I hosted a great travel event last week with my fellow travel meetup organizers. We asked a bunch of people what they were hoping to learn more about. This being Boston, there were a number of attendees who were interested in long-term bike travel across multiple continents, eco-tourism abroad, or teaching and volunteering overseas. (Beantown is a great city to meet people interested in sustainability and service, and I love that.)
But the vast majority of the people who showed up that stormy Wednesday night wanted to know one thing:
How do we find airfare that’s affordable enough to fit a lean travel budget?
Not by using a single airfare comparison tool, and certainly not by sticking to a single set of dates or destinations. Traditional airfare comparison tools don’t give users much flexibility, even if they offer a “flexible dates” option or a nominal fare calendar. The travel search industry has, as a rule, focused on search parameters and functionality that give the overall advantage to—you guessed it!—the providers. Think about it: What do you want to know when you’re searching for travel options? When you can take a week off, you probably don’t want search tools that return a litany of set fares to a set destination for a set of specific dates. You’re not alone; most people don’t want that. What they do want is to know how they can get to Europe for under $500, no matter when. They want to know the cheapest destination in South America during April. They want to search for any warm place they can go for two weeks in the next three months. They want a search that will tell them the cheapest, coolest place they can go for a month—or six— if they leave tomorrow.
Bottom line? The when-and-where airfare guessing game sucks. It’s not how we travel, so it’s frustrating that it’s how we’ve had to search for travel. Fortunately, the travel search industry is starting to catch up a bit. Here are five tools you should definitely be using to travel better on a budget:
Google Flights: Google added the ability to search for flights to an entire region not too long ago, so you don’t have to specify a destination airport, or even a particular country. Google’s flight map will show you airfares for cities around a given region, and you can zoom out Google-Maps-style to see fares around the world. I’d rather not admit how many hours I’ve spent searching for flights from NYC to Egypt, or Boston to Africa. The date range is still static (for now), but you can play with that with our next tool.
ITA Software’s Matrix Airfare Search: Okay, so this one is technically Google now, too, since the search giant acquired ITA in 2010. The way it processes search queries is different, though, so until and unless Google’s travel team integrates the matrix search with Flights, you’ll want to use both tools independently to figure out the best dates and destinations. The matrix search lets you search for flexible dates or simply by fare calendar. It’s one of the best ways to figure out the cheapest times to fly to a given place. Combine it with Google Flights or one of the tools below, and you’re in business.
Adioso: Adioso has a lovely, visually striking design that puts its flexible search front and center. Search for travel the way you’d phrase it in conversation, like “Boston to China in September” or “Sydney to Anywhere for 10 days in June.” The company is a Y Combinator grad from a couple years back, and I have a feeling they’re just getting started.
Kayak Explore: Longtime search favorite Kayak debuted this nifty tool a while back. Explore lets you plug in a month or season (e.g., “Summer 2013″) and displays sample airfares around the world. You can set a budget, set flight length, choose an activity (like “beach,” “gambling,” or “golf”), or search based on your preferred climate. This is another major time vortex. You’ve been warned.
Skyscanner’s ‘Everywhere’ option: Skyscanner is one of the better traditional airfare search engines out there; it pulls in some of the international budget airlines that many other engines skip over. By far my favorite Skyscanner feature, though, is its “To: Everywhere” search option. Plug your home airport into the departure field, choose “Everywhere” as your destination, and watch as the site comes up with a list of countries and fares. It won’t search every country, but if you’re looking for one nation in particular, you can click on it to get narrower results. This can work particularly well for last-minute deals.
Typical airfare-booking tips apply here. If you’re flying internationally, it’s almost always cheapest to fly mid-week, most often on a Wednesday. Booking on Tuesday afternoon will usually net you the best fares. And if you find a great fare using a search engine of any kind, you should always, always check the airline’s own website to see if you can book a lower fare than the search results advertised. Middlemen matter in travel—the fewer there are, the less money you’ll have to hand over to intermediaries.
Happy searching, kids. I’m off to figure out an affordable yet non-sweltering destination in Africa for nine days over the next two-to-three months. Welcome to the interwebs!