The 10 Best (and Worst) Airfare Search Sites for 2023
Frommer’s regularly pits the best airfare search engines, aggregators, and booking sites against each other in a battle royale to see which can find the lowest price on more than two dozen identical searches.
This year’s race saw quite a shakeup. Some of the most famous names (Expedia, Priceline, Hotwire, CheapOAir) have fallen out of the top 10 entirely. Our former top two websites slipped to #6 and #7. The third-place holder is occupied not by a website but by a smartphone app. And a relatively new site debuted near the top of the heap in the #2 spot.
We tested 19 sites on the same 28 itineraries. We tried both last-minute flights (leaving the coming weekend) and APEX fares (booked six weeks out). We covered major gateways (NYC to LAX, Miami to Rio) and secondary ones (Philadelphia to Rome). We threw in a curve ball (Denver to New Delhi) and even included a flight with no North American legs (London–Barcelona) to see how well each contestant handled Europe‘s wilderness of low-cost carriers.
We have no time for, um, “creative” itineraries that would be hell to fly—so we discarded results that increased total travel time by more than half through excessively long layovers, too many stops, or flying way out of the way just to change planes. Airlines may think such routings make for viable plans, but we don’t.
We then used a complicated, weighted scoring system for each route search that rewards two points to any site that finds the best fares, one point for second-best, nothing for average results, a negative point for high prices, and minus two for the sites that returned the worst fares. Fares within 1% of one another were considered equal.
There are a few things to keep in mind before you search for airfare.• An aggregator is only as good as the OTAs it canvasses. There are booking engines (Booking.com, Expedia, Priceline, etc.). And then there are aggregators—sites that do not book tickets but instead search dozens of booking engines, airfare sites, and OTAs (online travel agencies) and compile the results in one place; you then click through to the one of your choice to make the actual purchase.
Yes, that Booking.com. The one famous for hotels. It added airfare searches a while back, and although it debuted at #7 a few years ago, it has since slipped to the last place in our top 10.
Booking.com is a corporate sister of Kayak, yet their inventory wasn’t the same. The two differed so much that both earned separate places. Case in point: Kayak (coming later on this list) turned up the cheapest last-minute fare of any company on our tricky Denver-to–New Delhi route, but Booking.com came up with the most expensive quote. On the other hand, give Booking six weeks’ notice for the same route and it will actually perform a bit better than average. On the third hand, that was the only search where Booking performed better than average. For all the others, its performance was just so-so. Maybe it should have stuck to hotels.
FlightNetwork, a Canadian online travel agency (you’ll have to do your own currency conversions), makes our top 10 for the first time—but its results were all over the place. Yes, it found among the lowest last-minute fares for Miami–Rio and Philly–Rome, but it really dropped the ball on L.A.–Tokyo. By far the priciest when it came to last-minute fares, FlightNetwork was also the only site that couldn’t locate a direct flight to Japan even with a full six weeks’ notice. Although its six-week APEX fares prices for New York to Paris were the best of our bunch, its last-minute prices on the same route were the worst. That performance is unreliable.
Its filters are meager. Not only doesn't it disclose baggage fees, it also won’t let you bundle them into the fare. It just shows a note that you’ll "be able to add baggage during check-in or at the airport." Checked bags can cost $30 to $100 a pop each way, so we expect better communication.
Finally, many people report running into problems with customer service, especially when it comes to canceled flights and altered itineraries. The company is reportedly slow to respond or offer refunds, and dissatisfied customers have posted online about having to pay fees even when flights were canceled.
Many other aggregators canvass FlightNetwork as part of their results, but given the customer reports, using it might be best for itineraries you don’t anticipate having to change.
Google’s purchase of the IATA Software flight engine a decade ago didn’t turn into the game-changer many predicted. However, the titan of online search has combined that database with its own algorithmic wizardry to produce some excellent features.
First of all, it is unbelievably fast, refreshing results as you key in filters almost before you can blink. It shows average prices on a pop-up calendar so you can see at a glance when the cheapest days to fly are for the next two months (you can also peruse a price grid and price graph on the results page). And it's one of only three engines in our results that has a filter allowing you to add checked and cabin bags and recalculate the prices accordingly.
