July 25, 2024

Adventure Destinations League

Navigating Travel Wonders

How to use Google Flights: A guide to finding flight deals

Google Flights is constantly evolving, and it’s the one tool I always mention when people ask me how to find better flight prices.

This easy-to-use website can help you find the best possible price on airfare (and even hotels). It’s one of the biggest weapons in our arsenal at TPG to help save money on travel. While TPG does offer deal alerts, if you are looking for a particular flight, destination, airline or routing, Google Flights is the way to find personalized deals.

Google Flights is where I almost always begin my search for new bookings. I come back to it again and again to book trips, see if prices have dropped and check if I can get a better deal.

Here’s everything you need to know to use and master Google Flights.

What is Google Flights?

Google Flights home page. GOOGLE

Google Flights is one of our favorite tools for finding deals on flights. It’s an amazingly powerful flight search engine, and the best part is that it’s easy to use. Google shows you nearly all available flights for a given search but doesn’t force you to book with it.

Unlike Expedia, Orbitz, Tripadvisor or Kayak, it’s not an online travel agency. Google is simply showing you what’s available. Once you find the flights you like, you “click through” to actually book. You can choose to book directly with the airline or via a third-party OTA, but not Google itself.

One frustrating note is that Google Flights does not show Southwest Airlines flights, so keep that in mind as you search.

What’s new at Google Flights?

Google has introduced new features that suggest when prices are historically lowest and when you should book for maximum savings. Google has always shown whether the price for a suggested flight itinerary is typical, low or high, but now it gives you even more data to consider.

The tool will “let travelers know when airfares are expected to be lowest for booking their chosen dates and destination,” according to Craig Ewer, who works in communications at Google.

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For example, when I searched last year, Google showed me that a flight from New York to San Francisco in October was $93 cheaper than usual, and the typical range is between $245 and $415. In other words, it was a good time to book.

Price ranges for a flight from New York to San Francisco. GOOGLE FLIGHTS

It gets even better: In some situations, Google will suggest alternate dates you should actually book the flight to save a few bucks. The example below shows that a December flight to Miami would have been much cheaper if I had waited to book it until Sept. 13.

Google’s new historic flight trends data. GOOGLE

Here’s a final example. I apparently waited too long to book my flight home for Christmas a few months ago.

Google’s advice on the optimal time to book a Christmas flight to San Francisco. GOOGLE FLIGHTS

Basics of Google Flights

How to perform a basic flight search

First, you’ll want to navigate to Google Flights.

GOOGLE FLIGHTS

The toolbar has additional features for trips, including things to do, hotels, vacation rentals and a shortcut to a cool tool called “Explore.” However, we’ll focus on using the tool to book flights for now.

All of the fields and drop-down menus on this page are relatively easy to decipher:

  • Departure (where you want to fly from)
  • Destination (where you want to fly to)
  • Date(s) of travel
  • Round-trip flights, one-way flights or multicity trips
  • The number of passengers (but here’s why you should search for a single ticket, even if you’re traveling in a group)
  • Ticket class: economy, premium economy, business class or first class

If you know where you’re going and when you want to be there, all you have to do is plug in that information and hit the blue search button.

For example, here are all the options I see when I search for flights from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) to San Francisco International Airport (SFO). You can search by destination or by airport code.

GOOGLE FLIGHTS

Note that Google automatically displays what it considers the best departing flights based on a combination of factors, such as price, the convenience of routing, the number of stops and the travel time. Of course, these may or may not be the best flights for you.

In this case, there are hundreds of options to choose from.

GOOGLE FLIGHTS

For this example, I chose to book an American Airlines flight on my outbound trip.

The cheapest option is sometimes to fly the return on a different carrier. However, Google Flights clearly indicates there will be two tickets purchased separately.

Often, Google will suggest remaining on the same carrier for both legs. In this instance, one of the flights was on JetBlue.

GOOGLE FLIGHTS

There are all kinds of ways to filter your searches. We’ll get a bit more into that below.

GOOGLE FLIGHTS

Once you’ve found the flight you want, you have the option to book directly with American Airlines. Google will give you several options for the type of ticket you want to purchase, including basic economy, refundable and other types of fares.

