Google’s air-travel resource, Google Flights, is all about giving you a deep, but streamlined dive into airline pricing. And it’s probably going to save you money, whether you set out to do that or not.
Recently, the tech giant has been adding features to Google Flights, such as predictive delays and the low-cost basic economy fares that airlines now offer. The site’s greatest asset is its simplicity of design and transparency of information. If you want to see the full spectrum of air-travel prices, dates, and options, you need to use this resource.
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Testing Out Google Flights
To test it, I searched for what I knew would be a high-cost airfare: flights to and from Louisville, Kentucky around the first Saturday in May, during the weekend of the Kentucky Derby.
Airfare for these flights increases dramatically, especially on the Thursday and Sunday surrounding Derby Day, because of the intense demand for thoroughbred horse racing’s most popular event. Many race fans want to arrive at least on Thursday in order to see Friday’s marquee race, the Kentucky Oaks — the prestigious race for 3-year-old female horses, or fillies. Then on Sunday, following Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, there’s a mass exodus of the tired, hungover, and broke.
When I searched Google Flight in late March for a Thursday flight with a Sunday return, the starting price of a round-trip ticket from New York City, with a connection in Boston, was $696; a nonstop flight cost $820.
To compare these findings to what the airlines offered, I plugged the same dates into United.com. The only flight that cost less than $2,000 was one for $1,167 that meant an arrival in Louisville just after midnight.
The lowest price on Google Flights was for a Delta flight, so I tried searching the airline’s own site. Initially the $696 flight appeared, but it inexplicably vanished while I was on the site, and the lowest price became $748. The cheapest airfare I could find for a nonstop Delta flight that cost $909.
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The Benefits of Google Flights
One advantage that Google Flights provides is the easy ability to explore price variations: Four boxes — “Dates,” “Price Graph,” “Airports,” and “Tips” — are lined up in a neat row right under your search criteria.
The “Dates” data is in an easy-to-read chart that shows you the lowest prices on the dates surrounding the ones you searched for. On the Wednesday before the Derby, for example, flights start at $621. And I discovered that you can save about $300 by returning on Monday.
What you’ll learn from the “Price Graph” is that Derby weekend is clearly the most expensive time of year for a flight: Prices are as much as double what they usually are. That information doesn’t really help much in this case, but it could help you find low fares to Louisville on the other 51 weekends of the year.
The best feature is the “Airports” box, which allows you to investigate other destinations and potentially make your trip a bit more interesting.
The cost of the same Thursday to Sunday trip from New York City can be cut to about $425 by using the Cincinnati airport, or to $400 to and from Indianapolis.
Of course, an alternate airport could mean an added rental car cost. And staying an extra day or two amounts to money spent on a hotel. Google Flights does not link hotels and cars into packages, but if you search Google for hotels in a specific city, it will now give you pricing information that can help you avoid weekends when prices are higher due to special events.
The only fail on Google Flights is the “Tips” box. It offered a travel guide to Louisville and tips for finding good first-class seats. Whatever.
The main win is that Google Flights is a far superior experience to digging through the cluttered design of Expedia and Travelocity, where you're bombarded with ads and promotions. If you want all that, for whatever reason, go for it. But if you want cleanly presented data, Google Flights has created a smooth interface that is blissfully clutter-free. The only logos you’ll see are the airlines’ — and Google’s.