There are so many services available today to help you find good deals on airfare, but navigating them can be overwhelming. Well, it is a complicated business so get ready for a bit of a lengthy article. But, I’ve tried to split this article into digestible sections. So without further ado, here’s how Space Pirate Trading Company manages to get around the world on an affordable budget using the best flight search tool available: Google Flights.
What is Google Flights and how does it work?
Basically, it’s an aggregator that searches the entire web for flight prices. That includes airline websites themselves in addition to travel services like Expedia. It uses technology(link) developed by MIT scientists to scour all the confusing data and pricing algorithms used by airlines and gives you tools to find the cheapest and best flight.
What sets it apart from other services?
Google Flights’ tools are really what makes it the best flight finder around. There’s a wealth of information around the web on how to maximize these tools, but I’ve found the best ones are the calendar and the explore features. While the other tools are useful, they’re pretty self-explanatory. However the calendar and explore features can really work for you if you use them right.
The calendar shows the lowest price available, you guessed it, on a calendar. What sets this apart from other search tools like Kayak is that it’s dynamic. That is, you can customize and tinker with your flight details and the calendar’s prices automatically adjust without reloading the page. It also beats out the source tech of Google Flights, ITA Matrix, because Flights lets you book using links that take you right to the quoted fare, instead of having to call airlines or hire a travel agent.
The explore feature shows the lowest prices available to a collection of destinations in a particular area. So you can search for flights to a region, which will show major cities in that region, or for flights to a country, which will show all the cities in the country. This becomes majorly useful when combined with the calendar.
How do you take advantage of these features? Well, here’s a great example of how I’ve used Google Flights to find a cheap flight for a business trip back to Vietnam.
Case Study: Using Google Flights to find the best deal to Hanoi, Vietnam
After being home in Virginia for the holidays, I need to return to Vietnam for work by January 21. I need flexibility in dates and locations for the return trip depending on where the business takes me, so I’m hoping for a one-way that is cheaper than buying a round-trip and changing the return trip (change fee is usually $200). I’ve been monitoring Google Flights for a couple weeks and have found a great deal that will get me to my destination, Hanoi, Vietnam, one-way from Richmond, VA, for $548. (This price has been steady for 4 weeks up to now, 8 days before planned departure.)
To put that in perspective, the average cheapest round-trip for this route is about $1000, and the average cheapest one-way for this route is about $800. Perfect, this deal gives me the flexibility I need for my return flight at the cost of half a round-trip
I started with the calendar. As you can see, the cheapest one-way is about $800, and the cheapest round-trip is about $1000.
After I click a date for the cheapest flight, I see that this roughly $1000 flight is with China Southern Airlines on a crappy route.
Taking a quick look back at the calendar, this $1000 fare is always the same crappy flight, with the next best at $1200.
The less crappy flight coming in at $1,170 followed by $1,395.
So now I’ve got my base fares: the average cheapest cost using conventional booking methods. Now to start the real searching using the Explore tool. I’ve entered Southeast Asia as my destination.
View of the Explore Tool.
Cities in Southeast Asia using the Explore Tool.
More Southeast Asia Cities.
Pretty quickly, my eyes are drawn to Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, costing $596 and $470 respectively.
But wait, I’m going to Hanoi, not Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok. Well this is where the low cost carriers come into play. In many parts of the world, a 2-4 hour flight to another country costs less than $100 on a budget airline.
Google Flights doesn’t always index these perfectly, but in this case, I’ve found a flight for $78 within 1-2 days of arriving in Kuala Lumpur. As you can see on the calendar above, this route also costs only $32 at its cheapest, impressive.
This flight on Malindo Air is great because after confirming on their site, it also includes a checked bag, rare for budget carriers. Since I’m okay spending 2 days in Malaysia for fun, I don’t mind the extra cost of staying there for 2 nights. So now I have the following:
Flight to Kuala Lumpur: $470
Flight to Hanoi: $78
Total cost including 1 checked bag: $548. (For comparison, $571 if you depart from Malaysia the same day as arrival.)
January 17th at 5:30 pm: Depart Richmond, Virginia
January 19th at 7:45 am: Arrive in Kuala Lumpur
Obtain free 90 day visa to enter Malaysia, stay in a hostel or cheap hotel for 2 nights and sightsee.
January 21, 9:15 am: Depart Kuala Lumpur
January 21, 11:25 am: Arrive in Hanoi
And there you have it. I’ve found a flight that gives me flexibility in return trip, avoids bad routes and carriers, and is significantly cheaper than a direct one way and less than half the cost of a decent round-trip. If I didn't have to be back by January 21, I could probably still snag the $470 to Kuala Lumpur, and get that $32 flight to Hanoi for a grand total of $502.
Of course, different things matter to different folks. Many people will not have the flexibility I do in my schedule, or need the flexibility in their return trip. Ultimately, you will need to decide what features matter to you in a trip, such as the length of travel time and layovers, airline, airports you’re stopping at, willingness to stay at a stopover location, and more. The most flexible and adventurous travelers will get the best prices, but even picky (or procrastinating, like me) travelers should be able to find deals this way.
