Getting the most out of Google’s flexible flight finding tool
Though it’s now harder to find, Google’s Explore Flights feature is still available, which is great because it’s consistently been one of the very best tools for discovering airfare deals. Essentially unpromoted (described by Google as an experiment), ‘Explore’ is a standalone page that parses much of the same information that the normal Google Flight Search uses, but it allows users to search and display results in a different way.
If you’re not particularly concerned about the when or where of your travels, this is a great tool for finding the cheapest fares. Unlike most flight search sites, you don’t need to provide a specific destination or even dates. Just enter your starting point, and Explore lets you specify a destination ranging from an individual airport to an entire global region.
Take Advantage of this Flexibility in Your Planning
For example, considering a trip to Europe? Many people might start their research by checking return airfare from major tourist centres like London, Paris, Rome, or Barcelona. But by selecting ‘Europe‘ or even ‘Western Europe‘, you may discover that fares to Madrid or Geneva or Florence are considerably cheaper. The regional search can help inspire plans, and save you considerable time and money.
You can modify the URL query string in your browser’s address bar to reveal more information beyond what the standard controls normally let you see.
By default, the results are displayed in a two-month bar chart and in most cases you can view prices up to six months in the future. Want to see prices after that six-month window? You can change the final URL parameter to see past the limit using the format d=YYYY-MM-DD. Setting the date forward allows you to search future results, but the number of results returned does begin to drop off quickly.
Want to increase the date range? The standard slider controls only allow for trips from 0 up to 14 days — great for most vacations but limiting for those who might be looking to plan a longer trip. You can set the values of the li and lx parameters manually to broaden the results (for example li=10;lx=30 will return ‘Lowest fares for trips of 10-30 days’).
You Should Know
The site and controls work great on a desktop, but aren’t particularity well suited for use on a phone or tablet, which may be part of the reason Google doesn’t return the page in its search results.
Be aware that the prices returned using the Explore tool are displayed in USD, even when using the .ca version. This is not the case with the standard Google Flights which does display pricing in CAD on the .ca site.
There are limitations. With over 40,000 airports in the world and approximately 100,000 flights a day, processing this data over a period of months is a huge amount of information. There’s no way to return it all at once. If you spot what looks like solid lead, further refinements and additional options can sometimes be teased out using the standard Google Flights site which has different strengths. Google Flights is generally better for searching specific cities (regions aren’t supported quite the same way), and while dates are somewhat flexible, they’re more restrictive than in Explore.
The very lowest fare options aren’t always returned by region, there’s a popularity signal involved as well. For example, Europe might return Dublin and Paris as the lowest fares, when Stockholm, Oslo and Copenhagen are actually lower during that period of time. These cities would top a search for Northern Europe or Scandinavia, but might be omitted entirely from the broader Europe results.
In addition to individual countries, there are many regions accepted as valid search terms including: Americas, Latin America, North America, Central America, Caribbean, South America, Europe, Northern Europe, Southern Europe, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Central Europe, Balkans, Scandinavia, Africa, North Africa, Western Africa, Eastern Africa, Eurasia, Middle East, Central Asia, East Asia, South East Asia, Australasia, Oceania, Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia.