LAX airport scene

Finding the Best Flight Search Site

In Websites by Dave Dean19 Comments

It’s hard to believe 15 years ago, if you wanted to book a flight, your only option was to wander into a travel agent at your local mall and ask what the options were.

These days, online travel agents and flight search engines have largely taken over from physical stores when it comes to finding and booking air tickets.

It seems a new flight search site pops up every other week, but sadly many have little to differentiate them from all the rest. Occasionally, though, one stands out from the crowd. A company finds a unique angle, a better interface or a more efficient way to sift through thousands of results and come up with the best flight options.

Given I spend far more time than is healthy using these sites, I figured it was time to put several of them through their paces. I wanted to find out – for now at least – which flight search engine is best.

How I Tested

To make this more of a real-world test, I chose five routes that I have either flown in the last twelve months, or will fly shortly. From simple domestic flights to multi-stop, multi-continent routes, they covered a wide range of options.

Adioso home page

Given the best time to book flights is supposedly 2-3 months in advance, I chose an arbitrary date of June 27, 2013 to search for all routes. As it’s rare for me to need to fly on a specific day, and also to let me see the range of search options available, I also checked two days either side of that date, for a one-way, economy seat.

There were many ways to determine the “best” result, but I chose the most important metric for many travellers: price. Since not everyone enjoys sleeping on airport floors and taking three days to get anywhere, though, I also looked for other sorting options: number and duration of layovers, total flight times and the like.

Finally, with people increasingly searching for and booking flights on phones and tablets, I also checked out the app or mobile version of each site.

Skyscanner search box

Sites

With so many flight search options out there, narrowing them down to a manageable number was a challenge.  In the end, I decided to test five sites:

– one I use all the time (Skyscanner)

– one I’ve recently found that seems promising (Adioso)

– one has been around for ever (Kayak)

– one we featured on the site in our first month (Hipmunk)

– one random selection I’ve never used before (Momondo)

I loaded each site in a new, incognito browser window. Flight booking sites are notorious for using cookies to remember your searches, and present higher prices to repeat visitors. I then performed my searches, as well as doing spot checks via mobile and app versions on an Android phone.

So How Did They Fare?

The raw numbers are below, and they throw up a few surprises.  Skyscanner, my usual go-to site, came dead last on the most complex routing — a flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Melbourne and then, a week later, on to Seattle.  In fact, other than a five dollar saving on one flight, it was never the cheapest option.

Hipmunk failed to pick up the budget flights from Christchurch to Kuala Lumpar that all other sites did, at a cost of over $350. Along with Adioso, it didn’t include the cheap Ryanair flights from London to Frankfurt either.  I refuse to fly that airline so it wouldn’t have affected me personally, but it was still an unexpected result.

 SkyscannerMomondoAdiosoKayakHipmunk
Ho Chi Minh City – Melbourne – Seattle$2,099$1,627$1,557$1,849$1,761
Christchurch – Kuala Lumpar$437$444$435$471$798
San Francisco – New York$188$171$151$160$160
Sydney – Amsterdam$1,152$1,142$1,147$1,220$1260
London – Frankfurt$26$31$108$43$104

Of course, there’s more to finding the best flight than just saving money.  After spending hours in front of each site, there were clear pros and cons to each one.

Skyscanner

Pros: Powerful, flexible search options. You can choose entire weeks, months or years, to/from a country rather than a specific city, or even to ‘Everywhere’ if you just need to get away.

It’s easy to sign up for daily price alerts for a given route, and the mobile app is fast and simple to use. In fact, it’s actually easier to use than the desktop version when doing a flexible search that spans two or more months.

Cons: Occasional odd search results (flights with layovers that don’t show any details until the booking screen).  More obscure routes or flights well in the future often have limited results when searching by week or month, requiring loading each day individually.

Multi-part bookings are typically not shown by default, making it easy to miss out on the cheapest flight options.

Adioso

Adioso resultsPros: The most obvious feature is the natural language search – “London to New York in mid June”, or “Sydney to Bangkok next month for 7 to 10 days”. Even better, it actually works.

The “best” vs “cheapest” filter is straightforward, and being able to select different days to view without changing screens is a real time saver.  Price alerts are easy to set up.

Cons: The biggest issue is lack of a mobile site or app.  The site looks great on the desktop, but it is slow and has display issues on a phone.  For now, if you’re using Adioso, it’s best done on a bigger screen.

Momondo

momondo mobile home pagePros: The site is slick and fast (in the initial stages of a search, at least), on desktop, mobile and Android app.

Cons: Unable to search for more than one day at once, and with each day’s updated results taking 10-20 seconds to display, the site is not ideal for those with flexible itineraries.

While prices for surrounding days are shown in graph form, they were often several days old and needed refreshing one by one. The multi-city option sounds great, but failed to turn up any results in my test (searching each leg individually did, however).

Kayak

Pros: A simple interface with a working multi-stop option. Being able to see a configurable number of days each side of a given search date is great for spotting cheap options quickly.  The site works well on mobile and app versions as well.

