Even if you've never heard of Matrix by ITA software, you've certainly seen its magic at work. It powers both Google Flights as well as KAYAK, and is the tool travel agents have used for decades to help clients find the best possible fares.
Rather than sifting through a dizzying array of flight search engine results, travelers can be confident they've found the best deal by mastering this program.
What Is the ITA Matrix?
Arguably the most efficient flight search engine on the Internet and one of the least known, the Matrix by ITA was developed by MIT computer scientists in 1996. While you can’t book a ticket through ITA Matrix, you can find your perfect flight there, and then use that information to make your purchase online with an airline or third-party retailer.
The real benefit of searching on the Matrix, as opposed to Google Flights, is the ability to conduct more complicated searches: open-jaw flights and multi-city itineraries are a breeze with this tool. It’s worth noting, however, that ITA Matrix has a longer load time than Google Flights, making a standard search engine preferable for someone in a rush. Remember that while most airlines are included in the results, not all are. Southwest Airlines and Allegiant Air are absent from search results, so to compare those fares, consult the airline's website.
How to Search the ITA Matrix
Begin your fare search by selecting the “Round trip,” “One-way,” or “Multi-city” tab. Then, enter the airport code or city name you are “Departing from.” For cities with multiple airports, you can select an “All airports” option.
Enter the airport code or city name of your “Destination.” For cities with multiple airports, you can select an “All airports” option.
Travelers can also select “Advanced routing codes.” This will create four fields in which you can enter additional search parameters (outbound routing and extension codes, and return routing and extension codes). Click on the question mark symbol next to each box to look at a list of advanced routing codes and their meanings. To enter multiple codes, place a comma between each.
Next, select either “Search exact dates” or “See calendar of lowest fares”
The “Search exact dates” option requires you to input both an outbound and return date, if you're searching round-trip itineraries. You can search according to when your flight departs or arrives, plus or minus up to two days.
The “See calendar of lowest fares” option requires a departure date, as well as — if searching for round-trip itineraries — the number of nights in your length of stay. You can list an exact amount or a range (5 or 7-9, for example). The search results will show the lowest prices for the chosen departure date as well as every day for the following month.
Then, select the number of passengers next to “Adults.” If there are seniors, “youths,” children, or infants also in the party, click on the “Children, seniors” link to expand the available options.
Select “Cabin” preference (the default is “Cheapest available”) and the preferred number of “Stops.” The default is “No limit.”
Enter the number of “Extra stops” you are willing to make beyond the minimum number possible. The default is “Up to 1 extra stop.” This generates a range of options depending on the available results. Setting “Stops” to nonstop and “Extra stops” to “Up to 1 extra stop” will yield nonstop and one-stop flights if nonstop flights are available, and one- and two-stop flights if no nonstop flights are available.
Travelers also have the option of exploring the “Other” category, which allows you to uncheck two search parameters checked by default. “Allow airport changes” gives ITA Matrix permission to search for flights that depart and arrive in different airports, for instance departing from New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport and returning to Newark Liberty International Airport, in nearby New Jersey. “Only show flights and prices with available seats” is self-explanatory.
The Matrix by ITA software also allows travelers to change the desired “Currency.” The default is set as the currency of your selected departure city. Another option is to enter desired “Sales city.” The default is set as your selected departure city. Sometimes, however, the price of flights can change depending on where the airline believes you are purchasing a ticket from. If you are flying internationally, it’s worth poking around with this field.
Understanding ITA Matrix Results
Click on the “Time Bars” link in the upper right-hand corner to look at an easy-to-parse infographic that illustrates both flight duration as well as layover duration in a clear, colorful manner.
Price Per Mile
Click on the drop-down “Price” menu above the search results on the left and click on the “Show price per mile” option to get a sense of whether you should pay for a flight out of pocket or redeem frequent flyer or credit card rewards.
Click on the drop-down “Advisory” menu above the search results on the right to narrow or expand your search by excluding or including flights with “advisories." Advisories include itineraries that don’t use the same airports, that require a terminal change, that have long layovers, that fly overnight, and that offer risky or tight connections.
How to Purchase Your Flights
Though you can’t buy a flight through ITA Matrix, you can use a custom search tool, BookWithMatrix.com, to quickly find booking options. Just paste the ITA itinerary from your result pages into its search tool, and it can locate various places online where that exact ticket is for sale. Another reliable option is to go directly to the desired airline’s website and search there.
Travelers can also refer to The Flight Deal's explainer on using Matrix by ITA software, which breaks down the most common use case and features helpful screenshots. For more advanced searches, there's a useful guide by Travel Codex.