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If you’ve been reading TPG for a while, you’ve probably seen us post a lot of great flight deals. TPG’s deal alerts offer an insider tip on great flight prices, whether you book in cash or points.
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Google Flights is one of our favorite tools for finding great cash flights. But if you’re relatively new, you might not be familiar with how Google Flights works. Never fear: Everyone has to start somewhere, even TPG’s travel experts — and we’re here to show you the ropes.
After you finish working through this guide, you’ll know everything we know.
Table of Contents
Google Flights 101: The basics
You’ve heard good things about Google Flights. But what, exactly, have you heard? Google’s flight-search tool can be as straightforward as its basic search engine. But like its search counterpart, Google Flights can also be as complex and powerful as you want it to, as long as you know the right tricks of the trade.
How to perform a basic search
First things first: Navigate yourself to www.google.com/flights. You can do this either on a computer or via your mobile web page. (Google Flights does not come in app form.)
When the page loads, you’ll be greeted with a cheery landing page in signature Google simplicity.
The left side bar has some additional features for trips, things to do, hotels and vacation rentals, but we’ll just focus on booking flights for now.
All of the fields and drop-down menus on this page are relatively easy to decipher:
- Departure airport
- Destination airport
- Date(s) of travel
- Round trip or one-way
- Number of passengers (here’s why you should search for a single ticket, even if you’re traveling in a group)
- Ticket class: Economy, premium economy, business class or first class
If you know where you’re going and when you want to be there, all you have to do is plug in that information and hit the blue search button. For example, here are all of the options I see when I search flights from New York’s JFK Airport to Los Angeles for March 18-25, 2021.
Note that Google automatically shows me the best departing flights based on a combination of factors including price, convenience of routing and time of travel. Under that module, I see a price tracker that shows me that my selected flight prices fall within the normal range for travel between Los Angeles and New York at this time of year.
Then beneath all of that, I see all the other flights that didn’t make the cut with Google’s ranking algorithm.
I’m happy with that first Alaska Airlines flight recommended under the “best flights” module, so I click on the entry to select my return flight.
This time, I’ve chosen to book an Alaska flight on my outbound trip, so Google prioritizes flights from the same airline for my return trip under the “best returning flights” module. I like mid-afternoon flights, so I select the 3:20 p.m. flight.
The final review page shows me the flights I’ve chosen, and I can click on the small downward-facing arrow right of the words “nonstop” to expand each flight and see my flight details.
Google also shows me my fare options, which often include some version of basic economy pricing. Below that, I have the option of booking directly with Alaska, or booking through Google for the same price. Finally, the price module reappears to reminds me that I’m getting flights at a standard price for my ticket.
The bottom of this screenshot also shows the option bar available at the bottom of each Google Flights page. You can select your preferred language from a dropdown menu, and also customize your location and preferred currency for easy conversion.
Search by specific times of day
If you’re traveling with a kid, rushing to make a mid-day meeting or just want to get back home a little quicker, Google Flights is a godsend.
Once you hit “search,” a series of options will appear below your search bars and above the “best departing flights” module. Under “Times,” drag the sliders to represent your preferred travel times, and Google will prioritize flights that fit your criteria.
See how many bags you can bring on board
In the same series of buttons below your Google Flight search, click on the “Bags” button to specify how many pieces of luggage you want to bring on board with you for free. This selection may greatly limit your search results — or drive up your price options — so be prepared to untoggle it if necessary.
Nonstop, one-stop, or any route will do?
Similarly, you can filter flights by the number of stops along the way. If you’re an adventurer, go for the 50+hour route with multiple long layovers. If you have deadlines or a family to rush back to, nonstop is your friend. If you’re headed overseas, the usual sweet spot between price and comfort will be one-stop or fewer.
Search for flights from your preferred airline or alliance
If you don’t fly often, airlines may not matter to you as much as price does. But if you have begun accumulating miles and status with a specific carrier, it can be addictive. The exclusive benefits that come with elite status can be exhilarating, while there’s nothing more exciting than booking your first-ever award flight, especially if you know you got an amazing deal. But as you know, you only earn more miles if you keep booking flights on the same airline.
Related: What are airline alliances, and who’s in them?
