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How to use the ITA Matrix to find cheap flights

Aug. 24, 2020
14 min read
United Dreamliner Polaris Premium Plus Economy Cabins Zach Griff - 35
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If you’re always on the hunt for cheap flights, you’re likely familiar with using Google Flights, Skyscanner or online travel agencies (OTAs) like Expedia. We’re big fans of those platforms here at TPG, as they can save you a ton of money on flights.

But the most powerful tool of all is a little less known and a lot less sleek: the ITA Matrix, which is also powered by Google. This platform requires a bit more work to score cheap flights (more on that below), but if you know how to make ITA Matrix work for you, it can pay off.

Here’s everything you need to know about the ITA Matrix.

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What is the ITA Matrix?

ITA Matrix is a powerful tool that allows you to search for flights -- though keep in mind that you can’t actually book flights on the platform. For that, you’ll need to go to the individual airline’s website. You’ll find many flights, though Google says each airline decides how much to participate.

Pros of the ITA Matrix

Most OTAs let you search for only specific travel dates. For instance, on Expedia you’re locked into searching one date at a time.

Screengrab from Expedia

The ITA Matrix allows you to select options like a day before, after, or plus/minus 1- 2 days. That little extra flexibility gets you to a ticket faster and could save you money if traveling on another day is cheaper.

Cons of the ITA Matrix

One of the biggest downsides to using the ITA Matrix is that while you can search for flights, you can’t actually book them through the platform. You can provide the information you find to a travel agent or airline when booking a flight, or you can try to recreate the itinerary through the airline or OTA yourself.

How to use the ITA Matrix to search for flights

There are a lot of filters, but finding flights using ITA Matrix is pretty straightforward. You will enter your departure and arrival airports as you would through an OTA. You can search one-way, round-trip or multi-city itineraries.

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Routing codes

To get the most out of ITA Matrix, you’ll probably need to use routing codes. Google has a helpful FAQ sheet on understanding the codes, which at first glance can seem pretty complicated. I’ll do a breakdown of how to use these later on, but using the codes, you can:

Related: Coronavirus cancellations: What to do if you’ve booked travel through an online travel agency (OTA)

Cost per mile filter

Screengrab from ITA Matrix

You can see mileage and price per mile when you hover over your preferred fare in the search results. On the search results page, click the price heading and click “show price per mile.” This is a neat feature to use if you’re booking a mileage run where you’d need a certain amount of qualifying miles to get or keep elite status.

Geo-Search filter

The Geo-Search filter lets you search by airport code, city, or nearby airport. This feature could be helpful if you live in an area served by several airports, like New York, and you want to avoid flying out of Newark, for instance.

Color-coded Time Bars

We’ll talk more about the Time Bars below, but this option allows you to compare flights at a glance. It’s helpful if you don’t want to scroll through pages and pages of flights. It’s also an easier way to see how long your connections will be if you aren’t flying nonstop.

Economy seats on American Airlines Boeing 787-8. (Photo by Katie Genter / The Points Guy)

How to book flights using ITA Matrix

I’m going to walk you through finding a flight through the ITA Matrix to illustrate how all this works. I’ll be searching for a one-way flight from New York (JFK) to Portland (PDX) for dates in June 2021.

Screengrab from ITA Matrix

In the dates section, you’ll see an option to search by exact dates or view a calendar. The calendar feature could be helpful if your travel plans are flexible and you just want to find the cheapest fares. You can also search for flights by time if you prefer a red-eye or midday flight.

You can then pick what cabin you prefer, whether you want a nonstop flight and the currency you want the fare to price out in.

We’ll talk a bit later about more advanced ways to search for flights, but after you hit “search,” you’ll see a page with your results. It’s pretty self-explanatory, but I want to highlight the circle indicators on the right-hand side of the page under “advisory.”

The advisory column shows you features you may want to avoid, like airport changes, long layovers and short connections that could be risky.

If you want a more visual overview of the flight options, make sure you hit “Time Bar.”

After selecting your preferred flight, you’ll see a detailed description, including the aircraft, fare class, whether you’ll get a meal in-flight and whether there is onboard entertainment. Keep in mind that the aircraft could change before your flight.

