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Kayak.com: How to Use Kayak Features to Search for Cheap Flights


A guide on how to use Kayak and all the features kayak.com has to offer to find the best flight, cheap fares, and best dates for travel.

Kayak.com, as most of you know, is one of the easiest and most powerful travel search engines available. Not only is it my default search engine for flights, it blows the competition away in the hotels and cars searches, too. Here are some tips and features that you may not have known about this travel booking powerhouse:

The first and foremost thing that you should do on Kayak.com is to create an account and log in! I cannot stress the importance of this enough, unless you do not care so much for anything but the basic search functions. You can create an account directly with Kayak, or they allow you to link your Facebook account to Kayak. The latter allows you to be logged in to Kayak automatically when your computer is already logged in to Facebook, and which one is not? As you can see from the first picture, the main page(shown post-login) has a wealth of features to begin with.

Kayak's seemingly simple design offers a wealth of travel search options when configured properly.

On the left hand side are the navigation bars, that allows you access to the various tools that Kayak offers. When clicking on the ‘More’ tab, this will take you to a mass of features which I will cover soon.

The flight search tool is what the whole site revolves around. At the top of the page, you will see the three search options to open up the flight search: Round-trip, One-way, and Multi-city. These are pretty self explanatory, but when using the Multi-city feature, try inputting no more than 5 legs to the total journey, because many databases that Kayak sifts through only are capable of this amount or less.

The next area to fill in is the departure and arrival airports. Here, you can type in the airport code if you know it, or just start typing in the city, and it will find the one if there is a commercial airport around. Then, you can check the box underneath, ‘Add nearby airports’, to exponentially increase your options. For me in New York City, for example, I type in JFK, and then checking the box underneath searches flights leaving at any of the other 7 airports in my metropolitan area (LGA, EWR, HVN, ABE, ISP, SWF, or HPN). You can combine this with the arrival airport to really jack up your options for getting lower fares.

Many other search engines have these options, but what really sets Kayak apart is the ability to accept random strings of airport codes, comma-separated, in the two boxes. What I mean is, let’s say I don’t have a specific place I want to go for the weekend; I just want to go somewhere. I can type in the arrival box any airports that I want to search all at the same time. For example, I can list the arrival airports exactly as follows: BZE, SAP, GUA, MGA, SAL.

These are each major international airports in a different city and different country of Central America. Kayak will allow me to search for which of these is will be the most economical for the dates chosen. This is my favorite option, because I like to be spontaneous many times, but I try to be thrifty; this feature accomplishes both.

After you select cities and airports, and right before you select the dates, are some calendar options. These options, when given the chance to be properly configured, will give you the lowest prices available, even more so, usually, than allowing for the different airports. Though this may look the same if you wouldn’t have logged in, there are two key extras that you see when logged in that were not available otherwise: Weekends and Flex Month.

Exact Dates – It explains itself. When you are dead set on the dates you need to leave and come back, use this option, but it lacks any price flexibility.

+/- 3 Days – When you choose this radio button, two drop down menus appear below both the departure date and the return date. This is a selection that many travel booking sites offers; Kayak’s is a little more advanced, as usual, because it allows you to select from: use exact date above, 1 day before, 1 day after, 1 day before and after, 2 days before and after, and 3 days before and after. Furthermore, they allow you to customize these settings for both the arrival date and departure date separately. For example, I may have to leave on an exact date because perhaps I have a wedding to attend, but my return date can be left wide open, as I want to find the best price I can. So I set the departure date as ‘use exact date above’, while switching the return date to ‘3 days before and after’. This means that if I selected September 23 as my return date, Kayak will search from Sept. 20 (3 days before Sept. 23) to Sept. 26 (3 days after), a range of one week which will offer you more options to be frugal. This goes beyond what the majority of the competition lets you customize.

