Introduction to Using ITA Matrix

To get things rolling I’m going to introduce you to Matrix by ITA Software. Nearly every search I do starts with ITA thanks to its flexible display options and advanced routing language. I know many experienced travelers enjoy using KVS Tool and ExpertFlyer, which I’ll cover later, but ITA comes first because it is one of the most useful free tools and shares many of the same basic features.

Even if you’re already familiar with ITA, I’ll also be describing some of its advanced route language in later posts this week. I apologize for a long post today, but this may be your first time using this interface, which has a few tricks up its sleeve.

In today’s post, I will show you how to use ITA for a simple trip from Seattle (SEA) to Washington Dulles (IAD) over Presidents’ Day weekend. A large variety of options exist on this route, everything from non-stop on United to choices with two or three connections. We’ll start out easy before getting picky about carriers.

Taking a look at ITA’s home page, most of the entries are self-explanatory. You could enter “SEA” in the departure field and “IAD” in the destination field. If you select “Search exact dates” you can enter 2/17/12 and 2/20/12 for the outbound and return, departing on those days only. Ignore everything else for now, too, and press “Search.”

ITA Matrix search page

Three Ways to Display Search Results on ITA Matrix

Like most online search tools such as Orbitz or Kayak, there is a bar at the top of the results page with the lowest fares available on different carriers, sorted by the number of stops. Clicking on a name will give you only that carrier, and clicking on a price will give you only flights on that carrier at that fare. These are “all-in” fares, so you don’t have to worry about hidden taxes added later.

Complete Trips

Below the bar, the default option is to display results as “Complete trips.” The information displayed in the complete trip format is easy to understand—departure and arrival times, stops, cautionary advisories such as red-eyes or short connections. The lowest fare appears to be $487 on Virgin America (VX) with a connection in San Francisco (SFO). Some nonstop options on United are available at $509.

ITA Matrix search results

In this case things worked out well. There are a couple options at the lowest fare, and a non-stop option is only slightly higher. Depending on your airline preferences and how much you want to avoid that connection, the difference is fairly negligible. But when things don’t go so well, the problem I often find with viewing complete trips is that there are so many combinations of outbound and return.

I have faced situations where non-stop options just didn’t exist and where the connection could be in any of five different cities. Fares for most options were very close together, but the ideal times and connecting city were $20 more, not a a lot but enough to push them back to page three. How many times do you look at every page of the results?

Individual Flights

Choosing “Individual flights” will give you another list, but this time you have the chance to select just your outbound flight before continuing and selecting the return option. At the very top there is now a light brown box that lists your selected flight for each day. You can skip ahead and pick your return flight first, then go back to the outbound flight if you prefer.

At all times the price you see is the lowest possible all-in fare, not the price for that individual leg, and unless you’ve already limited your airline choices, you are only picking the carrier for that particular option.

Also, picking your flights one at a time means that while you are looking at an all-in fare, you may be forced to pick only one very bad option for the other flight in order to get that promised price. Other options could cost a little or a lot more. This isn’t any more expensive than searching by “complete trips,” it just means that you could get the lowest price with two bad options, a higher price with two good options, or something in between.

Time Bars

Finally, my favorite option is “Time bars,” in which each flight is displayed as a bar from takeoff to landing. Options with connections are obvious because they have a two colored bars with a grey connection bar in between and an airport code telling you where you get to hang out for an hour or two.

ITA Matrix time bars view

Quickly Viewing Trip Details with Time Bars

At any time you can hover over a flight to get more information about it, including flight number, times, aircraft, cabin class, and booking class (a separate topic I’ll discuss in a future post). Hover over the grey connection if it’s too short to see which airport it is. You’ll notice that each flight has an airline code telling you who is marketing the flight. However, if it’s a codeshare flight operated by a different airline, there will be an asterisk and hovering will also tell you who the operating carrier is.

In this case, you can see that Continental (CO), United (UA), and US Airways (US) all operate a flight at the same time. These aren’t three different flights, it’s just that Continental and US Airways are marketing codeshares for the United flight.

Let’s use time bars. I almost always fly United, so I’ll choose a morning flight, UA916, as my outbound, for a potential fare of $509.

