The summer is here, and chances are you want to fly out to a cool holiday destination. Of course you don’t want to spend more than you have to. Fortunately there are now multiple online flight search engines available that help you how to find the cheapest flights.
Three of the most powerful flight search engines today are Skyscanner, AZair, and Skypicker. Skyscanner has been around the longest, and is actually a meta-search engine of other well-known booking sites (like Orbitz and Expedia). AZair seems to have been put together as a hobby project, but is surprisingly useful and flexible. It only covers Europe, the Mediterranean, and Asia, though. Skypicker is the new kid on the block. A tech startup that has received millions in venture capital, it aims to disrupt the flights market by finding the absolute rock bottom prices.
I use all three of these search engines to find cheap flights, and the results vary. So to find out which one really delivers you the cheapest flights, I pitted them against each other. Here’s how I tested them to find cheap flights. (Don’t care about the test methodology and the detailed results? Skip straight to the conclusion.)
The test setup
In order to see how the flight search engines perform, I fed them with three different assignments*. These are three trips an independent traveller would be likely to make. Due to the limitations of all three search engines, I precluded multi-city trips from the test (even though these are among my favourite itineraries). To keep a level playing field, I restricted the test to Europe and Asia. If you’re looking for flights in the US, AZair simply won’t be of much help to you. Finally, in order to not make it too easy, I chose non-hubs as starting points for each trip. If you fly out of Frankfurt or London each time, you don’t need a powerful search engine to find good flights.
Addendum 15 July 2015: AZair has contested the outcome of this test. The company claims it has been treated unfairly, as it doesn’t actually cover all of Asia, but only “Europe and Middle east and (…) a couple of the “far legs” of European LCCs.” Also it states that some of the flights that I couldn’t find when running the test should have shown up in its search results. Read AZair’s complete response in the comments below.
- A backpacking trip to Southeast Asia. We’re based in Bourges, France, and are planning a three-month Backpacking trip to Southeast-Asia this winter. We have months to prepare for it, and want to leave somewhere in November. The trip should take approximately 11-14 weeks. We don’t mind taking a train to get to our airport of departure. We’re inclined to fly to either Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, or Singapore, but if a cheaper option shows up we don’t mind taking it. Getting the absolute lowest price is out primary concern.
- A weekend getaway to Barcelona. We’re based in Basel, Switzerland, and have a long weekend coming up in 3 weeks. We want to take this opportunity to enjoy the sun and the sea in Barcelona together with our significant other. We can leave anywhere between Thursday after work (19:00) and Friday early afternoon (13:00). We need to be back at work on Tuesday, though not necessarily well-rested. We want to get the maximum out of the long weekend, and a quick and hassle-free journey is our primary concern. Due to our busy life, we don’t want to spend more than 15 minutes searching for a flight.
- A stag party somewhere in Europe. One of our mates from Liverpool, UK, is tying the knot, and we want to give him one last good time. We’re nine blokes, and we have two months to plan the party. Everyone in the group can take a Friday or Monday off, and we want to have at least two nights of fun. We’d be happy to fly anywhere there’s a lively party scene and cheap booze, but for no more than 100 pounds (about $155 or €135) each.
TEST 1: The backpacking trip
First up is our old reliable Skyscanner. Because Bourges doesn’t have its own airport, we have to travel a bit regardless. According to Travelmath, the closest airport is Tours Val de Loire (TUF). We enter that we want to fly to Thailand, and that nearby airports on both ends are acceptable. We want to leave sometime in November and be back sometime in February. We click “search”, and… we quickly get an error message that there are no available flights on this route.
What does that mean? Are there no flight connections between any of the airports near Tours and Thailand for the entire month of November? Let’s try again with all of France as our starting point. After clicking “search” again, Skyscanner suggests that we’d be best off flying from Paris (Charles de Gaulle) to Bangkok. Having selected those cities, a calendar pops up with the prices throughout November and February. Apparently we can fly the cheapest if we leave on 29 November and return on 18 February, which is within our search parameters. We can make this trip for €478 with Kuwait Airways, 20-21 hours of flight time and one stopover each way.
When we repeat this process for Malaysia and Singapore, we don’t obtain any better results. One point of note is that Skyscanner apparently caches the results of other people’s previous searches, which then show up in our broad search results. This is very helpful in the ‘broad’ (first) part of the search, but useless if we’re looking for a less-travelled route (say, from Toulouse to Singapore). For impopular trajectories we’d have to painstakingly go over all the possible airports and dates, which would take an eternity.
Next up is AZair. One cool feature that is immediately useful is that we can select multiple origin and destination airports. In our case, we pick Tours, and the site shows other airports in order of proximity. We select all of them, cutting off the list at 250km distance from our home (which includes Paris-Charles de Gaulle). For our destination we pick Thailand (which strangely lists only 3 airports, even though there are many more smaller ones), and add Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. We don’t care if we arrive and depart at the same airport, and waiting a long time or putting up with stopovers also isn’t a problem. We’re a backpacker, and just want to get the lowest price.
