Google Flights: Google's best kept secret?

This morning the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled "The Best Way to Find a Fare Online." While the article overall was an interesting look at the online experience of booking airfare,  I was pleased to see them specifically highlight Google Flights.

Google Flights doesn’t sell tickets. It’s a search site but not an online travel agency. It is making a splash in the industry by giving shoppers loads of information about flights in easy-to-use ways.

So far, Google hasn’t promoted it. You can find it at or by running a Google search for a trip, such as “flight from Boston to Cleveland on April 15.”

When you do find it, you’ll see it doesn’t look or run like other search sites.
— "The Best Way to Find an Airfare Online" - WSJ

I have not used Google Flights to plan an actual trip yet, but I have played with it several times and it definitely doesn't look like other travel sites I have used. It allows you to gain insight into available flight options in a unique and intuitive way. I do think it is a hidden gem because I have recommended it to several people that had not heard of it.

Let's assume I wanted to search for roundtrip flights from Atlanta (ATL) to London-Heathrow (LHR) for the Saturday before Memorial Day. Above the search box I can choose which cabin I want - first class please...if someone else is paying! - and the number of people in my group. I can specify the maximum number of stops I will accept or the most I am willing to pay. I can limit results to a specific airline or airline alliance as well as restrict the departure or arrival times. In the "More" dropdown, I can choose a maximum flight duration and connecting cities.

Google Flights search results for ATL-LHR

Google Flights search results for ATL-LHR

The search results are organized into "Best flights" with other options below. The price of the cheapest itinerary is highlighted in green. The WiFi symbol beside the flight duration indicates that the the flight is operated with WiFi-enabled aircraft. A symbol with full bars indicates available WiFi on all segments, while partial bars lets you know that some segments are not WiFi-enabled. Click on the flight to get more information (see below). You can even change the currency in the page's footer!

Google Flights flight detail view

Google describes "Best flights" as offering "the best trade-off between price, duration, number of stops and sometimes other factors such as amenities and baggage fees." Since your idea of the best flight may differ from Google's, you can click on any flight to get more detail on aircraft type, leg room (in the cabin type you searched), and amenities. For Virgin Atlantic 104, you can quickly see that the flight is operated by an Airbus A330. The average legroom in economy is 31" and the aircraft is equipped with WiFi, in-seat USB power and on-demand video. I really like the ability to quickly click between multiple flight options because, as a plane geek, I am often trying to get on - or avoid in some cases! - a specific aircraft type. If you don't want to select that flight, click the "X" in the upper corner and choose another. Once you find the flight you want, you can then select your return flight below. 

Note, you do not book your flights directly with Google. Once you choose your return flight, you are presented with several options of how to proceed. There are links to the airline web site, airline partner web sites, and various third party online travel agents. You can also save your search or share it with others. 

Google Flights gives you several choices once you choose your flights

It's the booking stage where Google Flights can pose some difficulties.

Google lacks many direct links to booking tickets. In some cases Google Flights offers the very 1990s advice of calling the airline to book, and builds in the typical $25 telephone booking fee.

Sometimes it gives just plain bad booking advice. It finds trips on multiple airlines that are competitors instead of partners, but those often have to be booked by online travel agencies, not airlines. For a trip departing on American and returning on Delta, Google Flights linked to American’s website for booking. When you go there, you’re greeted by red letters saying, “Check below for errors.”
— "The Best Way to Find an Airfare Online" - WSJ

Personally, I prefer to book directly on the airline website. I have used sites like Expedia in the past but mainly for hotels and rental cars. 

While I like the clean layout and ease of reviewing flight options, if this was all Google Flights had to offer, it would only be marginally more useful than existing booking tools. It's the extras that really make Google's flight planner shine! I will review these features tomorrow.