Notice that when I get to my return flight options, United is still at the top of the list. But that doesn’t always happen. I might find, for example, that the only way to pay $509 is to fly United one way and Delta on the way back. Perhaps United will charge me $600 to fly them both ways. Fortunately that didn’t happen this time, but remember that you can use the airline filters at the top if you care about flying on the same carrier for the full whole itinerary.

ITA Matrix time bars 2

Also note that for $5 more I could connect in San Francisco instead of flying non-stop, or for $15 more I could connect in Los Angeles (LAX). In this case, I don’t really think it’s worth it for the extra miles, but a detour to Houston (IAH) would probably be a good deal.

Examining Fare Construction on ITA Matrix

Finally, I am shown a page with the total fare of $509.60. Clicking the link to “View itinerary and fare details” will show how the fare was constructed, including base fare each way of $226.98 and various taxes and fees. However, you CANNOT buy the ticket from ITA. This is only an example of what is available. Use an OTA or the airline’s own website to complete the purchase. (Hipmunk is beginning to integrate many features from ITA and does let you click through to book an itinerary.) Some light grey text at the bottom labeled “Fare construction” may be helpful if you have a complex itinerary and want to forward this to a travel agent.

ITA Matrix itinerary

I’m passing the two-page mark here, so you’re probably ready to scream at me: What’s the point?! You already know how to search for flights on United’s website or on Orbitz, and now I’m telling you that you have to do that anyway?

Well, I find OTAs pretty distracting with all their ads and links to other services they offer. ITA is cleaner and easier to use. It also has some flexible display options like the time bars. Airline sites are often worse than OTAs. has a reputation as “United.bomb” for being so prone to errors, but hopefully that will change as their system merges with Continental’s. I have found fares on ITA that I could not replicate on United or elsewhere without being very specific about my dates and time of travel—which, of course, I only knew from using ITA first. If you don’t find the flight you want at the fare ITA promised, it’s unlikely that ITA is at fault.

There are many advanced features available only from ITA for narrowing your search results for complicated queries. The kind you might use for mileage running, fuel dumping, or when trying to find the cheapest flight to any of several vacation ideas during spring break. I’m starting you out easy to make sure you get the basics. But I promise you’ll see just how useful ITA can be by the end of the week. Until then, try playing around with it and see what you can learn on your own.

Putting my toe in the water
Advanced Routing Language in ITA Matrix
  • Rapid Travel Chai

    Thank you, now I know where to point people when they ask, “how can I find the best airfares?”

    • Scottrick

      Rapid Travel Chai,
      Thanks! Don’t forget, there will be two follow up posts on Wednesday and Friday, plus more to come on other ways to search and book cheaper air travel.

  • Jane

    Just found you and you have so much information for me that it is overwhelming. Silly question #1 – where do you get the ITA software to do this on?

  • harvardkim

    I’m having difficulty booking flights with multiple stops.  Is there an easier way to do this?

    • Scottrick

      When booking a flight with multiple stops, you can try searching for a round trip on the airline or OTA site. However circuitous routes may not show up if more direct ones are available. In that case, use a multi-city search to input each segment individually.

      If you don’t have room to search for EVERY segment (there’s a limit to how many you can type in), then try to force just the important ones. For example, SEA-LAS on United is not direct and must connect someplace like SFO or LAX. So it would be silly to type in both SEA-LAX and then LAX-LAS because that connection is going to be there anyway. But if you are trying to fly SEA-SFO-IAD, then definitely input SEA-SFO and SFO-IAD separately because the SFO connection is a bit of a detour on United.

    • Scottrick

      Multiple stops can be specified as part of a multi-city itinerary on airline or OTA websites. However, you might not have room for every stop. Knowing your airline’s network can help save space for the connections you really need to force and drop the others that will happen anyway.

      If you want to fly from San Francisco to Minneapolis, that’s going to require a connection on United but could be a nonstop on Delta. So if you’re traveling United just search for SFO-MSP because you’ll get a connection anyway.