GOOGLE FLIGHTS

Clicking that link would take me to American’s website, with these flights and prices already selected. There, I could enter my passenger details and loyalty number, select a seat and pay for the ticket.

All elite perks and other loyalty benefits are honored on flights booked directly on the airline website via Google Flights. However, if you are booking via a third-party site, that may not be the case. It pays to make sure you book directly with the airline if possible.

In this example, the cheapest option is for mixed tickets with multiple stops. Most people are not going to want to take that option. It involves booking through a third-party website with tickets on different airlines and multiple flights and layovers. No thanks.

GOOGLE FLIGHTS

Related: 9 things to consider when choosing to book via a portal vs. booking directly

Below is an example of Google Flights’ handy historical price guide, which shows whether the fare you found is low, high or near the average price for flights on this route.

I can see the flights were more than $600 a few months ago, and my $442 fare was considered low. Given how expensive airfare generally is these days, I was happy enough with that.

GOOGLE FLIGHTS

The bottom of this screenshot also shows the options available at the bottom of each Google Flights page, where you can select your preferred language from a drop-down menu. You can also customize your location and preferred currency for easy conversion.

Search by specific times of day

Say you want to take a weekend trip away. You need both flights to be outside business hours but not too late in the evening, as you don’t want to land in the middle of the night.

Google Flights has a handy filter we use to make sure the flights are exactly when we want them. No matter how inexpensive that 6 a.m. flight may be, a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call rarely feels worth it.

So, you can set the search results to only show flights departing and arriving within your chosen specific time range.

GOOGLE FLIGHTS

See how many bags you can bring on board

In the same series of buttons below your Google Flight search, click on the “Bags” button to specify how many pieces of luggage you want to bring on board with you.

This selection may greatly limit your search results — or drive up your price options — so be prepared to change it if necessary.

bag optionsbag options
GOOGLE FLIGHTS

Nonstop, one-stop or any flight will do?

Similarly, you can filter flights by the number of stops along the way. You might be the glutton for punishment who longs for a 50-plus-hour flight with multiple layovers. You can do that if you so desire.

However, if you want to minimize the chance of delays or disruptions, have a family to rush back to or just want a shorter flight, nonstop is your friend. Headed overseas? The usual sweet spot between price and comfort will be a one-stop flight.

stop optionsstop options
GOOGLE FLIGHTS

Search for flights from your preferred airline or alliance

If you don’t fly often, the operating airline may not matter to you as much as the price does.

However, if you’ve begun accumulating miles and status with a specific carrier, it can be addictive to stick with that carrier and program. The exclusive benefits of elite status can be exhilarating, and there’s nothing more exciting than booking your first award flight — especially if you know you got an amazing deal.

Related: What are airline alliances, and who’s in them?

With filtered airline search results, Google can help you keep that momentum going. Use the button under the search results to filter out unwanted airlines or select specific airline alliances you want to patronize. Or, turn off the “Select all airlines” option and manually select the carriers you want to choose from.

Whether booking with cash or points, you may want to stick with one program to maximize mileage earning or status. For example, if I were trying to hit Diamond on Delta Air Lines, I would search only for Delta flights.

Google Flights results from selecting one airline only. GOOGLE FLIGHTS

You can also pick airline alliances like Oneworld and SkyTeam to ensure you travel on your preferred airline or its partners. In my case, I would select SkyTeam.

Selecting airline and airline alliance only. GOOGLE FLIGHTS

Connecting flights

You can also decide if you want to fly nonstop or choose how many stops you are willing to make. You can even choose the connecting airport.

Especially with international flights, some airports are better to connect in than others. Helsinki Airport (HEL) is lovely. Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) and Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (AMS) can be challenging, even if you are an experienced traveler.

Related: What are the best European airports to connect in?

If you have a range of options to travel from New York to Rome Fiumicino Leonardo da Vinci Airport (FCO) with a choice of connecting airports, you can filter the results to only show the airports you want to connect through.

GOOGLE FLIGHTS

You can also choose how long you would like your layover to extend. You might want to keep it short to reach your destination as quickly as possible. Or, you may prefer a long layover to allow for some buffer time in the event of delays.

