Google Flight Search: Not Quite Ready for Prime Time

I'm not cheap, exactly, but I do love to find a bargain. So when I'm thinking about a vacation or a business trip, I search the Web for the best airfare. Since I'm going to Chicago next month, I thought I'd try out Google's new Flight Search feature and see how it stacks up against Kayak, which is generally considered one of the best air fare finders on the Web.

To cut right to the chase: Google Flight Search isn't ready for prime time. It's limited to domestic destinations only, and far fewer of those than you'd find on Kayak. It includes fewer airlines than Kayak on each search, misses some fares and it doesn't offer an option for any class of service other than economy. To me, that's like publishing a dictionary that doesn't go all the way to "z."

Having said that, remember that this is Google, a company that tends to roll out products as soon as possible, and tweak them later. The company has said that this early iteration was focused on speed, accuracy and ease of use -- broader coverage will come in the future.

Indeed, Google Flight Search is quick and easy to use and it has a cool interface and some nice tools you won't find in Kayak. I just wish it did a better job finding flights and fares.

Getting Started

The first thing you'll see when you go to Flight Search is a map of the country, with blue dots next to the names of cities. Since Google knows where I live, it auto-fills the "from" field with San Francisco, and puts the blue start arrow there as well. Pick arrival and departure dates, and then click on a second city. (For cities or regions that have multiple airports, you'll get a choice.)

If you like, you can specify departure times, a price range, and a limit to the flight's duration. If your flight requires a change of planes, you can pick cities where you'd like to connect. That's handy in the winter when you might want to avoid airports, like Denver, that often suffer delays that time of year.

There's a neat feature -- technically you'd call it a scatter graph -- which shows flights as dots along an X-axis that relates to prices, and a Y-axis keyed to flight duration. By dragging a corner of a box with your mouse (or finger if you're using a tablet) you can change both parameters and only flights that fit within them will be displayed.

Kayak features a slider on its start page that allows you to limit the duration of a trip, including layovers, but you can't combine it with flight prices. On the other hand, Kayak allows you to filter for flights that have Wi-Fi, and as I mentioned, select a particular class of travel.

On to Chicago

I set up my search for Chicago flights similarly on both sites: I want to leave on October 17 and return on October 22 and I set the departure times on both the outbound and returns legs for a range of 8 am to 8 pm.

Kayak returned an intimidating 579 flights, but when I narrowed the trip length to under seven hours, I had 339 flights to choose from. Google doesn't give you the total number of flights it has found, but a quick count showed that it returned somewhat less, though there were still plenty to choose from. Annoyingly, the Google search returned flights whose departure times were well outside the parameters I had set. (That glitch seemed to disappear when I searched using the Chrome browser instead of Firefox.)

Google's layout of potential flights is cleaner and easier to see than Kayak's. Unfortunately, though, it didn't produce the best fares. I found a roundtrip fare on Kayak for $279 on Virgin America. The first flight will depart San Francisco at 5:45 pm; the return will leave O'Hare at 7.30 pm, which is what I had requested. The closest I could get to that fare on Google was $319, but I'd have to catch a 6:30 am flight to do it. Oddly, the Virgin America flights were listed on Google's site, but not their price.

In case you hadn't heard, Google got into the air fare business by buying ITA Software, which sells flight information to many of the popular fare finder sites, including Kayak, Orbitz and Hotwire. To win approval of the deal, Google had to assure federal regulators that it wouldn't stack the deck against rival Web sites, so it will be interesting to see how Google differentiates itself.

For now, I can't recommend Google Flight Search. It's simply not mature enough. However, Google's expertise in Web search is hard to beat, and the company has a record of launching service before they're fully cooked -- and greatly improving them on the fly. I'd be surprised if Flight Search doesn't become more competitive in the not-too-distant future.

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net. Follow Bill Snyder on Twitter @BSnyderSF. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline

This story, "Google Flight Search: Not Quite Ready for Prime Time" was originally published by CIO.

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