When clicking “search” the engine immediately provides a list of results, as opposed to Skyscanner, which took a good half minute. This is a bit suspicious, and indeed the cheapest connection we found before doesn’t show up. According to AZair, our best option is to fly Norwegian from Paris (Orly), for a total of €565. The flights would take us 28 and 41 hours respectively, with one stopover in Oslo. This is significantly worse than what Skyscanner gave us.
The explanation becomes apparent quickly: AZair doesn’t have Kuwait Airways flights in its database. For that matter, it also omits most major airlines such as Lufthansa, British Airways, and KLM-Air France, in favour of low-cost airlines like Ryanair, Germanwings, and Norwegian. But the lesson here is that low-cost airlines aren’t necessarily the cheapest carriers on long haul flights.
The next contender is Skypicker. We’re doing a ‘radius search’ flying from within 250km from Bourges to anywhere in Thailand. Our departure is somewhere in November. Unfortunately it isn’t possible yet to select a date in the next year for our return. So we just tell the search engine that we want to return ‘anytime’. The best result Skypicker can give us is a combined flight with Emirates and Air Asia from Paris (CDG) to Surat Thani for €541. It beats the second-best result by less than a euro, which would be a flight to Bangkok with Air India Limited.
It remains a guess whether the search engine would do better had our time frame been in its database. One hopeful sign is that it apparently knows many smaller airports and airlines. But it still didn’t come close to finding Skyscanner’s best offer, so for now we have to remain sceptical. The winner of this first assignment is: Skyscanner.
TEST 2: The weekend getaway
After its dismal performance in the first round, we give AZair the chance to start the second. This trip may be its cup of tea, as it is within Europe, and doesn’t require a high amount of flexibility. We can fly out of Basel, Bern, or Zürich, and want to go to Barcelona El Prat, Girona, or Reus. Any farther airport would be too much of a hassle to get to or from. Our travel time can be no more than 7 hours (which is already a stretch).
AZair comes up with two possible connections, both direct flights from BSL to BCN, one leaving on Saturday Morning and one on Sunday. The return flight in both cases is on Tuesday, arriving at 08:50 in Basel, which would have us back at the office just in time for work. Since Sunday would give us only 2 days on the beach, we opt for the Saturday flight with Easyjet, flying back with Vueling. Both flights combined cost us €205 plus €24 in ticketing fees. We can afford that, but are less than thrilled for not getting to spend our Friday in the Mediterranean.
Let’s see how our number two of last round performs here. Annoyingly, we can’t select a group of convenient airports in Skypicker. We’re either stuck with just one, or a whole country, or a 250km radius. So to perform the search we could do on AZair with just one click, we have to work with 9 permutations here. Starting with a direct flight from Basel (BSL) to Barcelona (BCN) between Thursday and Saturday, and staying 3-5 days, we quickly get some options that require us to leave on Thursday morning. But that’s no good for us, as we still have work to do.
Scrolling down the list we find our first acceptable flight out on Friday afternoon with Vueling, but it requires coming back on Wednesday, which isn’t an option. Next is the same outbound flight, but with the return on Tuesday early morning that AZair also found. This costs us €145. Both the flying dates and the prices are significantly better than those of AZair, so Skypicker is our favorite of the two for now. We could go over some of the other possible connections, but because our time is precious, we decide to take the €145 flight and enjoy three and a half days in the capital of Catalunya.
Is Skyscanner able to beat this? We select that we want to fly from BSL (including nearby airports) to BCN (again, including nearby). To get a quick sense of whether it matters on which day we depart, we use the calendar view again, hoping that the route is sufficiently well-travelled. According to the calendar, flying out on Thursday is about €30 cheaper than on Friday, so we go for that. For the return Tuesday beats Monday by a hair’s breadth.
However, the flights showing up at the op of the list are during working hours, which is bad for us. After we filter the departure and arrival times nothing remains. So let’s retry with Friday. That quickly shows us the same direct flight with Vueling that Skypicker found for us. Only Skyscanner lists it as costing €130. To account for the difference, we try to enter the booking process through both sites. Skyscanner links us directly through to the Vueling website, where we can book the flight for €133 (excluding frills, but including all the bizarre fees that airlines tend to charge). Skypicker on the other hand links us to their own booking splash screen, where they want to collect our data and charge us €145 to book the flight through them as an intermediary. You can guess where the €12 difference goes.
The winner of round two is… Skyscanner again. It dug up the most convenient flight for us, and beat the price of the competition by €12. Also it is good to know that Skypicker makes its money by charging you a premium for booking through their site. What if we didn’t care where we flew to? Let’s see in round three.
TEST 3: The stag party
For the last round we’ll start with Skypicker. We want to fly from Liverpool to anywhere, sometime in July or August. Our stay should be two or three nights. The top eight results are all on the British islands or in Scandinavia, which is not what we have in mind for a good stag party. Result number 9, however, is a trip to Gdansk, Poland, for €99. Since Gdansk is a beach town, beer is cheap in Poland and the women beautiful, this sounds like an excellent destination.
