A Beginners Guide to ITA Matrix

/A Beginners Guide to ITA Matrix

A Beginners Guide to ITA Matrix

ITA Matrix Software by Google is THE flight search engine most loved by frequent flyers, and that is because of many many reasons, which you will get to know below.

The catch with the Matrix search is: It’s not exactly easy to handle, and its true value only opens up if you know how to use it. Having used this tool for many years while learning from scratch, we are now able to show you how to start.

First of all – here it is.

You can generally use it like a simple flight search. From, to, dates, the amount of people, and go. But that’s not what you use this software for. It is made for specific searches, if you want to fly a certain airline, routing, collect the most miles, make use of the shortest connection times, want to stop in a place on the way and so on…

We’ll be structuring this post into the following chapters:

  • Overview
  • Finding the cheapest airport to fly from and to
  • Specifying your search
  • Optimizing the frequent flyer miles
  • “Secret” extras (most useful!)
  • Combining codes
  • How to book your favourite itinerary

Overview

This picture should help you navigate through ITA Matrix:

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 Let’s start with a cool and easy to use feature:

Finding the cheapest airport to fly from and to

You can not only put one airport in, but for example any airport nearby too. Let’s say, you want to fly from Frankfurt to Las Vegas, but don’t mind driving elsewhere to start your trip if it’s cheaper. You can either just type the different airport codes in, or use the “Nearby” function:

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A window will pop open, in which you can select your alternative airports:

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We decide to put two major close German airports in (Cologne and Dusseldorf) as well as one airport each of the surrounding countries, for example Luxembourg, Brussels, Amsterdam, Prague, Paris, Milan and last but not least, Billund for Denmark.
We choose different countries, because airfares are usually made available per country. Means, flights from most airports in Germany will be roughly the same price, and flights from most French airports will have a similar price too, but different from those in Germany. This is what it should look like:

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Since we are already fairly secure on our dates, we’ll choose the exact dates option, +/- 2 days:

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The other options are not of any interest for us yet, so we will leave them on the least restrictive settings and click search:

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When the result is being displayed, you can filter and sort by a ton of different factors:

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One that is especially useful to quickly find the best airport to fly from or to is the “From / To” option, which displays the fares from the different airports:

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As you can see, Billund (or Denmark) is the cheapest place to fly from. Germany actually  is pretty good too, the others rather not.

Of course, you can go the exact same way for airports you want to fly into, if you don’t mind landing in Los Angeles or San Diego instead of Las Vegas.

Warning: This is not always accurate, if you don’t specify your search. If you put too many departure or destination airports in, the amount of data is too big to process in a short timeframe, so you will get a quick overview, but not necessarily an accurate result. That’s why it is important to filter as much as possible, with other options that we show in the next part:

Specifying your search

So let’s try and specify the search more, to get more accurate results. For doing so, we will have to use the routing codes. To enter them, click on “Advanced routing codes“:

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Then the extra lines will appear:

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You’ll find some (at first probably overwhelming) examples by clicking on the question mark icon next to them, which will show you a variety of possible codes:

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As you can see, there are hundreds of possibilities, and even more which are not listed on here. The most important feature is probably the airline filter.

If we continue with the same example from above, but we only want to fly with Lufthansa or Air Canada, we can express this by putting the following code in:

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These IATA two-letter-codes for each airline you can easily find through Google in a matter of seconds. For Lufthansa it is LH and for Air Canada it is AC.
So why is it LH,AC+ and not LH AC or LH,AC? Because this is what they mean:

  • LH AC: One flight with Lufthansa, then one flight with Air Canada
  • LH,AC: One flight, either with Lufthansa, or with Air Canada
  • LH,AC+: One or more flights, either with Lufthansa, or with Air Canada

We want to fly with one of those two airlines, but we don’t mind where and how often we stop, so we will choose the last one, which is the most flexible code out of the three. After searching, this will come up:

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As you can see, only flights with Lufthansa and / or Air Canada are being displayed.

