The Best Airfare Sites
- January 22, 2018 - Since this review was published, Priceline stopped its Name Your Own Price service for airfares, and multiple other travel sites have been acquired by corporate giants Expedia and Priceline. In the next couple months, we'll be taking a deeper look at airfare sites, so stay tuned. In the meantime we've updated this review for concision and clarity.
The Best Airfare Sites
When making travel plans, whether you’re trekking across country or across oceans, a travel site makes it easy to find the right flight — no matter what you’re looking for. Powerful search tools can help you compare flights across multiple airlines, and are highly customizable. You’ll be able to track down the cheapest airfare — even if that means adjusting your dates a little — or you can choose to the precise time so you’re not on the red-eye flight.
To find the best airfare travel site, we tested 15 standout travel sites to find four websites with the right capabilities to match you with your perfect flight.
Our Picks for The Airfare Sites
We liked CheapAir for knocking the basics out of the park. You can search for your flight by selecting trip type (round trip, one way, or multi-city), and entering your departure and arrival cities, your dates, the number of travelers, and what class you'd like (economy, premium economy, business, first class). We were also impressed by how elegantly CheapAir displays your results, and how many options and customizations it offers to help match you to your perfect flight.
You can filter your search by airline, by the number of stops, airport choice, and departure and arrival time — so you don't have to wake up at 4 a.m. to catch your flight if you don't want to. CheapAir defaults to sorting your results by the lowest price, and shows you what it would cost to upgrade or downgrade your class assignment for each flight. You can also sort by departure or arrival time, trip duration, or by CheapAir's "Quality" assessment. This factors in details like trip duration and amenities to give an estimate of whether this will be an enjoyable flight, or just a means of shuttling you from point A to point B.
Always look at the baggage fees for each flightMost travel sites include taxes and fees in the prices listed, but not luggage fees. With airlines getting sneakier about which bags they will let you carry on for free, it's worth seeing if the cheapest flight option means you're paying $45 for your carry-on, when the option listed as "second cheapest" includes it for free.
CheapAir also indicates what kind of amenities you can expect from each flight, using symbols to show whether your flight comes with WiFi, entertainment options, live television streaming, and power or USB outlets. If you want more information about your flight, CheapAir soars above the competition with its comparison tool. Instead of the typical comparison chart, which only lets you see three or four results at a time, with CheapAir, you can simultaneously compare as many flights as you want (we clicked on twenty before we ran out of results). This creates a chart that displays the full information of your selected flights, from basic figures (cost, departure and arrival times, duration) to how often does this flight run on time, to the dimensions of the seats, to the baggage fees.
CheapAir's only downside is its flexible dates tool. Instead of searching for particular dates plus or minus a day or three in either direction, you search for the route you want, and CheapAir gives you a list of fare prices by carrier. For our Seattle to Chicago search, our lowest option was through Frontier for $179 roundtrip, so long as we were traveling between March 9th and June 13th, and didn't travel on Sundays. But when we went in to select our flights, most dates were listed as "not offered" and others, even five months in advance, were sold out. For the few days that remained, more than half required a price hike — so if you're trying to use flexible dates to find the lowest price, either you have to be really flexible, or try out Kayak. CheapAir has the superior search capabilities for airfare, but unless you're lucky, its flexible dates tool is only useful if your dates are completely up in the air.
Best for Flexible Planning
Kayak’s search tool is not quite as robust as CheapAir’s, but still has plenty of features to connect you to your perfect flight. After entering your basic information, Kayak presents your results with multiple customizations to help narrow down your choices. In addition to selecting the number of layovers you want to have, you can search for flights by both departure and arrival time — so you can quickly see if there’s a flight that will get you to Orlando in time for your 10 a.m. meeting, or how many flights are leaving Seattle after 5 p.m.
Like CheapAir, Kayak displays tiny icons to demonstrate what amenities and entertainment options are available on each flight, but Kayak doesn’t have an easy comparison for what it would cost to upgrade from Basic Economy to Economy, or how much the luggage fees are for carry-ons and checked luggage. Where Kayak surpasses CheapAir (and all of our other travel sites) is with its flexible dates tool.