Weekends – My next favorite thing about Kayak, Weekends gives you the opportunity to search travel to somewhere during your days off, assuming that you are of the lucky ones who work the Monday through Friday, 9-5 sort of schedule (actually, though I am one of the lucky ones, I would love to have my “weekend” fall in the middle of the week, because I love to travel on many of my days off, and traveling on days other than Friday and Sunday can save you over $100 many times.). Again, Kayak is extremely generous in its options.

The first drop-down box lets you chooses from ‘upcoming weekends’, which is the next 5 weekends, for when you want to leave soon. You could also choose any month in the next 11 months, and it will search for you 5 weekends around that particular month, though many airlines may not have flights available yet when approaching later months’ availability. The other set of drop down boxes are labeled ‘days’. You not only can depart from Thursday through Saturday, and return on either Sunday or Monday, but Kayak grants you the ability to select from things like Friday PM and Monday AM, or you could just say Friday and Monday.

But the AM/PM feature recognizes the fact that maybe you want to leave Friday after work, or come home Monday morning before your first meeting. Weekends is one of the two options that you have to sign in to see, though sometimes I have seen this option when not logged in, and it confuses me still as to why, though I know that the guys at Kayak HQ are always tinkering with the site.

Flex Month – This is a fairly new feature, but as of now, you definitely have to have an account and be signed in to even see this selection. Basically, you can choose a month’s worth of time(flex month because you can search all dates even starting from the middle of one month to the middle of the next), and then this Kayak tool will search departures and returns from all dates within that month, which makes for the best way to get the best price.

Here’s how it works: In the date box you pick the beginning date of the month you want to search, whether it is the 1st, 13th, or 26th of the month. Actually, Kayak searches the next 5 weeks, or 35 days, so you can see a bit more than a month. Then the second box is ‘nights at destination’, which can either be a single number(like exactly 5 days, or exactly 7 days), or a range of numbers (such as 5-7 days, for when you have up to 7 days, but want no less than 5, and price is the factor that will determine whether you stay 5, 6, or 7 days).

So, you can search any range of 35 days for the next year, and Kayak will find you the lowest prices for the number of days or range of days that you choose. When typing in the second box, remember to put either only a number, or a two numbers separated with a hyphen, no spaces.

After this, you are nearly ready to hit the ‘Search’ button. There is a box where you choose how many passengers will be taking this trip (you can choose anywhere from 1 to 6 people). Unless you are just searching flights to get a taste of the prices, you should really select the correct number of passengers. Many flights, especially the ones coming up soon or during holidays, have maybe one or two seats available at a certain price, but may not have the same fare code if you need 4 seats, for example. Selecting the correct number the first time will save you the headache of having to start the search over if you are ready to buy.

Next to the number of passengers, there is the box where you can select what class of seating you would like to search for. These are generic terms, but most airlines have compatible seating to the terms Kayak uses. The default is set on ‘economy’, but you can also select from ‘premium economy’, ‘business class’, and ‘first class’. Premium economy seating includes seats that are still in the main cabin, but usually offers either more legroom, seats that recline further, amenities more similar to what you may find in first or business class, or a combination of these things.

A perfect instance of this would be on jetBlue’s ‘Even More Space’ seating, which are seats in the main cabin that have enough room for most people to cross their legs, while being $20-$40 more per flight. Lastly before you commence the search, a little box that says ‘Non-stops only’. Once again, this seems self-explanatory. If you will not consider a layover or two on your trip, check the box.

Now, you are ready to search! This was a probably quite a tiresome reading on what graphically looks pretty straight-forward. However, I have had many friends and co-workers approach me to find their flights for them, though they use Kayak, too. I assume this to mean that they are not taking full advantage of the many elements that Kayak has to offer, which is why I decided to write this guide.

Wait, you thought that was it? Actually, once you start your search, there are still more components that are able to be customized to narrow your choices down to the most ideal flight. During the search, Kayak probes hundreds of travel sites, ranging from the airlines’ websites themselves to 3rd party agents like Expedia. It goes through its database in alphabetical order, starting with AA.com (American Airlines official site).

