When Brittany Laughlin needed to fly from Chicago to San Francisco last month, she tried something new. Instead of visiting an online travel agency or an airline Web site, she headed over to Google Flight Search, the newest and most controversial travel site to launch since Orbitz opened its doors a decade ago.
Within a few seconds, Google showed her the perfect flight on American Airlines. She clicked on the link, which took her to the airline’s page to book a ticket. “It was really clear and instantly showed results,” says Laughlin, who runs a social media company in Chicago.
Google Flight Search is the result of the search engine giant’s acquisition of ITA Software, a Cambridge, Mass., company whose technology powers many well-known travel sites, including American Airlines, Bing, Hotwire and Kayak. There was some concern that the acquisition would harm competition, but the Justice Department eventually greenlighted the purchase, with conditions, earlier this year.
None of that matters — at least in the short term — to travelers like Laughlin. She just needed a cheap fare fast, and Google delivered. “I would use it again,” she says.
So, should you consider using Google Flight Search for your next airline ticket purchase? The answer: a qualified “yes.”
The site is incredibly fast, thanks to Google’s powerful servers and the ITA technology. That sets it apart from other sites, which can take anywhere from several seconds to half a minute or more, if you’re on a slower Internet connection, to yield results.
The service also offers a few interesting new features, including a screen displaying the least expensive days to fly and a variety of ways to search for flights, such as by price and destination. These aren’t necessarily new to the online travel world, but Google does them in a very user-friendly way.
But Google Flight Search is as notable for its shortcomings. It offers no international flights, and several carriers, including Virgin America and JetBlue, are currently unbookable. You can’t buy any multi-city or multi-airline itineraries, either. Perhaps the biggest omission is that you can’t purchase tickets through an online travel agency such as Expedia, Orbitz or Travelocity.
Because of that, many critics have written Flight Search off — at least for now. “Google Flights is useless to me,” says Roni Weiss, a travel blogger and social media consultant. “Once they’re international and have the functionality of Kayak, I’ll take notice. Until then, I don’t care.”
Why would Google roll out a half-baked product? Because that’s part of its corporate DNA. Internally, the process is referred to as “launch and iterate” — release a product and then improve it over time. One example is Gmail, Google’s cloud-based e-mail service, which was unveiled in 2004 and remained in “beta” — engineering-speak for a test phase — until 2009.
What’s more, the air travelers who decry the site’s lack of features are using it in a way it’s not intended to be used, says Google. Flight Search is meant to be accessed in conjunction with its Web search function. And flights will only show up in a search if they’re available through the system, which eliminates the problem of users searching in vain for international flights, which aren’t available yet. “When people search for information about travel, we want to provide the most complete results,” says Google spokesman Sean Carlson. “That’s our goal.”