Related: How to plan a free stopover on your next trip abroad

Score the best legroom and other seat amenities

Delta’s coach cabin. CLINT HENDERSON/THE POINTS GUY

Don’t you hate boarding a flight to find your knees touching the back of the seat in front of you? Fortunately, Google Flights has a feature that will show you the legroom you can expect on your next flight before you have purchased the seat.

Legroom can differ noticeably from carrier to carrier, aircraft type to aircraft type. From the search results below, you can see that Spirit Airlines’ is below the industry average at 28 inches, while JetBlue’s is above average at 32 inches.

If you value legroom, this means the JetBlue option will have 4 inches more legroom than Spirit.

In coach seating terms, that’s a lot.

GOOGLE FLIGHTS

Along with legroom, Google Flights will also indicate if Wi-Fi is scheduled to be available on your flight (and if it is free or available at a cost), if the plane has in-seat charging options, and if the flight offers entertainment like live TV or options to stream to your personal device.

On a flight longer than five hours, your devices may run out of juice. So, again, you may want to choose the product that best suits your needs rather than selecting a flight based entirely on price or carrier.

Know your emissions

With sustainability becoming an increasingly important topic in travel, Google Flights will let you know the approximate carbon emissions for your flight based on the route, aircraft type and seating classes.

Below are the search results for a flight from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to Tokyo’s Narita International Airport (NRT). United Airlines operates a fuel-efficient Boeing 787 on this route, which would produce a lower-than-average 734 kilograms of carbon dioxide.

However, the Singapore Airlines flight uses a less fuel-efficient (and larger) Boeing 777 aircraft that produces a higher-than-average 1,163 kilograms of carbon dioxide.

You can even filter your search results only to show lower-emissions flight options.

GOOGLE FLIGHTS

How to search by cheapest dates

Let’s say I want to get from JFK to LAX in September, but I’m not tied to any specific dates. Google Flights can help me find the best possible prices for that trip.

On the search page, I can see the lowest price for that particular day if I click on the calendar icon. Prices listed in green represent the lowest price available across all current dates, while the days highlighted in blue show which dates I’ve selected.

GOOGLE FLIGHTS

Another way to view the cheapest dates is to click the date grid option. This will again show the cheapest dates in green, and you can easily line up different outbound and inbound options to see if the cheapest dates work for you.

GOOGLE FLIGHTS

You’ll often find that the cheapest flight isn’t necessarily the best or most convenient route. Google will show you those lowest prices but prioritize better routes before it.

In this example, Google Flights prioritizes slightly higher fares as the “best flights” search results because they include a full-size carry-on bag.

GOOGLE FLIGHTS

How to set a pricing alert for yourself

After all that diligent work, give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve likely found the best option for you.

Some people are ready to book immediately, but most of us might need a day or two to solidify our plans with our fellow travelers or with work. Never fear: Google will help you track your flight and even tell you when the price goes up or down.

GOOGLE FLIGHTS

Immediately above your search results, a little toggle reads “Track prices” (boxed in green in the screenshot above).

Click on that — and log in to your Google account if necessary — and Google Flights will send updated pricing alerts directly into your inbox.

If you have booked a refundable or changeable fare, you may want to switch this on even after you’ve booked. You will be alerted if the price goes up or down, so you can feel comfortable knowing you are getting the best deal. You can see part of my list of flights I’m currently tracking in the screenshot below.

Tracking prices with Google Flights. GOOGLE FLIGHTS

Related: How to avoid airline change and cancellation fees

How to search multiple airports at once

Sometimes, you’re willing to land or depart a bit farther away in order to find a better flight deal. Google Flights can help reward that flexibility. In fact, you can enter as many as five departure or arrival airports on Google Flights.

Let’s say you live in New York City, where you have three major airports from which to choose. You want to fly to Southern California, which is easily accessible from multiple airports as well.

There are two ways to run this search:

  • Type in your city name and let Google offer suggestions: This works for many major metro areas. As soon as I type in New York, I see several of the major airports: Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR), LaGuardia Airport (LGA) and JFK. Sometimes, you’ll even see New York Stewart International Airport (SWF) in Newburgh, about 60 miles north of Manhattan, as an option.
  • Manually type in your airport codes or names: Some cities won’t show you all the logical potential airports. For Southern California, you will have to manually type in the names or codes of each airport in the area for some searches. (Don’t forget San Diego International Airport [SAN] as a potential option.)
GOOGLE FLIGHTS

You can open a separate browser tab and look up local airports by name. Or, if you’re a pro and know the codes, you can type them directly into the destination airport search field (i.e., LAX, SNA, BUR, ONT). Then, hit the blue check to run the search.