  • Jagir

    I read everything you send out everyday. I try and process what I can. I am not even a beginner in the game but I like to learn. Just thought I’d let you know that you’re awesome. :)

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  • Jared H

    Hi Scott,

    Wanted to see if you had a suggestion for finding the fare for sale after finding it on ITA?

    I am doing a Galapagos trip in April and found the fare for much cheaper than I had been able to find on my own, but when I went to the airline’s website (LAN), the fare listed for the exact same flight was quite more expensive.

    The trip is UIO to GPS on April 11th, returning SCY to UIO on April 18th. The dates are not flexible, unfortunately, but I was still able to get great results when I searched. But when I went to go find the fare online, the fare was significantly higher, and I haven’t been able to find an explanation as to why.

    I searched on multiple OTAs and Meta sites, but they have all come up WAY higher than the $258.45 listed on ITA.

    Any suggestions on where I can get that rate, or why it is so much higher when I find it elsewhere?


    • Jared H

      The only thing I can think of that may be causing it is that the $258.45 rate might be for Ecuador residents. Would that be a possibility?

  • TY

    Hi Scott,

    Apologies if you had already covered this. I just found out about ITA and unfortunately did not have enough time to play with it before having to book my flight. I needed 2 RT tickets from SFO to NRT for the dates of 2/13 – 2/28. I ended up booking yesterday for two people directly from Singapore Airlines for $2543 all in. There is one stop over in LAX on a Virgin America flight before continuing to NRT with Singapore Airlines. The return flight is non stop.

    When I was searching in ITA, all the flights I could find for Singapore Airlines were from $1900+(1 person). Any clue as to why I was unable to find a comparable price on ITA? Is it because ITA doesn’t consider partner airlines(VA in this example) when including stopovers in the search? Or maybe I’m doing something wrong in my search?

    Any advice for future reference would be much appreciated. Thanks!


    • Scottrick

      It’s difficult to know for sure. I’m guessing that you bought a ticket through an OTA like Orbitz or Travelocity. And if you did that, then it’s possible your ticket actually included two separate fares, one from SFO to LAX only and another separate one from LAX to SIN and back (two fares can be combined in the same reservation).

      VX and SQ are partners, so I don’t think that’s a likely explanation that ITA is avoiding fares that combine the two carriers.

      Certainly if you looked for flights on SQ only on ITA and excluded other carriers that you would not find the same low price you found earlier — the cheaper fare you booked also included travel on VX.

      It’s possible that the instructions you gave to ITA were too open ended and the search engine did not consider flying through LAX — it only has so much time before it stops and gives you what it found so far. An unlimited search would also consider options like flying from SFO to Brazil to Johannesburg to London and then Singapore. It’s rarely cheaper, so some rules are required to avoid blind alleys that may actually end up cheaper on occasion. There are many other ways to get to SIN from SFO, and flying south to LAX before heading north to NRT is not exactly intuitive.

      It’s also possible that you encountered variability in the fares and availability, which can change hour-to-hour.

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  • Chorok byur

    Hi Scott,
    Could you help me with best way to fly from Dammam, Saudi Arabia to Seoul, Korea (1 wk layover) on to SFO and back to Dammam? I’d like the longest leg to be on business class or all on business. I get about 4k oneway wiht my own search on ITA… :-(

    • Scott Mackenzie

      I would book this as Bahrain to SFO, with a stopover in Seoul. However, that’s still a $4,000+ fare in business class. It’s just what it costs.

      You might be able to search for fares on ITA Matrix that make connections in Seoul along the way.

      Outbound Query: BAH :: ICN

      Return Query: SFO

      This assumes you proceed immediately from Seoul to SFO without making a stopover. Then you would adjust the dates as necessary when you book. But this could search could you help you estimate the fare.

      You could also do a multi-city search on ITA for travel from BAH to ICN to SFO to BAH. This may or may not cost more than a round-trip from BAH to SFO.

      The real challenge will be if you want to book a round-trip fare with a stopover. Stopovers typically cost $75-150 and are easiest to book on the phone with an agent. It’s also difficult to know which fares allow stopovers from the information on ITA Matrix. Other tools like ExpertFlyer can provide this information in more detailed fare rules.

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