May 14, 2015

Travel Tool: Google Flights (vs ITA Matrix)

The countdown is on, and it’s only one day until the Blend Retreat opening ceremony! The last two years, I feel like I haven’t been terribly excited leading up to the event, but then when I get there and get into it, it’s amazing. This year, though, I am like a kid on Christmas Eve… I can’t wait till Julie and Mollie get to my place tonight! They are both flying in a night early and I’m really looking forward to having them stay.

Since most Blend attendees are arriving tonight or tomorrow, it got me thinking about flights. Well, really, I’ve been thinking about flights a lot lately! That’s a rarity for me, even with how much I travel. It used to be so routine to just book my weekly business trip to Dallas that I barely had to think about it; every Thursday, I just had an item on my to-do list to book my next round of flights 21 days out (21AP being the cheapest advanced purchase fare you could get for the NYC-DFW route). I tried to be cost-conscious when booking, but cost didn’t really change my itinerary much since the bottom line was that I always had to be in Dallas for work on Monday morning. (Sometimes I’d fly in Sunday night or be on-site at the client Tuesday through Friday if things were really outrageously priced, but that was rare.)

Now that I’m long-distance dating, though, it feels like Adam and I are constantly checking flight prices for sales and trying to figure out where it makes sense to spend each weekend. We are incredibly lucky that flight prices between Denver and Phoenix are fairly reasonable… and sometimes they’re even downright cheap. This week, I managed to book another Phoenix weekend for just $91 roundtrip with all taxes and fees included! Score. But all those flights are definitely adding up, so I need to be able to search quickly and frequently so that I can pounce when deals like that arise.

I’ve extolled the virtues of ITA Matrix before, and I’m still not giving up on it as the best flight search tool around. The flexibility and customization of ITA Matrix is unparalleled, and you can find a lot of deals you just wouldn’t otherwise find. Where ITA Matrix really excels is in booking multi-stop custom itineraries; however, a simple DEN-PHX roundtrip of nonstops doesn’t require ITA’s power. Enter: Google Flights.

Google bought ITA Matrix a few years ago, and I was worried at the time that it would mean the end of ITA – luckily not. Instead, Google Flights has harnessed the power of ITA Matrix for its own searches, but still keeps ITA active for those who want to do more complex searches. And if you don’t need a complex search, Google Flights is a breeze!

Google is known for how user-friendly they make everything, and Google Flights is no exception. There are no complicated routing codes or syntax to remember – although I always have trouble remembering that to search multiple airports in Google Flights, you use commas and spaces (e.g., “PHL, EWR”, not semicolons like in ITA). As you click your way through the filters in Google Flights, your pricing options dynamically populate on the screen. Sure, ITA’s filters do something similar, but the speed of the interfact is just a few milliseconds slower and it feels like it’s “thinking” longer.

The well-laid-out Google Flights results, showing price differentials in a compact way thanks to the slider bars that condense multiple options at the same price point/carrier.

As a bonus, while Southwest still doesn’t publish their pricing on a GDS, you can see above that Google Flights “scrapes” their site so that it can at least tell you what times the Southwest flights operate. You can then click through from the Google Flights selection directly to the Southwest website (with your search parameters already entered) so you can quickly see the pricing there. Google Flights is definitely the way to search if Southwest is an airline for consideration!

Speaking of which – another benefit of Google Flights over ITA Matrix is that once you’ve chosen your itinerary, Google Flights allows you to click through to the airline to book. While I never had a problem going to the airline website myself and filling in the flights I had found on ITA, I felt like it was awkward to send friends/family to ITA and then have to explain that this tool was just for searching, and they’d have to book elsewhere. Keep in mind that you still can’t book on Google Flights, but the fact that it offers an easy pre-populated clickthrough to the airline’s website makes it much more-user friendly.

