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FlyerTalk 101

The Best Cheap Flight App Isn’t An App At All

The Best Cheap Flight App Isn’t An App At All
Mariel Loveland

In the era of Google, most of us have become our own travel agents, forgoing phone conversations for mobile apps that help us save a buck on our summer vacation. The only problem is that travel apps and airlines don’t always get along, and this often has a negative impact on customers who aren’t necessarily well-versed in booking their own flights.

Southwest is the biggest example. The airline restricts the majority of sales to its own website. You can’t even access their fares on Google Flights, which casts a wider net compared to apps by online travel agencies (OTAs) like Expedia or Priceline. Similarly, JetBlue and Delta removed their listings from several of the largest travel booking websites and apps, including TripAdvisor. At one point, American Airlines had even blocked fares from Orbitz, which resulted in Expedia bumping the airline down in their search results until American eventually sued.

What does this mean for consumers? That the best travel app might not even be an app at all. It all depends on exactly what you’re looking for.

Hopper Knows the Best Time to Book Your Fare

Hopper doesn’t have the cheapest fares, but it does have a powerful algorithm that can predict the best time to buy your tickets. Simply download the app and set up an alert for your trip. Hopper will notify you when there’s a significant price change and whether or not you should hold out for a better deal. When Hopper says it’s unlikely that the price will drop before your trip, head over to a different service like Google Flights or Skyscanner to book your fare.

Kayak’s “Hacker Fares” Are Worth A Look (But Google Flights Still Wins Out)

In February 2019, Kayak introduced a service called “Hacker Fares,” which lets users book two one-way flights with two separate airlines instead of your regular, single-airline round trip. Most OTAs don’t integrate this into their search because it isn’t especially important. One-way tickets are notoriously more expensive than round trips, though occasionally, you can find a good deal.

Kayak’s new feature isn’t that groundbreaking, though they certainly make the search easy. Google Flights already has the same thing integrated into its platform, so there’s no real need to download another app unless you prefer searching for flights on a mobile device.

All in all, it’s not much different from the age-old practice of booking two round trip fares instead of multi-city one ways. It’s usually cheaper to ditch out on the second leg of a round trip flight than it is to buy two stand-alone tickets, but this so-called travel hack is risky. It’s almost definitely against airline policy, and Lufthansa even sued a passenger who exploited the loophole in 2019.

Kayak’s Hacker Fares play by the rules and reap similar deals with none of the risk.

For the Best Sales, Let AirFareWatchdog Trigger Your Wanderlust

AirFareWatchdog doesn’t have a mobile app. Instead, it’s the one email list you’ll actually want to be on. The service lets you track specific flight routes and emails you anytime a price drops, so you can jump on a flash sale before it’s gone. AirFareWatchdog often has access to sales — and the illustrious error fares — that don’t show up on most travel apps. In fact, the company claims to be the only travel search engine with access to every airline (yes, they even notify you about sales from Southwest, JetBlue and Frontier).

AirFareWatchdog’s hallmark is its ability to spark wanderlust. If you’re not sure where you want to go, they offer a daily list of top fares that sink as low as $50 round trip. Their blog is a veritable bible for airline deals — from European trips for less than $250 and domestic flights for 75% off the original price. You can even get a list of the best deals from your local airport.

The one downside is that AirFareWatchdog’s interface is kind of clunky. It’s best to use the website to find a cheap fare, then book the same flight through the airline’s website.

Skyscanner Is a Winner for Savings and Multi-City Trips

If you need to pick just one travel app to download, opt for Skyscanner. Without fail, the service consistently finds the cheapest prices across the board, then displays fares in three easy-to-read categories: best, cheapest, and fastest.

In a quick search for a last-minute trip from New York to London, Skyscanner managed to find a fare almost $100 cheaper than anything on Google Flights. This wasn’t their “best” flight because it came with an 11-hour layover on each leg, but for a budget traveler, it might be the difference between affording an extra night abroad and not. It should be noted that Skyscanner’s “best” fare was the same $770 Virgin Atlantic flight picked by Google, but the app had more options in that price range overall.

Skyscanner also beats out other travel apps because of its multi-city search, which means you can view the cost of, say, an entire European tour in a single click. You don’t have to pull up multiple searches and hope for the best, and you can book your hotel and car rental through the app once you decide on your dates.

Beware of Skyscanner’s Third Party Booking

Skyscanner has one caveat: it might be cheap, but it uses third-party OTAs that aren’t always reliable. Just a quick search for cross-country flights led me to a number of low-rated booking sites like FlyFar, which has a one-star rating on Yelp, and eDreams, which has a meager 5.2 rating on Trustpilot. For the beginner, this still might seem like a deal, but rest assured, booking through the airline directly is almost certainly safer.

Google Flights almost always gives you the option to book through an airline’s website, which can save you money and headaches down the road — especially if something goes wrong. First, it’s always best to check with the airline itself because many don’t give their best deals to travel aggregators. You’ll see this with airlines like Aer Lingus or Air China. Secondly, changing or canceling a flight booked through a third party is — for lack of better words — one of the most frustrating experiences a human can endure.

Airlines are usually way more accommodating to customers who book directly, even if you buy a low-fare, non-refundable, non-flexible ticket. For example, after a family emergency, Delta let me change a basic economy fare from JFK to Heathrow — which typically cannot be changed — and even waved the change fee. A separate time, British Airways let me hop on a different flight after I regrettably missed my departure because of subway maintenance. They even upgraded me to business class. If I had booked through an OTA, it’s highly possible that I’d have lost the whole price of the ticket or been forced to snap at an unlucky customer service representative until someone did something. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case.

Google Flights Is the Best in Show

Google Flights doesn’t have an iOS or Android app. Even though it’s integrated into the Google Search app, it’s admittedly pretty glitchy on a mobile device. The king of travel search engines is actually best viewed from a desktop computer. What is this, 1998?

Though Skyscanner usually turns up fares at least a few bucks cheaper than Google, the service still manages to find the most inexpensive flights across nearly every other travel app. Google Flights wins out for its customization, ease of use, and its flexible travel feature. The built-in calendar lets flyers compare prices across the entire month, which can regularly save you a significant amount of cash. You can also search through specific airlines, cross out the carriers you hate, compare layovers to direct flights, and get suggestions for a cheaper travel itinerary. Hey, maybe you were thinking about going to Madrid, but Barcelona is a little cheaper. Why not?

Google Flights shines even brighter when used in conjunction with Hopper. Let Hopper tell you when to pull the trigger on a fare, and use Google Flights to find it.

View Comments (1)

1 Comment

  1. IntVic

    August 11, 2019 at 10:34 am

    Would agree with everything said about Skyscanner. When I’m not on Flyertalk I sometimes have a look at Tripadvisor reviews re eDreams, and the like. It is horror story after horror story of people who think Skyscanner recommended the OTA they eventually handed their money over to. Also there is a great deal of ignorance to fares, with many customers believing all fares are live.

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