Advice | May 16, 2016 9:00 am

The Weird Flight-Search Trick That Can Save You $100s on Airfare

Spoiler: It’s called the ITA Matrix. It’s kind of intimidating

You know Orbitz, Kayak, Priceline, Google flights, etc.

But you might not know the nonprofit software program (now owned by Google) that powers many of them.

It’s called the ITA Matrix. It’s the Jaguar of online flight searches: tetchy, tricky and worth the trouble if you can master its intricacies (read: “Advanced Routing Codes”). Want to search by a single alliance? Find flights with fewer than two connections and a minimum layover time of 45 minutes? Avoid propeller planes, because it’s 2016? Force an overnight in a connecting city to check out the town? ITA Matrix can do it.

We talked to Andrea Riley of Upgraded Points about how to properly acquaint yourself.

InsideHook: How do you describe the capabilities of the ITA Matrix software to someone who knows nothing about it?

Andrea Riley: It’s an unbiased search software that pulls data from all known sources to put together airfare choices based on whatever parameters you input. For most people, this is the absolute cheapest fare at the best times and with the least stops. But you can modify the search tool to cater towards any situation that you might need — for instance searching specific airlines, alliances or airports.

IH: Is it as hard to use as it looks?

AR: The basic usage of the software is actually quite easy and is like any other flight search engine you have used. Simply put in your airport, destination airport, dates and desired class of travel, and click “search.” It will come back with a bunch of options and you can simply select the cheapest.

If you’re looking to modify some searches or finesse the results to find more desirable flights (which may not be the very cheapest, but maybe the best times, favorite airlines, etc.), then it will take a bit more effort to learn. You may have to play around with the tool to understand it. We recommend putting in fake flights or future unplanned trips to check results.

[Editor’s note: For a deep dive into the possible route-code tweaks — allowing search by parameters as specific as “Search for results with exactly two flights, and excluding United from the 2nd flight” or “Find itineraries with exactly one connection and exclude connections in Dallas-Fort-Worth” — see here.]

IH: What’s a slightly advanced use case?

AR: Probably the most useful advanced feature is the Calendar Search option. Other tools have similar options, but this one takes the cake in my opinion. The tool can search up to a month’s worth of data based on the beginning date that you choose, and show you the flight prices for your trip based on your desired range of nights to stay.

For instance, you could search for all flights in December to see what the cheapest flights are to get home for the holidays. You have some flexible time, so you input “3-7 days” as your desired time length, and the tool returns every available option for flights for every day of the month at each of those lengths.

This gives you a ton of data points based around the timing of your trip, which is typically the most important thing to people, as well as the most restrictive.

IH: How do you compare it to a familiar booking service like Orbitz?

It’s incredibly similar to Orbitz, as Orbitz uses the technology that ITA created. Orbitz, however, does not have as advanced functionality and cannot do the Calendar Search option.

The tools may show the exact same flight data or some differences. Orbitz may have special prices that ITA can’t pull, so it is typically worth checking a few tools to make sure you’re getting the cheapest flights. I typically check 3-5 tools before making a decision on flight price.

The other difference is that Orbitz is actually a travel agent, so you can book flights through them directly. They also have price guarantees which makes it worth booking through them if you’re unsure. You can’t book flights through ITA — it simply provides you data to book on other sites. The advantages are that it is more powerful, has more functionality and is also a bit quicker. Since it isn’t a for-profit program, you don’t have any ads or other bothersome data on the site to distract you, which is a huge plus.

IH: What is the significance of it “powering” Kayak and Google Travel searches, and given that usage, why does it still make sense to make use of the site?

AR: The search software is the basis for Kayak, Google Flights and many other search sites, including the airlines’ own website searches. This simply means the companies lease the right to use the software infrastructure, but does not mean they are the same. Each site has the ability to tailor the results to their own site, add or remove certain features and adjust their own prices.

So while each site often returns similar results, it also means that they won’t always do so. The for-profits will look for competitive advantages and find places where they can lower prices to attract customers, or may get special deals that other sites won’t have access to. That means that they will all have their own slight advantages at times, which is why it is smart to look at 3-5 sites before locking down a flight to ensure you are getting the best price.

Why use ITA regardless? First, it has the most features of all of them. No other site, for example, wants to try to teach their customers how to use advanced routing codes to only search a specific alliance for their flight or to force stopovers. Second, the ITA site is unbiased and returns everything it can find and has no for-profit motive. Third, the ITA site has no fluff features, so it runs quickly and smoothly and allows you to focus on finding your information. It’s a very powerful research tool, so when you need to look up a lot of options it is the best place to start.

Once you have narrowed down your ideas, you can try to find lower prices on other sites.