We’ve grown to rely on a range of trip-planning sites over the years. But one of the best, no-fail, essential travel planning tools we love is Google Flights.
It’s an excellent way to find the best prices on flights, especially if your destination is specific but your dates can vary a bit. And that’s true whether you’re booking a flight in the coming weeks or up to a year ahead.
But to get the best results, you really need to know how to use Google Flights. Here, we break down the obvious and not-so-obvious features.
Using Google Flights
Start at https://www.google.com/travel/flights/ (or just google Google Flights).
Here on the main screen, adjust the settings for round trip or one way, number of passengers and flight class appropriately.
I always search on Economy, because my budget allows for several inexpensive flights per year or one really nice one, and I choose the former, but you do you.
Enter your starting airport and your destination. If it’s a one-way trip, the date range will automatically adjust to a single date.
You have some choices when choosing an airport on Google Flights for your departure or destination. While you’re still here on the main screen, click in the boxes for each city, and you’ll see a drop-down menu. If you don’t mind traveling to or from an airport a little ways away, you’ll see more results. This is the default. But if you really want to fly from a specific airport and not just anything within a large radius, make a selection here.
And if you want to be able to see the best prices and times from all airports in a region, to possibly travel to one airport and then depart from another, choose multi-city. I used this when I was trying to find the best prices for a trip to and from Destin, Florida, which is served by several small (expensive) regional airports, so that I could book a flight into Pensacola and back out of Destin.
If you want to check prices from multiple airports at the same time, simply type the airport code into the departure box, put a comma after it and type the next airport code. You can put in multiple airports, and your results will show pricing for all flights from all the airports that you’ve selected. Heather has three airports within three hours that she checks, as well as her home airport. This is what it looks like.
If your dates are a little flexible, click in the date box on this main screen (see below). A magical window appears! At least it feels like magic. Here, you’ll see how traveling sooner or later — sometimes by just a day — can dramatically change the cost of your trip. This is one of the best things about learning how to use Google Flights, in my opinion.
Here, I’ve chosen to fly from Denver to St. Martin, because this island in the Caribbean remains on my bucket list. Clearly, flying on May 26 would be silly, but I could almost afford to go on May 7, depending on my return date, which you can tweak in this view as well. Take a minute to click around on the dates above the calendar view, and the dates in the calendar. You’ll soon see how it works.
If you don’t have a specific timeframe in mind, click the arrows to the sides of the calendar view (see the next screenshot) and experiment with different months. You can see quickly how your prices change, and whether current prices are low, typical or high compared to past averages for the same route. Google Flights also recently added a new feature. “For searches with reliable trend data,” you can now see when prices are typically lowest to your destination. This means some routes will have this information; others may not. You can also turn on price tracking to get change notices via email.
Just for fun, I decided to go on a seven-day trip in August. (If you’re going to fly that far, make the most of your time and CO2 emissions and stay longer.) Let’s take a look at some further features now that I’ve made this totally non-binding decision.
In this new view, you’ll see some filters at the top of the screen. Let’s talk about each:
This could be key if you want to avoid lots of airport hopping. I prefer to make only one stop, if I can, which sometimes costs more, but is often worth it. If I would have chosen that filter, then I wouldn’t see that first American flight that costs just $316 but takes me 19 hours and 1 minute. Instead, my first option would be the 5 a.m. flight that costs $424 but takes just 8 hours and 28 minutes.
(The bigger question: Would I book a flight that requires me to get up at 1:30 a.m. to get to the airport in time for an international departure? Probably not. I might opt for the third option: the later, slightly longer and more expensive one from Delta. Atlanta is a big airport with lots of nice diversions. I know this flight has a layover of 4 hours and 17 minutes in Atlanta by the indication under “1 stop.”)
For more on how to use layover information to your advantage, see Make the Most of Your Layover below!
If you want to travel with a specific airline because of loyalty perks or preference, you can adjust your search here. This will narrow your search results significantly, so I leave it open knowing that there are just three airlines (that shall remain nameless) that I will never fly with again.
