For some years now, whenever I’ve been planning air travel, I’d start with the Kayak app on the iPhone. (It’s fine on the iPad too, but just as the best camera is the one you have with you, the iPhone is the best travel planner for me, because it’s always in my pocket.) With Kayak, you can quickly specify where you’re flying from and to (with an option to check nearby airports), your travel dates, and how many people are in your party. Kayak then shows both outbound and return flights as groups, sorted by price, and lets you filter the results to eliminate trips with too many stops, or with awkward departure or arrival times. But setting up all these options, and fiddling with your dates, if you’re flexible and looking for inexpensive flights, gets fussy fast.
So when I ran across a mention of Google Flights, a service that’s been around since 2011 but that I hadn’t heard of before, I gave it a try. Frankly, it’s an impressive demonstration both of what companies can do when they truly understand big data, as Google obviously does, and when designers put a great deal of thought into a Web-based interface that works for the user proactively.
The base interface is familiar: you choose a round trip, one-way trip, or multi-city trip; set the class of ticket you want; and say how many tickets you need. Then it’s a matter of entering the cities you’re flying from and to, along with your preferred dates. Filter menus below the date picker let you restrict the results by number of stops, price, airline, departure and arrival time ranges, overall duration, and connecting airports.
But the niceties become evident quickly. For instance, I live in Ithaca, New York, and three nearby airports often have lower prices than the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport. Clicking the + button in the Departure Airport field reveals a helpful popup that lets me include those airports in the search, showing the best price at each for my dates, and how far away they are. You might already know all this for your home area, but Google Flights also provides the same nearby airport information and pricing for destinations, which you’re less likely to know. There’s nothing new about travel planning services checking nearby airports, but none I’ve seen does as good a job of highlighting lower prices.
Google Flights continues that highlighting in the Calendar view, where you pick departure and return dates. Airline pricing varies hugely depending on how long you stay and on which days you fly, but few travel planning services do more than check for alternatives within a day or two of dates you specify, and they seldom make it easy to see how pricing changes with dates.
In its Calendar view, once you enter a departure date, Google Flights shows the best fare in small type under each possible return date, coloring the best ones in green. A single click selects your departure date, and the next click selects your return date, but to explore the options for earlier departure dates, click the left-pointing arrow in that field. As you do, the best fares change on the fly as Google calculates the cascading effect that different dates have on the length of your stay.
Calendar view works well for me, but Google Flights also displays the same information in a Flexible Dates view. It offers a grid with departure dates running horizontally and return dates going vertically and the lowest fares highlighted in green. Depending on how you parse data, it may be a faster and more understandable way to zero in on the best combination of travel dates and fares.
The third and final date-related view in Google Flights is the Price Graph view, which shows the lowest fares for trips of different lengths, starting on different days. Honestly, this strikes me as the least useful view unless you’re planning a vacation where the dates are highly flexible and you want to optimize on price. But for us Type-A personalities who have to know we’re getting the best possible deal, the Price Graph view can provide some welcome reassurance.
Once you’ve settled on your dates, it’s time to pick outbound and return flights. The first thing to notice is that if you were working quickly and didn’t optimize your dates for the lowest possible fare, Google Flights tells you that you could get a notably lower fare by leaving on a different date.
After you’ve picked a flight based on all the other standard variables, like departure time, total flying time, number of stops, and arrival time, Google Flights provides a clean display of the times and stops. Notably, it also helpfully provides more detail about the actual airplanes you’ll be flying in. As you can see in the screenshot, short flights out of Ithaca never have Wi-Fi or in-seat power, but the longer hop from Detroit to San Francisco will have both, along with on-demand video. It even displays the average legroom.
When you’ve selected both your outbound and return flights, Google Flights gives you the options to book your tickets (which often requires sending you to the individual airline sites), save the itinerary so you can watch it for price changes, and share it. There’s nothing particularly innovative here, and it can be a shock to switch from the clean, smooth interface of Google Flights to the cluttered, awkward airline sites. I presume the airlines aren’t interested in giving Google unfettered access to their backend systems, much as it might be a win for the customer.
One caveat. After the initial publication of this article, several TidBITS readers weighed in with complaints about how Google Flights worked with international flights. I don’t have the experience or real-world opportunity to test such itineraries, but if you’re not in the United States, or are planning travel to other countries, take the Google Flights prices with a grain of salt until you can verify them on the airlines’ sites. As with all travel-planning services, Google Flights is only as good as its data, and nothing prevents you from trying Kayak or Expedia or Orbitz or any other competing service.
In the end, Google Flights isn’t revolutionary, but it offers such a compelling interface that it’s worth trying the next time you’re planning a trip.