Like pretty much everyone else, you’re probably used to finding where you need to go by using Google Maps. To most people, Maps is a good way to get directions to a store across town, but did you know you can also ask for directions across the country or even the world, and in response get a wealth of information about when to fly and how much it’ll cost?
Start by going to Google Maps as you normally would and typing in your starting and ending locations. For example, you could search on “Sacramento, CA to Denver, CO.” Maps will give you the normal response with driving directions, but you’ll also notice something else: Denver may be 16 hours, 45 minutes away from Sacramento by car, but it’s only 2 hours, 15 minutes away by plane. And that flight will cost $214. But as Billy Mays used to say: “but wait, there’s more!”
Click on the flight option and it’ll expand to provide you with some more basic information, but also a link to the truly amazing feature, Google Flights. This will open in a new tab, and at first glance it seems to give you basically the same information as other flight comparison services such as Kayak: a list of the various flights available, sorted by price. You can select any flight to get more details, such as in-flight amenities and connections. It even shows if the plane has power outlets to keep your laptop alive through the flight.
But go up to the top of the screen and click in one of the date boxes to choose a new date and you’ll see one of the other great features of Google Flights: next to each date is the price of flying that day. So for example I can see that flying to Denver on Halloween is quite a bit cheaper than leaving the next day on Sunday. Not surprisingly, flying at Thanksgiving is expensive, but I could save $50 if I leave on Wednesday instead of Thursday that week.
The Flexible Dates tab gives me another way to look at the data. Here, I can compare fares based on both when I leave and when I return, so I can see that if I were to fly out on the 31st, it’s going to cost me a lot more to return on Friday, November 6 than it will to come back on Saturday, November 7.
The third and final tab in the date interface lets me look at the prices as a graph over time, so I can see that if I held out until the first week of December, I could save a few dollars.
The site also provides a host of filters for narrowing down options on things other than date and price. Don’t mind having a connection, but really hate connecting in Las Vegas? You can deselect that airport as an option and the results will filter out flights going through there. Is the time it’ll take to get there more important than cost? Cool: filter by flight duration. Building up miles on Delta? Filter to airline to see only the ones you care about. (Of course, Southwest doesn’t show up here, just as they don’t show up on other sites.)
Once you’ve figured out your preferred options and selected your outbound and inbound flights, Google links you directly to the airline or booking site to make the reservation. You can also save the itinerary so that Google Now can give you alerts if the price drops, or share it with a friend or family member.
And keep in mind that all of this works for international travel as well.
Google Flights is basically a data geek’s dream way to plan travel. Not only is it a lot of fun, but it takes a lot of the guesswork out of planning travel, but without all of the annoying ads and visual clutter of similar sites. I discovered Google Flights somewhat by accident about a year ago, and have been using it for all of my travel planning ever since.