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How to Use Google Flights to Find Cheap Flights
- Jonathan Chum
Google Flights launched in 2011, but before that, only a handful of online travel agencies existed when it comes to finding flight deals such as Kayak, Tripadvisor, Travelocity, and Expedia.
Today, Google Flights have expanded beyond just finding cheap flights deals, but have ventured under vacation packages and hotels.
This umbrella of product offerings was refreshed in late 2019 as "Google Travel" under the URL, google.com/travel to manage all your trip planning needs.
In this travel guide on how to use Google Flights, we will break down each feature Google Travel so you can find cheap flight deals exactly the way we do it for our tool, Cheep.
We'll uncover some additional features of Google Travel from recommendations to restaurants so you can start planning your own custom trip.
What Is Google Flights?
Google Flights is NOT an online travel agent (OTA) like Orbitz or Expedia.
You cannot book flights through Google and expect Google to manage your tickets.
In April 2011, Google purchase ITA Software for $700 million dollars. ITA was well known by expert travel hackers for its tool, matrix.itasoftware.com
ITA's Matrix was a real-time, comprehensive tool for finding fares across many international airlines.
The monthly view was where it shined making it easy to find and score a great flight deal.
The problem with ITA is because it's a real-time search engine, it took on average between 5 to 10 seconds to return fare details on a route.
After Google made the purchase, they launch on September 13, 2011, Google Flights that fed into this massive database and technology that ITA's intellectual property provide.
Today, those insights powers Google Flights and allows anyone to search and flights and get results quickly.
How To Use Google Flights
Google Flights Really Shines In A Few Key Areas:
- Crazy fast search results: Unlike other online travel agencies like Kayak, Google Flights shines because the search results returns in less than a second. This means you can search for more flights at a time.
- Calendar or monthly view: The simplicity of Google Flight's monthly view allows you to see if the fare you found is the cheapest or if there is a better time to book.
- Multiple origin and destination airport searches: Because you can enter up to 7 in any direction, you can expand your search in a single step. If you live in the San Francisco Bay area, you have access to San Francisco International Airport, Oakland International, and San Jose International. Or for New York area, you have LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy, or Newark international airports. And you could then enter up to 7 airports as your destination for maximum flexibilty.
- World or map search: When Google Flights launched, they launched with the map view. This is great if you have wanderlust in your blood and want to get out of dodge, and go anywhere that is cheap. This is perfect if you are at lost of where to go but keen to explore places you had not thought of without breaking the bank.
Google Flights Drawbacks:
- Doesn't always have the lowest fares: Recently, Google Flights have expanded beyond just searching on airlines, but also some online travel agencies such as Expedia and Orbitz. This means, sometimes, these online travel agency might have a cheaper price than reflected on Google Flights.
- Google Flights is not comprehensive: Some airlines bars Google Flights from scraping or hooking into their flight inventory. This means, you have to go straight to the source like Southwest to find fares.
- Fares changes after you click off to book: There is a trade off being fast to return search results vs being accurate. Think of all the permutations it takes to search 100 airports to fly from to and another 100 airports to fly to. That's 10,000 routes. Take 10,000 routes and permutate that over 30 days in a month increases to 300,000 or 3.6M routes in a given year. There's more than 100 airports in just the domestic space alone. As fare prices can update between 4-6 times a day through a GDS feed, that means Google would have to update 3.6M routes 4 to 6 times a day while balancing the act of keeping data fresh. The result is that fares on Google Flights will become "stale" as it pulls the data from its internal cache to get your results quick but meantime, those fare prices have already changed in real-time. Those in the travel industry calls this "ghosting" when its really a technical limitation of real-time fare searches vs cached search results.
The New Google Flights Features
Google Flights Price Guarantee
Because Google Flights focused on returning results in under 1 second, it is technically impossible to stay on top of price changes across hundreds of thousands of routes around the world, across thousands of date ranges, hundreds of airlines, and systems.
This is the by the far the biggest complaint cheap fare seekers using Google Flights encounter and often time will go to a competitor such as Kayak or Orbitz to book flights because the price fluxuations are guaranteed.