Screengrab from ITA Matrix

Finally, you’ll see the cost breakdown of the flight, the fare construction (you’ll send this to your travel agent) and a Powertools section to book your flight through another platform. I’ll talk more about this below. There is also a way to email the itinerary if you need to send it to a travel agent.


Can I book a flight with ITA Matrix?

As I said above, you can’t book flights directly through the program. You do have some options for recreating your itinerary, however. You can use BookWithMatrix to generate a booking link from your ITA Matrix result.

All you have to do is paste your itinerary into the box and you’ll see results. Let’s say you want to fly from Newark (EWR) to San Francisco (SFO) one-way. You want to fly United Airlines only, you don’t mind a connection but you don’t want to connect in Chicago (ORD).

Screengrab from ITA Matrix

After the results page populates, you’ll pick your preferred itinerary by selecting it. After you do that, you’ll select the entire page and then paste it into BookWithMatrix.

You’ll then see the itinerary on BookWithMatrix and a link to book the flight. If you don’t want to go through all of those steps, you can use ITA Matrix’s Powertools feature on the left-hand side of the page to book directly.

Can I search for hotels with ITA Matrix?

You can’t search for hotels using the ITA Matrix. If you’re trying to find a hotel for your trip, you’re better off using a platform like Orbitz or Priceline or booking directly through your hotel chain to earn points on your stay.

Related: Online travel agency vs. booking direct: Your guide to the best way to book your next hotel

Can I book car rentals with ITA Matrix?

As with hotels, you can’t search for or book rental cars using ITA Matrix. You can find rental cars through your preferred OTA or by booking directly through your preferred company. Make sure you’re using a credit card that offers primary insurance for car rentals.

Related: 9 rental car rewards programs you need to know about

Can I use ITA to find a specific fare class or code?

You can use the Matrix to search for a preferred fare class. Let’s say you want to fly from Atlanta (ATL) to Los Angeles (LAX) but you don’t want to fly economy to get there. Here, you would use another tool ITA Matrix has called extension codes.

Screengrab from ITA Matrix

Using extension codes, you can filter out fare classes you don’t want to be in or search only for first, business or economy fares. In this case, I used the extension code “+CABIN 1,” which indicated I only wanted to fly first class.

Screengrab from ITA Matrix

What are ITA Matrix advanced codes?

ITA Matrix includes several powerful ways to search for a specific ticket, where conventional search tools only differentiate on price. In the advanced routing fields, you can input endless commands to find your perfect flight. There are three tabs (you can open the legend by clicking on the first “question mark” that will help you find the right code to put into ITA Matrix.

If you’re looking for a specific flight on a particular carrier, you can search that way. In this instance, we’ll use American Airlines as an example.

Screengrab from ITA Matrix

Let’s say I’m looking for a flight from Miami (MIA) to Houston (IAH), but I only want to fly American Airlines. I would then input C: AA, which would exclude all other carriers. This method can be helpful if you’re loyal to a specific airline, but you’re flying into a rival carrier’s hub, like Houston, a United hub.

Screengrab from ITA Matrix

Connecting in London (LHR) can be a stressful experience for many travelers. Don’t want to transfer there on the way back home? No problem: you can just use code ~LHR to prevent a stopover at Heathrow. Perhaps you wanted to fly Delta to the West Coast on two segments and you prefer to connect in Minneapolis (MSP). In this case, the routing code you would use would be DL MSP DL.

Screengrab from ITA Matrix

As you can see in the screenshot above, each leg includes a stopover in Minneapolis.

How can I search ITA for specific alliance flights?

You can tell ITA Matrix to only search flights on your preferred alliance. You can also search for multiple alliances by separating them with a vertical bar character. Note that the only alliances supported are Oneworld, SkyTeam and Star Alliance.

Screengrab from ITA Matrix

In this case, I searched for flights from Newark (EWR) to Paris (CDG) on Star Alliance carriers only.

Bottom line

At first glance, the ITA Matrix can seem clunky and not very user-friendly. It’s not as simple as plugging in your airport codes and dates and hitting enter. You’ll have to do some work to find the flight you want. Once you get past those obstacles, you can find some cheap flights, whether you’re traveling now or in the future.

Featured image by (Photo by Zach Griff / The Points Guy)