Unfortunately most of the flights are in the middle of the week, which won’t work for us. We keep scrolling… and scrolling… and scrolling… until we get pretty annoyed that Skypicker doesn’t have a filter for flying days or flight duration. Some of the suggested itineraries include 21-hour trips via Sandefjord, which is a ridiculous option to consider. Since we can’t come up with a good solution, we narrow-down our search. One of the options in the list includes a direct flight from Liverpool to Gdansk on Friday evening 28 August at 20:30. That means the lads can all go to work on Friday, and take Monday off.
So we search again for a flight from Liverpool to Gdansk, leaving exactly on Friday 28 August and staying 2-3 nights. Ignoring all the ridiculous connections, we find a return flight with Wizz Air on Monday 31 August at 18:35. Only, the price of this trip is €282 each, well above our budget. Being aware of how Skypicker pays its bills, we decide to check the trip on Wizz Air’s website directly. That gives us an even worse price of 247 pounds. Frustrated about this outcome we leave the site.
Will oh-so-dependable Skyscanner do better here? Using its search feature from Liverpool to “everywhere”, flying in the “cheapest month”, we get Poland as out cheapest acceptable destination. Other options include Lithuania, Portugal, Latvia, Spain, Slovakia, Malta, Romania, Cyprus, and the Czech Republic. We decide to search Poland, with the cheapest flights going to Warsaw. Unfortunately the calendar doesn’t show any fares for July and August.
We search again, this time for flights specifically from Liverpool to Warsaw in the month of July. The calendar shows that the cheapest connection is from Thursday 2 July through Saturday 4 July. That might work. Looking at the list of flights, there is a Ryanair flight leaving Liverpool at 17:20 and arriving in Warsaw at 20:50, in time for a night of partying. On Saturday we wouldn’t have to fly back until 21:20, which makes this option work for us. Also, the price of €131 is within our budget. Trying the same for August, or for Gdansk instead of Warsaw, doesn’t get any better results.
Finally we give this task to AZair. If anything this should be its speciality. We ask the engine for a trip from Liverpool to Anywhere, sometime between 1 July and 31 August, with a minimum of 2 and a maximum of 4 days. Also, we don’t want to have more than two stopovers or more than seven hours of travel time each way. We are o.k. with leaving on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday, and want to return on Saturday, Sunday, or Monday. We click “search” and AZair gives us… nothing. Not a single result.
Trying to widen the search by allowing other flying days gives us many unattractive trips to Cork, Derry, or Birmingham. Searching just for flights to Gdansk or Warsaw at any point within the months of July and August gives us just one connection for €518. This is of no use to us. AZair really has let us down here.
Searching for flexible flight itineraries with lots of variables isn’t as easy as it sounds. The online flight search engines can handle simple point-to-point searches on a fixed date well enough. But once you start adding options, the trouble begins. Allowing for flexible dates, the engines often only show the results they have already cached. If you want to be sure about the price of a flight on a certain date, you have to search for that specific date.
If you want to include multiple possible airports of origin or destination in your trip, be sure to check whether the search engine actually knows about them. Especially with smaller airports this can be a problem. Also, not all search engines include all airlines in their database, which may cause you to miss out on the best price.
Finally, advanced functions like number of days at destination or flying date intervals work with hickups at best. If you use these functions, there is no guarantee that you will find the best results that you would find with a series of single date searches.
The search engine for which I had high hopes, AZair, sorely disappoints in this test. I absolutely love AZair’s flexible interface, which allows you to set many parameters for your trip. Unfortunately, the search engine simply doesn’t deliver. In all three of the tests, AZair scored the worst. It also looks like this engine has the most limited database of airports and airlines. In order to be useful, AZair would really have to improve on its database and its algorithm, so that it would match the functionality promised by its interface.
Addendum 15 July 2015: See AZair’s reaction to and a discussion of this outcome in the comments below.
Skypicker comes second in all three of my tests. It has some interesting parameters in its interface, and as opposed to AZair, it is able to use those parameters somewhat effectively. Unfortunately it misses some crucial filters, such as flight duration, number of stopovers, and departure and arrival times. This can make flipping through its list of search results tiresome and frustrating. I believe the startup company could dramatically improve its usefulness with fairly little effort by adding such filters. Also I’m a bit vexed by Skypicker’s unclear pricing structure, which may or may not include very significant booking fees through the site.
The big winner of this test is Skyscanner. Tried and true, this old giant outperformed the competition in all three tests. The interface of the website is the least advanced of the three, but all the functions it does offer work perfectly. Skyscanner also has some very useful filters, that make it much easier to arrive at feasible flights more quickly. And the site never charges any booking fees. In the near future I think I will do most of my flight searches through Skyscanner.
* All three tests were conducted on Wednesday 10 June 2015 through an internet connection in Poland. As flight prices vary over time, by day of the week, and some say even by IP address, you may not obtain the same results if you try to replicate the test later or from a different location.