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5 Google Flights secrets you never knew

If you're going on vacation, there's a good chance you're going to fly. It's still the fastest way to go long distances, at least until Elon Musk comes through with a finished Hyperloop, or Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic gets sub-orbital shuttle rockets up and running.

Unfortunately, flying is expensive. That's why people go to great lengths to get the cheapest flight possible. And there are plenty of rules that make it possible to save big.

Book your flight early and make sure you're buying on the right day of the week. Make sure you fly on a day and at a time that traditionally costs less. You can also find out which airline has the cheapest tickets. Click here for more information on the best days and times to buy and fly.

Of course, trying to bring those rules together to save can drive you insane. That's why you need some helpful tools that do the heavy lifting for you.

One of the top flight search sites is Google Flights (it used to be called Google Flight Search). Just like any other search site, Google Flights lets you quickly find and compare flights between airports on certain days.

However, if that's all you use it to do, you're missing out. There are some amazing features built in that make planning that vacation so much easier.

1. Find new destinations

If you travel a lot, you might be getting tired of your usual destinations. Or maybe you don't travel much at all, and you aren't sure where you want to go.

Right on the front page, Google Flights gives you some popular destinations such as London, Toronto and Las Vegas, that have good deals available. If you aren't sure where you want to travel, that's a good place to start.

Of course, maybe you're interested in visiting a certain region or country but aren't sure what airport to fly into or cities to visit. Google Flights has an answer for that as well.

Instead of entering a specific airport as a destination, you can type in "Europe," "France," "Japan" or any other country or region. You'll see a map highlighting the major airports and how much it costs to fly there. If you zoom in, you can also see small regional airports. You could even narrow down the suggestions based on your interests like culture, ecotourism, food, etc.

For example, I found that on a trip to Japan I can save a few hundred flying into Sendai ($1,200) or Tokyo ($1,150) versus any other airport. And they're almost $1,200 less than flying into Shizuoka. Of course, for an even cheaper flight into Southeast Asia, I can get into Beijing for less than $800.

2. Trust your luck

Then again, if you really want a random adventure at a low price, you can just click the "Expand map" link on the map and then click the "I'm feeling lucky" button that appears at the top. You'll get what Google thinks is the best trip on the days you selected.

3. Find the cheapest days to fly

Of course, the prices for the airports listed on the region maps are based on the days you entered to fly. If you're flexible on travel days, you can get much better deals.

Instead of typing in specific travel dates, just click the date area to bring up a calendar. It will show you the daily prices for the next few months of tickets so you can see at a glance the cheapest days to fly.

For a trip to Tokyo, I found that there are a few days coming up that I can save nearly $200 on a round-trip ticket. That's valuable information to know.

Google will even help you with a handy "swap" feature. If there's a cheaper flight close to the date of the one you selected, Google will give you a notification at the top of the search results.

4. Find the best flight

Finding the cheapest destination and the cheapest days to fly are great, but in your rush to save you might find that the "cheapest flight" isn't always the "best flight." I've seen this happen to many of my friends and family members.

What I mean is those dirt-cheap tickets you bought might have you flying in the wee hours of the morning and making three five-hour layovers. Not to mention that you might end up losing the ticket savings paying for checked bags.

For my Tokyo example, I found that the upcoming flight under $1,000 has the trade-off of a seven-hour layover in Hawaii, bringing the total trip time to 22 hours. Yikes!

In contrast, a "best" flight takes off at a reasonable time for you, makes the fewest number of stops possible and might not have baggage restrictions. I can tell you from experience, I'm much happier after this kind of flight, and to me, that's worth paying some extra money.

Of course, you can go overboard and end up paying way too much for the "best flight" when it isn't too much better than a cheaper flight. There has to be an easy way to find a good balance. And there is.

Once you make your destination and day selection in Flights, you'll get the list of airlines making the trip. At the top is a box that lists what Google thinks are the best flights. These are ones that combine low cost with reasonable departure times and the fewest stops.

For the Tokyo flight, Google actually didn't recommend the flight under $1,000. It stuck with shorter flights that cost around $1,100. After poking around, it turns out that those were really the flights I would have chosen.

Of course, if you want to find the perfect flight for you, Google includes a series of filters at the top of the search results so you can tweak layovers, price, preferred airline, and departure and arrival times.

5. Find out about price drops

Just because you found a good deal now doesn't mean something better won't pop up later. That's why at the bottom of the page, Google has the "Track price" button.

It keeps an eye on the prices and will email you if they drop. That way you can contact the airline to see about getting a refund of the difference. If you have the Google Now app installed on your phone, you can get alerts there as well.

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