Maximizing Elite Status Series: Using ITA Matrix to Find Cheap Flights
This is an installment in my Maximizing Elite Status series. Articles include; The Basics and Why People Mileage Run, Using ITA Matrix to Find Cheap Flights, How Much is Elite Status Worth?, Comparing Top Tier Status, Comparing Mid-Tier Status, Comparing Low Level Status, How to Get Elite Miles Without Flying, Understanding Elite Status Bump Thresholds, The Lowdown on Soft Landings, How to Cope with Losing Elite Status.
Mileage runs are all about finding the cheapest flights that will get you the most miles. There are a number of different resources for finding cheap fares (one of my favorites is always keeping an eye on the Flyertalk Mileage Run Forum), but often times the deals you find online won't be valid from your home airport/vicinity.
So how do you find cheap fares from your airport? Many mileage professionals leverage ITA software, which is the backbone of many online travel agencies and airline websites. ITA has the ability to find and price fares on almost every single airline and it displays the data in a user-friendly way. The thing to note is that you cannot purchase airfare directly from ITA - you then use an online booking site like Expedia or individual airline sites, which should replicate what you find and be able to ticket.
There is a new version of the Matrix software available, but I personally prefer the older, month-long search version which can be found here.
From there, just enter your home city and destination and how many nights you want to spend. A true mileage run will be 0 nights, or known as a "Same Day Turn." Most mileage runners opt to come straight back home because it saves on having to spend for a hotel room and keeps the total cost of miles accrued as low as possible.
So let's pretend I'm a NYC-based American Airlines flyer and want to do a same day turn to San Francisco, which is 2,586 miles from JFK (not including any stops).
Enter NYC to SFO within the next month for 0 nights.
Then when the results come up, click "Only" underneath American below the calendar results to restrict the results to American, since that's all we care about.
It highlights the days that are cheapest - which is $330. The great thing is that the price showed is the all-in price, which means it includes all taxes and fees. In this case, there aren't many amazing fares and if we wanted to do this on a Saturday, the $330 option would seem like the best bet.
However, the cheapest flight isn't always the best mileage run. While JFK-SFO-JFK was the cheapest at $330 total, you would only net 5,172 elite qualifying miles (6.4 cents per mile). However, if you spent only $10 more, you'd see there was routing via Dallas and Chicago that would have increased the EQM haul to 5,433 (6.3 cents per mile). Still not a good mileage run fare, but better CPM than the non-stop. However, considering how much extra time you'd have to waste for the measly 261 extra miles, it probably wouldn't be worth it.
While this tool isn't perfect for simply finding the absolute cheapest flight from your home airport, it can help you plan your travel around dates that have the cheapest fares. Though most online booking agencies claim to do the same, in my opinion, ITA is the purest and quickest way to scan fares for good deals. ITA also helps when you hear about a mileage run, but can't seem to find any dates where the fare is bookable. Your best bet is to use ITA to scan for the low fare and price it, which will then allow you to go to your booking site and enter exactly what ITA found.
While there is a more complex version of ITA for travel agents and hardcore mileage junkies, this tool is probably the most relevant for the average deal seeker. Feel free to share your ITA tips and tricks!
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