Note that Google Flights takes you directly to the carrier’s website to book, which I highly recommend doing. PLEASE take note that if you use an OTA like Orbitz or Expedia to search for flights, you should always book with the carrier directly! Otherwise, the carrier won’t work with you if things go awry, and you’ll be stuck trying to deal with the OTA as a middleman.

Additionally, if you’re sharing flight options with friends/family, you no longer have to copy/paste the details into an email. Google Flights allows you to send a pre-populated email with a note, generate a custom “share” URL to send, and also allows you to save flights to your own favorites to consider for later purchase. When you save a set of flights, Google will automatically email you about price drops – really handy!

When your friend clicks the share URL or opens the email, they’ll go to the same Google Flights screen you were on, complete with all the details.

If you’re price-sensitive (like me), you’re probably used to doing lots of searches to compare options, or at the very least, specifying that you’re open to flying on multiple dates. Google Flights doesn’t let you pick multiple dates, which at first I thought was a huge downside. However, if you want to check different days, arrows allow you to easily shift your departure and return one day at a time (separate arrows for both), and again, the flights update dynamically rather than you having to go back a page to the search screen and start from scratch. You can also use a calendar to quickly shift a flight by weeks or even months at a time.

And, the calendar shows you the lowest fare for that roundtrip if you were to change your dates – giving you guidance on what dates might be best.

Once you’ve chosen your dates, Google being all Google-y and smart will also pop up a box on the top of the results to alert you if there is a significant price difference when you change days.

Except a flight that happens on Saturday DURING the 4th of July fireworks is not worth saving $10. Thanks anyway, Google!

So with all those great advantages, what’s not to like? One of the main drawbacks that I’ve found with Google Flights is that you have to pick your outbound flight first in order to bring up the options for the inbound leg. But there are a lot of times when my return has tight parameters (e.g., I need to be at work by 8am Monday) and my departure is more flexible (e.g., I can leave on Friday night or Saturday morning). When there are multiple carrier options, choosing one carrier for the departure flight may limit my options for the return (since a lot of flights are best priced on a roundtrip basis), so with Google Flights, I have to do lots of selecting one then canceling and going back to select another in order to make sure I’m choosing the best options for both flights. I also don’t like that there is no option for the easy-to-read timebars that ITA uses, which I find make it easier to compare the cost/benefit of choosing a nonstop over a connecting itinerary.

Those drawbacks aside, Google Flights wins hands-down when it comes to user-friendliness and speed. All in all, if you’re looking for a basic roundtrip or one-way, Google Flights is the perfect option to search in a hurry.


8 thoughts on “Travel Tool: Google Flights (vs ITA Matrix)”

  1. You note: “Google bought ITA Matrix a few years ago, and I was worried at the time that it would mean the end of ITA – luckily not. Instead, Google Flights has harnessed the power of ITA Matrix for its own searches, but still keeps ITA active for those who want to do more complex searches.” I’m a long time ITA Matrix user, but unfortunately not only is Google clearly deliberately slowing it down – while advertising “For faster results try Google Flight Search” while you’re waiting – but I have been unable to complete a multi-city search in the last several days. I keep getting errors that reset the search to the beginning. I have never had this problem before in years of using ITA Matrix. Looks to me like a thinly veiled strategy to move people to (the less useful) Google Flights by gradually making ITA Matrix unusable. In a similar but more abrupt vein, I recently noted that the very useful shopping search site, bought by Facebook, is now shut down.

    1. So the funny thing is, I had a similar error and that was exactly why I gave Google Flights a try! However, I will note that I have had problems with ITA being down on rare occasions (very rare), so I never thought to connect it to Google. I totally agree with your point though that Google is definitely pushing people to Google Flights with that link! It will be really unfortunate if they make ITA completely unusable, as I see the two as having different purposes (advanced search vs quick and easy).

  2. So I think you may be right Anne, but your user experience is not necessarily an indicator of an intention to shut it down. If so, then why do they keep fixing bugs and instituting changes? Maybe its the changes that is causing the slowdown. Warm regards.

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