We are big fans of travel agents. Some of our best friends are travel agents, and we find their services indispensible under many circumstances. If you don’t like the old-fashioned image of a travel agent, think of them as a wedding planner for your trip. There. Feel better now?
Still, there are times when you just want to do it yourself, and the number of options you’d actually want to try recently increased by one. One very big one called Google Flights.
Call it just another way that search engines have disrupted travel forever and for good, but Google Flights has eclipsed an airline’s website (though they occasionally have some great deals, like United’s $99 London flight gaffe of a few weeks ago) and Twitter feed, an online travel agency like ExpedOrbitOcity, or even a much-loved aggregator of discounts like AirfareWatchdog as the best way to consistently find the best prices on flights.
You may not even know that Google Flights exists, because when you plow through the myriad Google options on your screen Google Flights doesn’t pop up right away. Even when you expand the list and scroll through seldom-used Googlebits like Keep and Code you don’t see Google Flights. That’s because it’s not there.
The way to find Google Flights is to enter the URL directly, like this: flights.google.com – or, if you prefer, google.com/flights. Once that happens, you get directed to a very Googly page with a couple of simple boxes that ask you for your departure date and airport (which is usually filled in with the airport closest to your physical location because, hey, Google knows that). You fill in the destination and immediately the images below the boxes turn into a calendar displaying the lowest fare for that date.
For flexible travelers, the implications are huge. Want to go from Central Wisconsin to Raleigh-Durham for the lowest possible fare? Leave April 27; as of this writing, the fare is only $295 roundtrip, which is an insanely low fare for Central Wisconsin, where $295 barely gets you out of the parking lot.
Spice things up a bit and the formula doesn’t change. Instead of the mundane Central Wisconsin-Raleigh, how about Chattanooga-China – Shanghai, let’s say? The process is the same. Put in the departure and arrival locations and the calendar populates with the lowest fare, with the lowest of the lowest indicated in green. Leave from Chattanooga on a Thursday and it’s only $980 to Shanghai in April.
Click on a date and you get flight details. Click on a flight and you choose outbound and inbound flights.
Once that’s done you can book directly, share your itinerary, or save it to get price alerts via Google Now (another lesser-known but useful planet in the Googleverse).
The process is incredibly easy and uncluttered. And because Google has applied its myriad secret superpowers to the process, the flight information is accurate and up-to-the-minute and the prices are as low as you can find on the web – as low as any aggregator. We know; we tested.
That’s not to say there aren’t lower prices, or that Google Flights is the be-all and end-all. Second-city ticketing may be cheaper in some instances, and there are always those non-web specials that fall outside of Googleland – but what airline runs non-web specials anymore?
Also, Google Flights is missing one big name: Southwest. But since Southwest already operates outside of the OTA sphere, it’s not as though Google Flights is lagging behind in any way.
And let’s not forget travel agents in the equation. As we mentioned in the open, travel agents can do an awful lot for you when your trip is more than just a there-and-back. In fact, you might not want to leave home without them.
Finally, as good as Google is on flights it’s not quite as good on hotels. Google Hotels doesn’t account for the modern panoply of lodging options, including airbnb, and it gets beaten to the low-price punchline by last-minute booking apps like Hotel Tonight and the aptly named lastminute.com.
However, if you’re booking flights and flights alone and want the lowest prices on a consistent basis, Google Flights is the way to go. The only thing it doesn’t do for you is set you up with travel insurance. Fortunately, we can handle that right here.