In Budgeting, Travel

How do I find the cheapest flights online? A review of flight comparison tools

When I book flights, it takes me about 2-3 weeks of research to get the right flight, mostly because my time is flexible and I want the best price.

Here are a few search engine tools I use:

HYPOTHETICAL SITUATION: TORONTO TO NYC IN APRIL / MAY 2013

I did a quick search from Toronto Pearson Airport (YYZ) to New York City (any airport but I actually really hate flying into the Newark, NJ (NWK) because of the cost of getting to Manhattan itself, whereas Laguardia (LGA) has a direct bus and train into the city).

Photograph-Travel-NYC-Central-Park-New-York-City-USA

 Photograph I took of Central Park

For my dates, I chose April 30th until May 11th (randomly) and I checked the tickets for one person flying Economy.

Keep in mind that if it is more than ONE person, you should really do searches for the exact number of people, because there might be a deal for only one seat on the plane, but no other ones available for the exact itinerary

(Yes I made this EXACT mistake, and I am trying to save you the pain of having to back out everything).

IN GENERAL, THIS IS HOW EACH TRAVEL SEARCH SITE FARED WITH MY ABOVE CRITERION:

(Haha get it? FARED!… Oh never mind.)

The most commonly known of them all is Travelocity.

The most comprehensive one to use was Google’s Matrix ITA with the runner-up being Sky Scanner


The simplest (but most static) one to use was Kayak.

The one that was the most fun to play with was Hipmunk.

The absolute worst is using actual airline websites themselves, but you should try them out too to make sure the fares being quoted are correct (or perhaps cheaper, as their sites are real-time). (Nobody likes their sites)

What I do is I search for sites on the other flight scanning sites, then I go to the actual airline itself to see if there’s a better deal going directly with them.

The most tedious one to get started with, was GetGoing because you had to wait for an invite, so I didn’t even “get going”, so to speak. *crosses it off her list*

I use each flight scanner each time I go online to look at flight prices, to see if I can get a better deal.

It really depends.

MY QUICK REVIEWS OF EACH TRAVEL FLIGHT SEARCH ENGINE SITE:

SKY SCANNER

Skyscanner-Search-flights-engine

This is a great place to browse different flights.

If you scroll down a bit on the page you will see a box that says: Cheap Flights, and then the name of a country.

 

Click on that, and you’ll see a list of cheap flights (literally); whether you want to go there or not, is another story, but if you end up in Europe, you can always take the train.

 

If you know (generally) when you’d like to go within about 2 months, you can find the best flight time frames, and then just request vacation days for those weeks.

Skyscanner-search-engines-result-NYC-to-Toronto

I don’t find it as easy to use as Matrix — the list is too fat, and I’d rather see a nice long page of flights than to have to scroll with an embedded frame or window on the page.

It’s not as clean, but it’s slightly cheaper.

MATRIX AIRFARE SEARCH

Matrix-ITA-Software-Google-SearchComes in Apple iTunes app or in Android app form too!

This is a great site to compare prices of flights if you know when and where you’re going.

I find it a LOT easier to use than other sites.

You can build single flights, or multi-stop flights, and choose a bunch of (simple) filters like whether you want to fly Nonstop or not, then you get a SUPER simple list that shows the mix of airlines for the best prices:

  • How many stops it is (Non-stop or more than 1 stop)
  • The range of prices
  • The airlines
  • The departure and arrival times
  • Duration
  • The airports (flying into or out of)

It is slightly more expensive than using SkyScanner (no idea why), by about $4. I did the same search in both.

Matrix-ITA-Toronto-to-NYC-Airline-Flight-Search

The only flaw is you can’t buy the flights right there and then.

You have to then open another browser or three, and book on the actual airline websites themselves.

Sometimes the price changes as you do that (depending on how close you are to the flight date), so be aware of a possible price change.

GETGOING

You need to sign up with your email address or facebook login, then wait for them to email you with an invite.

Seriously? What era are we in?

Anyway.

I didn’t even “get going”. No invite came in, in the month that I waited, so they can take their engine and shove it.

TRAVELOCITY

Travelocity-Search-Engine

I used to only use Travelocity but now I just check all of them.

When I did my search, it gave me the BEST prices at $226.29 with NO (hidden) FEES.

KAYAK

Kayak-review-online-travel-tool-flight-scanners

An easy site to use, and it gave me a better price at $225.

It’s straightforward because you just enter dates, To and From airports, and away you go.

It has an option for flexible dates, but I find it very unwieldy to look at. I think it’s best used if you know exact dates and times.

If you don’t know when and where you’re going, just use the other sites to see what pops, narrow it down to a list, and then re-search your specific dates and flights all over again.

 HIPMUNK

It’s a cute site with a gimmick, and it looks like this:

Hipmunk-review-online-travel-tool-flight-scanners


It looks really different, and takes some getting used to, but it’s pretty good.

You can use the slider bars to narrow down your search to a specific time frame like so:

Hipmunk-review-online-travel-tool-flight-scanners-filter

And you can also sort by “Agony”, Price, Duration, etc.

