Price tracking with Google Flights kicks ass (better than Kayak, Airfare Watchdog, etc)

Every now and again, I make, you know, actual travel plans, meaning something other than a spontaneous where-do-I-go-today type travel decision. And sometimes I want to pay with cash or travel credits or gift cards or points, as opposed to booking an award ticket. And sometimes the cash price is higher than I’d like. And sometimes I fly JetBlue, who has a policy of honoring price drops. And even on other airlines, a price could drop enough to be worth eating their $200-$300 change/cancel fee.

All this means I want to know when a fucking fare goes down before I buy my ticket, and sometimes after.

There are plenty of sites, like Kayak and Airfare Watchdog, that offer fare watching. (And there’s also insider tools like ExpertFlyer, but that only reports fare class availability, not the fares themselves.) The problem with these is that they’ll just tell you the cheapest price, period, without consideration for specific airlines or other factors. That makes them kinda useless to me.

You know who gives me what I want (mostly)? Fucking Google. I do most of my flight searching on Google Flights anyway, as it has a very powerful UI that allows you to do things like see an entire month’s worth of fares at a glance, or specify multiple airports for origin and/or destination. Occasionally, it has wrong info, so I can recommend Flight Fare Compare by Jack’s Flight Club, which will allow you to instantly perform the same search on Kayak, SkyScanner, or Momondo. You’ll need Chrome on a desktop to use it (fucking Google, again).

Google Flights also has a fare watching feature, but, unlike all the other ones I’ve stumbled across, you can actually have filtered notifications. All Kayak and AFWD does is “Durr, we’ll tell you any time there’s a lower fare on any airline.” Not helpful if I’m looking for a JetBlue price drop or trying to earn United qualifying miles, or am only interested in nonstops.

Enabling Google Flight price tracking is bizarrely simple. First off, you need to be signed into your Google account (if you don’t use Gmail, you can still create a personal Google account with your existing email address). Right in the middle of the search results, there’s an on-off type switch for “Track Prices” (it’s very easy to overlook). Turn it on. That’s it. Done. If the price goes down, you get an email notification. Whatever filters you have applied for number of included bags, airline preference, round-trip vs one-way, cabin class, and number of stops will also be applied to the tracked price for that date. That way, when you actually get an email, it’s worth paying attention to. If you want to look for prices over a range of dates, create a separate tracked price for each date. To review your tracked fares at any time, click the hamburger (menu) icon in the upper left of Google Flights, and choose Tracked Prices.

(A trick for avoiding Basic Economy, for airlines like United that has the extra-awful policy of no overhead carryon, is to include one carryon bag in your filters. American and Delta are not as Draconian, so I don’t know if you can avoid Basic Economy when tracking prices on those.)

I just used price tracking when I had a premium cabin ticket on a United flight that the lovely Ms. X needed to join me on. When I bought my ticket, there was only one left at the price it was at, so I had to buy it solo. I gambled that, with the cabin empty and months to go, the fare would go down again. I was right — I got the email from Google Flights a few weeks later, and pounced. Victory is mine.

And, as I was writing this post a couple of days ago, I set up a sample tracked price from NYC to Chattanooga, TN, because everyone wants to go there. I then promptly forgot about it. Yesterday, I got a notification that the price had dropped from $333 to $174.

Unfortunately, not all of the filters apply to tracked prices. In particular, flight times, duration, price, and connecting airports are ignored. This is too bad because it doesn’t allow me to really watch a single flight, which is sometimes what I want, particularly if I’ve already purchased the ticket and am looking to capitalize on a drop, but also sometimes It would be nice to have for pre-purchase if schedule is a concern. Sometimes the whole thing doesn’t really work that well if there’s a cheaper flight the same day that you can’t take, because that cheaper price will keep you from getting notified about a drop on the flight you actually want.

What I really want for a situation like that is a site that will track and notify for a specific flight. The only site I’ve found that offers such a thing is Yapta, but I’ve never actually been notified by them about any flight I’ve tried to track, so I’d say it doesn’t count. Until I find that, Google Flights price tracking gets it done for me.

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