After choosing your departure and arrival airports, Kayak gives you a few options to help you find the best price — particularly if your trip is in the formative planning stages. In addition to exact dates, Kayak offers three search options: flexible dates, flexible weekend, and flexible month. Flexible dates let you specify when you’d ideally like to be traveling, and then compare what it would cost (or what flights are available) on the days leading up to and following each date. The result is a chart displaying on what days it’s the cheapest to travel. Flexible month lets you say how long you want your trip to be, whether a three day weekend to Vegas or a month-long trip to the Bahamas, and ask you for the earliest date you want to leave by. The result is a clean chart so you can choose the cheapest flight.
Flexible weekend works similarly, except it will only call out weekend dates (and you can specify whether your weekend starts Thursday evening, or Friday morning), and it displays results in a list — like if you were doing a regular search. If you’re trying to find the lowest price — and you don’t mind staying an extra day or cutting your trip short to get it — Kayak’s tool is unparalleled for simultaneously comparing the most dates across multiple airlines.
You’ll still need to search Southwest Airlines on your ownSouthwest doesn’t allow robots to search its site — which means that you won’t see its flights listed with any of our top picks. If you’re traveling along one of its routes, you’ll need to search their website directly if you want to compare their offers to those found through any of our top picks.
However, Kayak isn’t a booking engine (like CheapAir), so you can’t purchase your tickets on Kayak.com. It’s an aggregator, which takes the information you give it, and searches other websites to try and find you the best deal. When it’s time to purchase, you’ll be redirected to the specific website of the airline you decide to travel with. If you’re tired of handing out your credit card information (and setting up another username and password) to new websites, Kayak doesn’t require you to sign up to use their services. Just be aware that if you end up booking one of their “hacker fares” which combine a departure flight on one airline with an return flight through a different one, you’ll need to go to two separate websites to complete the booking.
Others to Consider
Priceline was our top pick in our last review for their "Name Your Own Price" tool, which allowed you to bid for airfare tickets by selecting your route, dates, and naming the price you'd be willing to pay — a great option for getting deals. They discontinued this service for airfares in 2016, and have replaced it with an "Express Deal" option. After you've searched for your flight, an Express Deal will top your list of options. In exchange for being less expensive than your other results, you won't know some of the details of your flight. Priceline does specify the general time you'll be leaving (Morning, Mid-day, or Night), and whether the cost of your carry-on bag and advance seat selection are included in the price you see. However, you won't be able to see the airline(s) you're flying with until you make a purchase.
In other respects, Priceline is a pretty standard travel search engine. It has the standard search bar: point of origin, destination, dates, class, and the option for setting a round-trip, one-way, or multi-destination ticket. It has the standard customizations; you can choose how many stops you want to make, determine what time you want to depart from and arrive at each airport, and pick how long you want to be traveling for (seven hours, or thirteen in the case of our Spokane to Chicago flight). If you're tracking down flights to earn or spend airmiles on, you can restrict your search by airline as well. We liked how Priceline does offer a 'flexible dates' feature, but they're a little less flexible than other search engines, like Kayak. It only searches for one day before and after your requested dates.
CheapTickets has a simplistic design, but offers some nice search features that make it easier to find the perfect flight. Your search begins similarly to Priceline's but you'll be able to specify your preferred airline right off the bat, and you can require only nonstop flights, or refundable flights, too. Once you've started your search, you can sort price (lowest or highest), duration (shortest or longest), or arrival or departure (earliest or latest). It’s easy to compare available amenities too; they’re displayed for each flight in little icons — a small WiFi signal, a "press play" button, or a lightning bolt for WiFi, entertainment options, or power outlets.
CheapTickets also offers a few customizations in the search, like restricting which airlines you're considering (in case you had one bad experience with a particular carrier, or want to collect airmiles on another), and select departure and arrival times. It doesn’t offer a flexible dates option, and you won't be able to select the specific time you want your flight to departure or arrive — say, anything after 8 a.m. Instead, you'll choose from four approximate times, morning, afternoon, evening, and night to narrow down your results. CheapTickets does display the relative costs of choosing a trip with a single layover versus two ($445 to $595 in our test flight), and for selecting your preferred airline ($445 for Delta and $772 for United), but in general it's more limited in how well it can narrow down your search compared to our other top picks.