Google can help you keep that momentum going with its filtered airline search results. Use the button under the search results to help you filter out unwanted airlines, or select specific airline alliances you want to patronize. Or untoggle the “select all airlines” and manually select the carriers you want to choose from.
I was loyal to United Airlines and Star Alliance for many years, because they historically offer the best routes to and from Taiwan, where my extended family lives. Whether I’m booking in cash or points, I’m used to looking for United and Star Alliance flights first, to maximize my earning potential, so this feature has been particularly helpful for me for many years.
This feature is particularly useful in this day and age of coronavirus, where many international airlines have restrictions on transiting passengers from foreign countries. Under the button for “times,” select or de-select the airports you want to visit or avoid en route to your final destination, and Google will prioritize the search results that best meet your criteria.
How to book with Google Flights
Here at TPG, we’ll almost always encourage you to book directly with an airline or hotel, instead of through an online travel agency such as Expedia, Travelocity — or Google.
Related: These OTA horror stories will make you think twice about booking indirectly
But every now and then, it might make sense to make an exception. If you decide to book a flight through Google, here’s how that process will look.
For the Alaska round-trip flight selected above, I can choose to book directly through Alaska, or with Google’s portal for the same Alaska flights at the same price.
The booking page will allow me to complete the transaction through Google’s streamlined interface:
There aren’t a lot of times where I’d choose Google over the airline — but you can, if you want to.
How to search by cheapest dates
Let’s say I know I want to get from JFK to Los Angeles in March, but I’m not tied to any specific dates. Google Flights can help me find the best possible prices for that trip as well.
On the same search page, I can see all of the lowest prices for that particular day if I click on the calendar icon. Prices listed in green represent the lowest price available across all current dates, while the blue highlighted dates show which dates I’ve currently selected.
You’ll often find, though, that the cheapest flight isn’t necessarily the best or most convenient route. Google will show you those lowest prices, but prioritize better routes before it. In the screenshot below, you’ll see the cheapest route in red — but the nonstop flight that saves me two hours of travel time in green.
How to set a pricing alert for yourself
After all that diligent work, give yourself a pat on the back. You found a great flight!
Some people are ready to book immediately, but most of us might need a day or two to solidify our plans with our fellow travelers, or with work. Never fear: Google will help you track your flight — and even let you know when the price goes up or down.
Immediately above your search results, there’s a little toggle that says “Track prices” (boxed in green above). Click that — and log into your Google account if you need to — and Google Flights will send updated pricing alerts directly into your email inbox.
How to search multiple airports at once
Sometimes, you’re willing to commute a bit farther in order to find a better flight deal. Google can help with that too.
Let’s say you live in New York, where you have three major airports to choose from. You want to visit your aunt in southern California, which is easily accessible from multiple airports as well. Instead of pulling out your high school textbook to refresh your memory on permutations, just use Google’s multi-airport search function for a lot more fun and a lot less headache.
There are two ways to run this search:
A) Type in your city name and let Google offer up suggestions
This works for a number of major metros. As soon as I type in New York, I see all three of the major airports: Newark in New Jersey (EWR), John F. Kennedy (JFK), and LaGuardia (LGA). I also see nearby Newburgh Airport (SWF) as an option, about 60 miles north of Manhattan.
B) Manually type in your airport codes or names
However, this approach doesn’t always work, even for major cities. For southern California, for example, I have to manually type in the names or airport codes of each airport in the area.
You can either pull up a separate browser tab and look up local airports by name — or if you’re a pro and you know the codes, you can type them directly into the destination airport search field as LAX, SNA, BUR, ONT. Then hit the blue check to run the search.
Voila: My cheapest options for the same dates of March 18-25 are now EWR to LAX nonstop for $247 round-trip in United basic economy, or American’s $237 round-trip flight from LaGuardia with two stops in Charlotte and Phoenix. For $10 more, I’ll gladly take the shorter route.
How to check for carry-on bag policies
I don’t care what anyone says: Low-cost carriers can be fantastic for great deals. Just look at this Frontier Airlines deal that ran twice in the last two months, which offered buy-one, get-one deals from $11 one-way for two travelers.
But if you’re a heavy packer, you’ll need to plan ahead. Many airlines cut costs by charging extra for bags. You’re used to this with major airlines, but some ultra-budget airlines will even charge you for carry-ons larger than a backpack or a purse.
