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Nobody likes paying full price for airline tickets, but sometimes you don’t have a choice. Maybe there are no award seats available, or a trip comes up last minute. So how do you find the cheapest airfare without searching every airline individually?
Use Google Flights to find cheap airfare
Google Flights is a powerful airfare search engine, with it you can do so much more than just basic city to city searches. It allows you to search for cheap fares over entire regions and a wide range of dates at the same time.
You can also set price alerts and view airfare prices from your origin to cities across the entire map, all at once. If you’d like to learn how to set up a Google Flight price alert, check out this step-by-step guide.
Suppose you don’t have a destination in mind but want to see airfares from your city. Type in your city name and date range, and a map will come up with sample fares to various cities.
If the “Update results when map moves” feature is turned on (it’s on if it’s blue) then you can move around the map and zoom in or out to see prices to different cities.
And if your dates are flexible you have the option of viewing the best prices over a range of dates. Just click on the dates box, then select “Flexible dates” and you’ll be able to view prices for a weekend, one-week, or two-week trip for a specific month or an entire six month period.
I love using this feature to search for cheap flights to an entire continent because my travel dates are usually flexible. And once you get to Europe or Asia it’s easy to find cheap flights to your final destination.
To see flights to a specific city, just click on that city.
After that, click “View flights” and you’ll be brought to the standard Google Flights search. Here you can filter the results by the number of stops, specific airlines or alliances, departure or arrival time, and connecting airports.
A really handy feature is that you can even add the number of carry-on bags you plan to carry to your search. So if the airline charges extra for a carry-on, it will already be factored into the price. Given that most airlines have Basic Economy fares, which usually don’t include the price of a carry-on, this will give you a better idea of which ticket is actually the cheapest.
You can choose the departure and return flights you want and then you’ll be given the option to buy the flight from a number of different sites.
One thing to be aware of when you’re booking your flight is that some credit cards award bonus miles or points for airfare, but that there are some restrictions when it comes to earning these bonuses.
For example, with The Platinum Card® from American Express, you can earn 5 AMEX Membership Rewards points per dollar on airfare if it’s purchased directly with the airline or through the AMEX travel site ($550 annual fee; see rates and fees). So purchases on other third-party sites, like Priceline or Orbitz, won’t earn bonus points.
Most of the best travel credit cards that earn bonus points on airfare or travel purchases don’t have such specifics restrictions. But be sure to double check so you don’t you miss out on your rewards.
Know if you’re getting a deal & separate ticket searches
Google’s basic flight search has all of the standard features you’d expect, with a few extra bells and whistles that can help you find the best deals.
For example, when you search for flights there is a box at the bottom of the page that will tell you how the current prices you’re seeing compare to what that specific flight normally costs. In this example, for a flight to Amsterdam, the price is what Google would expect – not a bad deal or an exceptional deal.
Google looks at airfare prices for the previous 12 months to your destination (and dates) to determine what they expect the price to be.
You can also potentially save money by purchasing separate tickets on different airlines to your final destination. The potential drawback of this is that if you need to cancel or make changes you’ll have to pay the change or cancellation fees twice. But Google Flights allows you to search for or hide separate ticket itineraries.
Lots of ways to compare prices
Google Flights has several different ways for you to quickly compare prices on different dates, times, and from different airports.
Once you enter a city pair in the search you can easily scroll through the calendar to see the cheapest prices. Just click on the arrows on the left and right to see different months. If you’re searching one-way, the calendar will populate with every single day (amazing!), allowing those with flexible schedules to easily find the cheapest route.
The calendar responds similarly when searching for round-trip flights, though it can be quirky. Before you select the outbound date, the calendar will show you a price that generally (but not always) represents the cheapest round-trip you can book when departing on that specific day. After you choose your outbound flight, the calendar will immediately reflect round-trip prices based on your return date. The “immediately” part is what makes this tool so amazing.
You can also compare prices using a grid of dates. Just click on “Date grid” (see example below) where you enter your search information.
Then a price grid will pop up. It gives you a very search-friendly graph with departure dates at the top and return dates on the left. It’s a lot of numbers at once, so Google even colors the cheap prices in green to help save you from eye fatigue.
This is only really useful for round-trip tickets. As I said earlier, searching for return flights with the Google calendar can be a little quirky, as the initial price displayed can skyrocket or plummet depending on your return date. You won’t get phantom prices when you use this method.
You can also view a price graph, which shows you prices from the side. The higher the fare, the taller the bar. Enter the length of your trip, and you’ll immediately see just how cheap your price is compared to surrounding dates. It’s not a critical tool, in my mind, but it’s fun. Everyone assimilates information differently, and Google gives you plenty of avenues.
You can even view prices from alternate departure or arrival airports. This is handy for havens of commerce, like New York or Dallas — really anywhere that’s served by multiple airports.
For example, if you want to fly to San Francisco (SFO), you may not know that you can also fly into Oakland (OAK) or San Jose (SJC). They may add moderate inconvenience to your trip, as you’ll be a bit farther from your destination, but the price may also be significantly lower. This feature will let you see which airports are nearby, and show you how far it’ll be from your desired location.
Here’s a shot of the New York area. You can fly to New York-JFK, LaGuardia, or Newark
As always, the key to finding the best deals is to be as flexible as possible. But even if you have a rigid schedule, Google Flights can quickly and easily help you locate the best prices for flights that work for you.
If you get stuck
, you can get help through the Google Flight support page.
Drawbacks and limitations
Google Flights is just a search tool. You can’t book directly on the site. But the site searches very quickly, so even though you have to book elsewhere you’ll still save time.
One downside is that you can’t search for Southwest flights, because Southwest prefers you search through their website directly. This is a big deal for anyone with a Southwest Companion Pass. So don’t forget to try your search on the Southwest website, too.
If you want to be sure that you’re comparing the prices for every flight to your destination, a good trick to look up your destination’s airport on Wikipedia.
For example, let’s say I want to find a flight to Columbus. I can pull up the Wikipedia page for its airport, John Glenn Columbus International Airport, and scroll down to see a list of airlines that serve it.
Once you know what airlines fly to your destination you can double check the prices for any that might not show up on Google Flights. Although, as far as I know, Southwest is the only major airline that is specifically blocked on Google Flights. If you know of any others, let me know in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.
Google Flights is a great tool for finding the cheapest airfares. It’s fast and you can customize your search by using filters to narrow down your results.
But Southwest flights are not included in Google Flights searches. So if you were planning on taking advantage of your Southwest Companion Pass or using Southwest to connect to a larger airport where you can find cheaper international flights, then you’ll need to be sure to search Southwest’s site directly.
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For rates and fees of the Amex Platinum card , click here.