Don’t be discouraged by the first set of prices that appears, as often times the lower prices may be further down the list, such as with US Airways. It gives you the prices in real-time, therefore if AA had a $400 flight, and there is a $370 flight available with US Airways, just give it several more seconds to get there. This is the typical screen that appears when searching either ‘exact dates’, ‘+/- 3 days’, or ‘weekends’. If you are searching ‘flex month’, you will arrive at a different landing page, where you will see a calendar of the 35-day month that you chose. Every day block will have a price inside, which means that this is the lowest price available departing on that specific date for the days or range of days that you chose.

For the ‘+/- 3 days’ or ‘weekends’ searches, there is first customization of the dates further. ‘Weekends’ will have the 5 weekends it looked up, and it will bold-font the cheapest weekend(s). If you are basing your investigation on the ‘+/- 3 days’ feature, there will appear on the results page a table at the very top. The table will include the departure dates vertically and the return dates horizontally. Cheapest prices will be dark green, while the most expensive will be bright red. As you are looking, you can uncheck the box next to any date to remove that date from consideration in the search results. Also for both the ‘+/- 3 days’ or ‘weekends’ searches, on the top left in the customization pane will be a a slider that has length of stay. You can slide either end to adjust to the amount of time you want your trip to last.

If you did not select ‘nonstops only’ from the first page, the next options that you can potentially alter are the stops. There is ‘1 stop’ and ‘2+ stops’, and by default, they are both checked. If you will consider only nonstop or 1 stop flights, then uncheck the ‘2+ stops’. If you want to see prices for only nonstops, then uncheck them both.

Next comes the ‘Times’ section in the customization panel. First up there is the box which says ‘show red eye/overnight’ flights. Unchecking this will reduce the number of results to only flights that are not overnight flights. After that, there are two boxes that say ‘takeoff’ and ‘landing’. Checking these boxes will open up two sliders each where you can set the range of time that you would like to takeoff and land, respectively.

The ‘cabin’ section allows you to filter out the cabins (first class, business class, etc.) that you will not consider by unchecking them. There is a price next to each class that represents the lowest fare available for that class of service. Following ‘cabins’ comes ‘airlines’, where a traveler is able to see every carrier that offers service on the specified route at the time of the request, accompanied by a price, which again represents the lowest fare available for that airline.

If you hate a specific airline, or only want to earn miles on flights that will boost your default rewards program, uncheck the airlines that you do not want to include in your results (I get rid of Spirit Air all the time, though they have very tempting prices). At the bottom of the ‘airlines’ section is three highlighted words, which are Star Alliance, SkyTeam, and oneworld. These are the three major airline alliances in the world, and if you are a fairly savvy frequent flier, you will know what it’s for and use it to look for only flights that from your program or partner programs.

Below this are some sets of options which you can further expand to filter down your results. ‘Layover airports’ gives you the opportunity to decide which airport you will or won’t go to during a layover. If your layover is long enough, you can use this to find a layover city or airport that you may want to explore during your wait. ‘Trip and layover durations’ are a set of sliders that give you control over how long each respective part is. ‘Aircraft’ has options to limit the size and type of bird you’ll be cruising in, if you are that discerning; there is also the ‘wi-fi available’ box that you can check so that you can rest assured that you will get some work accomplished en route. Lastly, is the ‘price’. It is kind of weird to see this as almost an afterthought, given that Kayak has myriad options for this reason primarily. Anyway, you can slide the bar back and forth to set the highest price that you can afford.

After reflecting on everything I just wrote, I realize that I have probably made things more difficult for those of you who may have only come for a quick how-to. I, myself, didn’t think that Kayak’s flight search tool would have me rambling for so long. However, like you can see from the plethora of customizations, you for sure agree with their slogan: Kayak – Search One And Done.

Written by
Christian Eilers
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