By the way, you can not only specify by airline, you can also restrict the search to a whole alliance at once, like Star Alliance or Oneworld. The code for that is:

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  • Star Alliance: / alliance star-alliance
  • Oneworld Alliance: / alliance oneworld
  • SkyTeam Alliance: / alliance skyteam

This is especially useful, if you are collecting miles in a frequent flyer program which is part of an airline alliance, and thus you can earn miles on all the different airlines in that alliance. You could also put this code behind other routing codes, as you will see later on.

Also, you can not only specify what you want, but instead you can put in what you don’t want, a negation. You’ll find examples in the screenshot provided at the start of this chapter.
For example, you want to go from San Francisco to New York in winter. Denver is a popular hub airport for United Airlines flights, but known for its huge amounts of snow in winter leading to massive delays.

It’s this easy to just eliminate everything with a connection in Denver:

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Which means: Any flight connections, just no stop in Denver.

Or if you don’t want to fly with American Airlines because you’ve made terrible experiences with their customer service:

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This means: One or more flights, but none on American Airlines. If you just put “~AA” then it would be a direct flight on any airline but not American Airlines.
In the end, specifying your search mostly helps us for one reason: We want to search for most possible options at the same time, but still get an accurate result. If we want to go from Europe to South East Asia, we’re likely going to find the cheapest price not by putting in one airport to leave from one to go to, and all that on a specific date. We could leave from many different ones in Europe, starting our travels at many different places in South East Asia, and we don’t really mind what day in summer we want to leave, and how many nights exaclty we want to stay.

But here’s the problem: With nine airports to leave from and six to go to, that’s already 54 different routes on the way there, times 54 for the way back, so 2.916 options. Times 30 days we could leave on, so over 87.000 options, times the days we can come back on, times countless flight options on each day on each airline…
You see where this is going. No search engine could ever price that many options within a short timeframe, and that’s why it’s likely that it won’t actually find the cheapest flights.

So what you do is, you cut the options down. In this example, we do that by only accepting flights sold by Etihad Airways in this search. You can also choose any other airline and repeat the search with any other airline, but if you don’t care which airline you fly on, it would probably be better to just search one airport combination at a time, but with no limits in the routing codes.

And best of all, with the calendar of lowest fares you still get an overview of what day will be the cheapest.

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The most effective option if you have many airports in the list though, is to untick the box “Allow airport changes”. This will just allow routings from one airport to another one, and then the way back has to be between those two airports again, not between others. Or you could limit the number of stops to a maximum of one or two.
Last but not least, try to limit the options in “length of stay” to a maximum of a three night difference from your shortest to the longest amount of time that you want, in order to further reduce the amounts of possibilities.

 

Optimizing the frequent flyer miles

In most frequent flyer programs, the miles you earn depend on the distance you fly. Makes sense. That said, many airlines offer a vast route network and a lot of partnerships on top. Most airfares are based on your origin and destination, not on your actual route between them. So in the end, you might be able to collect more miles for the same price by going via a different city or even two.

We’ll go ahead with an easy example of a flight from Washington to Seattle and we want to collect some miles in a Star Alliance program like Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer, Turkish Airlines Miles & Smiles or similar, so we will choose United, the only Star Alliance airline in the United States.

This will be our search, meaning that we want to take “one or more United Airlines flights”:

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Direct options show up for 429 Dollars:

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But there will also be examples of connecting flights through Houston (IAH), which is way off the direct line between Washington D.C. and Seattle, and thus requires a fairly large detour. That means: More miles. Plus, it’s actually cheaper as well, because most people will prefer a direct flight compared to a connecting option.

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Now that we know it’s possible to route through Houston, we can narrow our search down to these routings via Houston both ways, which will lead to a more specific and therefore more accurate search of these exact options.

This means: Two direct flights on United Airlines with a forced connection in Houston:

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And we’ll be rewarded with what’s probably the best option out there – cheaper than anything else, but the collected miles are a lot more than on a direct flight, or a flight via for example Chicago. Here’s the detailed overview:

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To calculate the extra distance you’ll be flying, you can use an awesome tool called Great Circle Mapper. You simply put your routings you want to check into the text field and hit enter.