So, how does this work with the knowledge of geographic-based pricing, cookies, and other travel hacks and tips that frugal travelers have discovered?
In my experience recently, these other factors are minor if nonexistent. I’ve tested these methods using VPNs, other proxies, with cookies and cache both preserved and cleared, and it’s very, very rare that altering these factors will reduce the cheapest available fare.
As soon as people started publishing these methods, the airlines adjusted their algorithms and they are far less effective than they used to be. I have had one experience where I was able to get a slightly better price based on location, but that was more luck of the draw, not something worth the time to go searching for. You can read about that case study at the end of this article.
Now that the main topic is out of the way, let’s cover a few other services that may or may not be helpful in your search.
This site has intrigued me for a long time; it’s a partially crowdsourced database of cheap flights, but they don’t actually sell the flights themselves. Users submit information on the best flight deals and include information about the deal and how to get it. You can even set up alerts for special deals on routes that you select, and you’ll get an email when a good deal pops up.
Unfortunately, I’ve never had any success with Airfare Watchdog. Either there aren’t any good deals for a location that I’m looking for, or I can’t actually find a place to book the flight at the listed price. Either users are submitting false info, or there’s not enough info on how to get the deal. Keep in mind, this website is only a database, you have to go to another website to book the flight. And this is where I’m always unable to find the quoted price available for purchase.
So ultimately, I’m not too impressed with this service yet. But I do see the potential and I have also heard of people having success with the information they found on Airfare Watchdog. It’s definitely worth checking out, so let us know in the comments if you have any experiences.
Hidden City Ticketing
You can read more about this elsewhere, but basically due to airlines pricing algorithms it can sometimes be cheaper to book a flight somewhere that has your actual destination as a stopover, and then not take your final flight.
I do not recommend this method, as it’s against airlines’ policies and they are known to flag customers who attempt this technique and it can cause lot of headaches (you can be refused boarding privileges in the future, charged fees, etc.) Not only is this method ethically similar to switching price tags on a product at a store, it also probably harms travelers and costs everybody in the long term.
Again, I don’t recommend this method as there are ways to get just as good deals using ethical methods and real low fares that do not put a target on your back with airlines.
Online Travel Brands (Expedia, Priceline, Orbitz, Kayak, etc.)
Tried and true, these sites were at one point in time the best way to get good deals on flights. But as pricing algorithms have shifted and become more dynamic, it seems that these sites rarely have a better deal than booking through the airline itself. The main drawback is that you are booking through that website, a 3rd party, which can be frustrating when dealing with customer service. I have had some success using these sites, but it also came with a headache.
Case Study: One way flight from Amsterdam, Netherlands to Hanoi, Vietnam.
In June I was in the Netherlands visiting family and needed to travel to Vietnam to begin our work there. I needed a one way because I was unsure of how long I would need to spend in Vietnam, and also because I would be returning to the US afterwards. I started searching using Google Flights and found a good deal for $390 one way. The catch? This deal was offered exclusively through the Dutch Expedia site. I used a VPN to access the US site and was surprised that the same flight cost $430 booking through Expedia.com (also the same cost on all other US travel sites and through the airline directly).
So of course, I used my broken Dutch to the best of my ability and was able to book the flight for $390. The problem I encountered though, was that I made a typo entering my email on the Expedia.nl site. This ended up being a huge headache, I could not change my email address on their website because my correct email address already existed as an account. I tried calling their US customer service and after 30 minutes on the phone, they told me they couldn’t merge my 2 accounts because one of them was through the Dutch Expedia which they didn’t have access to. I begrudgingly called the Dutch Expedia, only to have them inform me of the same.
So, I checked my credit card statement and the purchase went through and I was thankfully able to remember the flight number. But it was really nerve wracking not having any confirmation emails and just showing up at the airport that morning hoping that my reservation went through. Again, I tried calling numerous times and they were ultimately unable to solve my email typo.
Conclusion? I got a good deal with Expedia with a lot of headache in between. But, I only found this deal through Google Flights. Specifically, Google Flights on a Dutch IP address, which was therefore indexing Dutch travel sites rather than .com sites. The lesson here is that Google Flights found the best deal available for this particular route, but it was a stroke of luck that I was on a Dutch IP.
Making Google Flights work for you
Ultimately, the effectiveness of Google Flights depends on the time you’re willing to put in. In most of my cases, 1-2 hours of research can save $200 or more, a great use of time in my opinion. But, you have to play around a bit with Google Flights and learn the techniques before you’ll truly always get the best deal. So as they say, there’s no such thing as free lunch. But if you put in the effort, it’s absolutely worth it. Please post comments if you have any additional tips, tricks, or tools, or if you are having trouble figuring it out, we’ll be happy to help as best we can!