Walking into Google's NYC headquarters is invigorating and intimidating, the way I would imagine entering Willy Wonka's chocolate factory felt to Charlie Bucket, or how climbing the stairs to Trask Industries felt to Working Girl's Tess McGill. As I navigated the halls en route to a demo of Google's airfare search site, Google Flights, I drank everything in, from the "Game Room" signs to a comprehensive timeline of the history of computing, complete with monolithic antique first-gen examples.
As psyched as I was to be thisclose to a company that's changed how we do pretty much everything, 1984-fueled paranoia nipped at my brain. Would the Google reps intrinsically "know" my Google search history? Or the contents of my Gmail folders? Preposterous...right?
For travelers using Google Flights and Google's apps, no, Google won't stalk you. Technically. But it will crunch your data in these helpful ways fast, saving you time and money.
1. Google Flights' search function is faster than a cheetah on a bullet train.
The same speed you expect when you type a question into Google's search bar happens with fare searches on Google Flights. How? Google uses the same data the other sites have; it just processes it faster, because that's what Google does.
2. Deciding where to fly? Google Flights shows you a map—with prices.
Helping travelers who have flexibility is where Google Flights excels. Select a vague destination, like "Florida" or "Western Europe," and up pops a shockingly simple map of airports and their cheapest flight prices. A search for an escape to Florida the second weekend in May revealed round-trip flights from New York City to Fort Lauderdale for $197. Compare that with Daytona Beach at $440, and it's a no-brainer. You can sort of do this with Kayak, but you can select only four airports, and the results aren't as clear. Have flexible dates? Even better.
Let’s say I do pick Fort Lauderdale for my May 7–10 getaway. I click on the city, and a handy blue bar graph of flight prices springs up; I run my cursor over it (no extra clicks or searches) and see that if I switch my vacation to May 6–9, flights are $10 less. Wait until May 8–11, though, and they jump to $207. Even if you’re not one to nickel-and-dime, it’s reassuring to know that you didn’t accidentally choose the most expensive weekend to hit the beach.
3. Google Flights shows the “best” flights first, not the cheapest.
Rock-bottom-priced itineraries often have drawbacks, like gaping layovers. Google first lists flights it considers the “best trade-off” of price, duration, stops, and fees. It’s no surprise that Spirit Airlines offers the $197 flight—but even with baggage fees, it’s listed as one of the “best”: shorter than three hours and nonstop.
4. For travelers, the free Google app is surprisingly good.
I don’t know about you, but iPhone’s Siri hates me. She misunderstands everything I say and usually refuses to provide any information beyond offering to search the web. The Google app works better. Ask, “Where’s a good cocktail bar around here?” and it instantly lists three, with pictures, that are not only nearby, but quality places you’d actually want to hang out in. Say, “Show me my trips,” and it’ll sift through your Gmail confirmation emails and neatly present the itineraries.
5. The free Google Translate app is so quick it can practically read your mind.
Take a picture of a sign in one of 36 languages (even offline), and Google Translate will tell you what it says; speak into it, and you can have an instantaneously translated conversation with a person speaking one of 90 languages. Whoa.
Google is a little like Mr. Wonka, fully aware when you scam Fizzy Lifting Drink, or Mr. Trask, who “knows everything.” But when you’re traveling, you might love Big Brother—or at least give him a shot.