The 10 Best (and Worst) Airfare Search Sites

Searching OTAs and aggregators Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung/Flickr
Two years ago, we pitted the best-known airfare search engines, aggregators, and booking engines against each other in an informal battle royale to see which could find the best prices on each of 25 different searches. A lot has changed since then, so we were curious to see who would win in a rematch. The results spoke loud and clear. A few big names rose to the occasion (and in the rankings). A few tumbled to the bottom. The top finishers all improved their performance—but only one could be crowned the winner.
 
Here's how we did it: We tested each site on both last-minute flights (leaving within 72 hours) and APEX fares (booked six weeks out). We challenged them head-to-head on major gateways (NYC to LAX, Miami to Rio) and secondary ones (Philly to Rome). We threw in a few curve balls (Denver to New Delhi) and included a flight with no North American legs (London to Barcelona) to see how well each handled Europe‘s thicket of no-frills carriers. We then used a complicated, weighted scoring system—including negative points for finding the worst fares—to determine a final ranking for each one.
View Next Slide
A few things to know/ Southwest planes at an airport rachel_pics / flickr.com
Before we get to the results, there are a few things to keep in mind before you search. The first is that an aggregator is only as good as the OTAs it canvasses. There are booking engines (Expedia, Priceline, Hotwire), and there are aggregators—which are sites that do not book directly but instead search other OTAs (online travel agencies) and compile the results. Some OTAs and booking sites are better than others. Some are prone to dangling lead prices a few bucks below what they will actually offer once you click through to the site, and some misleadingly categorize “direct” flights—which do actually stop, but do not require you to change planes—as nonstop.
 
Second, you generally must search Southwest.com on your own. Traditionally, Southwest does not allow its results to be aggregated. Southwest sometimes pops up on aggregators only to disappear later, but it’s always smart to check that carrier’s fares directly.
 
View Next Slide
Priceline.com Priceline.com
OTA
In our tests, Priceline.com never found the lowest fare on a guaranteed route, but muddled around in the middle or back of the pack at best, and brought up the rear with the worst fares a whopping seven times out of 25 searches. Priceline’s saving grace: “Express Deals,” an opaque fare in which you only get to pick your airports and travel dates, but not flight times, airlines, or stopovers—just a guarantee there will be “0-1” plane changes. If you are willing to put up with that degree of uncertainty, Priceline did manage the best rate on last-minute fares for two popular routes, and found a pretty good price on the APEX fare from NYC to Paris—not the best, but good. However, Priceline is also one of the few holdouts refusing to include most no-frills airlines in search results.
 
Pros: Opaque fares can save up to 40%
Cons: Performs middling to poorly on price; limited filters; doesn’t include low-cost carriers
 
View Next Slide
Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz
OTA
How the mighty have fallen. Expedia.com now owns all of the former Big Three booking engines, so you now get the exact same results at Travelocity.com or Orbitz.com as well. It’s a shame those results are so lousy. In our last test, two years ago, Expedia was safely in the middle of the pack; now it is next to last for its utterly middle-to-end-of-the-road search results. The site did manage to tie for best fare (with Hotwire, which it also owns) on NYC to LAX, and, somewhat surprisingly, tie with Momondo on the Denver-to-Delhi curveball. However, Expedia also wanted to charge a whopping $2,016 for a direct Philly-to-Rome flight that everyone else was selling for $1,060 to $1,126—and it didn’t even find the $591 fare that required only one plane change in Madrid on the way over.
 
Pros: Includes baggage fees; fare alert emails to let you know about good prices; shows prices for alternative dates
Cons: Pricing only fair to poor outside major routes; limited filters
 
View Next Slide
This slideshow is brought to you by our advertisers:
Click NEXT to continue reading.
Hotwire.com Hotwire.com
OTA
Even after quietly doing away with its old “Hot Rates” opaque airfares (though searches will occasionally turn up a few), Hotwire.com still makes the cut. The site actually shaved a couple of dollars off the cheapest Air China fare from LAX to Hong Kong that three other contenders found. However, that was the only place Hotwire stood out, running a bit behind the middle of the pack on most other searches. For a search bot, Hotwire came off as oddly bashful and unsure of itself, constantly asking via popups, interstitial ads, and sidebar boxes if we wouldn’t really prefer searching some other sites in the Expedia family instead. Also, on the main booking page you’re required to name a specific airport, rather than the industry standard allowing you to include all airports in a major city to cast a wider net for savings. You can expand your search, but only later.
 
