Most travelers rely on only a handful of travel apps, with usage of less popular apps tending to trail off over time. So which flight apps are worth keeping right on your home screen? I tested a bunch of new or newly popular flight booking apps to see how they can make your next trip easier and more affordable.
For my trial, I entered into each app a route that I will likely purchase in the next several months, and tracked the fares over 28 days. I used a route that I've flown in the past, as I already had some sense of pricing and scheduling, and therefore was able to recognize when the app was showing me things I didn't already know.
I recommend giving any new flight app a trial a few weeks before you really need it, so you can experiment with its features and figure out whether you like the interface.
Hopper's strength is tracking flight prices to tell you whether to buy now or wait, and it does so in near-real time. Hopper's interface is clean and easy to understand at first glance, and you can get a good sense of the airfare pricescape for your desired route on the initial results screen.
Many websites and apps first ask you your airports, then your travel dates; Hopper instead asks you the airports, then immediately returns a calendar that is color-coded by price. I found the process of selecting travel dates a little bumpy at times, with the departure date changing when I was trying to select a return date, but it's not a deal breaker.
An example result might say "You should wait for a better price, but book before June 21," and then give you the range and timing of likely price changes. The best part of Hopper may be the Watch feature, which does not require an account or login, and will send you price changes and "buy now" notifications by punching through to your home screen in real time.
Airfarewatchdog's claim to a spot on your A list is twofold:
1. The company says it's the only app to search every airline (some airlines do not release data to the main booking sites; Southwest is the most obvious example of these, which is why you often see a "check prices" option for Southwest when using booking sites and apps).
2. A feature that shows the best same-day airfares from your home airport is the ultimate "go anywhere right now" offering that I found.
Once you choose your departure airport, the interface isn't particularly intuitive, a factor mentioned in heaps of reviews of this app -- but if you want to go to Amsterdam this afternoon for $540, this is the app to check.
Skiplagged distinguishes itself by specializing in what are called "hidden city itineraries," which are flights where a "layover" airport is actually your destination -- that is, you land in a connecting airport and skip the rest of your trip. Skiplagged boasts that its app is "so good, United Airlines actually sued us for it."
There are some risks involved; Skiplagged is best used for one-way flights, as your airline might cancel your return flight if you fail to board all legs of your outgoing flight. You also want to make sure you don't check bags, which might go all the way to your supposed final destination. See Skiplagged's FAQ for more.
The Skiplagged search results look very different from most apps, showing results simultaneously by price and flight duration, which will appeal to folks willing to undergo some hassle, but not too much hassle.
Jetradar is a solid app that I include here for one primary reason: the Price Map. This feature takes your home airport and shows you available fares to a heap of destinations on a map, allowing you to choose where to go based purely on cost. This means that the search is independent of travel dates, but that's what I find most useful about it -- it shows you just how cheap a cheap flight on a particular route can get.
For example, Jetradar tells me I can get to Rotterdam from New York for $379 in September -- so now I know that $379 is rock-bottom for that itinerary. The app also showed me that the lowest price it could find to nearby Amsterdam was $557, so I also know I can save almost $200 by flying to Rotterdam instead.
Hitlist is more of an idea finder or bucket list airfare search app than a booking engine; you put in your preferred departure airport, and then Hitlist shows you a heap of cool places you might want to go, plus when it is cheapest to go there.
Hitlist also has useful graphic elements to help visualize pricing and other factors, including color-coded pricing lists (red for Average, orange for Good, yellow for Great, green for Spectacular), and displays an annual calendar with price trends in bar graph format for each destination, which helps you figure out the most affordable time of year to travel.
I had a few crashes while using the app, but it seemed to stabilize the more I used it.
The Skyscanner app looks a lot like standard booking engines -- a list of sample itineraries by airline and fare, with options to filter -- and then often enough you simply end up on a booking site like Expedia or JustFly. That said, Skyscanner searches a heap of sites for you all at once, and the results it returns have been pretty solid in my experience.
Skyscanner is in the process of overhauling its website to permit booking pages on the Skyscanner site to mimic the website of the airline from which you are buying, which Skyscanner believes is the next wave in booking tech. The intention is to offer a purchasing environment that not only offers fares for purchase, but also presents the airline's "entire range of products, including upsells and ancillaries" -- meaning that you can buy an upgrade or pay for a checked bag through Skyscanner's own interface.
I found Skyscanner's flight search function a little tricky to use, especially the quick hand-off to outside sites, and its Price Alert feature requires you to log in (unlike some other apps), but I'm going to leave it on my phone to watch as its new approach gets rolled out.
A Few Quick Tips
Some of the apps prompt you to sign up and log in on the first screen, but not all require you to do so actually to use the app; you may want to skip that step while you are testing.
The best and newest features are sometimes buried in the interface due to mobile space constraints, so poke around to discover what you may find useful.
Some apps allow you to book right in the app, while others open an embedded browser, so be ready for a variable final booking experience.
These apps update fairly regularly, but the new versions aren't always improvements and can be buggy. You might want to check the most recent reviews before downloading and wiping out the version already on your phone.
Which flight apps do you count on for great airfares? Let us know in the comments.
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Editor's Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc., which also owns Airfarewatchdog.