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And you’ll promptly be presented with the relevant distances and even the percentage:

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When you put a few more possible routings into the text field, this is what it looks like. While Chicago is pretty much on the straight way, Houston is the furthest away from it:

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You can also use another handy feature of the ITA Software, that allows you to sort your results by the lowest price per mile flown. After searching, click on “Price” and then tick “Show price per mile”. Then the “Sort by price per mile” option appears.

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If you click it, your results will be sorted by how many flown miles you get for your money. For example, our routing that we chose is the top one, you only spend 6.37 cents on each mile that you fly, as you can see on the left hand side under each price:

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Finding all those routings via Houston through a normal search could be a pain, but this one is still fairly easy and should be possible with a normal search engine or on the United Website.

Now let’s take it to an extreme:

I put in Anchorage to Panama City with five American Airlines flights (routing code “AA AA AA AA AA”) and then sorted the results by “Price per mile”, which brought up this opportunity:

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Put into Great Circle Mapper, it looks like this:

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That’s a combined total of almost 14.000 miles for the round trip! That’s about the same as going from Los Angeles to Australia, just within North / Central America. Not many people will want to go from Alaska to Panama, but you can use this system for any route you want to travel on.

If you’re not sure about the airline, just put the routing code “F F F” into the search to get 3 flights each way, after that you can try “F F F F” to see if there are cheap options with four flights and so on…

 

“Secret” extras

There are some more codes, which you won’t find in the examples shown a first. This includes for example aircraft types, minimum or maximum stop durations, and so on…

Flight duration

Say you’re on the way from Baltimore to Rio. Doing the normal search, you will inevitably been shown hundreds of possible flight options, many of them with long connections, overnight flights or stops, and so on:

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If you want to get there rather quickly more than anything else, you can just eliminate all the long and annoying flight connections with this code:

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This says: Any flights, but the total duration from taking off in Baltimore to landing in Rio cannot exceed 780 minutes (which is 13 hours). Since this is about the least time possible between the two, you’ll find very limited results, but you get what you want: A very quick flight to Rio. The good thing in this example: It doesn’t even cost more money, and it eliminated the overnight flights from being shown:

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Connection times

You hate sitting around at airports for ages, or you’d rather wait and read a book instead of rushing to catch the connecting flight? Then this is for you. With these codes, it’s easy to eliminate long or short connections.

One typical example is going to the United States. You might be through immigration in a few minutes, but you might be stuck for an hour and a half. Since most airports offer connection times as little as 90 minutes, this is not exactly ideal, if you have an onward flight to catch.

With the following code, you can set the connecting time on you flight from Frankfurt to Las Vegas to a minimum of three hours or 180 minutes. On the way back it doesn’t really matter, because you won’t have to clear any immigration or customs.

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It will return results like this, which is exactly what we were looking for here:

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If you have an itinerary with multiple stops, and you don’t want every single stop to be three hours, there is another possibility: Use the “padconnect” code, which adds the given amount of time to the so called minimum connecting time of each stop. For example, you fly from Billund in Denmark to Las Vegas, connecting in Frankfurt and then somewhere in the States. While in Frankfurt an hour and a half will be enough time, it might not be at the next connection. We’ll just add an hour on top of every minimum connecting time:

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That means, we should easily make the next flight at every airport without wasting too much time:

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You can do the same thing, if you want rather short connections. Be it to get to your destination more quickly or to not sit around at airports for ages. If you want to get from Fort Lauderdale to Vancouver without long stops, you use the “maxconnect” code:

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And this is what you get. Very efficient:

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Aircraft type

You’ve always wanted to fly on that Airbus A380? Or flying scares you a bit and therefore you don’t like propeller planes? ITA has got you covered on this too.