Pros: Includes baggage fees; fare alert emails; vacation packages; flexible date search
Cons: Limited filters; mostly average to poor results
 
View Next Slide
Seatguru.com
OTA
Seatguru.com leverages deep knowledge about plane configurations in its flight search function to provide excellent details about amenities (legroom, seat pitch, seatback TV, outlets, Wi-Fi), as well as combining all those features into a “G-Factor” comfort rating. You’re also shown graphically the length of any layovers—a nice touch. Unfortunately, Seatguru’s performance on that all-important price point was only average, landing in the worst to near-worst category of results 20% of the time, and in the near-best only 20% of the time. Oddly, the site also failed to find any direct flight from Miami to Rio, when all the others did. If this one could only gin up better search results, it has the potential to rule the ratings.
 
Pros: Wonderful detail on amenities and bag fees; informed “comfort ratings”; provides shortcuts to cheapest and shortest/nonstop
Cons: Poor performance on price; usability annoyances
 
View Next Slide
 CheapOAir.com
OTA
Results from this smaller discount OTA were all over the place. CheapOAir.com performed the strongest of any site on several last-minute international fares—so long as you were willing to make a plane change. On direct flights, it was near the bottom of the heap. Results on advance bookings ranged from above average to sub-par—never the worst, but only once the best (on London to Barcelona). Like Expedia, the site inexplicably wanted to charge double the going rate for a direct flight from Philly to Rome. CheapOAir also offers “Super Saver” opaque fares, but sorry, these are not always a super savings.
 
Pros: Vacation packages; details on baggage fees and fare rules; for some U.S. carriers, a seat-selection map; opaque fares
Cons: With a few exceptions on last-minute international travel, not very good at finding the best price
 
View Next Slide
Hipmunk.com
Aggregator
Hipmunk.com has always thought outside the search-results box, from its unique bar presentation—you can see at a glance the relative flight lengths, times, stopovers, and Wi-Fi availability of all results—to its innovative "Agony" filter (variations on which several competitors have since adopted) showcasing which flights offer the best balance of price, duration, and stopovers. Unfortunately, on price this aggregator’s performance is only average, bested almost every time by the top four, even when it found the same flights. It never managed to find the lowest fare on 25 tests (though it did manage to join the second-best tier a half dozen times).
 
Pros: Unique graphic display of results; very user-friendly; fare alert emails; includes Amtrak (but not Eurostar trains in Europe); vacation packages
Cons: Never the cheapest; email sign-up window stays on screen until you either enter your email or dismiss it
 
View Next Slide
This slideshow is brought to you by our advertisers:
Click NEXT to continue reading.
Kayak.com Kayak.com
Aggregator 
Kayak.com is probably the most famous aggregator—and the one that improved the most since we last did our tests, rocketing from next-to-last place all the way up to number four. Frankly, the search results are still mostly middle-of-the-road, but Kayak did manage to shine on transatlantic flights, and in a creative way. It was at or near the cheapest price every time, and on the advance-notice fare it was the only contender to cleverly split carriers (Norwegian over, WOW back, albeit with a plane change) to shave $30 off what others found using just Norwegian. Also on the plus side, it can “Flex Search” up to three days on either side of your dates and also has the most complete set of filters, including obscure factors like landing times, layover cities, alliances, and aircraft type.
 
