Getting away for a little holiday shouldn't have to be expensive. There are lots of great sites to help you plan your next trip, whether it's for business or pleasure, and compare flights, hotels and train or bus tickets, all without breaking the bank. Here are five of the best.
Picture: Sean MacEntee
Google Flights hides a lot of power behind its relatively minimalist design. You have the option to search for round-trip, one-way or multi-trip tickets, specify your preferred airline network, choose flights that leave around specific times (perfect if you want to save money on a redeye or hate getting up and want an afternoon flight) and even choose how many stops you're willing to tolerate.
Like any good flight search engine, you can specify whether you want your tickets to be economy, business, or first, depending on how much you're willing to spend, and you can even set a price cap if you're on a budget. Once you've searched though, you can choose any of the listed flights to see the type of plane you'll fly on, some useful details about it (above average legroom, etc), whether there'll be Wi-Fi or power on the flight and more. The service walks you through the process, choosing your preferred flights and departure times, showing you alternatives and finally handing you off to book your tickets.
The site also has a number of featured flights, discounts to specific destinations and other travel deals on the front page, so if you're looking for a last-minute getaway or just a budget-friendly trip, there may be one there for you.
ITA Matrix has been around for a long time — and it made the roundup the last time we asked you this question. Since then, it was actually acquired by Google and its technology used to power Google Flights, mentioned above, but ITA Matrix still operates on its own and is still a go-to resource for tons of travellers looking for power tools to find the best flights, search for and sift through tons of travel options and get more information about their travel plans and possibilities than most travel search engines offer.
ITA Matrix focuses squarely on flights, but offers additional information like cost per mile, the option to use advanced routing codes, allow airport changes, add or restrict stops and change the "sale city" and currency of your ticket. If you have a complex travel question, have exceptionally detailed plans, or just want the most variables and complexity possible for your search, this service has it. Even the calendar and results you get from your searchers is highly interactive, and lets you browse specific flight information, airlines, plane types, cost changes as you change dates, and so on.
ITA Matrix isn't the fastest, simplest or most streamlined option (in fact, while you wait for your results to come up, they suggest using Google Flights for faster results) but if you're a travel pro or you need its wealth of features, there's no replacing it.
Hipmunk was one of the first sites to make flight search easy and not a jumble of airport codes, check boxes and difficult-to-sift-through results. They have come a long way too, incorporating hotels, then helping you find hotel deals close to your other travel plans, and even adding fare alerts so you don't miss a price drop. The site is remarkably easy to use, and it also pioneered the "agony" filter in addition to prices and departure dates and times — that way you'll know whether your experience on a specific flight will be torturous or easy-going, whether you'll likely be on a tough, long-haul flight with long layovers and gate changes, or you'll cruise on a non-stop without hassle.
You can sort by cost, of course, compare flights against one another and see when they leave and how long your travel time will be on a handy graph, see layover times and durations on the same graph, and more. Once you've booked your flight, you can also book rental cars or hotel rooms as well, making it that much easier to just get the whole thing over and done with (and save some money at the same time.) Of course, you can sort by landing time, takeoff time, stops, select non-stops, choose your favourite airline, or even sync your own calendar to see which flights work with your schedule and previously scheduled meetings and events.
Skiplagged saves you money on flights using a kind of ingenious tactic: Instead of booking you on flights directly to your destination, the service searches for direct flights and flights that are headed on to another destination but making a stop or layover in your destination city. That means, of course, you're on a flight with a ton of people that's inevitably headed somewhere else, so you can't do things like check luggage (because that luggage will go on to the flight's final destination) but you can score a bargain because you're only taking half the route.
Skiplagged searches direct flights as well, of course, so you can choose what you prefer. The method is so contentious that United Airlines filed a (now dismissed) lawsuit against the company for it. Similarly, if you're willing to be on a plane for a while, Skiplagged will even show you flights that seem to connect everywhere but your destination, taking up time, but also saving you money.
That all aside, it's a great way to find affordable airfares if your travel times are flexible and you're the type who doesn't like to check luggage.
Skyscanner is another flight search engine that's simple to use, searches for flights as well as hotels and rental cars, and tries to make sure you get the most affordable prices no matter where you're flying, domestic or abroad. It's a bit more simplistic than some of the others in the roundup, without the advanced toggles for flexible dates and additional filtering tools, but if you know when you need to travel and just want to see what the lowest possible fares are, it's a great resource to help you search for them. Best of all, the site makes it easy to find ticket combinations that are otherwise difficult to search for or tricky to sort out on your own, and you can see whether a unique combination of airlines and transfers will save you a substantial amount of money (or enough to make it worth the added hassle.)
Have something to say about one of the contenders? Want to make the case for your personal favourite, even if it wasn't included in the list? Let us know what your preferred alternative is — and make your case for it — in the comments below.