Voila: The cheapest option for March 18-25 is taking a nonstop, round-trip flight from EWR to LAX for $258 in United basic economy.

Google Flights search results for New York to LA. GOOGLE FLIGHTS

How to check for carry-on bag policies

I don’t care what anyone says: Low-cost carriers can be fantastic for finding great deals.

However, if you’re a heavy packer, you’ll need to plan ahead. Many airlines cut costs by charging extra for bags. You’re used to this with major airlines, but some ultra-low-cost airlines will even charge you for carry-ons larger than a backpack or a purse.

It can be difficult to track which airlines charge what, but Google Flights can also help with that.

Basic economy flights will show on the search results page, with the little “no luggage” icon next to the $247 price tag in green.

GOOGLE FLIGHTS

When I click through to the final booking page, Google will remind me again that I’m booking a basic economy flight; it’ll show my current price and its limitations while also displaying economy and first-class booking options next to it.

Basic economy warning on Google Flights. GOOGLE FLIGHTS

Remember: Google Flights doesn’t work with Southwest Airlines

One important caveat: You might wonder why you don’t see any Southwest flights on Google Flights.

Well, you might see them, like with this search result for Austin to Las Vegas:

GOOGLE FLIGHTS

However, Southwest doesn’t allow other travel platforms to book flights with the airline — it wants to control its passengers’ booking process completely. So, if you’re a Southwest fan, check the airline’s website or app for price comparison before you book with another carrier through Google Flights.

Organize your travel

There’s a “Travel” button on the toolbar of Google Flights.

It will display the travel you have already booked. When you click on the trip, it neatly shows travel booked through your Google account, such as those reservation emails sent to a Gmail account.

GOOGLE FLIGHTS

It will also show “potential trips.” This is where you may have been searching Google Flights for a particular destination but have not yet bought the ticket. Additionally, it will provide suggestions based on what destinations you’ve Googled in general.

Perhaps you have searched for “When is the best time to visit Hawaii?” Google Flights may show you suggestions to help you continue planning that trip.

Finally, the “Travel” button will suggest trips you might consider taking based on upcoming trips you have booked or trips you’ve taken in the past.

For example, if you’ve been to Melbourne, Australia, it may show options to visit Sydney.

Related: The best ways to use points and miles to fly from the US to Australia

GOOGLE FLIGHTS

How to find the best getaway deal

This function is similar to the previous tip but focuses on another aspect of your search. Start by clicking the “Explore” button on the toolbar.

If you know you want to get away on specific dates — let’s say the second week of October — but don’t have a specific destination in mind, use Google’s open-ended search functionality to find good flight deals within your window of availability.

In the example below, I picked a long weekend in October and set my hometown of New York as my departure airport. Instead of specifying a destination, I just left it open-ended. You can give Google a hint by typing “Europe” or “Caribbean” to narrow your search results to a specific region.

Related: 9 awesome features you didn’t know about in Google Flights

GOOGLE FLIGHTS

If I zoom in closer on the map, the system recalibrates and shows me more destinations and price points within the updated map view.

GOOGLE FLIGHTS

If I zoom way out for a world view, I’ll see the best-priced destinations of note across the globe.

GOOGLE FLIGHTS

I can also force the algorithm to show me price points for a specific region.

For example, the world map above doesn’t show me many deals for Australia, South America or Africa. However, if I zoom in on Africa, I see more than half a dozen options on the continent and more than a dozen in “surrounding” areas.

GOOGLE FLIGHTS

Related: Safaris, cities and lots of elephants: How I returned to South Africa using points, miles and cash

Bottom line

Google Flights is an incredibly powerful tool the TPG team uses daily to price airfare. It can help you quickly find the best flights for your travel, but it can also track prices and let you know if you are getting a good deal. It can also help you plan trips and find hotels and activities.

It’s one of my favorite tools to find deals and new places to visit. Add it to your travel toolbox. I promise it will become one of your favorites, too.

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