Pros: Fare alert emails; vacation packages; flexible-dates grid of prices; excellent filters (though you must tediously eliminate options one at a time rather than being able to positively select just one or two); advice on whether to buy now or wait based on historical price trends; includes Amtrak (but not Eurostar trains in Europe)
Cons: Not so great with secondary cities/itineraries
 
View Next Slide
 Google.com/flights Google.com/flights
Aggregator 
Google’s purchase of the IATA Software flight engine a few years ago hasn’t quite been the game-changer many predicted (yet). However, the titan of online search has combined this database with its own algorithmic wizardry to produce a lightning-fast flight search engine that proves amazing good at rooting out good fares—the best of any in three instances, including shaving a whopping $618 off the nearest rival on a last-minute flight to Rio. Intriguingly, that flight to Rio was Google’s worst stumbling block when we conducted our tests two years ago (part of a pattern of improvement). Google also features a fabulous “Explore” map feature that allows you to select any two major city pairs and see the lowest fare for your desired dates, as well as price trends for the month surrounding them.
 
Pros: Handily the fastest; better than most at canvassing low-cost carriers; useful calendar of prices; detailed filters; ability to include or exclude a given airline or connecting airport from results; mentions amenities (seat outlets, entertainment, Wi-Fi) and warnings about typical delays
Cons: Occasional poor results on what should be softball searches
 
View Next Slide
Skyscanner.com Skyscanner.com
Aggregator 
Skyscanner.com was famously one of the first to include low-cost airlines (though these days most do, save Priceline)—and it remains an excellent place to find some of the lowest fares available. Skyscanner really only stumbled on the Miami-to-Rio search—though, to be fair, that route also tripped up Kayak, Hipmunk, and Expedia. But beyond that, Skyscanner never had worse than middling results, and what’s more, it found the best rates an impressive six times, and the second-best rates another six times. That alone was enough to land it in a strong second place. Add to that decent filters, a flexible whole-month dates calendar, a graph you can peruse for any search, and a great (albeit hidden) “where would I go cheap?” function: Just type “everywhere” in the destination field and you will get a list of the cheapest fares to many popular destinations from your departure airport.
 
Pros: Among the best at ferreting out the lowest fares; shows price for same flight from multiple OTAs/airline sites; can see a whole month of fares on a calendar for flexible dates; shows which airline actually operates codeshares; fare alert emails; finds lowest fares to many places at once with “everywhere” feature
Cons: Not quite as good on direct flights, even when it finds a great price on the same itinerary requiring a connection; annoys with poor sponsored results before the organic ones
 
View Next Slide
Momondo.com
Aggregator 
Momondo.com remains, hands-down, the best place to find the cheapest airfares every single time. In our 25 search scenarios, this aggregator, which points you to other sites to make your final booking, found the lowest price 16 times, and the second-lowest seven times. It was also the only site of any we tested that never fell in the bad-to-worst range. Its overall score tells the story. We used a complicated, weighted scoring system (including negative points for finding the worst fares). The results for the top three finishers? Google Flights: 9 points. Skyscanner: 19 points. Momondo: 39 points. ‘Nuff said. 
 
Momondo provides shortcuts to the cheapest, quickest, and best overall results, plus a nifty fare calendar graph that shows average prices for a wide range (one week before and two weeks after each flight), so you can quickly see if another date might cost much less. The site does not track you with cookies, so it can’t raise prices on you if you search the same trip twice. You can see Amtrak and Eurostar train results (most sites don’t do both), filter by airport (including nearby airports in neighboring cities), and get fare alerts by email. For easy planning, plug in a pair of cities for the “flight insight” feature that supplies insider intel such as the cheapest and most expensive fares, on average, pegged to season, airline, time of departure, day of the week, and more. 
 
 
Pros: Consistently cheapest results combined with a smart user interface
Cons: Can occasionally be defeated on price (but usually only by a few dollars); lacks a few bells and whistles found the at the other two in the top three; because it canvasses far more OTAs and discounters than others (ultimately a positive), you need to do due diligence on the reputations of some of smaller, unfamiliar outlets before purchasing
 
View Next Slide
advertisement
advertisement