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 you’d have to 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.
In this guide, we’ll go over the basics of Google Flights, including some newer features that can help you find the perfect flight.
Table of contents
- What Is Google Flights?
- Flight Search
- Discover Destinations
- New and Special Features
- ITA Matrix
- Final Thoughts
What Is Google Flights?
Although Google Flights lets you search for, compare, and purchase flights, it’s not technically an online travel agency like Orbitz or Priceline. Rather, it’s a highly effective metasearch engine that saves you the step of searching each airline and website individually.
You can compare routes, prices, times, airlines, and more to find the cheapest, most convenient, or preferred flight between any airports.
Hot Tip: Google Flights finds fares and then directs you to the airline’s website or an OTA, so make sure to use a card that earns bonus rewards on travel purchases such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.
There are a couple different ways to use Google Flights, including 2 primary functions that have a few components:
- Regular flight search
- “Discover Destinations”
Below, we’ll go through each of these tools so you know how to use them.
While the other features that Google Flights offers are definitely useful, its basic flight search functionality is the heart and soul of this tool. It’s not quite perfect and doesn’t have full access to every airline — specifically, it can’t access prices for Southwest Airlines — but otherwise, it’s the best way there is to search for flights.
Google has a relatively minimalist search screen, but it offers advanced options as well. To start, just enter your origin, destination, and dates. (Note that if you have location services enabled, the city is already filled in for you.)
Because Google is so fast, results will start popping up for a default set of dates as soon as you’ve entered an origin and a destination. If that doesn’t happen automatically, just hit return or enter on your keyboard when you’re ready.
As you enter dates, a calendar pops up showing the lowest available prices for dates that month.
For example, in the above screenshot, I see that I can save nearly $50 by flying a day later.
After you’ve picked dates, results are listed under the search area. The top result, with its price highlighted in green, is typically the least expensive flight. There are also a few other flights included in a “Best Flights” box — according to Google, these itineraries are chosen:
“…to give you the best trade-off between price, duration, number of stops, and sometimes other factors such as amenities and baggage fees.”
This means the prices in that box (other than the low price highlighted in green) may be higher than other options lower down in the results. However, you can change the results to sort by price, departure, arrival, duration, and more.
There also might be a “Tips” box that pops up above the best flights. These handy tips suggest ways to save on the trip by leaving a day or 2 earlier or later, or by flying into or out of a nearby airport. It also may flag cases where you can travel in a higher-class cabin for a less-than-normal price premium.
There are a few filters you can use to narrow your search. Click the links under the date fields to select number of stops, airline, and times for both outbound and inbound flights. If you haven’t entered the destination yet, the only choice will be the big airline alliances — after entering a destination, you can choose a specific airline.
If you click “more” in the filters list, you’ll see a few other options. The first is self-explanatory: use the slider to select a maximum duration of your flight. This is useful if you’re flying far away with connections, but don’t want to spend too long traveling.
For example, a flight to Asia may be cheapest with layovers, but if those are lengthy your travel time could be more than 40 hours. Use this filter to keep the duration lower. If there are no results because you set the duration too low, you can always change it later.
Another option is whether to always show or always hide “separate tickets.” In a few rare cases, it may be cheaper to book 2 one-way tickets rather than a round-trip. By default, these are always shown, but if for any reason you don’t want them, you can just click “hide.”
Hot Tip: Use the filters under the date fields to narrow down and refine the results.
After you enter locations and dates, you’ll find a few more items if you click the “more” link under the search fields. Exactly what shows up depends on the flights you’re looking at — one item allows you to specify where you want to connect if you have a flight with stops.
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 recently introduced a new tool to let 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 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+.
When you go to the Google Flights homepage, before you start entering destinations and dates, you might notice a section under the main search fields labeled “Discover Destinations.”
It’s actually 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 is useful if I know that I want to go on a trip, I 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.
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 Google Flights 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.
Table of Contents
- What Is Google Flights?
- Flight Search
- Discover Destinations
- New and Special Features
- ITA Matrix
- Final Thoughts