I frequently get asked how I travel so much and specifically how I can afford all those flights. While I do use frequent flier miles occasionally, my “trick” is honestly just to use Google Flights to explore all my options before booking and to be flexible with dates/destination. In this post I’ll walk you through how to find the best and cheapest flights available.
We have all heard tips and tricks to finding cheap flights: clear your cookies, sign up for newsletters, use third-party search engines, etc. While you can find great deals by using newsletters and third-party search sites (the cookies thing is complete BS, by the way), I prefer to use Google Flights and have had great luck booking low fares on top airlines to all over the United States and Europe!
Below you will find step-by-step guides (with photos!) on how to use Google Flights to find the best and/or cheapest flights for three different scenarios: (1) you know when and where you want to travel, (2) you know when you want to travel but not sure where to go, or (3) you know where you want to go but you’re not sure when is most affordable.
As we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, please heed the advice of healthcare professionals, the CDC, and check local guidelines before traveling. Take your safety and the risk of transferring the virus to others seriously.
Google Flights is such a powerful tool and I am a huge fan. I actually first learned about and started exploring it when I went to apply for a job at Scott’s Cheap Flights (I didn’t actually apply because I knew nothing at the time about Google Flights), and one of the questions was to describe and show with screenshots your process for using Google Flights to find deals. That got me very interested and over the years I’ve used it more and more, and I use it for every single trip I plan now.
Last year, I was going to be in Dallas for work and wanted to take a few days off after but didn’t really have a goal/idea of where. I used the Google Flights “Explore” feature to look for the best flights from Dallas for the day I was going to be headed out. I ended up flying into St. George, Utah and road tripping around southern Utah for a few days – I hiked Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion Canyon National Park and it was incredible! I also chose to go to Yellowstone & Grand Tetons National Parks in September based on a cheap flight I found on Google Flights. Read about my trip to Yellowstone & Grand Tetons here and check out what I packed here. I guess you could say 2020 has been the year of the national park in my life.
a few notes before we start
Southwest flights are not included on Google Flights – just like on websites such as Priceline, Expedia, Kayak, etc., they do not allow their flights to be bought on third-party engines. So, if you are a Southwest loyalist, don’t be surprised when they don’t show up in your search. My assumption is that if you frequently fly Southwest, then you know where they fly in/out. You will need to search for fights on Southwest’s website to compare those you find on Google Flights, if you want to double check across airlines.
There are several important and helpful filter options on Google Flights, the two I use most are “bags” and “airlines.” Because budget airlines these days do not include carry-on baggage in basic fares, some of the prices you’ll find that pop up are incredibly cheap….but then you have to pay $50+ to bring a backpack! Use the bags filter to make sure you find flights that fit what you need.
Another great tool is to create alerts for prices. Once you’ve found the flight(s) you want to book, you can select “Track Prices” at the top and it will send you an email any time the flight price goes up or down. I believe you have to have a Google email/account and be signed in to use this feature.
Three Step-by-Step guides for using Google Flights to find the best and cheapest flights
Scenario #1: how to search specific dates and destinations on Google Flights
This step-by-step guide is for situations where you know when and where you want to fly. Obviously this is not the best way to find super cheap deals, but Google Flights does let you easily compare airlines, flight times, layovers/stops, and more.
Example: I have to fly to seattle for a wedding on May 15, 2021 but can only take one day off work, therefore my flight days are pretty concrete.
- Go to google.com/flights.
- Type in your search just like you would on any site/airline page.
- Click Search and then use any filters you might want to use – baggage, stops, length, departure/arrive times, preferred airlines, etc.
- It will automatically show you the cheapest and quickest flights, which is what Google determines as “best.”
- You can click the little arrow on the right to expand and see all the details of the flight, including travel times, layover time, and layover airport.
- Browse around and select your outgoing flight – you will be brought to the next screen to choose your returning flight.
- On the final screen, you will see options to change your fare class and then where you can go to purchase the flight. Most frequently, it is the airline’s website, but not always.
- At the bottom of this screen you will also see a little graphic that shows how these flight prices compare to “normal” prices, which can be helpful to know if you’re getting a good deal or not.
