Mapping Cheap Fares Across the Globe

There was a lot of news last week when American Airlines announced a new feature that maps potential award flight destinations. Simply enter your home, where you want to go, dates, and how many miles you want to use. American will report back with various destinations that fit your needs. (HT to Mommy Points.)

I think it’s a fun new tool and one that most people should at least try the next time they are booking an award. But I also agree with Scott from MileValue, who called it “nearly useless.”

It shows no new information, with the same availability as a traditional award search. It has no flexible date feature, making it worse than a traditional award search on American’s site. And though all results are within the specified cap, you need to be familiar with the award chart to understand if you’re getting a good deal. It would also be nice if the icons on the map indicated the cost of the award without relying on the list in the sidebar.

However… these kinds of global searches are still very valuable to me when I want to book a normal revenue flight, the type that costs money. Mileage runs are a good example, where you don’t care about the destination and only want to know how much it costs and how far away it is. The Travelocity Dream Map that Mommy Points mentioned is no longer available, nor are some other options like FareCompare’s old FlyerTalk Mileage Run tool. Here are the two best options I’ve found to replace them:

Kayak Explore

This tool allows you to specify a price, a flight duration, and (if you choose) the weather and kind of vacation you want to take. It most closely matches the Travelocity Dream Map, but I’m not a big fan. The actual fare is hard to come by. You may see $250 for a trip from Seattle to Orlando, but all too often I’ve clicked on the wrong button so that it asks me to start a new search.

Kayak Explore Map

If I click on the right button, it takes me to the $250 fare — but the dates are some other person’s random vacation they found earlier. I don’t really want to go to Orland on September 12-17. I’m sure I can find a ticket for $250 sometime in the next 330 days if I bothered to check every available option. Why taunt someone with low fares but not share the relevant dates or carrier until the last step?

Google Flights

Instead, I prefer to use Google Flights. It’s a good substitute for the old Fare Compare tool, and it brings in a little tech from the ITA Matrix search engine (which Google acquired a couple years ago).

You are able to specify the starting airport and leave the destination unanswered. Although you can set the duration if you choose, choosing a particular vacation style is not an option. Fine, it wasn’t a feature I cared for anyway. What’s truly useful is being able to specify the number of connections, the price, and the airline alliance. This last tool is what makes it great for finding mileage runs to earn elite status. I wrote a post on Google Flights last year introducing how to use it.

Google Flights Map

I also like that you are able to specify the departure and arrival dates and times, unlike with Kayak. This means that if you are available to do a mileage run, say, three weeks from now and need to be back in the office on Monday, you can just tell this to Google Flights and it will find appropriate itineraries within your budget and on your preferred alliance.

Although there isn’t really a calendar feature (which I love to use on ITA) you can advance the dates one day at a time. If you already have it set up for a zero-day itinerary, meaning you depart and return on the same day, then advancing the departure by one day with the adjacent arrows will also advance the return. Search results update automatically. ;)

Google Flights Criteria

Results are displayed on the map below and include both domestic and international airports, with varying levels of detail depending on how much you zoom in. Results will be displayed as either dark blue, hashed blue, or white circles. Dark blue means you have a hit that meets your criteria. Hashed blue results are close misses. White circles indicate you are far off base. It’s a good way to gauge how close you are to finding a successful mileage run and how you might need to adjust your search criteria.

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Scott created Travel Codex after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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  • mogando

    don’t forget there’s also farecompare.com … but the filters on that map rarely work

    • Scottrick

      Yeah… FareCompare’s map has many of the same faults as Kayak’s.

      http://www.farecompare.com/maps/

      It actually annoys me more because it promises additional filters like airline and CPM, and yet I’ve never been able to find the cheap fares it promises. $240 sometime in September? I don’t want “sometime” in September. I want Labor Day weekend.

  • http://twitter.com/PackofPeanuts Travis Sherry

    Scott, thanks for this round up. Somehow I had never heard of Google Flights…looks like I’ll be wasting some time today!

  • MLH

    Scott, have you found Google Flights to be generally accurate? I’m researching a trip to Europe this summer and Google Flights is telling me its found tickets that work for $990 but ITA and Delta (the carrier) both show $1200+ as the cheapest available. I’m not ready to book the tix (I still want to explore FD some more!) but I suppose I could call Delta to try to book the Google Flights ticket to verify the price.

    • Scottrick

      It’s worked well enough for me, but I haven’t tried it for booking any international flights. It’s more of an inspirational tool, and so far more accurate than any other alternative I’ve seen (I pointed out flaws with Kayak, and I think FareCompare has so many as to be useless).

      Google owns ITA, so they should be drawing from the same information. Can you give me more details about the dates and how you searched?

      • MLH

        Scott, here are the details of the trip I’m looking into. I was also surprised GF and ITA were off since Google owns ITA.
        Depart MSP June 20 for OSL, return from OSL to MSP July 5.

        Results:

        GF: $990 Delta MSP-CDG, AirFrance CDG-OSL. KLM OSL-AMS, Delta AMS-BOS & BOS-MSP.

        ITA: $1263 lowest fare. Delta MSP-CDG, AF CDG-OSL. KLM OSL-AMS & AMS-MSP (can’t even find the option with AMS-BOS & BOS-MSP. I checked the Stops option, its set at No Limit)

        Delta engine: $1308. Delta MSP-AMS, KLM AMS-OSL. Delta OSL-AMS, AMS-MSP.

        AirFrance & KLM engines: $1508. AF MSP-AMS, AMS-OSL. KLM OSL-AMS, AMS-MSP.

        Thats quite a range!

        • Scottrick

          I will take a look tonight, but first impressions are (1) You have different segments when you take out BOS, so that could be affecting the booking class and fare, (2) Not surprising KLM prices differently, as those may be codeshares.

        • Scottrick

          I found the $990 itinerary. One issue is that you can’t book this itinerary with codeshares. CDG-OSL is on AF, and if you try doing it with a DL flight number, it jacks up the price, so you may need to book with an OTA. Remember that Hipmunk allows you to use advanced routing language. Here’s how to find it yourself (and I have a screenshot at the end, too):

          Departing from: MSP :: CDG

          Destination: OSL :: AMS BOS

          This doesn’t explicitly tell ITA to look for SkyTeam flights, but with the choice of airports you can bet a fair number will be. Sadly the /alliance command can’t be used with any other instruction.

          • mlh

            Thanks Scott. Sounds like its more noob user error than a product error.

  • bababooey

    Scott, what do you think would be a great way to get to Hawaii from PDX, in f/c?

    • Scottrick

      There are no great first class services to Hawaii from the West Coast. It’s pretty average, but honestly it’s about the same as flying to the East Coast. I can survive 5 hours with standard domestic first class service. I could do it in coach if I had to.

      My suggestion is Alaska. It’s nonstop and their fares are reasonable. If you have Avios, you can book it for 50K Avios round trip. Hawaiian is another option, but not using Avios (although their award space is pretty good if you have their Bank of America and Bank of Hawaii cards for 35K points a piece). Anything else is going to require a connection. For example, United will require a prop-plane ride to SFO to catch a flight there.

  • http://www.pbrsd.org/ jnojr

    I keep seeing references to “Travelocity Dream Map”, but can never find it… any given links or Google searches just dump me at travelocity.com If it actually exists, how does one find it?

    • Scottrick

      It does not exist anymore.