Google Flights features a fabulous “Explore map” feature that allows you to select any two major city pairs and see lowest fare for your dates in addition to price trends for the month surrounding them. It also went above and beyond by suggesting we try leaving from Newark instead for our proposed Philly-to-Rome trip—which in a pricey last-minute situation would have been well worth the drive, as it brought the fare down from $5,265 to just $1,055.
So why is the mighty Google sitting at #8?
It simply never found the best price. Not even once. It whiffed on the Denver to Delhi route every time, and was the only site not to figure out that you could pair Vueling and Easyjet flights to make a last-minute London–Barcelona trip cheaper. It also frequently found the exact same flight as many other sights, but at prices that were a little bit higher—often just 5% to 15%, but still.
Skiplagged, an upstart that first appeared in 2013, fast outgrew its travel hacker roots to claim the top spot in 2019. How did it fall so far in the rankings this time? For one thing, our new #2 (and others) have also adopted Skiplagged’s main trick of using “hidden city” fares, a somewhat shady savings technique the airlines hate—it involves buying itineraries that have stops and abandoning some flight legs before the final destination. Using hidden city fares might be cheap, but it means you can’t check luggage.
More significantly, it has slipped to being merely average on price. Skiplagged did find the best rates a few times on last-minute fares, but it batted below average on transatlantic fares even when we looked six weeks ahead.
More criticisms: Some of the seemingly low fares it finds from questionable OTAs can actually be higher than the competition once you click over and price them out. Skiplagged also lacks robust filters, doesn't disclose baggage fees, and rounds down all the prices—that last complaint is minor since we're only talking about a few cents, but just feels sneaky.
Aggregator / OTA
How the mighty have fallen. Momondo debuted at the #1 spot in our rankings in 2006, where it remained until 2019, when it slipped to #2. But now? We can only surmise that it lost its drive of constant innovation after Booking Holdings acquired it in 2017.
To be fair, there is very little difference in the raw data score for all the sites in the middle of the pack here. Momondo actually scored the best price of any site six times, and it only dipped below the average rates once. That was on the Philly–Rome trip, for which it wanted to charge more than double what the top-performing sites did (a dishonor it shared with its corporate siblings, Booking and Kayak). But all in all, it was average.
Momondo has also transitioned from pure aggregator to an OTA as well, offering direct booking on its own site. It is admirably transparent about this: When you click the menu for any deal, it displays its own price first, but it also includes fares from other sites, even if they’re cheaper.
Its filters are among the most complete in the business, and its results screen remains one of the most complete—though it would be nice to include actual baggage fees, rather than generic notes like “baggage fees may apply.”
Tripadvisor is no longer just a platform to vent about travel mishaps. The granddaddy of crowdsource sites is trying to become a one-stop shop for all your travel needs and, we have to admit, its efforts in the airfare search department have become impressive. Though it slips from #4 last time to the #5 spot, it outperformed the top four when it came to finding the best fare six weeks out.
What held it back was on our last-minute tests, where it was the only service that somehow could not find any direct flights from Miami to Rio or Philadelphia to Rome—which shouldn’t have been hard to do. Nearly everyone else handily came up with direct flights on American Airlines for both itineraries.
It also couldn’t find the shortest layover combo for Denver–Delhi, adding an unnecessary four hours of misery in Chicago on the way home. On its results page, it does suggest searching Southwest, which is useful—but some of its other suggestions were for notorious bait-and-switch agencies that don’t honor initial price quotes.
Kayak is probably the most famous airfare aggregator but, frankly, its results were mostly middle-of-the-road. On the positive side, it has amongst the most complete set of filters, including obscure ones like landing times, layover cities, alliances, in-flight amenities, and aircraft type. Kayak is also one of only three sites to include a filter that allows you to factor in any number of checked and cabin bags. Beyond that, it falters.
It did find a low price on Miami–Rio by puzzling together a "hacker" fare of two one-way tickets rather than a round-trip one. Then again, on a last-minute Philadelphia-to-Rome flight, it turned up a fare that was more than twice as expensive as it needed to be (as did its corporate siblings, Momondo and Booking, lower in our ranking).