Online Travel Agencies or OTAs faces the same problem:
- They are a meta search engines and results are slow as they mix both real-time and cached fares to balance an optimal experience to return fare search results quickly. Cached fares are fares stored into a central database in a single point of time. As soon as they are saved, they begin to "age" and become stale as price changes. By having this single snapshot, consumers can get results they are looking for, but at the trade off these fare prices are no longer the same price.
- OTAs because they book the fare on your behalf, they have internal algorithms that will attempt to book the fare and eat the costs of the price changes that ultimately, they can offer price guarantee and remain profitable on overall bookings through their platform.
Google Flight's Price Guarantee debut around September 19, 2019 for specific routes and destinations.
The problem they are solving isn't with price changes when you book on the airline's site, but what happens after you book the fare and the price drops.
When they believe they can manage the price fluctuation, they display a" price guarantee badge".
After booking, Google will continue to monitor the price and if the fare drops, they'll send you a refund of the difference in cash.
Price guarantee pays you the difference between the flight price when you book and the lowest ticket price. To get money back, the price difference must be greater than 500 back in total for all of the flights you book with Google price guarantee.
Google's travel app, Trips shut down on August 5, 2019.
This is an attempt to streamline their travel-related products, mobile Google Trips app, Google Flights, Google hotels searches, and more --- under one umbrella or landing page called "Trips"
Now when you visit google.com/travel, the first thing you can do is start planning your trip.
When you first land on the page, you are greeted with one call to action in the middle of the page to "Search for flights, hotels, and more". Here, this search box is where Google can start analyzing your query intent and start the process of planning your trip.
Let's assume you are interested in planning a trip to Rome. The auto complete will try to guide your general search intent of the city, "Rome" into more specific plan of finding a flight, hotel, or info about the location.
If you aren't sure yet and want to learn more about the Capital of Italy, you can click on the first menu item in the auto complete dropdown to open the travel guide about Rome.
Google will then display user generated content of images of Rome, some information about the city, things to-do, suggested day plans, planning trip, when to visit, travel videos, itineraries of actual visits, or other places nearby to explore.
You can switch from the "Travel Guide" view into "Day Plans" by clicking on the tab to explore some sample ideas of what to see and a nifty Google Maps will display outlining the paths so you can sight see.
You can then click on any of the itineraries to break down how much time to spend at each location, and the distance to walk or drive between each destination.
How To Use Google Flights
If you chose Flights from the Trips Dropdown, Trip will redirect you to the Google Flights Tool.
You can also reach Flights by clicking on the "Flights" menu button in the left hand rail.
The easiest way to use Google Flights to find really cheap air are is their exploration feature.
If you are flexible and don't have specific places or dates in mind, this is a good place to start with.
It will first surface a few ideas like Las Vegas, New York, Los Angeles, etc.
Let's say you were interested in visiting New York and wasn’t sure what to do there, ideas of itineraries when you get there, the weather, or simply some travel video content to spark up interest.
For more advanced users to use Google Flights Explore is to go to search box, and enter your origin airports.
Leave everything as-is and click the search button would return domestic travel deals.
This turns into a map view and highlights places on the map and its prices.
At a glance, you can see a plethora of places that it considers the "cheapest" fare for those dates you chose.
Another way to use Google Flights Explore is to search across the entire month or 1 week, 2 weeks, or weekend travel for a better price.
All you need to do is click on one of the date fields and select the "Flexible Dates" tab.
And now, Google Flights returns cheapest flights it found lightning fast.
When you click on a city, you can see the flights and then click "View Flights" button again to see all the flights.
How To Use Price Graph on Google Flights
One of key areas of many flight search is to understand how cheap was the fare you find relative to the rest of the year.
All you need to do is click "Price graph" on any flight search result page.
A modal will popup so you can look at a glance forward or backward based on the search parameters you entered into Google Flights.
Another to find a deal is loosen up on how many days you want to travel for and instead search based on a permutation that Google Flights had previous search and indexed on.
You can do this by clicking on "Dates" in the modal.
Here, we can see that 240. But if you look at the dates, it departs on August 18 and returns on August 19. Not ideal.
Using the Departure and Return arrows, we can try to find something better.
How To Add Nearby Airports in Google Flights
Finding cheap fares means being flexible. In the San Francisco, Bay Area or New York City, there are 3 major international airports you could fly out of.