Scenario #2: how to search on Google Flights to find the cheapest destination using your available dates
This step-by-step guide is for when you have a set time frame that you want to fly, but you aren’t sure where to go. Use these steps to find the cheapest destination for your dates!
Example: the week of May 9-15 is best for me to take off work, so I want to go somewhere on vacation that week.
- Go to google.com/flights.
- Click “explore destinations.”
- Choose either “specific dates” if they are set in stone, or you can use the “flexible dates” and select duration and month.
- Filter using any of the filters that apply to you – preferred airlines, carry-on included, number of stops, etc.
- Use the map to scroll around and find flight costs that match your search criteria.
- TIP: use the arrows to flip back and forth on your departure and return dates to potentially find cheaper flight combinations by being a bit more flexible.
- When you find a price that sounds good, click on that city and on the left, you can select “view flights” – that will open a new window with that specific flight search. From there you can adjust and modify your search as necessary or proceed with selecting and booking your flights!
Scenario #3: how to search on Google Flights for the cheapest times to fly to your destination of choice
This step-by-step guide is for when you know you want to visit a specific destination, but your dates are flexible and you really want to find the most affordable time to fly there! There are three different tools on Google Flights to help you explore options.
Example: I want to go to Scotland for about a week and I’m not bound by my schedule, I can pretty much go whenever.
- Go to google.com/flights.
- Enter your departure and destination airports (for this I selected Inverness, Scotland) and then any filters – preferred airlines, carry-on included, number of stops etc.
- Three ways to explore options:
- Tool #1 – Click on departure date and at the bottom you can toggle the number of days you want your trip to be – that will show prices for that length of trip based on the day you depart. Alternatively, if you click a departure day, the prices will show on each day after that and those prices are the total roundtrip cost if you return on that day.
- Tool #2 – enter any miscellaneous dates and click search. On the next page, click Price Graph at the top and from there you can toggle your number of days you want your trip to be (note: this includes your departure day, so for destinations that are very far away/take a long time to travel to, your total trip duration will be cut down. Example: You enter a 7 day trip to Bali, but it takes 30+ hours to arrive there from your home city, so your “7 day trip” is really 2 days travel to and from on each end).
- Tool #3 – enter any miscellaneous dates and click search. On the next page, click “Date grid at the top and then you can see the prices for departure/return dates based on where the columns and rows align.
- If your dates are flexible, I highly recommend checking multiple options well in advance and setting price alerts. There are many ways you can explore your options, so just take some time and go through potential dates until you find what works.
- Once you’ve found the dates you want to travel, you can proceed with booking (steps above in Scenario #1 Steps 4-8).
a few final thoughts
Make sure you check and double check layover times and number of stops – this is for any flight, but it’s easy to get sucked into a great price without making sure it doesn’t have a 12+ hour layover in Bismarck or something.
Also, sometimes when you click on the link to go book the flight, the price will have changed and unfortunately that’s just the case with online booking. Similarly, sometimes the same flights will have different prices on different airline websites, so check around – but be careful because not all have the same refund/cancellation policies and that is very important in the land of COVID-19! As I mentioned at the beginning, double check Southwest if that is an airline you like to fly (I do!) – sometimes the cheapest prices on Google Flights will align with Southwest but those flights have 2 checked bags which can be important depending on your trip.
(photo to the left is flying home from the Dominican Republic ahead of Hurricane Dorian in 2019 – the clouds were WILD.)
Hopefully you learned some tips and tricks here to help you get the best and cheapest flight for your next trip! I know that 2020 has not been the year many of us planned but I am optimistic that 2021 will see a return of ease and comfort in traveling while also keeping everyone safe.
Leave a comment with any questions you have or share the cheapest (or “best”) flight you’ve ever taken. Mine was probably a $98 roundtrip to Washington, D.C. during cherry blossom season – although it turned out the weather didn’t cooperate and the season was basically ruined that year it was a great trip. We also booked $500 roundtrip England & Scotland (into London, out of Edinburgh) for this past spring, but alas the pandemic made us cancel those plans – but I still think that is a great deal for out of Indianapolis. If you fly out of major hubs like Chicago, Atlanta, New York, etc. then you’ll likely find even cheaper deals.