One of Google’s Least Heralded Features May Change Your Summer

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
June 27 2014 9:03 AM

One of Google’s Least Heralded Features May Change Your Summer

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Visit Amsterdam!

Photo by ERIK VAN 'T WOUD/AFP/Getty Images

Back in the early 2000s, travel search engines caused panic among venerable career travel agents. Sites like Orbitz, Travelocity, and Priceline wowed tourists and businesses alike with low prices and flashy features. While online travel booking became the norm, the do-it-yourself novelty quickly faded into a hellscape of kitschy commercials, obscure policies, and redundant searches. The Internet-booked honeymoon was over. But it doesn’t have to be that way! One of Google’s less-celebrated features might just make that affordable coveted summer getaway a possibility.

In September 2011, Google unveiled Flight Search. It was still in its nascent stages, but it brought Google’s user-friendly design to the online travel bookings—far away from the garden gnomes and shouting William Shatners that represented the alternative. Then, in December 2012, things got more interesting when the tech giant announced Flight Explorer, which allowed users to view a bar graph showing airfare prices throughout the year—enabling them to get a good look at when prices were a bit more budget-friendly. Users can set limits on price, airlines, dates, stops, and duration of flight.

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Best of all, Flight Search integrated Google Maps technology into search functionality, allowing users to enter their departure city, then view a map of the globe. Under each city name is the total airfare. Earlier this month, Google gave “Flights” a makeover, announcing new features that allow users to view airfare by day/month while in maps mode. The company even incorporated its famous “I’m Feeling Lucky” button for more adventurous travelers.

A New Yorker looking to go to Europe in August will see prices around $1,000 in most cities, but a bit of digging shows Copenhagen with a lower fare. A quick tap on the Danish city shows prices dipping as low as $600 for a direct, round-trip flight in late August and early September. And all of this is nearly instantaneous. Other search engines are slow and finicky—requiring users to backtrack and guess new locations and dates to scour for better fares. (A recent search for me also repeatedly and inexplicably changed my departure city from Washington, D.C., to Cedar Rapids, Iowa.)

But not everyone has been happy about Google’s service. After acquiring ITA software for $700 million in 2010, online travel sites practically howled, forming an anti-Google alliance called FairSearch in response. Their arguments seemingly hinge on the fact that Google’s search results were much faster than their own, which is, in fact, the greatest benefit of the service. (Kayak offers a similar mapping service, with much slower results.)

While everyone continues to distract themselves with Google Glass fashions, Google continues to be Google—quietly making improvements to its bread-and-butter products and striking fear in the hearts of competitors. (Or simply buying them). In this case, it means an affordable trip to Europe. Where you can forget your worries. And be forgotten.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Tyler Lopez is a writer living in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter.

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