Cons: Consistently more expensive than rivals in these tests.

Hipmunk

hipmunk resultsPros: Although the interface can be a little jarring, it is an effective way of seeing flight lengths and departure/arrival times.  The default “Agony” filter does well to surface the best combination of price, length and layover. Having multiple search ‘tabs’ at the top of the screen is a handy feature.

Cons: Limited options for flexible searches – up to two days before or up to two days after a given date.  More expensive than rivals, even when filtering by price.

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So Which Is Best?

After all that, the obvious question is: which flight search site is best?  As a long-time Skyscanner user, I’m surprised to admit that actually, if you’re using a desktop browser, it’s probably Adioso. With fantastic natural language search, consistently-lowest fare options, and a great interface, I’ll be using it a lot more myself in the future.

If you’re on a mobile device, though, I’d still recommend Skyscanner.  The other options aren’t bad, but the fast, easy to use app and broad range of results gives it the edge over the competition.

All that said, no flight search engine is perfect or shows every available option. Some airlines (Southwest in the US, for example) don’t allow themselves to appear, and each search algorithm is a little different, especially with what could constitute a connection. Don’t forget to check your favourite airline sites individually if they aren’t showing up in search results.

Which site do you use when searching for flights, and why?

Main image via Timothy Tolle,

About the Author

Dave Dean

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Founder and editor of Too Many Adapters, Dave has been a wanderer for nearly 20 years and a geek for even longer. When he's not playing with the latest tech toy or working out how to keep his phone charged for just a few more minutes, he can probably be found sitting in a broken down bus in some obscure corner of the planet.

Comments

  1. I generally have my best luck with Matrix, after which I’ll play around with individual airline sights. I’ve purchased many times from Vayama, sometimes paying $10 more just because I trust them. Tried Adioso and they don’t do very well with open jaw routings. Example: SFO-MOW, return from LED-SFO. Pretty simple, but the prices they displayed were the equivalent of two one way trips, or roughly double what I ultimately paid. I’ll try them out next time for simpler routings.

  2. I’ve found similar with Adioso lately. It almost always beats SkyScanner. It’s now my go-to site.

  3. Thanks for the post. I used to always use Kayak, I’m just a creature of habit. I’ve been noticing that I can almost always get lower fares when I go directly to the Airline’s site when compared to Kayak. I’m going to try out some Skyscanner and Adioso from now on.

  4. Nicely researched, thanks!

    And while I’ll certainly give Adioso a try, I must say…

    As most of the big flight portals neglect to show many of the more obscure airlines, I generally find that first finding out just which airlines serve my destination, and then going directly to each airline’s site – saves me bundles of rubles.

    I also like FareCompare – if only to wax dreamy on their “Where-to-Go” map – the entire globe w/ a toggle on max. price.

  5. Shhhh don’t be telling people about Adioso! I love their ‘take me somewhere warm’ option, that’s how I scored aone way from Sydney to Honolulu for $500 bucks. Freaking bargain!

    I love adioso. We tried Flightfox once for our NZ tickets but we still got better options booking it ourselves. Momondo sucks it has outrageous prices!

  6. I just want to run across the ocean and high-5 you for refusing to fly Lyin’ Air!! I have flown them once in the past 8 years, after deciding to boycott them in the past, and I immediately regretted that decision.

    Great look at the flight search engines – I too am a Skyscanner faithful as well. I find them invaluable for finding cheapest points in the month and seeing where it’s possible to fly direct with the map feature. But my loyalty lies closer to my wallet, so will have to check out Adioso and the others in future too. PP

  7. Interesting. I am also a skyscanner junkie as I generally don’t care about destination or date. Might have to do a fare compare when I find a cheapie on there now.

  8. I usually search Kayak, Mobissimo, and Expedia. And then go directly to the airline’s webpage that comes up cheapest on those three. Besides usually being cheaper on the airline’s site, I’ve found that it’s also easier to make changes to your ticket if you’ve booked directly through the airline. The customer service at all of the flight search engine sites tends to be horrendous.

  9. This surprised me a little.

    I’ve never liked SkyScanner but religiously use Kayak. Additionally, Adioso is completely new to me. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I’ll be having a thorough look in the not too distant future!

  10. I did a similar test for flight search mobile apps. Surprisingly Momondo came in the first place for most of the routes, but I must say that SkyScanner is unbeatable when it comes to flexibility.
    Matrix (OnTheFly) was a disappointment with only one price being the cheapest.

  11. Wish I’d found your site sooner…well researched.
    Got caught booking with eDreams – flight Dalat to HCMC with Vietjet. Ticked box for checked baggage but found out later that it was only for 15kg….no other options offered during the process and can’t be upgraded with Vietjet as it was an econ. flight. EDreams can’t/won’t help. Looks like we may have to front up to counter wearing multiple layers as it’s 2nd last day of holiday and bags likely to be very full !!

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