You can also target to fly into other airports near by. For example, if you were interested in flying to Miami, your first instinct would be to fly directly into MIA international airport. But did you know that Ft Lauderdale which is about 20 mins north of Miami is bigger and handles more flights?
With more inbound flights and better efficiency, near by airports can offer better deals.
You can click on the "Airports" tab to select more near by airports.
How To Track Google Flights
To use Google Flights, Google offer an intuitive way to track price changes.
How To Set Google Flight Alerts
If you cannot find a screaming deal, don't worry. Fares are published and changes 4-6 times a day.
Most fare finders will set a Google's Flight Alerts.
Once you set you have set your departure and arrival airports along with dates, you can toggle "Track Prices" radio option to begin tracking when the fare drops.
How to Get Google Flight Alerts
All alerts then are tracked in the pull out navigation under "Tracked flight prices"
And you can get alerts to your email as the prices changes.
In the example below, we know that any flight from the domestic U.S. to S.E. Asia should be under $500.
And the dates I was looking for indeed dropped in price 48 days ago.
How To Know If You Are Getting A Good Deal On Google Flights
On every search result page of a Google Flights search is a section that identifies if the fare is a good deal.
Green is a good deal, orange is typical, and red is an expensive fare.
Here, we can see that $257 is typical.
And you can click on "View Price History" just to verify how often does the price drop into the green zone signifying that it would come down again.
We can see that the fare that Google Flights found dropped below $190 from San Francisco to New York which is a screaming great deal.
Here at Cheep, we don't publish fares for the sake that its below average.
Instead, we look at the cost per mile of the cheapest fare. Based on our experience, the best deals that anyone should look to book is when its under < 6 cents per mile (CPM).
Of course this calculation may not always hold true if there are multiple stops that increases the distance or time.
So we also weight in both length of time, # of layovers, and class comfort of the fare before publishing.
What Is A Great Flight Deal For International Travel from United States or Canada?
Calculating the cost per mile can be cumbersome. We've come up with some general guidelines for fares originating from the domestic U.S. to other continents.
- Africa: $800 or below roundtrip
- Asia: $500 or below roundtrip
- Australia: $800 or below roundtrip
- Caribbean: $300 or below roundtrip
- Central America: $300 or below roundtrip
- Europe: $500 or below roundtrip
- Hawaii: $400 or below roundtrip
- South America: $600 or below roundtrip
Ultimately, the cost per mile will give you the best metric for identifying if a fare is one you should act on immediately.
If you are booking a fare through an American carrier, note the FAA allows carriers to offer a remorse period of 24 hours for a full refund.
So if you do see a fare that is too good to refuse, book it, then decide within the 24 hours to cancel it before the fare is gone.
What Is Basic Economy Fares
Basic economy is a fare that restricts or limits what amenities you get and is different between each airline.
Airlines are incentivizing passengers to fly for a lower ticket price in exchange for giving up these amenities.
Does this mean you sit in a different cabin? No, generally you are seated along with those purchase regular economy or coach class tickets.
The trade off is your last to board, cannot get assigned seating, no carry on unless the one personal bag you have can fit under the seat in front of you.
Some other names for basic economy are "Economy Light", "Saver Fare", "Economy Basic", "Grab & Go", and "Bare Fare".
Airlines come up with these marketing names that can be quite confusing when booking.
So make sure to read the fine print before booking any ticket.
How To Identify Basic Economy Flight Deals
To find a basic economy flight deal, click "Bags" and make sure both carry on and checked in bags are 0.
Why would you fly on a basic economy? A trip from the San Francisco to Las Vegas is about 1 hour 40 mins.
You might want to go for just a quick trip at the tables, no sleep, and come back the next day.
So all you may not need to pack anything for a quickie. Just the clothes you are wearing and you are set.
How To Filter Results In Google Flights
If you are lucky enough to live in a city with a major airline hub for United, American, or Delta, you may want to filter the results to the airline or alliance you have allegiance to get frequent flier miles.
Just click the "Airlines" to filter by airline or alliance to earn miles.
How To Change The Language On Google Flights
In the footer are button pills to navigate.
Tapping on "Language" button will open a modal so you can choose to see Google Flights in your local language.
How To Change To Your Local Currency On Google Flights
In the footer, click "Currency" button to open a modal to see the price in your local currency.
