How to Choose an Air Travel Search Site

Airfare Search Engines

When we’re planning to take a trip, the first thing that I do is start searching for airfares. Sometimes I want a very specific flight to a very specific place. More often, however, I search for fares that are a great deal and build from there. You probably know that there are a lot of sites out there that will give you airfares – but which are the best? Once you start to search, the sheer number of sites that you need to cross reference to ensure that you’re getting the best price can be overwhelming. I like to stick with it and check out as many sites as possible because I know that those extra few hundred dollars can go towards hotels, dinners and other travel bonuses that will be a lot more memorable than the time spent on the airplane. That said, I also want to streamline my airfare search as much as possible so that I can move on to searching for the hotels, etc. and getting the rest of the trip planned. The question is where to start.

The NYT’s Frugal Traveler did a little research and tried to break through the chaos and summarize what each service has to offer. This is great news if you want to cut a few sites out of your rotation, but unfortunately there is no gold standard for one site that is better than the rest, so you’ll still have to search around to ensure you get the best deal. With these tips, however, at least you’ll be able to prioritize a bit depending on the type of traveler you are.

If Cheapest is Always Best: Everyone loves a great deal, even it it sometimes means choosing a discount air carrier or strangely-timed flights. Most of the big sites – Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline, Kayak – will be similar in price, but you really need to check them all out – including newer sites like RouteHappy and Momondo – because every once in a while one can undercut the rest. (I like to check FlyerTalk’s Forums for news of limited time or extremely discounted fares). Don’t forget to check Southwest, since it doesn’t appear on most sites for comparison.

If Cheap is Ideal, But Isn’t Everything: I prefer nonstop when possible and will pay a bit extra to avoid a four hour layover, but I still want a great deal. Hipmunk will let you sort flights by “agony” and Routehappy tries to factor in other bonuses, like extra leg room, that might make a more expensive flight more desirable than a slightly cheaper one.

If You Need A Last Minute Ticket: Last minute trips are usually where the airlines gouge you, even though they want to fill the seats, because they figure you’ll fly at any price. Priceline‘s bidding system will probably find you a ticket price 10-20% lower than the lowest published fare, though you won’t be able to pick the exact flight, just the date, to get the savings.

If Your Dates Are Flexible: Most sites will let you search a day or three either before or after your ideal departure date, and sometimes a simple change will save you a lot of extra cash. But the more flexible your dates are, the better deals you can get. Google Flight Explorer really lets you see a wide date range and find out where the cheapest flights are – so you can make the most of your vacation by taking it a couple of weeks earlier or later. Newer sites GetGoing and Adioso can give you multiple airport/city options and are both promising newer options.

If You Need a Complex, Multi-Leg Route: When you’re planning to city-hop across Europe or the East Coast, Expedia and Orbitz have the most easily accessible multi-leg itinerary functions and they can save you over booking each piece of the flight separately. 

If You Want Fast and Easy Searching: It doesn’t get much faster or easier than Google Flights, which spits out flight options almost before you input your destination and travel dates. It also offers up suggestions to help you get a lower price, for instance mentioning that the day before your ideal date will save you $15. You book directly through the airlines once you’ve used the search tool, but the speed alone makes other travel sites look lumbering and old fashioned.

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