.
You’ll find the sharing buttons right under the price tracker button. You can either email the itinerary to yourself to save for later or share it with someone else.
To send it to yourself, click the button on the left. Just like with the price tracker, if you’re logged into Google it’s sent to your Gmail; otherwise, enter your email address.
To share with someone else, click the button on the right. A window pops up with options to get a link to copy and paste, enter an email address, or share via social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, or Google+.
We’ve just discussed how to utilize the newest layout of Google Flights which is still in beta testing. If you want to use the popular Discover Destinations function, you’ll need to start from the older version of the Google Flights homepage. For now, this is the default when you visit Google Flights.
When you go to the homepage, before you start entering destinations and dates, you might notice a map and popular destinations below the search boxes.
This is a really interesting tool. Have you ever wanted to plan a trip, but weren’t really sure where to go? This might be the perfect way to find some travel inspiration!
There are 3 main ways you can search: dates, places, and interests.
Discovering Destinations With “Discover Destinations”
The Discover Destinations section has a few search options up top, with a bunch of “cards” underneath showing different locations, places, and prices. There’s also a map in the upper-left corner of the section with markers indicating different places you can go.
As you enter search criteria, the cards change to reflect what you’ve entered so far.
The first variable you can use to search is the dates. You can choose an upcoming month and trip length from the available buttons, or you can choose specific dates by either entering them up top in the flight search area (or by clicking the link that reads “Select specific dates” next to the month buttons).
If you want to narrow down the cards a bit, click “Places” to switch the search field. This is meant to be fairly broad — after all, if you knew the exact city you wanted to fly to, you wouldn’t need to use the discovery tool!
Buttons with continents appear by default, or you can use the search bar to find a region, country, or state. You can’t search by specific city, though (use the search tool for that instead).
For example, you can specify “Europe,” “Northern Europe,” “United Kingdom,” or “Scotland,” but you can’t enter “Edinburgh” or “Glasgow.”
If you have a particular idea of what you want to do on the trip, try the “Interests” field by clicking the button. There’s no text box, but you can pick from a list of options. Choices include adventure travel, beaches, food, honeymoon, shopping, wildlife, and winter sports.
Tweaking the Cards and Booking
If you don’t see something that piques your interest, keep playing around with the options, either selecting specific dates, different places, or different activities. Once you find something that appeals to you, click on that card.
When you open a card, it expands to show more detail — in particular, it shows a few different activities, the top 3 flight options, and the general costs of hotels.
Click the side of the card with flights to open the standard flight search screen with the dates and airports already entered. If you want, you can adjust your dates or change your departure airport. From here, the process to book, save, share, or track flights is the same as with a normal search.
If you’re ready to book hotels, hit your browser’s “back” button to go back to the destination card, then click the section with hotels. There isn’t exactly a dedicated hotel equivalent of Google Flights — instead, you use regular search or Google Maps. Clicking the card brings you to a search page for hotels.
You can sort by relevance (which is based on Google’s search algorithms), price, or rating, and you can see each hotel’s location on the map. Make sure the dates listed at the top are correct; in my test searches, they often defaulted to different dates.
As you click on each hotel result — either in the list or on the map — a window pops up with a few more details and options for booking, including directly with the hotel or through OTAs.
For activities, click each one to learn more — a new window opens with search results. For example, if I click “history” on the card in the above screenshot, the search terms will be “Lima Peru History.” I’ve found this tool to be a little too general, but it can still be a helpful way to find inspiration.
Best Ways to Use “Discover Destinations”
I find the discover tool useful if I know I want to go on a trip and have a general idea of when I can take off, but I don’t know exactly where I want to go. In my experience, results have been more helpful when I’ve kept the search criteria more general — for example, picking a month and duration rather than specific dates.
I also prefer to only pick activities or region; not both. That helps me find places or things to do that I otherwise might not have thought of.
Hot Tip: You can find a lot of travel inspiration in the “Use Points” section of our site!
The “Explore Destinations” Map
Instead of entering search terms, another way to use the Discover Destinations tool is to browse a map. When you first go to the Google Flights home page and scroll to the tool, you’ll notice a map in the upper-left corner of the Discover cards.
If you click the map card, a full-window map pops up with dots marking various places you could go. You can enter dates and a departure airport in the upper-left, and when you hover over the dots you’ll see the lowest available price for tickets.
You can also use filters at the top to control number of stops, maximum price, airlines, duration, and interests. As you set these, the prices will change and the number of dots might decrease to match your criteria. For example, if you enter “winter sports” as an interest, most tropical or desert destinations will be eliminated.
Once you pick a destination, a panel appears with specific flight options and hotels. Just like with the cards, click each section to make any necessary adjustments and book.
If you’re looking for some inspiration, you can also try the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button. Just enter your dates and any other criteria, then press the button. Of the available destinations, Google picks one for you at random. If you don’t like it, you can always go back or click the button again.
New and Special Features
Google’s been improving the Flights tool since it launched in 2011 by making it faster, adding new functionalities, and adding airlines and options. Price tracking is just one of those newer features.
Price Prediction and Fare Expiration
In October 2016, Google announced a new tool that would notify people looking for flights if prices were expected to change soon.
Airline fare rules and planning are incredibly complicated and hard to figure out, so there’s no guarantee that Google’s prediction will be correct. However, in a few test cases I’ve found it to be fairly accurate.
The tool only pops up if you’re looking for a flight that’s expected to change prices soon — you won’t see it otherwise. A red flag appears next to the “Best Flights” box or the specific flight and says when prices are expected to change.
Click “Learn more” to see more information, including Google’s reasoning behind the prediction. It says when prices usually change, how often that happens, and by how much.
Flight Delay Notification and Prediction
Google Flights will not only now tell you of flights notifications and their reason, during search it will also predict delays to inform your purchase decision.
Overhead Bin Access
Google Flights has added a flight results filter to show which options include access to an overhead bin for a carry-on bag.
Legroom (Google Chrome Extension)
Earlier this year, a private developer launched a free extension for the Google Chrome web browser that adds information about seats to Google Flights search results.
When you search for an economy class ticket, you’ll see the particular flight’s pitch (distance from the back of one seat to the back of the next seat) on the right-hand side of each result. Flights with a smaller pitch are highlighted in red, while flights with a more generous pitch are in green.
If you search for a premium cabin, you’ll see the type of seat on the flight — for example, a recliner, angled-flat, or lie-flat seat.
This is a fantastically helpful tool! As airlines are still working to make their fleets uniform following mergers over the past few years, it’s helpful to know exactly what kind of seat you’re paying for, especially since it can vary based on which plane is being flown on the route.
Google Flights is built on software that Google acquired when it bought ITA Software in 2011. That software still powers Google Flights, and if you want basically complete control over your search — from routing and fare code to the tiniest detail — you can access this software’s advanced interface.
ITA Matrix can be quite complicated, but the tradeoff is that you can search with much more control. If you’re interested in learning more, check out our complete guide to ITA Matrix.
Google Flights is my first stop anytime I’m looking for flights. It includes most airlines, features great prices, and searches various online travel agencies and airline websites to save you the time. Even if I plan to book through an OTA, I always search GF first.
There’s just one catch to be aware of: Google doesn’t have access to pricing for Southwest Airlines flights. Whenever Southwest operates a route, it’ll appear at the bottom of the flight search results, but you’ll have to click it to visit Southwest’s site and see the price for yourself.
For additional information on other OTAs and Metasearch Engines, you can check out our post on the Best Websites For Booking Flights at The Cheapest Prices.