Note, there's a myth that you may find a better or cheaper flight when switching into another currency.
That is true, but it is not intentional to price gouge individuals living in the U.S. because of the strong USD.
The problem goes back to stale data. Due to how the system maybe caching data for 30 mins to an hour before it goes and update or just forex exchange rates, prices maybe different.
In our experience, the price difference is not much that you should spent time going back and forth with the currency exchange.
How To Book A Flight Using Google Flights
Once you pick departure and arrival airport along with dates, you'll notice that the Booking options directs you to book on another website. In this case, the tickets found for $228 was peace mailed together on two separate airlines or two bookings.
Making sure to read this when booking if you are used to one airline handling both the departure and return ticket.
Finding a great deal does mean to break up a trip and search 1 leg at a time. In this case, we saved $75 by boking through via two different airlines.
When you click the "Select" button, Google Flights will load up a modal presenting you a step-by-step instruction of what you need to do next --- book each ticket on each website, and how it came to determine the total cost of the fare of $228.
Clicking on each "VISIT SITE" button will launch into a new tab to begin the ticketing process.
Make sure you read all the restrictions as the airline will try to upsell you on this fare to Main Cabin which is "Economy". Same cabin, minus the perks including no refunds.
Google Flights is also expanding it's meta search capability and working with other online travel agencies.
In this same case, it suggests to book with Gotogate.
Gotogate you might be wondering who they are. They are an online travel agent.
Make sure you to do your research if you are unfamiliar with any online travel agent for reviews and/or fine print.
And always double check the price before booking.
How To Share A Google Flights Deal
If you found a great Google Flight deal and want to share with family or friends, in the top right corner is a share button. Click on it will launch tool tip with a few actions to copy the link into a SMS or post to your social media accounts.
How To Identify Legroom Space For a Flight
Many advanced users use a tool called SeatGuru which is now been acquired by Trip Advisor. It's easy to use. Just enter the airline, date of departure, and flight #, and it will give you all the details about the amenities of that flight.
First go back to the Google Flights Search Results and note the date of departure and flight #.
Here, it's departing on May 18 on AA 343
AA represents the American Airlines call sign and 343 represents the flight number.
Then open a tab and enter the information into seatguru.com
A link then is provided to the plane so you know what type of seat, if it reclines, if it's an emergency aisle (usually more leg room), proximity to the toilets, and more.
If you only care about leg room, there is a Chrome Extension you can install that overlays the meta information on top the results that identifies leg room.
This is what the search results look like before the extension,
And after you install the extension, you get this awesome column that identifies the amenities of this flight. Now you know if the plane is equipped with wifi, power outlets, type of plane, and legroom.
How To Book Hotels With Google Trip
After Google Flights was consolidated under Trips, it brought a new feature called "Hotels".
Booking hotels with Google is a lot like booking a flight. It's a bit more difficult knowing what is a good deal on a hotel as the only baseline is # of stars.
Similarly, you pick a destination, dates, guests, and filter on brand or stars to limit the results.
How To Book Packages With Google Trip
If you feel over whelmed on planning flights and hotels and determining if a flight deal is really a solid deal, you can hand over the reigns to Google with its "Packages" feature.
Packages makes it easy to plan a trip as they provide you with the fare and hotel.
You can choose any facet sort by ratings, meals, transfers, etc.
Most packages will normalize the cost down to 1 night stays so you can figure out if you want to stay for few days to a week.
Most of the packages are preconfigured and partnership with airlines or OTAs. In this example, we see this package was offer through American Airlines Vacation.
Travel should be fun process of exploring new places, new people that could into life long friends, new adventures, new foods to taste, and more.
Flexibility is key to making a trip happen.
Don't be married to a location just because you learned about it in history class or your friends/family traveled there before. Every individual experience is unique and make your trip your own.
Some of the best experiences are the road less traveled.
Trips to Italy or France are highly trafficked and is harder to come by because of demand. Where as you might discover the road less traveled just as fruitful or meaningful, and wont cost you an arm and leg.
We built "Cheep" to make travel fun and affordable.
Cheep cross checks over 120K domestic routes daily across the United States for fare deals so you don't have to.
We only publish fares that we'd book ourselves because it meets our requirements.