Google has put another foot squarely in the travel arena with Google Flights, its new airline ticket aggregator. The site has the ITA Software deal to thank for its existance, which was hotly contested by would-be competitors. Nonetheless, Google hasn’t been deterred by its new cohorts’ dissatisfaction and Hotel Finder and Flights have made their officially debuts.
We’ve already taken a look at how Google Hotel Finder stacks up against the competition, and now we’ll put Google Flights through the ringer.
Like Hotel Finder, Google Flights is incredibly minimalistic and makes for a lot of white space. It has the same new layout as Google Search, and the left hand side of the page offers tabs to help you narrow down results. Flights uses a map to visually show you your potential flight, and includes drop-down filters to let you peruse flights based on their length and price.
Flights is inarguably easy to navigate. The lack of ads (we’d assume for the time being) means your focus is squarely set on your search. Results drop down below your query in order of takeoff time. We would rather it automatically displayed flights according to price, which is generally the tipping point for consumers. You can decide what qualifier flights are listed by, of course, including price. But the wording Google uses here is a little strange: Clicking “Round trip” will display your options according to their cost. Just from looking at the page you could probably deduce as much, but it’s not as immediately clear as if the category were simply labeled “Price.”
By most comparisons, Kayak has a fairly sparse site that is absence of clutter and distractions, but after coming from Google Flights it almost looks too busy. Most of that is because Kayak puts some of its features right up front, whereas Flights hides them behind icons and in drop downs. Kayak’s “Flex calendar” and option to see others’ best found fares can be located on the right hand side of the page, adjacent to your actual search.
Search itself is as simple as it should be. We do like the map Google Flights provides – it does a nice job breaking up the text. While the flexible dates feature and indicators (like which class type you’re looking for, and if you’d like to skip layovers) might feel like you’re being asked too many questions compared to Google Flights’ simplicity, they are likely a quicker means to an end in your specific flight search.
The search part of Kayak is fine, but it’s the results UI we don’t care for. Instead of a drop down, you’re redirected to a new page full of ads, a side bar to adjust the conditions of your trip, a flexible days calendar, and then finally your results. It’s a really busy page to look at, but we are glad the left-hand bar keeps you from having to backpedal to the home page to alter your search.
Google isn’t the only search company that wants to capitalize on the online travel market. The competitor site has a few years on Google, and it has a multitude of features to prove it. It has a remarkably similar layout to Google Flights – at first. The search box portion of the page is reminiscent, but Bing lays all the site’s cards on the table. Everything you could possibly want to use from Bing Travel is right at its surface: Last-minute flight deals, low fare finders, price predictors. All very interesting stuff, but it crowds the site and definitely distracts from what could otherwise be a very clean look.
Once you search, a popup shows your flight summary, which you can defer to or choose to see a more thorough listing. The latter redirects you to a new page, which automatically displays your options according to price.
Bing’s UI looks like the love child of Google Flights and Kayak. It wants to be all clean lines and white space without sacrificing the various features Kayak throws on the margins of its site. The result is a less-defined results section.
- Left-hand margin: Most of the features to narrow your flight results are found on the left-hand side of the page – as they are with both Kayak and Bing Travel. Google chooses a different, cleaner format, however, and one that surfaces only after you’ve initially begun your query. Here you determine how many stops your flight will make, airline, connections, and time specifications. Clicking these categories reveals a drop down (a layout choice Google’s obviously in love with) to make your selection.
- Calendar: Google Flights’ more interesting tools can be found via icons below the center map. One of these is the calendar. Selecting it drops down the month of your flight, highlights your specific dates, and then displays the lowest fare surrounding that time for five day trips. You can toggle this to find the lowest price if you have flexible travel arrangements. It’s simple and clean, and our only complaint is that a calendar icon doesn’t necessarily indicate it’s a low fare finder.
- Limits: The limits tool is an interactive graph that lets you control your results via sliders determining how much you want to pay and how long you want to fly. The dots on the graph are clusters of available flights, and it’s actually pretty cool to visually be able to spot the one or two perfect options. It might not be the quickest way to find a flight, but it’s fun to play with.
- Flexible dates: Immediately upon starting your search, the Flexible dates calendar pops up with cheap dates in the near future, highlighting the most inexpensive of them all.