If you want a specific aircraft type, you need to google for its “IATA Code” consisting of three digits or letters, and then put in like this:

  • / aircraft t:XYZ

For the Airbus A380, the IATA code is 380. We want to fly from Europe to South East Asia in this example:

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Here are the connections operated exclusively by Airbus A380s that you can get on between these cities. You see the aircraft type in the details, like it is displayed for the cheapest connection with Thai Airways from Frankfurt to Bangkok:

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Let’s have a look at the propeller aircraft option. While they are of course just as safe as any other aircraft, you might still have your own personal reasons to not like them.

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With an easy code you can quickly eliminate all routing options that contain a propeller-engined aircraft like the Dash-8 or ATR.

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And all the results will be only jet-engined aircraft! Whether it’s worth double the price to you or not, this is just an example to show how it works. The good thing is, you can just type this into any search without having a clue of aircraft types, and just rely on it doing the work for you.

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Combining codes

Of course, most of the previous options you can use at the same time. Some examples:

  • From Frankfurt to Las Vegas, with a connection in Chicago, with one or more United flights before and after:

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  • From Frankfurt to Las Vegas, with a direct flight on any airline to New York, and then a direct flight on any airline to Las Vegas, with a minimum 20 hour stop in New York on the way out and a minimum of 20 hours in Chicago on the way back to get some sightseeing done.
    With this method, you can easily force an overnight stop in your desired city into your itinerary as well.

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  • From Cincinnati to San Diego, with American Airlines or United Airlines and a connection in Charlotte or Chicago, with no redeye flights in the itinerary.

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How to book your favourite itinerary

You probably noticed we haven’t yet showed you a way to actually book these flights. Unfortunately it’s not possible right through the website, but you’ll normally be able to find these flights using

  • The airlines homepage
    For most tickets, especially easier ones, you should be able to complete your purchase straight on the homepage of your desired airline. If your ticket is a bit more complicated, use the multi city search option to specify your routing.
  • A metasearch engine like Kayak or Momondo
    If you don’t find your flights on the airlines own homepage, head to Kayak or Momondo. Same here – if your ticket is a bit more complicated, use the multi city search option to specify your routing.
  • The website bookwithmatrix.com
    Someone has developed this amazing tool to simply copy the itinerary page of your desired flights and paste it into the box on that site. You’ll find more instructions on the website.
  • A travel agency
    If you can’t find anything on any of these websites, there is still hope: Print the complete itinerary page and show it to your travel agency, or take a screenshot of the full site and send it to a travel agency of your choice. You will have to do this mostly for very complicated routings.

 

And last but not least: Nothing is better than your very own experience, so practice, practice, practice! In the end, that’s what got us so far!

 

We’d love to hear from your personal experiences with ITA Matrix. Have you used it before? Are you an avid user? Or will you be trying it for the first time? Let us know in the comments below!


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Beginners Guide to ITA Matrix

By | 2017-02-04T21:18:31+00:00 November 12th, 2016|How to find cheap airfares|4 Comments

About the Author:

Hey! We're Emma and Yannick! A travel blogging couple who met in Thailand in 2014, and since then we have visited over 20+ countries with no plans to stop! We travel the world in luxury, without paying the price for it, through travel hacking and insider knowledge. Through this, we love to help and teach others to travel well for less, just like we do!

4 Comments

  1. Fiona Mai January 4, 2017 at 10:41 pm - Reply

    Thank you so much for this detailed guideline on how to use ITA Matrix. I’d have to bookmark this and read again, as it’s really more complicated than I thought. Airfare is one of my biggest concerns while travelling abroad as my budget is limited. This guide is so helpful!

    • Luxurybackpacking January 4, 2017 at 10:42 pm - Reply

      Hi Fiona!

      Thanks so much for your kind comment, we hope it makes more sense now and you can lower the cost of your airfares! 🙂

      Happy Travels!
      Emma & Yannick

  2. Verna April 4, 2017 at 2:57 pm - Reply

    My brother suggested this website to me. He was totally right. This post actually made my day. You can not imagine how much time I had spent for this info!
    Thanks!

    • Emma Lomas April 9, 2017 at 9:59 am - Reply

      That’s great, glad we’ve helped!

      Happy Travels!
      Yannick

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