How to use Google Flights to maximize your next travel booking
While TPG does offer deal alerts, there's another weapon in our arsenal that can help you save a ton of money – Google Flights.
It's one of our favorite tools for finding deals on flights. It’s an amazingly powerful flight search engine, and it's easy to use.
In this guide, we’ll explain everything you need to know to find the perfect flight the next time you’re booking travel.
Basics of Google Flights
How to perform a basic flight search
First, you’ll want to navigate to google.com/flights.
The left sidebar has some additional features for trips, including things to do, hotels, vacation rentals and a shortcut to a cool tool called "Explore." However, we’ll focus on using the tool to book flights for now.
All of the fields and drop-down menus on this page are relatively easy to decipher:
- Departure (where you want to fly from).
- Destination (where you want to fly to).
- Date(s) of travel.
- Round-trip, one-way or multicity trips.
- The 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 for flights from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) to San Francisco International Airport (SFO). You can search by destination or by airport code.
Note that Google automatically displays what it considers the best departing flights based on a combination of factors, including price, the convenience of routing, the number of stops and the time of travel. Of course, these may or may not be the best flights for you.
In this case, there are literally hundreds of options from which to choose.
For this example, I’ve chosen to book an American flight on my outbound trip simply by clicking on the first American flight.
The cheapest option will sometimes be to fly the return on a different carrier. However, Google Flights clearly indicates these will be two tickets purchased separately.
Often, Google will suggest remaining on the same carrier for both legs (or, in this instance, an airline partner of American, JetBlue).
There are all kinds of ways to filter your searches. We'll get a bit more into that below.
Once you've found the flight you want, you have the option of booking directly with American Airlines. Google will give you several options for the type of ticket you want to purchase, including basic economy, refundable and other types of fares.
Clicking that link will take me to American Airlines' website, with these flights and prices already selected, where I can proceed to enter my passenger details and loyalty number, select a seat and pay for the ticket.
All elite and other loyalty benefits are honored on flights booked on the airline website via Google Flights. However, if you book via a third-party site, that may not be the case. It pays to make sure you are booking directly with the airline if possible.
In this example, the cheapest option is for mixed tickets with multiple stops. Most people are not going to want to take that option. It involves booking through a third-party website and tickets on different airlines with multiple flights and layovers. No thanks.
Related: 9 things to consider when choosing to book via a portal vs. booking directly
Below is an example of Google Flights’ handy historical price guide so you can have a good idea of whether the fare you have found is low, high or near the average price for flights on this route.
I can see these flights were more than $600 a few months ago, and my $442 fare is considered low, so I’m happy enough with that, given how expensive airfare generally is these days.
The bottom of this screenshot also shows the options available at the bottom of each Google Flights page.
You can select your preferred language from a drop-down menu and also customize your location and preferred currency for easy conversion.
Search by specific times of day
Say you want to go away for a weekend trip. You need both flights to be outside of business hours but not leaving too late in the evening, as you don’t want to land in the middle of the night.
Google Flights has a handy filter we use all the time to make sure the flights are exactly when we want them. No matter how inexpensive that 6 a.m. flight may be, a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call rarely feels worth it.
So, you can set the search results to only show flights departing and arriving within the specific time range you have chosen.
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.
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 flight will do?
Similarly, you can filter flights by the number of stops along the way. If you’re an adventurer, you might long for a 50-plus-hour flight with multiple layovers.
If you have deadlines, want to minimize the chance of delays or disruptions or have a family to rush back to, nonstop is your friend. Headed overseas? The usual sweet spot between price and comfort will be a one-stop flight.
Search for flights from your preferred airline or alliance
If you don’t fly often, the operating airline may not matter to you as much as the price does.
However, if you've begun accumulating miles and status with a specific carrier, it can be addictive to stick with that carrier and program. The exclusive benefits that come with elite status can be exhilarating, and there’s nothing more exciting than booking your first award flight, especially if you know you got an amazing deal.
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 filter out unwanted airlines or select specific airline alliances you want to patronize. Or, untoggle the “Select all airlines” option 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 with cash or points, I’m used to looking for United and Star Alliance flights first to maximize my earning potential, and I’m happy to pay a little more for this, so this feature has been particularly helpful for me for many years.
Especially with international flights, some airports are better to connect in than others. Helsinki Airport (HEL)? Lovely. Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG)? Not so easy, even if you are an experienced traveler.
Related: Where are the best European airports to connect in?
If you have a range of options to travel from New York to, say, Rome Fiumicino Leonardo da Vinci Airport (FCO) with a choice of connecting airports, you can filter the results to only show the airports you want to connect in.
You can also choose how long you would like your layover to extend. You might want to keep it short to get to your destination as quickly as possible. Or, you may prefer a long layover to allow for some buffer time in the event of delays.
Related: Best airports for kids during layovers in the United States
Score the best legroom and other seat amenities
Don’t you hate boarding a flight to find your knees touching the back of the seat in front of you? Fortunately, Google Flights has a feature that will show you the legroom you can expect on your next flight before you have purchased the seat.
