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For the upteenth time, I'm looking through a hundred results on Kayak trying to pick the best flights based on both cost AND travel time.

Many flight search engines will order the results by cost OR by travel time, but this often doesn't get me what I want. For instance, the cheapest flight might be 36 hours and 3 connections for $75 on Spirit, while the fastest flight will be direct for $3,000 on American, but I want the Alaska flight for $200 with one quick connection. Sometimes using filters like "max price" help narrow down the list, but this is a crude approximation to what I really want, which is to order by total cost = ticket cost + travel time * hourly rate. (And I want to customize the hourly rate.)

Kayak offers a "Best" ordering, but this is mysterious and non-customizable. In particular, it does not let me declare how much I value my time.

If I know for sure exactly which two airports I'm flying from and exactly which day, it's not so bad to just look through all the flights that pass some filter. But if I've got 2-3 potential airports on either end and a few potential travel days, it's infeasible.

Any solutions?


EDIT: Many people keep suggesting that I simply put bounds on travel time, number of connections, and/or price. Let me try to be clearer about why this doesn't work well: such a procedure can only reduce the number of obviously bad flights I'm looking at; it does not reliably put the best flights at the top of the list. If there are only ~10 plausible flights, it's fine because I can just search through them manually. But if I'm planning a complicated trips with multiple legs and several possible airports, it requires sorting though dozens or even hundreds of flights.

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    When I use Kayak I always uncheck connection airports that are nowhere near the direction I am heading. I also Uncheck 2+ stops, and then I reduce the layover time down to something reasonable. That way I get something that approximates my idea of how the journey should play out.
    – Peter M
    Feb 20 at 19:53
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    hipmunk.com was IMO by far the best search engine: You could sort by "agony" which (again IMO) did a really good job at aggregating duration, price, whacky arrival/departure times, etc. Unfortunately, they got bought by Concur (a horrible search engine used by America Express for corporate stuff) and they simply killed it off. I have not been able to find a replacement that's anywhere near as good.
    – Hilmar
    Feb 20 at 20:34
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    total cost = ticket cost + travel time * hourly rate is too clever for most (all?) flight search engine. I never saw that feature. Feb 20 at 20:35
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    I mean, most booking sites I have ever used do something like this by default (usually called "best flights" or something like that), and you need to explicitly sort by price or time to get the outliers. Their definition of "best" might not match yours exactly, but of course there is no way for a search engine to automatically gauge how exactly you personally trade off convenience and price.
    – xLeitix
    Feb 21 at 10:03
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    Very good question! Like you said, filters are good enough in most situations. But when you have a lot of freedom in terms of dates and endpoints, you can still end up with a very large selection that you have to sift through manually. An option like this could have saved me a lot of work in some situations.
    – jkej
    Feb 21 at 11:15

4 Answers 4

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Most flight search engines will allow you to add filters which will make your selection more manageable:

  • A limit on the number of connections
  • A limit on the total duration, and/or on the duration of any layover(s).

While this does not do exactly what you ask for, I believe it is more likely to be what you actually need: avoid senseless combinations and then get the cheapest of the remaining ones. And that avoids having you trying to put an exact value on that mysterious factor.

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    "And that avoids having you trying to put an exact value on that mysterious factor." But instead you have to put exact values on other equally arbitrary parameters (number of connections and duration).
    – jkej
    Feb 21 at 11:03
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    Fair point, @jkej, but many people would not be willing to have 7 connections with 3-12 hour layovers just to save 200 $€£ on a flight, so putting some sort of arbitrary limit on those factors to see if you can find something that you find reasonable seems to be OK. If you still can't find anything with the tools provided, adjust the parameters until you find your personal sweet spot...
    – FreeMan
    Feb 21 at 12:58
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    @jkej My personal feeling is that those parameters are a lot less arbitrary and reflect a lot more the inconvenience one is trying to avoid with trips with multiple connections and very long travel times. This is usually what people are specifically trying to filter out. And they feel a lot easier to adjust than that factor.
    – jcaron
    Feb 21 at 13:14
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    And you can also go the other way - set a max on the price you're willing to pay and then sort by travel time.
    – David K
    Feb 21 at 13:42
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    @jcaron my feeling is quite the opposite. I might have prior expectations about reasonable flight times and prices, but they mean nothing if the market says otherwise when I start searching. So those limits always need to be set in relation to what's available, which leads to an iterative process where the final limits I use says as much about what's offered as it says about my preferences. Now, we don't have any experience with the scheme OP suggests, but I think it would allow me to find a value that better represents my preferences independent of destination and ticket availability.
    – jkej
    Feb 22 at 0:43
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To echo the other answers, your best shot is probably ITA matrix in "time bar" view. This is an example for BOS->BER some random time in April

It's sorted by price but the time bars give you a quick way to visually access duration, airline (color), and arrival/departure times and see what looks most attractive

Downside: you can only do this for specific dates (not ranges) and you only see one leg at a time. Annoyingly it clutters up the display with a lot of "duplicates", i.e. "BOS->EWR->BER" which just different BOS->EWR" legs that have the same price but longer layovers. Hipmunk used to collapse those into a single line with a tag "+10 more worse options".

Upside: you quickly get an idea what are the airlines with good connections and reasonable prices are and you can fine tune from there.

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Have you tried ITA Matrix? It doesn't do exactly what you want but I find the table at the top very useful to discover things like the “Alaska flight for $200 with one quick connection”. Specifically, you will easily notice if there are airlines with much cheaper one-connection flights. You will still need to check the length and convenience manually but you don't have to sift through all the results as you can rule out two or more stops when there are more reasonable options and skip checking combos that only provide small incremental gains.

Combine that with the tips provided by Peter M and jcaron and you have a pretty effective way to search for a good compromise.

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Currently (Feb 2024), it looks like no flight search engine implements such a sorting method. A few implement something like the "Best" sort on Kayak, which is some holistic unspecified formula, but no search engine lets the user specify a trade-off between price and time.

See other answers on this page for alternative strategies for working around this deficiency.

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