Search for Cheap Airfare Like a Pro: Part 1 – ITA Matrix Basics
Signing up for credit cards through partner links earns us a commission. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. Here’s our full Advertising Policy.Update: One or more card offers in this post are no longer available. Check our Hot Deals for the latest offers.
I’ve written about Google Flights and how it’s a great search tool for finding the cheapest airfares. It’s simple to use and lets you customize your searches based on airline, number of stops, departure & arrival time, and more.
But if you want to search for airline tickets like a pro, you’ll want to learn how to use ITA Matrix. It’s owned by the same company that runs Google Flights, but it’s much more powerful and gives you many more search options.
You can’t buy a ticket using ITA Matrix. It’s a search tool only.
While some of the advanced search options require learning different codes and syntax (which some folks might enjoy!), basic searches are simple to do. I’ll show you how!
Search for Cheap Airfare Like a Pro Index
- Part 1 – ITA Matrix Basics
- Part 2 – More ITA Matrix Tricks
- Part 3 – ITA Matrix Multi-City Search
- Part 4 – ITA Matrix Advanced Routing Codes
ITA Matrix Basic Flight Search
Link: ITA Matrix
The search fields on the ITA Matrix website are generally straightforward. At the top, there are tabs that allow you to search for round-trip, 1-way, or multi-city tickets.
What Are All These Search Fields?
Enter the city name (like New York or Chicago) or the 3-letter airport code if you know it (like JFK or ORD). Clicking the “Nearby” icon allows you to search for airports within a certain distance of a town or city.
If the city you’ve chosen has more than 1 airport, you’ll be prompted to select the airports you want, or search from all airports.
Don’t worry about the “Enter Outbound Routing Codes” field for now.
Enter the city name or the 3-letter airport code. The “Nearby” icon functions in the same way as for the departure city. Ignore the “Enter Return Routing Codes” for now, too.
You can search exact dates, or if your travel plans are flexible, you can search a calendar of lowest fares. For round-trip tickets, you can specify a starting departure date and length of stay, and it will show you the cheapest fares a month beyond the departure date.
Number of Passengers
This defaults to 1 adult, but you can search for more than 1 ticket, or for children and seniors by clicking the “Children, Seniors” icon. That opens pull-down fields for seniors, youths, children, infants in seat, and infants in lap.
Select Cheapest Available, Economy, Premium Economy, Business Class or higher, or First Class.
You can choose non-stop only, 1 stop, 2 stops, or no limit.
Clicking the “Allow Airport Changes” box means you could arrive at 1 airport and depart from another in the same city (for example, land at Chicago – O’Hare and depart from Chicago – Midway). If you don’t mind switching airports on your return leg, you can leave this box checked.
And I’d leave the “Only Show Flights and Prices With Available Seats” box checked, because otherwise it could show you fares that are already sold out.
Currency and Sales City
The currency defaults to the currency of the sales city, which is assumed to be your departure city unless you specify otherwise. But if you click on the field, you can select from any currency you like!
You’d really only want to change the sales city if you’re planning to buy the ticket in a different country, in which case fares might be different. Or if a fare expires at midnight and it’s already 2:00 am in your time zone, you could switch the sales city to a time zone further west where it’s not midnight yet!
Let’s Try a Basic Search
Suppose I wanted to fly from Austin to Philadelphia round-trip, departing on January 9, 2015, and returning on January 15, 2015. I’d enter Austin or AUS in the “Departing From” field, Philadelphia or PHL in the “Destination” field, and click “Search Exact Dates” with the dates I wanted.
Notice when you search by exact dates, you’re also given the option to select preferred times (either for departure or arrival). And if you have a little bit of flexibility in your travel, you can modify the search to include dates up to 2 days before or after your specified date. I left it as the exact dates with no preference as to time.