Pretty cool!

Hipmunk-review-online-travel-tool-flight-scanners-agony-filter

Update: Leslie asked me which one I would recommend, and my answer is I don’t have a recommendation. I use all of them.

Generally I have a place and a time in mind, so once I have an idea, I just start looking with any one of the sites above, and then I check all the rest for better prices.

It’s a long process and I generally take a lot of time, but it’s saved me anywhere from $200 – $1500 at one time.

Also, Pauline and Liquid made a good point about cookies and caching.

They do this neat little scam on these sites where they remember what you searched for, and either on that day, or a few weeks later, the price mysteriously goes up or changes for you.

(I’ve checked this when I search for flights versus BF searching for flights on his laptop).

They also record all the entries of how many times people searched for that city and those dates, and their prices change to match the “demand” based on the enquiries made by people online.

You have to clear the cookies / cache on your browser each time you search or else they don’t offer you the same (or best) price.

They think you’re stuck and have no choice but to pay for it.

Update 2:

Sarah in the comments wanted to point out to readers the following:

If for whatever reason you decide to head to China again, try english.ctrip.com. It’s easy to use. Travelocity HK is actually decent if you’re flying from Asia to other Asian destinations, and I hear Travel Zen is good too. Just in case any of your readers out there want to do some traveling in Asia.

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Sherry of Save. Spend. Splurge.

Am my own Sugar Daddy. Am a millionaire at 36 after getting out of $60K of student debt in 18 months, a little over a decade earlier, using TheBudgetingTool.com. I have worked 50% of my career (taking 1-2 year breaks), and quadrupled my income within 2 years of graduating, going from $65K to $260K with an average lifetime savings rate of 50%. I have 11 side incomes that are on track in 2020 to make me $50K - $75K. I could retire today if I wanted, but love my work-life balance as a freelancing consultant in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). I am all about balance - between time and money, and also enjoying my money. I also post daily on Instagram @saverspender.

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15 Comments

  1. Jagdeep

    For getting the cheapest flights online first, search on the internet for different travel agencies and then compare their deals.

    Reply
  2. Sarah Li Cain

    Good post. I wonder if all of these sites pick up on small Asian airlines? I use AirAsia and lots of smaller Chinese airlines, and they’re definitely cheaper than what some of these sites advertise.

    Reply
    1. Mochi & Macarons

      I found the Chinese airline websites (directly) the HARDEST to use. I can understand now, why travel agents still have a job. O_o

      Reply
      1. Sarah Li Cain

        hahaha…maybe it’s a conspiracy. If for whatever reason you decide to head to China again, try english.ctrip.com. It’s easy to use. Travelocity HK is actually decent if you’re flying from Asia to other Asian destinations, and I hear Travel Zen is good too. Just in case any of your readers out there want to do some traveling in Asia.

        Reply
        1. Mochi & Macarons

          Thanks for the links! I am sure people will read through the comments and get the sites. Just in case, I’m throwing them up in the post too.

          Reply
  3. Leslie Beslie

    I don’t see a conclusion here so let me ask: if you could only use one of these, which would you pick?

    Great post though! I almost exclusively use hipmunk now. Also, I’d never recommend flying into Newark (EWR) when traveling to nyc. JFK and LGA always have cheaper direct flights. And JFK is easier public-transportation-wise I’d say to get to. I’ve only used a car service or shuttle bus to get to LGA.

    Reply
    1. Mochi & Macarons

      I don’t only use one, that’s why I don’t recommend doing the same thing. 🙂

      Reply
  4. Victoria

    I usually read your posts in my Google Reader but clicked over and I am glad I did. I love the new header for your site. Forget that you had recently changed the name. Looks great.

    When looking for fares, I tend to use Skyscanner or Expedia most of the time. Sky Scanner works best. I will then take a look at the budget airlines to see if they have a quick one off sale or something. The best thing is if you can be flexible with your dates as this can make a rea difference to the final costings.

    Reply
    1. Mochi & Macarons

      Expedia is nice because of the points.

      Could you also please change the RSS feed to point to Save. Spend. Splurge.? 🙂 Thank you!

      Reply
  5. Sense

    THANK YOU! have been a slave to kayak for far too long, can’t wait to check these others out!

    Reply
    1. Mochi & Macarons

      Give it a shot. Might find some new sites.

      Reply
  6. Liquid_Independence

    Heh, I see what you did there 😉 I heard it’s a good idea to clear the browser cookies if it’s not the first time visiting each site because some of them put trackers on your computer and if they notice it’s your second or third visit within a week they show you a higher price. But who knows I haven’t tested it out for myself yet 🙂 That’s a nice filter to go with the photo.

    Reply
  7. Pauline

    I read the same about cookies. My favorite is kayak because I am flexible with towns and you can put airport codes, so if I want to fly anywhere in Europe, I just put NYC to PAR, MAD, LON, BCN, etc. and it gives the best rate in one search.

    Reply
    1. Mochi & Macarons

      Yes you need to clear the cache/cookies when you look at flights. It remembers what you searched for.

      Reply

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