Last updated on May 22nd, 2015 at 10:42 am
So you have decided. It is time for a holiday. Where? It does not matter, away, maybe in a warmer place and with some good photographic opportunities. Now comes the important question: how to find the cheapest flights.
Although the question is quite easy, the answer is very very complicated. A long time ago I worked for almost 4 years in a Travel Distribution System company. The market is almost divided between two companies and I was in one of them. What do they do? They do the search through the airline databases (tickets archive) to find the best price for the flight class you want. How to find the cheapest flights? Without going into the details, they have huge IT systems with millions of transaction per second and they look for the best combination.
They usually succeed although there are few conditions:
It was quite complicated till a new company in 1996 started the flight search with a complete different approach. That company was called ITA Software and sure they took a while to provide a workable solution but it was just fantastic, so incredible and quick that the usual Google Universe decided in 2010-2011 to absorb ITA and launch a new website called of course google.com/flights
This is a game changer because you just need to add you departure airport and your departure/return date and you are provided with a map of the world and the cheapest airfares.
How to find the cheapest flights? Well, you can now decide where to fly based on your available budget. The price of the ticket may be distance related but this is not a rule. Being again in Scandinavia you may find the tickets to Kuala Lumpur to be cheaper than the tickets to Calcutta, and this may be because there is a festival, a trade show or local festivities. This is the beauty of the google.com/flights solution
In the example above I set Stockholm as departure airport and I check the prices around Europe for the best deals on the specified dates. How to find the cheapest flights? There are few options as Lisbon, Rome, Split or Istanbul, all with a similar price tag.
As you see there are few sites/cities where you do not see a price. The main reason is that there are no flights on that days.
How to look into this locations?
The best has to come, so many quick and easy options to go through
Now, let’s assume you have decided your holiday destination.
Here you go to the next level. Look into the city to city flight.
You start selecting the destination city and you will look into a graph of the price. You may find that just shifting your flights for 1 day you can save 10 to 50% of the price, especially on the long-haul flights.
Back to our example, how to find the cheapest flights from Stockholm to Lisbon. If we shift our holiday for just one day (still 2 weeks but Thursday to Saturday instead of Friday to Sunday) we can save over 15% (from $254 to $215) on the advertised price. It may not be too much on a short flight but, by experience (living in Melbourne you have only long flights once you decide to leave the country) it may save you hundreds of dollars.
But the best has to come!
Usually the price of a ticket is not related to the length of the stay but at either the departure date, the return date or both of them. It is well known that the Sunday afternoon/evening flights are usually the most expensive as well as the Friday ones.
How to find the cheapest flights in your holiday period?
Again the google.com/flights solution comes to help you.
You can go through the calendar and you will be presented with the best prices in the month. You can select the departure date and play with the return date, or the other way around. The prices update almost immediately.
Let’s go back to our example, how to find the cheapest flights from Stockholm to Lisbon. You can play around and see straight away that the higher cost is due to the Sunday return and not to the Friday departure. As a result you can still leave on Friday the 10th of July and back on Saturday and you still save 15% on the price; beside, you do not need to ask one day off more to your boss 😉
In the final step Google will give you the link to the airline company to book your flights. Easy, back to the usual business from now on
This is more complicated. The low cost airlines may or may not be included in the Google flights list. Some of these airlines do not provide access to Google or any other Booking Reservation System. The main reason is that they run the business with a very limited seat revenue. They work on quantity and not on single passengers revenues. If they provide access to other parties, they would have to give up to a part of the revenue and they literally cannot do that due to the nature of their business, low cost.
The best way forward is to check on on Wikipedia the list of the low cost airlines and see from there if there is anyone that is based on in the departure or arrival country. This may not give you the best results as there are companies financially based in a different location from where they operate.
The second step, and most probably better option, is to go on the LowCostGuide website. You will be again presented with a map, this time of all the low cost flights. It is a great system to understand all the options. However do not book from there, go directly on the low cost airlines websites, they do provide a better price at the end. The reason is that all the travelling sites that include low cost airlines in the own search they usually charge a management fee on top.
You can click on the single country and go deeper to the city level. As it happens in most of the low cost cases, be aware that you may fly in/out of secondary airports where the bus ticket to your arrival destination can actually be more expensive than the flight itself 😀
If you are flexible with your dates the Google solution is really great. The best part is that the cost of the flight tickets is updated immediately as soon as you move through the map or the dates. I had a talk with some formal colleagues about the technology behind it. There is a term very fashionable nowadays: big data. Yes, that is the way Google works, completely different from the other major players that are still using computing languages and platform 20-30 years old. Why they cannot upgrade? They have been trying for a long while but, to be honest, for this kind of Database transaction the old systems perform better. ITA came in the market with a complexly different approach which clearly paid off.
This map solution works great with long-haul flights. You look for the flight and you go deeper into the dates details. This is my #1 site to check. I usually book, however, directly on the airlines companies. Why? I feel safer than going through the Google link. The price is exactly the same, already tested multiple times, so no real gain here
The low cost airlines can be a real money saver, however they can be a money spinning machine as soon as you start adding a bag, paying with credit card etc. Be aware of these limits. Low cost airline may present a misleading price ticket, not including taxes, although this depend on the country regulations. As an example, in Australia the flight companies are obliged to present the ticket price including tax from the beginning of the search
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Another factor is the flight length. Google gives you the best price but that may be with a longer flight, maybe just few hours, maybe more. Have a check on the length of the flight before taking any decision. Last year I decided to have a stop over of 10 hours in Singapore, on the way back from Europe. We saved around $500 and we had a fantastic day in Singapore. This airport is just amazing and they offer you a free tour to the city (VISA included), swimming pool, gym, butterfly garden, cinemas and so much more. So many things to do in one day in Singapore that a guide was well deserved for the stop over!! Is it the case of all the airports? Not really. Have a look at the related websites
Google flights includes only a small amount of currencies to choose from, of which the Australian Dollar is not included. That’s a pity, but what you are after is the price tag, which you can exchange to your local currency. I do not see this as a real problem
Why Google flights is not as publicised as much on every “how to find the cheapest flights guide, 10 tips to how to find the cheapest flights, 6 ways on how to find the cheapest flights, bla bla” articles or TV. Well, Google is experiencing some problem with the antitrust in both the US and Europe. If you Google for the word “flight” guess which website comes up first. If you Google “fly Stockholm to Lisbon” you will be listed with all the available options, not too many, but try a “fly London to Milan“. The Google flights may have the power to disrupt the travel distribution industry, however the antitrust will not allow to gain the same power as they have in the Search Engine Industry. Really hard task. What is the difference for us? None, we just want the best flight option 😀
We want to hear from you now!!
How do you book your flights? What is the process? Do you use low cost airlines for long-haul flights? Have you ever tried Google Flights before and in case how do you like it?
Stef Ferro is the founder and editor of MEL365, a travel & photography website made to enhance the travelling experience and improve the photography work.
Stef is a professional travel photographer with past experience in the cycling and film industry.
Stef runs travel photography workshops in Melbourne and around the world.