So after reading "Buying airline tickets for your next adventure vacation - Part 1" you have decided not to use a travel agent and that now is the time you should start looking. These recommendations are primarily for people who have to be somewhere on a specific date by a specific time. If you have flexibility, there are additional options that will be addressed in another blog post.
1. Do you live some place that Southwest Airlines serves and if so, do they fly to where you're going? Southwest has excluded themselves from all the search engines so the only place you can find their schedule and prices is on the Southwest website. Although they are no longer truly a discount airline, there are 3 reasons they are my airline of choice.
- They don't charge baggage fees. If you need more than a carry on, this means you can subtract $50 - $100 from their price when you compare it to their competitors.
- They have a great cancellation policy. They won't give you a refund, but you will have a credit for the full amount you paid to use for up to 365 days. And they make it easy to use that credit.
- Their employees' morale is high. I've chatted with several flight sttendants and I'm convinced that it isn't just for show. I like to support companies that treat their employees well.
- Kayak.com (http://www.kayak.com/). If I was only going to check one site, this is the one I would choose. Kayak has an intuitive interface and many ways to filter results all at the same time - by airport, duration, take off or landing times, layovers, airline etc. If you have lots of choices, Kayak can help you quickly sort through them based on your preferences. For common routes it usually has a Price Predictor, which shows you how low prices have fluctuated over the last 90 days and, based on an algorithm, their best guess whether this is a good time to buy or whether you should wait because prices might drop. You can also set up fare alerts for specific routes, which is a good way to get a feel for price fluctuations if you're not needing to buy now. However, these aren't flight-specific; knowing that the price has gone down $20 without knowing if it's on the flight you're interested in may not be helpful.
The only cons I've found are that I've sometimes found better prices and flights on one of the other sites I'll mention.
- Google flights (https://www.google.com/flights/). This is my new first stop website because it is blazingly fast and has a clean and simple interface. It also gives you tips such as being able to save X dollars if you fly a different day. In addition there is a world map on the initial page with prices for lots of destinations based on your departure city and date. Is it that useful to know I could fly to Tromso, Norway for $1,071 on February 21 from Washington, DC? Maybe not, but it's fun!!
The cons? It doesn't have filters other than other nearby airports. If, for example, you can't leave until 12pm, there isn't a way to limit your flights to those parameters. It also has a box at the top called Best Flights, about which it says "We chose these flights to give you the best trade-off between number of stops, duration, and price." Sometimes that seems accurate but sometimes not (like an American flight that was $10 more expensive and 30 minutes longer was listed over its Delta counterpart.) Is there an advertising consideration? If so, you can still see the other options so just be sure to look.
- Hipmunk (http://www.hipmunk.com). Hipmunk has my favorite interface. It uses bar graphs that allow you to instantly see how long flights are, how many layovers and how long each one is, and what time they take off and land. Another great aspect is the default sort order, which is their "agony index": a combination of price, layovers, and length. This absolutely assures that you don't overlook a much better flight that costs $10 more but saves you 4 hours of travel time. It may or may not find you the cheapest flight.
So why isn't this my go to site? Three reasons: 1) it's slow, sometimes mind-numbingly so - although that may be improving. 2) There have been several instances where the flight I selected "was no longer available". Really? Why waste my time then? 3) You pick your outbound flight and then you pick your return flight. So you might really like your outbound flight only to find there is no good return flight paired with it. It's still worth a look but don't spend too much time there.
It's also worth taking a look at Orbitz (http://www.orbitz.com) one of the oldest and largest online booking websites. Personally, I have never found them that useful and they are another site where I've had the "flight is no longer available" experience. But you can look at itineraries that involve more than 2 cities. Still, when I tried it just now, the only flights it showed from Madrid to Baltimore were on LOT Polish Airlines with a time of 49 hours and 41 mins. And it was more expensive than the one Kayak came up with.