NOTE: Southwest Airlines doesn’t participate in Google Flights. If you want to see their flights and prices, you have to log on to Southwest.com separately.
You aren’t choosing your number of bags here, so you might as well leave this open. In fact, you don’t actually book your flight through Google Flights either; instead, it will offer you the opportunity to book your flight by clicking through directly to the airline’s website. (Or if you have a system of travel points down, you can take this information and book via your best points site. More on this later.)
I prefer to look at options for different dates in the date grid rather than search within a price range — especially because if you’re limited by dates and price, you might not find any results.
Times, Emissions, Connecting Airports, Duration
Here again, the more filters that you apply, the more likely you are to narrow yourself right out of any options. Even if you have some preferences, leave as many filters open as you can. This way you might find a flight that meets most of your needs, and determine that you can compromise on one or two lesser elements.
Right under those filters you’ll see two view options on the right: Date Grid and Price Graph. Click on them! Play with them. This is especially helpful if you have a destination in mind but not a time frame. You’ll see when prices go up or down within a window or even throughout the year. The Price Graph shows you a broad view of flight cost patterns for your chosen trip length. The Date Grid shows you prices for trips of different lengths; here again, a day or two can make all the difference.
Underneath Best Departing Flights you’ll see a list of Other Departing Flights. Google Flights chooses the best based on cost, flight times, flight duration and even flight timeliness and reliability. I recently booked a flight from Newark to Fort Wayne with a layover in Chicago that, because it’s the last flight of the night from Chicago to Fort Wayne, is often delayed by 30 minutes, according to Google Flights. I booked it anyway because it offered me the best combination of price, duration and departure time—I really want to have time that day to do some sightseeing before I leave the city. But I’m prepared for a delay or maybe even an overnight in Chicago.
How did I learn this detail? There’s an arrow to the right of each flight option. When you click it, you’ll see the full details of the flight, including the type of airplane, in-flight features, layovers and airports. (Fun side note: The airport in St. Martin, SMX, is Princess Juliana International Airport. I think this is further proof that I’m destined to visit St. Martin.)
For this pretend someday trip, I looked down the list under other departing flights, and I didn’t find anything that costs less and has better flight times or less travel time than that third flight from Delta under Best Departing Flights. I like it! So what next?
When you find a flight that you like, click on it. You’ll come to a window that says Returning Flights. Here again you’ll see them sorted by price, as well as flight time. A bonus: These prices, while they don’t include checked bags, *do* include taxes and fees, so you won’t be unpleasantly surprised.
The top option for my return from my “trip” to St. Martin is also the best: lowest price and shortest flight time. It leaves at a humane 3:25 p.m., meaning I probably can squeeze in a few moments of fun that morning, and it gets in late, which is fine because I can come home, shower and go to bed. I leave time the day after my return from a trip for my extra-clean unpacking routine.
I love it! I’m ready to book. I just need to decide what fare I want. I may decide to upgrade to Main Cabin, just for the flexibility of making changes if needed. (Though I’ll first click that link where it says the “airline may be offering additional flexibility for bookings.”)
If you’ve made your final selection here, you have one of two options.
- Simply scroll down on this page. You’ll see a button that says Booking Options. Book with [your airline]. If I were to click this button, it would take me straight to the Delta site with all of these selections already pre-selected. I’d only need to choose my luggage and seat options, then enter payment, and I’m set. Bon voyage!
- You can take all of this intel and go to your favorite booking platform to search for and select these choices. If you book travel via Chase, for example, you might not only find this flight, but also earn points from Chase for your trip.
This highlights again an important feature of Google Flights: It’s not a site for booking flight deals. It’s a site for finding flight deals, and for seeing how tweaks to your plan can change your price. You book with the airline directly.
