This is the hardest..and the easiest thing to do. Hardest because most people don’t know where to start to compare international flights, and easiest because once you know…you know!! There are a ton of websites that all say they will give you the cheapest tickets…and some may..but there is always more to it!
So What is a Flight Search Engine?
If you go online looking for flights, domestic or international, a whole slew of websites will pop up. No matter what search engine you use from Google to Yahoo to Bing. Many will try to pry your eyes with the word cheap. For the most part it is a ploy. Don’t be swayed by it as the smaller operations rarely consistently out do the big operations. The Big names you may have heard of.. Kayak, Priceline, Hotwire, Orbitz, Travelocity, and Expedia. And maybe more, but these are on television with ads daily. Out of all of these the big one is Kayak. Why? Kayak is known as a flight aggregator ….it gathers up all the info it can across the web, including information from other websites such as Hotwire and Orbitz and Travelocity. It allows you to look at a ton of info and link back to the other sites to actually book. So you search flights on Kayak but if Kayak finds a flight on an airline you like, you can go directly there from Kayak. Because aggregators gather up so much information, the best place to start is to compare the flight info at at least a couple or three of these. The other big names you may know are Momondo, Skyscanner, and Google Flights/ITA. These, along with Kayak, are at the moment the most popular though there are a few others. There are sites known as OTA’s.. Online Travel Agencies. Names like the aforementioned Priceline, Hotwire, Orbitz, Travelocity, Booking.com, Expedia, and CheapOair, are popular OTA’s and many have grown into aggregators themselves. For example, if you search for a flight on Booking.com, which built its reputation on hotels and packages (rooms and tours and more sold together to save money) uses the KAYAK search engine to find flights. Why? We will discuss that next.
The Tangled Flight Web
Kayak, one of the big boys, is actually part of a bigger conglomerate known as the Priceline Group. Yup. Priceline.com and Kayak…same family. Along with Booking.com, Agoda, Cheapflights, and Momondo! Even though Kayak and Momondo are two of the top dogs, they are from the same boss. And no, they don’t have the exact same info. They still operate mostly as totally separate in terms of how they operate. So using both to find a flight is still smart. Skyscanner, another popular aggregator is a UK company fully owned by Ctrip, the largest Chinese travel conglomerate. Then there is Google Flights. Google Flights uses the ITA Matrix, a software developed by MIT scientists intended to take over the industry but as yet, it is competitive but not always intuitive. The other big guns are very competitive with Google. They have their own flight “scientists” I guess. Just to muddle the waters some more, the flight and OTA’s Hotwire, Travelocity, Orbitz, and Cheaptickets are all together with Expedia under the umbrella of Expedia Inc.
Consistency Versus One Cheap Ticket
There are many other websites and agencies to get a flight ticket, a hotel package or a tour. Some folks want it all done together in a package which can really be a good idea when traveling with several people. Alone you don’t always have to have every room locked in and can be more flexible in comparing hotels, Airbnbs, and many other types of properties. You can get lucky and find the one great ticket that no one has. It may be the last one. It may be a canceled ticket back on the market..who knows. What you will find when you ask experienced travelers who they use is that you will get many answers. Especially with the famous names we mentioned on this page, people will swear by their favorites. “I always use (_______).” “I always get the cheapest tickets from (_______).” I remember my first international ticket to Tokyo was bought over the phone from a travel agency in L.A. that I found on the internet I was using on a free for 5 minutes computer in a bar in Manhattan! Hahaha! In the West Village! I was “working” as a bouncer at the time. The price was good considering there was little competition at the time and we didn’t have the choices we have now. If you are planning a trip in advance, use your friend’s favorite site, but also use a couple of the big search engines like Kayak/Skyscanner/Momondo/or Google Flights. If you are trying to put a package together some like Kayak have that option. With Kayak, you can search for a ticket and compare it to Orbitz, Priceline, JustFly, CheapOair, Travelocity, Flighthub, FlightNetwork, and Hotwire. Momondo offers comparison with Flyus.com and four to five other sites. I have found that checking Kayak and Momondo and Skyscanner and comparing to several others usually does me good! I sometimes find it through Kayak on Orbitz or another site, but my most common search winners have come through Kayak in the past 7 years! Momondo is the trendy newer kid that I enjoy using. Though it is actually older, in its present incarnation it has recently become the “cool” brand. Skyscanner, has grown in popularity in the past few years as well.