- Comparison: Unlike Google Flights, Kayak offers the ability to compare its results to those of its competitors. You can choose to view (in new windows – we wish they could all be collected in one window) options from Priceline, Expedia, Travelocity, Hotwire, CheapOair, and others.
- Price alert: If your travel arrangements aren’t set in stone, you can choose to be alerted for discount tickets in the near future for your destination.
- Fare charts: Like Google Flights’ calendar, this displays when prices drop and rise, and it conveniently pops up over the page instead of redirecting you.
- Comparison: Like Kayak, Bing offers comparisons to competitor sites. You can determine whether you want to see results from Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline, Hotwire, and BookingBuddy. Kayak took issue with Bing playing copycat, in fact, a few years back.
- Low-fare finder: On the flight search home page, there’s an option to forgo the regular search setup and defer to the low-fare date finder below. This redirects you to a map showing off the cheapest tickets by departure date. Better yet, Bing offers arrows indicating whether individual airfares are climbing or dropping so you can determine if you need to act fast or employ a little patience, part of its price predictor service and maybe our favorite feature the site has to offer.
- Multiple routes: This is another innovative tool Bing deserves praise for. Next to the low fare finder, you can enter your departing and arriving cities and choose to find multiple routes. This then shows you prices of traveling to multiple destinations. It’s obviously a feature that is most useful for vacation planning, but the map displaying all your options is fun and easy to use.
- Price predictor: This is basically a guide helping you through your airfare planning. It helps you determine when it’s best to purchase a ticket, and also runs you through various features on the site and how they can assist your search.
- Last-minute flights: The last minute flight list reminds us of Expedia, which seems to shoot out emails of cheap flights by the minute. It’s still useful if you’re keeping an eye on a weekend away, and includes the price predictor icon.
Case study: Chicago
Time to put these three to the test. Here is our experience using Google Flights, Kayak, and Bing Travel to book a two or three day trip out to Chicago, IL. We’re choosing to make the dates flexible, sometime in the next month.
The first thing we noticed about Google Flights is how quickly it yielded results for the weekend of September 24. Almost instantly we had nearly two dozen results to peruse, starting at $545. Seeing as we have a flexible travel schedule, we pulled up the calendar to play with timing a bit. Turns out if we left two days later than originally entered, we’d get a cheaper fare. Just for kicks, we decided to also play with the limits feature, and found an even less expensive deal flying out earlier for $295.
Willing to push back the flight to September 26, we clicked the price to book it and were redirected to Frontier’s site. Unfortunately, there was no direct link to book the flight immediately. Instead, we would have to search on Frontier’s site for the specific flight all over again. That didn’t take long and we found the flight for a grand total of $294.80.
- Time: 10 to 15 minutes
- Final price and departure date: $294.80, September 26
- Options: 58
After telling Kayak we wanted to go from PDX to any airport in Chicago, we immediately looked at the best fares calendar to the right. Right away we saw there was a flight on September 27 for $295. But clicking on it did nothing, so we continued on.
It was slower than Google Flights, but not a painful lag by any means. Now there were far more options than Google Flights yielded: Kayak pulled up more than 2,000 round trips. Google might be faster and sleeker, but Kayak’s wealth of results are a big tip in its favor.
Of course the caveat to this is that looking at Kayak was something of an eyesore. All the options and calendars and ads didn’t encourage us to use everything the site has to offer. It actually just made us want to pick the top option and get out of there.
After choosing the ticket, we were redirected to CheapTickets, where the final total price was $294.80.
- Time: 15 to 20 minutes
- Final price and departure date: $294.80, September 26
- Options: 2,000+
Before we even hit “search flights” over at Bing, we deferred to the lowest fares feature at the bottom of the page. The site brought up results faster than Kayak, but slower than Google flights, and offered up 210 options. The first was a $295 flight from Portland to Chicago… on October 4. Trying to find a date closer to the other two we’d found proved more painstaking than we thought. On page eight, we found a flight on the 26 for $304. We did appreciate the price predictor, which said the cost was on its way up.
Selecting it yielded a short wait, then took us to options reading $312. We were redirected and the total price was $311.80
- Time: 15 to 20 minutes
- Final price and departure date: $311.80, September 26
- Options: Approximately 200
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