It can be difficult to keep track of which airlines charge what. But never fear: Google can help with that as well.
Remember the previous screenshot, where I selected a United basic economy flight? I can tell it’s basic economy immediately on the search results page, because of the little “no luggage” icon next to the $247 price tag in green.
When I click through to the final booking page, Google will remind again that I’m booking a basic economy flight on the booking review page by showing my current price point and its limitations, and displaying economy and first-class booking options next to it.
Remember: Google Flights doesn’t work with Southwest
One important caveat: You might wonder why you don’t see any Southwest flights on Google Flights.
Well, you might see them, like with this search result for Austin to Las Vegas in March:
But Southwest doesn’t allow other travel partners to search or book flights through the airline. So if you’re a Southwest fan, don’t forget to check the airline’s website or app for a price comparison before you book with another carrier through Google Flights.
find the best deals by destination
Once you’ve got the basics down, it’s time to explore — literally.
Remember the sidebar from our first screenshot, which showed “Trips,” “Things to Do,” “Hotels” and “Vacation Rentals”? The “Trips” tab is specifically designed to spark your wanderlust, with curated suggestions tailored for you.
Right from my landing page, you can tell that Google wants me to go to Atlanta for a week in mid-September.
When I click on “view details”, I can see the weather forecast as well as local hotel availability and flight operations statistics.
Below it, I can see a suggested itinerary — ironically, through Southwest Airlines:
And below that, I can “discover” noteworthy activities, events and restaurants in Atlanta over Google’s suggested dates. There’s also a section that reiterates how low Atlanta’s hotel rates are for the suggested duration of the trip.
This is a creative way for Google to market to consumers; after all, the data checks out, and they have billions of search results to prove it.
If Atlanta doesn’t suit my fancy, I can keep scrolling: The next module shows all of the destinations I’ve recently searched, along with potential travel dates.
And below that, Google shows me a list of popular destinations as well as a roster of all my past trips — for years.
Related: 9 awesome features you didn’t know about Google Flights
How to Find the best getaway for your schedule
This function is similar to the previous tip — just focused on another aspect of your search.
If you know you want to get away on specific dates — let’s say the second week of October — but don’t have a specific destination in mind, use Google’s open-ended search functionality to find good deals within your window of availability.
In the example below, I picked a long weekend in October and set my hometown of Austin as my departure airport. Instead of specifying a destination, I just left it open-ended although you can give Google a hint by typing “Europe” or “Caribbean” to narrow your search results to a specific region.
At the time of publication, these were the best fares in my corner of the world:
If I zoom in closer on the map, the system re-calibrates and shows me more destinations and price point within the updated map view:
I can also force the algorithm to show me price points for a specific region. For example, the world map above doesn’t show me any deals for Australia, most of South America or Africa. But if I zoom in on Africa, I see more than half a dozen options on the continent, as well as more than a dozen in “surrounding” areas:
How to size up a flight’s legroom
If you look closely, you’ll notice that most of my pricing screenshots above feature a gray section with airline and flight details.
That doesn’t come standard to Google Flights. Instead, it’s a Google Chrome browser plug-in that lets you see at a glance what legroom you’ll have on that flight.
I’m five feet, two inches tall, and legroom or lack thereof is a mere inconvenience for me. But for TPG’s Brian Kelly at six feet, seven inches, adequate legroom is an absolute must.
To add this free extension for your own browser, click on this page, then follow the installation instructions. All done!
Related: This simple Chrome extension helps you determine how much legroom will be on your next flight — before you even book it
Unfortunately, Legroom for Google Flights won’t work on Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer or any other browser.
Use Google Flights to find award flights
Here at TPG, we’re all about getting outsized value out of your points and miles so you can fly like a sheik without the burden of managing a small emirate.
We’ve got an entire, in-depth guide to using Google Flights for award flights, so I won’t copy/paste the whole thing here. But using the “Airlines” button to filter for your preferred alliance allows you to see which carriers are operating what revenue flights on your preferred dates of travel, so you can then navigate to your airline of choice to book through its award travel portal.
As always, there are a million and one ways to continue improving your Google Flights proficiency. And Google continues to improve its algorithms to make searches better for consumers. But you’re off to a great start with all the information you learned in this guide. Just remember: Practice makes perfect.
Featured photo by 06photo/Shutterstock.
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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.
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