Same Same..But Different!
At any of these places, enter in the city you are flying from and the city you are flying to and the dates of leaving and return. Practice using the options at each site. You will be given a list of flights. You can arrange for the cheapest first. What class of flight from economy to business etc. On the side of the screen is usually found the options for direct flights, or 1 or 2 changes. You can control if you want to depart at or before a particular time for your first flight leaving or returning home and the amount of time for layovers/stopovers under 24 hours. The more you use a particular site the easier it gets. Once one site gets a popular option like seeing the prices per day for a month to a particular destination, then another site copies it. The more you use any site the easier they all get!! You will start to develop skills in searching. I can’t put all the sites screenshots in one article but we will get into more of the popular tips in the future. For now, you should be using 3-4 sites and practicing putting in destinations and dates and looking at the flight options and prices. I recommend becoming familiar with Kayak/Skyscanner/Google and Momondo. If you are under 31 and still an active student then STA Travel may come in handy.
Tips, Do’s & Don’ts
You may already know when you are leaving. Your vacation or travel days may be set. You may have a job where you have to put in your travel days in a certain advance amount of time. If this is the case then do so. But try if you can for a little flexibility as far as exact days. For example on many search engines they will give you the option of a cheaper flight by leaving a day or two earlier or a day or two later. This could sometimes be a substantial savings. It could mean a direct flight versus layovers if that is what you want. Of course if you are free then this won’t matter but keep that in mind. Getting your ticket out of the way for some people is a big weight off of their shoulders. Now you have a date 6 months from now or 3 months from now or 6 weeks from now that you can work toward. It is a goal. You will waste less money because you have fun planned in Buenos Aires with some cooking or dance classes you want to take. Maybe in the middle of your month in Thailand you want to catch a local flight to Hong Kong for 4-5 days to go to the top of Victoria Peak and see the view. Very doable and you don’t have to by that ticket until close to vacation time or when you get to Bangkok.
If you are unsure of your destination because you think your budget is too small, then start researching. We talked about budget and length of time for your trip before. Each search engine has a feature where you can put in your flight city (where you are flying from) and how much you have to spend on a flight, and there is a map that will show you the price of all the places you can fly to at that price on that date. At Kayak, it is called Explore and it is under the “more” tab. You pick a price and how long you plan to travel and when. Skyscanner has an option very similar where it says “explore our map” if you scroll down the page. In the top left-hand corner I put in a price on the slide and a month and it shows places around the world I can go at that price. I have options on direct or non direct flights. In Momondo, you have “Trip Finder, ” a fun tool at the top of the page. This will inspire you to go somewhere and the photos tell you the temps at the time you want to be there.
Whatever you do, don’t over plan. When you get your destination planned and your flight bought don’t plan every day away of your trip. I know, I know, some of you are extreme planners. You don’t want a second wasted and you want to see everything. You even schedule bar time on an itinerary. But if you leave some space open and relax, sometimes the best things happen if you go into it with joy. That other traveler you met last night has some fun ideas for the day with her local friends. Why not join? A bunch of other kids at the hostel are hiking to a waterfall the locals told them about. Why not go? If you are in Thailand for a month and you want to skip over to another close Asian city like Singapore or Hong Kong? HK is a 3-hour flight so it is doable and the city is fantastic for tourists. Singapore? 2 hours away. Neither of these have to be booked far in advance. You can decide where to go when you land, if your passport allows visa free travel to those destinations.
By The Way
Oh, and one more thing….don’t jump on every cheap ticket without looking into the details. If the layover is way too long or one flight turns into three, it may not be worth it for you. Always look at the details. After you find a flight you are happy with and book, most sites give you a 24-hour cancellation period. Check the airline directly and see if there is anything better. It will take a few days to get refunded but I have done it several times. If you get comprehensive travel insurance you won’t have to bother with the add-on insurance they throw at you at checkout. There is always a better value.
This Is Just The Beginning
Once you get into the hang of it you will find yourself randomly checking prices after you get back from your first trip so get used to it! There are sites that are basically tweeting out awesome deals but mostly last minute or book in “these dates only” flights. We will get into those later but with those you may have to jump on it right away. If you have some the extra cash and can jump on something not planned then great! If you are more new you have to decide if you are ready for that. Get on the email lists and get those deals in your inbox!