Flight Search Basics
There are plenty of options out there for searching flights, and different ones work better for different people… it’s definitely an area where learning what tools are available and how to best use them to your advantage goes a long way.
As for knowing exactly when and where you’ll find the absolute best prices; I don’t believe there’s any way to be sure, but I do believe some of this will help with your searches.
Most of the time I’m a one bag (carry-on only) traveler and looking to search prices all over the globe (because I want to go everywhere), so Google Flights options/filters are a great fit.
Not to say I don’t check others too, it’s just that I use Google Flights almost exclusively to start my search… and definitely recommend using search engines over online travel agencies (OTAs) like Expedia, Orbits, etc. when beginning a search. Search engines like Google Flights, Momondo, Kayak, etc. will typically pick up OTA prices, so I just don’t see the point in searching each one separately in the beginning.
Rewards, cashback, or special buys can make OTAs worth a look though, so do check them; that part just comes later for me.
I find that Hipmunk and SkyScanner can find really good prices, but since you need to know the destination on Hipmunk, and SkyScanner’s list results just don’t fit my style of search very well, I usually just use them as a sort of price check with the OTAs once I’ve narrowed the choices a little. So my favorites for starting the search are Momondo, Kayak, and the top of the list; Google Flights.
Side note; If you’re flying a Southwest route I do recommend searching them directly. Most of my flights are internationally, so I forget about them a lot.
You may have heard of “hacker” fares, they’ve been in the news a bit lately. This is when you book separate one way flights to make your trip, some OTAs and search engines will find them for you too. They can be very good, and worth the risk in some cases, but I personally try to book all in one purchase whenever possible. The thing is; when you book your tickets separately there’s just more to hassle with; check-ins, confirmation codes, and you’re also at higher risk of missing a connecting flight. So when you book all your flights in a single booking the airline(s) know where you are and when you’re supposed to be transferring. This way, if a delay happens they’ll know the details and be more likely to help. If you book separate flights and then miss a connector because the first flight was delayed, it’s not very likely the second airline is going to step up to take care of you; it really isn’t their problem. So just be careful and know what you’re buying into.
Another thing to consider is that airlines will give priority to tickets purchased directly from them. So I prefer going that route when the cost isn’t too great. Yes, I will actually spend a little more for this; just not too much.
Back to the actual searching… the preference for a map is simply being a visual person that likes to be a bit spontaneous with my travel. It’s a little like spinning a globe and getting to see prices while you do it. Start your search thinking warm weather and beaches; it’s easy to swing a map from Spain to Greece to Bali to Hawaii. Google Flights, Momondo and Kayak are all good for this.
Most sites have a way to look at dates close to your initial search to see if a minor adjustment could save you some cash too, so if you have any flexibility to your trip definitely take a look.
The next part will be focusing on my favorite parts to Google Flights, but know that a lot of these tools can be found on other sites too. It’s just that in my experience most aren’t available until you narrow your search to a particular destination, which kind of sucks for me. I’m looking to narrow a large field here and it takes certain filters to do that quickly.
Google flights lets you add any airports vs. the others just “nearby”.
A lot of prices are shown right on the map, if not just click on what catches your eye to see if the flights are reasonable.
Clearly I like the filters, but I do suggest easing into them a little so you don’t accidentally block something though.
It’s kind of a fine line, so get to know them and use them to your advantage or not at all.
One of the things I dread most about traveling is layovers. A few hours in a new airport can be fun (even more so if they have a good lounge I have access to), but too much time really wears on me. So I was stoked when I found that you can use Google Flights duration filter to reduce layover times before setting the destination. From what I’ve found the others only filter flight times after you select a destination.
Because I tend to find a lot 12+ hour layovers I’d rather have some control over them early on myself. It’s going to take what it’s going to take in the air; I just don’t want to be stuck overnight in an airport when I can help it.
A must for one bag travelers is the “bags” filter on Google, another one the others don’t currently let you do until you select the destination.
The duration and bags filters are the big two for me; because if a “deal” is going to tack on extra charges for a carry-on bag or stick me in an airport for 12+ hours; I’d rather not even see it.
The last one that Google allows you to choose before the destination and the others don’t is “Airlines” which can be great if you’re looking to use or earn miles.
There is one that seems common, and useful; this is “Stops”. I definitely like to limit the number of transfers, but at the same time it’s not really a major one for my initial search.
There’s really no getting around multiple stops for some destinations so it’s a factor I consider while narrowing things down.
When you’ve narrowed it down a bit you have the option to select “Email notifications” to track all flights for the dates or go a little further and watch specific flights.
To watch dates in Google Flights you’ll see a switch/tab on the first results page that will put the search in your “Tracked prices”. If you know the exact flights, select the departure and return you want to track and then just use the switch/tab you’ll see on the page right before selecting where to purchase. Around this time you might want to set watches on other sites too.
Once you feel the time is right and have gone back to some of the other sites you like/trust to see if they can dig up a better deal or booking perks you like best; lock it in and get to seriously evaluating accommodations.
My final suggestions; starting to looking early. Track some prices to see how they’re moving, there’s often quite a bit of fluctuation. If you know approximately when you want to take the trip Hopper can be useful for gauging where you should expect prices to be. I’ll usually track 3 or 4 destinations for weeks while narrowing the choices down with other factors like sights/attractions, accommodations, food, etc.
I hope this was useful to you and got you a little more prepared for the next adventure. Happy travels!