Learn To Use Google Flights To Search Like A Power User. No, Really.
Some of the value I bring as a travel professional is deep, detailed experience, but some of my best tips for efficiently finding the best flights for your trip simply boil down to knowing the right tools and how to use them effectively. In that spirit, today we're going to look at a few basic features that'll make Google Flights one of the most powerful, versatile tools in your workbox.
"But wait," you might well ask, "didn't you just go off on a long, two-part rant about never using third-party websites to book flights?". You're right, I did, but in this case we're only using Google to do what they do best - ridiculously powerful, customizable search - to find WHAT to book direct with the airline.
Before we go any further - this isn't a sponsored post, and I have no relationship with Google. I think there are some questionable parts of their overall business model as a corporation, but they've also built a ridiculously powerful tool here that can help save meaningful amounts of money and time.
Let's get started!
Tool 3: Destination Controls
Tool #1: Schedule Controls
This week, I'm flying out to meet my wife on Vancouver Island for a family celebration. I've got a pretty flexible schedule, so I grabbed the most-direct flight that still had eUpgrade space I could confirm right away. However, my wife has morning meetings she can't miss, so she needed to leave home as late as possible today while still getting from Ottawa to Nanaimo the same day.
On a generic search from YOW to YCD, we'll get about 180 different flight combinations, from an efficient 1-stop connection through Calgary, to a truly-ridiculous, 13-hour marathon with connections in Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver:
We can quickly discard all the flights we don't want, by using the "Times" and "Duration" drop-downs in the search bar. I limit departure times to show me only flights departing after 12 noon, and arrivals between noon and midnight, to remove any search results that include an overnight connection and arrival the next morning. I'll also limit "duration" to under 24 hours, to get rid of the thanks-but-no-thanks options to leave at noon and arrive at 4 PM the next day, which leaves us with the following:
Since I already know from my first search that the cheapest-available flight is $471, I can feel confident that the $477 option that departs at 2:10 PM is a good deal, and also does what I need schedule-wise, so I can click through the link Google generates, and go direct to the Air Canada website to book direct.
While we're on the topic of schedule, it's also often useful to look at Google Flights' calendar view, to find out if any particular dates have unusually high or low prices. Just click on the "Departure Date" box in the search bar, and it'll pop up a calendar with the lowest-priced flight available on each date. In our case, we had to travel on certain dates, but searching this way ahead of time helped to remind me that prices start to go up at the 4-week, 2-week and 1 week marks, so we booked early to land the best fare.
Now that we've figured out the When, let's move on to the Where!
Tool #2: Connection Controls
I've got to go to Dubai in January. On this route, there are so many different options that I don't want to miss out on a great business-class fare, but I also don't *really* want to fly Egyptair, or Turkish Airlines' old-school 777 business-class product, so I want to go into the "Connecting Airports" tab and remove Istanbul and Cairo from the list of search results.
At this point, I'm seeing a variety of options to connect through Amsterdam or Frankfurt, or get on the direct Toronto-Dubai flight with Air Canada, for around $5,200-$6,200 round-trip in business class. However, I'm also seeing a little pop-up below the search bar noting that for the dates I want to travel, it's *way* cheaper to fly from Montreal. Like, thousands of dollars cheaper, even in business class.
So, I change airport, and sure enough, while Qatar Airways doesn't fly to Ottawa, they'll be happy to take me from Montreal to Dubai for just over half what I'd have paid Air Canada or KLM. I can hop on the train to Montreal for a fraction of the difference, and come out thousands of dollars ahead.
Another way I can use the "Connecting Airports" tool to my advantage is to exclude search results that would require me to connect by landing at one airport and departing from another. Sometimes I want to avoid this because it's annoying, like landing at London Heathrow, and having to schlep an hour across town to depart from London City.
Other times, it could help avoid an 'un-flyable' ticket. For example, even after most of the world reopened post-pandemic, Japan remained closed to visitors, but you could connect through either Tokyo-Haneda *or* Tokyo-Narita as long as you never leave the airport. If I'd booked a ticket from Vancouver to Bangkok, arriving at Narita but connecting out of Haneda, I'd have been (correctly) denied boarding in Vancouver, since I could connect through Japan but not enter it.
So, I set my Connecting Airports filter to try the same search excluding one airport or the other, until I found a flight I liked; in this case, that same Air Canada flight shown above could also connect to a different ANA flight from Narita with a much better connection time.
Tool #3: Destination Controls
This one's a bit out there, but can be useful if you need to plan a mileage run or just want to get away for a week, and you're willing to let a cheap flight be your guide. You can tell the search engine where you're starting from, and when you want to fly, and it'll show you prices for dozens of destinations at once.
Let's say you've been told you have to burn your stacked-up vacation time before year end; you decide you want to spend a week in Europe, but you're not picky where. So, you'll go into the search engine, fill in your origin, your dates and any filters you want (in this case, we'll say you don't want more than one connection, and you don't want to spend all day flying).
So, with that entered in, you'll get the following results, and it sure looks like you're going to Paris. Or, you can move the map around, maybe see if there's a cheap flight to somewhere warm in the Caribbean for a week. You can add or remove filters as you like.
When you click on Paris, it'll take you into the next layer of detail, and you can pick the flight times that work best for you. In this case, we'll take layovers long enough that we won't have to worry about snow delays on the way out, or long Customs lines on the way home, so we'll take the $898 option.
Now, this next bit gets slightly frustrating, but also lets me point out that Google Flights results include some important information you'll want to book with confidence. See, that $898 price we picked was a "Basic Economy" fare. I almost always warn against booking these, regardless of the airline you're flying, unless you're certain your plans can't possibly change *and* you don't mind travelling light.
This flight offers one really obvious example of why this is true: the difference between a completely-non-refundable Basic Economy fare, and a partially-refundable Standard fare, is almost exactly the same as the extra fee you'll need to pay to check a bag on the Basic fare. If you're like me, and living out of a backpack for a week is no big deal, this might be fine, but many people prefer to go to Europe with enough spare outfits that they never need to do laundry. Different socks for different folks.
Basic fares usually don't earn frequent-flyer miles, either, and even when a Standard fare only earns 50% of miles flown, a flight like this will still earn about 3,500 Aeroplan miles, which I value at about $70.
So, we'll choose the Standard fare, and then we'll be ready to click through to the Air Canada site and book the ticket directly with the airline.
GREAT BIG WARNING!
Sometimes Google Flights will offer several options, to buy direct from the airline, or through one of its alliance partners, or through a third-party website. Never, ever book flights through a third-party website!
There's no great magic in anything I've showed you above, but often the simplest techniques can be the most powerful. Using one or more of the tools above can help you take greater control of your travel planning, and target the flights that give you the best value. I hope you find them as useful as I have!