Then I selected the cheapest available cabin and no limit to the number of stops. Then, I clicked “Search” in the bottom right corner. The results page defaults to sorting by lowest prices 1st, with a summary at the top of the lowest fares for each airline, depending on number of stops.Note: The prices shown include all taxes and fees. Most airlines are included, but a few (like Southwest) are not.
There are 17 pages of results! But if you look just above the 1st search result, there are pull-down tabs that allow you to narrow down your search based on price range, airline, departure & arrival time, trip duration, airports (for cities that have more than 1 airport), number of stops, and if there are any advisories for the trip (like a long layover or short connection).
That’s a lot of choices! If you’re simply looking for the cheapest fare and don’t care about the airline or anything else, you can stop at this point.
But suppose I only wanted to see flights on US Airways or American Airlines. I’d click the “Airline” tab and select those 2 airlines only.
If I wanted to show only flights which depart in the morning, I’d click the “Depart” tab and select my desired times. You can do the same thing for arrival times by clicking the “Arrive” tab.
If I wanted to only show flights (non-stop or otherwise) of less than 6 hours, I’d click the “Duration” tab and adjust the sliders accordingly. Notice the search results are now much different, with American Airlines flights showing 1st (and at a higher price).
You can also filter results by number of stops. They’ll give you the cheapest price for non-stops, 1-stops, or more.
Some flights have advisories attached to them, like a short connection time, terminal change, or long layover. You can also include or exclude flights based on these criteria.
ITA Matrix has more tools that let you display flights in different ways, but we’ll cover those in another post!
What to Do When You Find the Flight You Want
Once you find the flight you want, click on the price to see more information about the flight. You can also click the “Details” icon on the far right (which appears when you hover the mouse over a flight) to see more information without leaving the search page.
You’ll be taken to a new screen that gives you detailed information about the flights you’ve chosen, including flight numbers, airplane type, cabin, fare class, and if meals are offered.
And lower down on the page, you’ll see the fare breakdown, with details about the fare and the taxes and fees. There’s also a fare construction, which you can print out and bring to a travel agent if you choose to book a ticket that way. Remember, you can NOT book your ticket on the ITA Matrix website.
So what do you do when you’re ready to book?
How to Book the Flights You’ve Chosen
If you have a credit card that gives you bonus points for booking a ticket directly with the airline (like 3 miles per $1 you spend with the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express ), then buying your ticket through the airline website might make the most sense.
And you might consider using a credit card like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard, because you can redeem miles as statement credits worth 2.1% cash back for travel (including online travel agencies).
You may not always find the exact fare you want. Sometimes you have to check several websites.
I went to the US Airways website to find the ticket in the previous example, and it was easy to find the same fare and itinerary.
Then just go ahead and book like you would any other airline ticket!
Bottom LineITA Matrix is a very powerful airfare search tool which lets you search for the cheapest airfares. It’s a search tool only – you can NOT book a ticket on ITA Matrix.
Basic searches are simple to do and you can filter results based on airline, departure and arrival time, flight duration, number of stops, and more.
Once you’ve found a flight you want, you can book it through the airline, an online travel agency, or a travel agent.
There are many more search options built-in to ITA Matrix, but we’ll talk about those in later posts!
Do you use ITA Matrix? What do you like about it?
Chase Sapphire Preferred® CardAPPLY NOW
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That’s $1,000 when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. Plus earn up to $50 in statement credits towards grocery store purchases within your first year of account opening.
Earn 2X points on dining including eligible delivery services, takeout and dining out and travel. Plus, earn 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,000 toward travel.
With Pay Yourself Back℠, your points are worth 25% more during the current offer when you redeem them for statement credits against existing purchases in select, rotating categories.
Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on eligible orders over $12 for a minimum of one year with DashPass, DoorDash’s subscription service. Activate by 12/31/21.
Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more.
Get up to $60 back on an eligible Peloton Digital or All-Access Membership through 12/31/2021, and get full access to their workout library through the Peloton app, including cardio, running, strength, yoga, and more. Take classes using a phone, tablet, or TV. No fitness equipment is required.
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)