Legroom can differ noticeably from carrier to carrier and aircraft type to aircraft type. From the search results below, you can see that Spirit’s is below the industry average at 28 inches, while JetBlue’s is above average at 32 inches.
If you value legroom, this means the JetBlue option will have 4 inches more legroom than Spirit.
In coach seating terms, that’s a lot.
Along with legroom, Google Flights will also indicate if Wi-Fi is scheduled to be available on your flight (and if it is free or available at a cost), whether the plane has in-seat charging options, and if the flight offers entertainment like live TV or options to stream to your personal device.
On a five-hour-plus flight across the country, your devices may run out of juice, so again, you may want to choose the product that best suits your needs rather than selecting a flight based entirely on price or carrier.
Know your emissions
With sustainability becoming an increasingly important topic in travel, Google Flights will let you know the approximate carbon emissions for your flight based on the route, aircraft type and classes of seating.
You will see in the search results from Los Angeles Internation Airport (LAX) to Tokyo's Narita International Airport (NRT) below that United, operating a fuel-efficient Boeing 787 on this route, would produce a lower-than-average 734 kilograms of carbon dioxide.
However, the Singapore Airlines flight uses a less fuel-efficient (and larger) Boeing 777 aircraft that produces a higher-than-average 1,163 kilograms of carbon dioxide.
You can even filter your search results to only show lower-emissions flight options.
How to search by cheapest dates
Let’s say I know I want to get from JFK to Los Angeles in September, but I’m not tied to any specific dates. Google Flights can help me find the best possible prices for that trip.
On the same search page, I can see the lowest price 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 days highlighted in blue show which dates I’ve currently selected.
Another way to view the cheapest dates is to click on the date grid option. This will again show the cheapest dates in green, and you can easily line up different outbound and inbound options to see if the cheapest dates work for you.
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 this example, Google Flights is prioritizing slightly higher fares as the “best flights” search results because they include a full-size carry-on bag.
How to set a pricing alert for yourself
After all that diligent work, give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve likely found the best option for you.
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 reads “Track prices” (boxed in green in the screenshot above).
Click that — and log in to your Google account if you need to — and Google Flights will send updated pricing alerts directly into your inbox.
If you have booked a refundable or changeable fare, you may want to switch this on even after you’ve booked. You will be alerted if the price goes up or down so you can have the comfort you’re getting the best deal.
Related: How to change or cancel your airfare
How to search multiple airports at once
Sometimes, you’re willing to land or depart a bit farther away in order to find a better flight deal. Google Flights can help reward that flexibility.
Let’s say you live in New York City, where you have three major airports to choose from. You want to fly to Southern California, which is easily accessible from multiple airports as well.
There are two ways to run this search:
- Type in your city name and let Google offer up suggestions: This works for a number of major metro areas. As soon as I type in New York, I see all three of the major airports: Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR), LaGuardia Airport (LGA) and JFK. I also see New York Stewart International Airport (SWF) in Newburgh as an option, about 60 miles north of Manhattan.
- Manually type in your airport codes or names: This approach doesn’t always work, even for major cities. For Southern California, for example, I have to manually type in the names or codes of each airport in the area.
You can 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 (i.e., 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 LGA 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 finding great deals.
However, 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 Google Flights can help with that as well.
Basic economy flights will show on the search results page, with 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 me again that I’m booking a basic economy flight 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 Airlines
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:
However, Southwest doesn’t allow other travel platforms to book flights with the airline — it wants to control its passengers’ booking process completely. 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.
Organize your travel
On the sidebar of Google Flights, there’s a “Travel” icon.
It will show the travel you have already booked — you can click on the trip, and it neatly shows travel booked through your Google account, such as those reservations emails sent to a Gmail account.
It will also show “potential trips.” This is where you may have been searching Google Flights for a particular destination but have not yet bought the ticket. It will also provide suggestions based on what destinations you've Googled in general.
Perhaps you have searched for “When is the best time to visit Hawaii?” Google Flights may show you suggestions to help you continue planning that trip.
Finally, the "Travel" button will suggest trips you might consider taking based on upcoming trips you have booked or trips you’ve taken in the past.
For example, if you’ve been to Melbourne, Australia, before, it may show options to visit Sydney, another popular Australian city.
Related: The best ways to use points and miles to fly from the US to Australia
How to find the best getaway deal
This function is similar to the previous tip — just focused on another aspect of your search. Start by clicking the "Explore" button on the sidebar.
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 flight 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.
Related: 9 awesome features you didn’t know about Google Flights
If I zoom in closer on the map, the system recalibrates and shows me more destinations and price points within the updated map view:
And if I decide to zoom way out for a world view, I’ll see the best-priced destinations of note across the globe.
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. However, 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.
Related: Safaris, cities and lots of elephants: How I returned to South Africa using points, miles and cash
Google Flights is an incredibly powerful tool the TPG team uses every day to price airfare. It’s simple and mostly intuitive to use, especially once you know all the tips and tricks. It can help you quickly find the best flights for your travel.
Additional reporting by Clint Henderson and Ben Smithson.