(Update from Google in September 2023) “On some flight results, you’ll see a colorful price guarantee badge, which means we’re especially confident the fare you see today won’t get any lower before departure. When you book one of these flights, we’ll monitor the price every day before takeoff, and if the price does go down, we’ll pay you back the difference via Google Pay. These price guarantees are part of a pilot program available for select Book on Google itineraries departing from the U.S.”)
The things I love about Google Flights are that it seems reliable and accurate; it aggregates hundreds of airlines’ flight offerings in one place; and it lets you see how playing with options affects your trip time and costs.
Once you learn how to use Google Flights, we think it might be the first place you start when planning a trip. In fact, if you don’t have a specific destination, you can even use the tools on the left side of the Google Flights home page. This is the space for dreaming!
Click on the Travel button at the top left side of the Google Flights home page. You’ll see upcoming trips in a handy list, as well as travel advisories, potential trips, suggested destinations, popular destinations and past trips. (The latter is proof that big tech is watching you.)
The Explore button is a starting point for broad interests. It’s a little bit like the Date Grid described above, but rather than just searching by flights and places, you can also search by car travel and interests. If you have a specific timeframe in which you want to travel but no specific destination in mind, this is a way for you to see where in the world your budget might take you. Try zooming in and out for prices on places at a glance. Because everywhere is on our list at Journey Here, we love any opportunity to explore.
Underneath that is Things to Do. We’re a little biased at Journey Here Travel, but we’d recommend starting first with our Places We’ve Been section for ideas on things to do in those places we’ve visited. However, we haven’t been everywhere … yet.
If you click on the Flights button on the left side of the home page, it’s in essence the Google Flights home page. It lets you do the same things we described from the start of this blog.
The Hotels button under that is similar to booking.com or hotels.com. There are lots of filters on the next screen after you’ve entered your destination. It also offers guidance on Where to Stay, When to Visit and What You’ll Pay, incorporating details about and vibes for regions or neighborhoods, high season versus low, weather, and well-known features. Update the map view at right to search on restaurants, shopping and attractions nearby; a slider lets you see what’s within your selected walking distance.
Finally, Vacation Rentals works much like Airbnb and VRBO. Here, however, you’ll find listings aggregated from Vacasa, iTrip, Rentals United, TripAdvisor, BluePillow and more. There’s a similar map view here.
The best way to learn how it all works is to use Google Flights, knowing that it’s less than a booking agent but a whole lot more than a booking agent at the same time. While we still appreciate the value that experienced travel guides and consultants bring to a trip — in fact, so much so that we offer some of these travel services ourselves to new travelers — Google Flights puts more of the traditional travel agent experience at your fingertips. There’s no personal service as with a travel agent or travel consultant, but there’s a world of choices available to anyone with a bit of time and a computer screen.
Make the Most of Your Layover
If you have a flexible schedule and don’t mind breaking up a flight, you also can look for really long layovers and see something while you’re there. In the example below, I am flying from Chicago to Athens, but have two long layovers: one on the way there, and one on the way back.
On the departing flight, I’m flying overnight, landing in Copenhagen at 1:15 p.m. I have until my departure at 8:30 a.m. the next day to see the city. This also breaks up my flying time nicely: eight hours and ten minutes from Chicago to Copenhagen, and then just three hours to Athens the next day.
On the return flight, I would have an overnight layover in Stockholm. It’s slightly less time, but still enough to do a little sightseeing and stretch my legs.
I could take this same trip with a 13-hour departing flight and a slightly longer return flight for just $240 more (see below). A longer layover (above) saves money on the ticket, but adds expenses for accommodations. It lets me get a glimpse of two new places, however! The second trip (below) is more efficient and slightly more costly. It just depends on your priorities. (Though personally, I’m always down for a two-for-one kinda trip!)
If life hands you lemons in the form of an extra-long layover (or a travel delay), it might be an opportunity to sample a new destination’s lemonade!
The views expressed on this website represent the opinions of the authors; we encourage you to form your own opinions and confirm any facts.