Interestingly, though, Tripadvisor found the best fare one time more often than Kayak could. Kayak further tipped the scales in its favor by performing above average more reliably. It nabbed “second-best” rates seven times compared to to Tripadvisor’s three.
Kayak has inexplicably removed a handy feature that it was one of the first to offer years ago: a “Flex Search” option that checked fares up to three days on either side of your dates. Why would it remove that handy feature, especially when much of the competition has adopted something similar?
The travel app Hopper has been around since 2015 and it finally proved it has the goods. Its high ranking is due to finding the best or near-best price 13 times, which was on a par with the top two sites. It could easily have snared a higher ranking save for a few flubs on last-minute long-haul flights—not the worst, but below average.
Hopper has a simple, intuitive, colorful interface. The calendar is color coded to indicate the cheapest travel days for months to come, and when you tap on the info icon of any result, it displays a bar graph scoring that flight based on airline, price, fare class, duration, and stopovers. It doesn’t have as many filters as some other sellers, but it does offer valuable advice on when to book based on price trends. We also like the in-depth info for each flight, including seat pitch, baggage regulations and fees, and which amenities cost extra.
The constant come-ons to join its Carrot Cash member program are a bit annoying, and Hopper does make you click through several hard-sell screens for add-ons (insurance, cancellation coverage, flexible ticket options) before getting to the booking page, but you can easily ignore these infractions.
The decade-old Czech site Kiwi tells you about several modern travel hacks to create a powerful booking engine: self-transfer between non-partnered airlines, adding buses and trains to the mix, and those hidden city “skiplag” fares (it labels those as a “no-checked-bag itinerary”). It was very close to our top performer on price, although it did return one below-average rate, and it offers plenty of nifty features.
Kiwi caters to flexible travelers. The default departure date is "anytime," allowing you to see at once which days will be cheapest, and more prices show up on the date-selection calendars. On the results page, a pricing table shows a fare grid for three days to either side of your chosen dates, and a bar graph shows you anticipated prices for a dozen days (you can scroll to see more).
Filters allow you to return from or to a different airport—handy for big cities with multiple choices—and you can add nearby ones. That enabled it to find Newark in our Philadelphia–Rome search, bringing our price down from $5,352 to $1,460—totally worth an 85-mile drive. Kiwi also allows you to recalculate based on bag fees.
Kiwi’s Nomad option is like a virtual travel agent. You select a departure airport, date range, trip length (which also can be a range), and any number of dream destinations and it will create the best itinerary to save time and money. It also offers sample air itineraries (customizable) by continent. For us, one was a suggestion for an 18-day European vacation out of New York City on mixed carriers that included Lisbon, Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, and London, pausing in each for three to four nights, for $1,459. Not bad.
So why isn’t it #1? Well, Kiwi catches some bad customer reviews for lackluster service, especially when something goes wrong. That can happen when any third party airfare seller cobbles together tickets on multiple airlines, so read the terms and conditions carefully (that goes for any site, really).
Skyscanner is back on top this year, leapfrogging from #3 to become the hands-down best performer on price. It was the only service on the list never to stumble below average on any fare—and when it was average, it was often only $10 to $15 higher than the cheapest rate. It found the best or near-best airfare a whopping 13 times out of 28. We suggest never booking a ticket without checking Skyscanner first.
It was the only service that managed to find a last-minute direct flight between JFK and LAX. (Everyone else wanted to force us to make at least one plane change—and still charge $97 more.) Skyscanner was also one of the first aggregators to include low-cost airlines, and still innovating by displaying the star rating for all third-party booking sites (along with how many users rated it), which really helps with vetting unfamiliar OTAs.
What catapulted Skyscanner to the top was its skill at ferreting out low fares on just three days’ notice. Add to that decent filters, a pricing calendar and graph, and the ability to include nearby airports and search for destinations in an entire country rather than just a city. You can even type “Everywhere” in the destination field for a list of the cheapest fares to many popular destinations from your departure airport.