How to Use Google Flights to Plan Your Next Award Trip

Jan 4, 2019

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Being a savvy award traveler means more than just knowing which airlines are transfer partners of Chase Ultimate Rewards and what hidden gems you can book with specific programs. It also means knowing all the various tech tools that can make your life easier, from the time you start planning your trip until you arrive at your destination.

One of the most powerful tools for air travel is Google Flights. Much like Google itself, Google Flights offers an unparalleled aggregation of data and options which we can use to save time and money during the trip planning process. While there are plenty of Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) and flight comparison websites, there are none quite like Google Flights. Here are a few reasons why it’s one of our favorites as you’re starting to plan out a trip using your hard-earned points and miles.

Figuring Out Routing Options

One of the hardest parts of booking international award travel is figuring out all your routing options. It might be easy to figure out that there aren’t that many airlines flying nonstop between, say, Shanghai (PVG) and Chicago-O’Hare (ORD). (There are two, actually: United and China Eastern.) But what if you were flying to Washington-Dulles (IAD) instead? With no nonstop options on the table, Google Flights can help you quickly find one-stop routings.

In this example, the site found over 80 different options:

In addition to all the obvious US legacy carriers, you might discover some new routing options that can help you look for award space. For example, Google Flights would show me that Cathay Pacific is now flying nonstop from Hong Kong (HKG) to Washington-Dulles, which would be great to know if you were trying to redeem Alaska or American Airlines miles.

Filtering by Alliance

One of the most powerful levers that an award traveler can utilize is partner airlines. Whether you’re trying to use miles from a Star Alliance carrier, SkyTeam airline or Oneworld partner, it’s critical to know which flights would be bookable using the points or miles you’re trying to redeem. Fortunately, Google Flights helps in this regard too. Whenever you search for a given route, you have the option to filter by an alliance.

Simply click the Airlines filter at the top and select your desired alliance:

Your results are then limited by carriers in that alliance, allowing you to hone in on the exact flights you want.

For additional tips on leveraging these programs, check out the following guides:

Comparing Prices

Google Flights is also incredibly useful to identify when you should consider paying for your ticket instead of redeeming miles. For starters, since it displays results for revenue flights, not all of the options it shows will be valid award routings. In the above example, my search from Shanghai to Washington-Dulles yielded a number of westbound flights through Europe and the Middle East that generally wouldn’t be bookable as award tickets. However, it may be a more convenient or direct routing, in which case paying for the ticket may make the most sense.

It also can quickly show you what the ticket prices would be on your desired travel date(s). If a flight from Shanghai to Washington-Dulles is available for just $800, you’d probably want to save your miles for another use or consider using fixed-value rewards to book the ticket.

Even if you’re not looking to use your points and miles at all, it still makes sense to start your search with Google Flights because of the incredibly flexible options it offers. Sometimes when booking a round-trip flight, it’s cheaper to book two separate one-way tickets, even on two different airlines. While not every OTA is great about showing this option, Google Flights makes sure to show you the lowest price and clearly identifies that you’re booking separate tickets.

Showing Alternate Airports

Another great feature that can help with your award flight planning is the fact that you can easily include multiple airports in a given city. When you initially search, you can select a city instead of a specific airport, which will then include all applicable airports in the metropolitan area:

Even after you search, the interface allows you to quickly add alternative airports for your flights. By clicking the Airports icon, you’ll see a list of other options and can click “Add Airport” for each one you’d like to include:

For many travelers, it makes no difference whether they fly into Fort Lauderdale (FLL) or Miami (MIA), London-Heathrow (LHR) or London-Gatwick (LGW), so being able to easily include other options is nice. After all, if the only award availability is to or from a nearby airport, I’d certainly prefer snagging an award over missing out on the trip entirely!

Inspiring Your Next Trip

If you’re in need of some inspiration for your next award trip, one of my favorite things to do is to input my departure city, leave the destination box empty and hit Enter. Google Flights will then display a map with prices from your origin city to a host of domestic and international destinations. You can drag the map to see other parts of the world and apply filters to find flights that work for you. If you’re the kind of person who likes letting the deal plan the trip, this is one of the fastest ways to do it.

This is directly applicable to award travelers too. For example, TPG Editor Nick Ewen typically travels to Europe over Thanksgiving, and since he travels with his wife and young daughter, he prefers nonstop or one-stop flights. Enter Google Flights. By selecting Miami (MIA), leaving the destination box empty, inputting his dates and using the filters at the top, he can quickly see nonstop (or one-stop) flights operating on his desired travel date:

Of course, this doesn’t mean these flights are available as awards, but Google Flights can be a great jumping off point to see where you can get from a given airport or city if your final destination is flexible.

Additional Filters

All of these search features are in addition to Google Flights’ excellent additional filters, which let you customize your search pretty much however you want. You can filter by basic economy flights, number of stops, prices, times and much more.

I also love the calendar view which quickly shows you a two month snapshot of prices based on the search criteria you’ve already selected.

Two Important Notes

While Google Flights is a fantastic tool to quickly see flight options, there are two very important things to keep in mind:

Google Flights is NOT an OTA

While Google Flights knows more about flight prices than just about any other site on the internet, it’s not actually an Online Travel Agency (OTA) through which you can purchase airfare. Instead, once you’ve found the flight you want, Google Flights will price compare for you and help you find the cheapest option, whether that’s with an actual OTA or by booking directly with the airline.

In this example, if you started your search Expedia, you might end up paying almost $100 more than you needed to!

It’s actually a very good thing that Google Flights isn’t an OTA. Oftentimes it’s cheaper (or equally cheap) to book directly with the airline. Doing so will also help guarantee that you earn bonus points if you’re booking with a card like The Platinum Card® from American Express or the American Express® Gold Card, since these bonuses are only awarded on flights booked directly with the airline. It’ll also ensure that your flight won’t code as a special fare or bulk fare that would be ineligible for mileage accrual and may not count towards elite status qualification.

Google Flights Doesn’t Display Award Space

In addition to not allowing you to pay for flights, the site has nothing to do with award availability. Just because you find a flight or an itinerary on Google Flights doesn’t guarantee that it’s available using points or miles. It all depends on whether the operating carrier (or carriers) have opened award seats on the flight(s). For that step in the booking process, you’ll need to search on a specific airline’s website or use a service like ExpertFlyer.

For some tips on the best ways to find award availability, check out the following posts:

Bottom Line

Google Flights is an absolutely essential tool for even the most infrequent of travelers. Whether you’re looking for routing options, cheap paid flights or available back-up itineraries in the event of delays, Google Flights’ massive datasets and intuitive user interface make it a go-to tool for most of your flight needs.

Featured photo by Pixabay

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