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Frequent flyer: Flight comparison sites

They can save you time on your search for the ideal flight, but are aggregators worth using?

Frequent flyer: Flight comparison sites
Illustration: Bryan Mayes

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What are flight comparison sites?
Put simply, when you go to make a booking on an airline’s own website, it brings up options with that airline. Use a flight comparison site — such as Kayak, Skyscanner or Momondo — and it compares across several airlines. At the very basic level, this allows you to see which airline is offering the cheapest tickets.

So what’s the deal?
If you’re looking to see which airline offers the best fares for the particular route you want to fly, then they’re pretty useful. But they can be useful for much more than that. For example, many — such as Skyscanner — allow you to leave the destination blank, so you can pick an endpoint based on low prices. Others, including Google Flights, allow you to choose multiple departure airports, so you can work out whether it’s cheaper to go from Manchester, Leeds-Bradford or East Midlands, for example. And many, including ITA Matrix, allow you to play with date ranges and see results for dates a couple of days either side.

Which are the best?
If you want an easy answer to that, then you’re likely to be sorely disappointed. There’s an element of survival of the fittest about it — there have been hundreds of comparison sites since the dawn of the internet, and many have collapsed or been subsumed by a bigger rival. Numerous publications have conducted studies into which offers the cheapest deals, and there’s no consistent winner on this front.

The best advice is to check using two or three of the main players. The one that flags up the best deal for a one-stop flight between Edinburgh and Kuala Lumpur may be different to the one that finds the best cheap hop from Stansted to Málaga.

Is it all about price?
Not necessarily. Once you start playing with the filters on the site, you start to realise much of the value is in getting the right flight rather than the cheapest one. So, on ITA Matrix, you can choose to rule out particular airlines and stopover airports. On Kayak you can set a maximum time for an airport layover. On Skyscanner, you might rule out all departures before a set time in the morning. And on Momondo you can choose to eliminate overnight ‘red-eye’ flights or only include options that offer in-flight wi-fi.

Tried & tested: Comparing the aggregators

Kayak
Strengths: Reliably cheap, if not always the cheapest. Strong on long-haul. Can check price with or without checked-in bags.
Weaknesses: For bookings, it occasionally sends you to travel agencies where the price is no longer available, rather than direct with the airline.

Momondo
Strengths: Lots of filters and gadgets. Very intuitive bar chart-style display of prices across a month.
Weaknesses: You have to put in exact dates, rather than allowing for a range. This makes checking across various dates rather slow.

Skyscanner
Strengths: Tends to be stronger on short-haul with budget airlines than long haul. Put ‘everywhere’ in as a destination, and it sorts the world in price order.
Weaknesses: It tends to struggle — and not offer nearly as much flexibility — on multi-stop itineraries.

Google Flights
Strengths: Extremely quick, and mobile-friendly. Brings up prices on a grid while you’re selecting dates to easily find the cheapest.
Weaknesses: Fewer immediately obvious bells, whistles and filters than other sites — although there are some hidden goodies.

ITA Matrix
Strengths: Greatest degree of flexibility, making it the best bet for plotting more complicated routes. It’s the closest system and site to the one travel agents use.
Weaknesses: It’s a bit tricky to use, and you can’t book directly from it.

Published in the October 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)