The best flight search websites – tried and tested
T he internet’s supposed to make things easier when comparing flights. Rather than juggle dozens of airline websites, meta-search engines do the job for you, rifling through countless prices to find the best offers. The only snag is there are dozens of such sites, too, so which should you use?
To find out, I tested 10 leading flight search and booking sites against a range of journeys, including domestic flights within the UK, short-haul hops to Europe, and longer trips to the USA, Australia, and China. To shake things up, an internal US flight was thrown into the mix, along with Shanghai to Sydney, and then – for those sites capable of it – a couple of multi-city breaks.
In each case, prices were noted down for a trip only a few days away and a more sensible booking months in advance. Colossal layovers were ignored, on the basis no-one likes spending 30 hours in an airport. This was all about finding the cheapest sensible flights.
Which one is the best, then?
Hang on a bit – I’ll get to that, because the answer’s not straightforward. Although meta-search engines and flight scanners have come on in recent years, there are shortcomings. Sites often display prices that aren’t accurate, which jump when clicking through to a booking agent.
Elsewhere, some revel in ‘hacker fares’. Occasionally, these are handy, with two single tickets (perhaps with different airlines) saving you a bundle of cash; but do watch what airport a site plans to deposit you at when your trip’s done – it might not be where you started.
Now and again, other quirks become evident. Hipmunk weirdly failed on a few too many occasions and kept covering the page with adverts. TravelSupermarket had a bad time during testing for short-notice European trips, seemingly lacking access to certain budget carriers. Google Flights (fortunately rarely) had the opposite problem, unable to display pricing for direct trips from China to Australia, despite other sites having no such issues.
When it comes to money, though, there’s little between sites when booking long in advance, with the range for most journeys being a few percentage points. For short-notice journeys, I found much more variance. Your best bet is to use two or three of the sites listed below, and also to always double-check an airline’s ticket prices before booking through a third-party, just in case a cheaper option’s going wanting.
1. Kayak: best for generally lower prices
The strange thing about Kayak is that of all of the journeys I tested, it was cheapest precisely once: a summer London/Barcelona return, which somehow turned out to be a fiver less than even Expedia’s impressively low price. Despite this, it quietly ended up the cheapest site overall when totting up the entire range of short-term journeys, and was within two per cent of Google Flights for bookings made months in advance.
On that basis, it feels trustworthy as a first (and, if you’re feeling lazy, only) port of call when looking for flights. Do note, though, that Kayak seems particularly invested in hacker fares. That return mentioned earlier initially came up significantly cheaper than on any other site, until closer inspection revealed Kayak’s intention for you to play ‘guess the airport’ during your journey.