You’re likely familiar with booking a flight on an airline’s website. You may even have experience searching for a route through an online travel agency like Expedia or a metasearch engine such as Google Flights or Kayak.
However, there’s a tool you can use to search for flights that’s even more robust and sophisticated, allowing you to find specific and complicated itineraries. It’s called ITA Matrix, and it’s the exact resource that powers Google Flights.
What is ITA Matrix?
ITA Matrix is a powerful flight search engine that’s been around since 1996. Originally developed by computer scientists at MIT, it was acquired by Google in 2011 and became the basis for Google Flights. The ITA software is used by many other popular search engines, including Kayak and Orbitz.
ITA Matrix has a reputation for being a bit cumbersome to use. Even some travel experts aren’t sold on its merits. Jarrod West, a senior content contributor at Upgraded Points and the founder of Frequent Flyer Blog, sums it up: “I always found the usability of the site pretty wonky,” he says.
While ITA Matrix certainly has its issues, the value it offers is worth spending some time learning how to use it. It can be especially valuable for travelers who need to book a complicated itinerary or frequent fliers who are particular about how and where they fly (down to the type of aircraft, airports to avoid, preferred airline alliance, and even the specific flight number).
How to Use ITA Matrix to Search for Flights
Start your flight search on ITA Matrix by inputting basic information, including your origin and destination cities, travel dates, and whether you’re booking a round-trip or one-way flight.
If you have some flexibility in your travel dates, there are a couple of options to try. First, you can search for flights that are plus or minus one to two days from your selected date. Or, you can choose “See calendar of lowest fares” to search by price.
You can also specify flight times, the number of stops, and cabin class. Be sure to check the box next to “Only show flights and prices with available seats” to limit your search to tickets that are actually bookable.
To take advantage of ITA Matrix’s power, click on “Show advanced controls.” This will allow you to input “Routing Codes” and “Extension Codes” that tailor your search to specific criteria. To bring up a list of available routing and extension codes, click on the question mark next to each of these fields. These codes allow you to narrow your search results by using specific parameters like a particular airline, type of aircraft, length of layover, and flight number.
For example, entering “AA” means you only want to see flights on American Airlines, “~DEN?” indicates you want a direct flight or a flight with just one stop in any airport except Denver, and “~CODESHARE” removes codeshare flights from your search results.
These codes can be combined to create specific flight searches. While this may be unnecessary for casual travelers, frequent fliers will find these parameters to be helpful in finding exactly what they’re looking for.
Your search results list will show options for multiple airlines, sorted by price. Keep in mind not all airlines will appear on ITA Matrix. Low-cost carriers like Southwest, Allegiant, and Breeze aren’t searchable, for example. Search results can be viewed by “Complete Trips,” “Individual Flights,” and “Time Bars.” The “Time Bars” tab is a handy visual graph showing the times and cost of each flight.
Once you find the flights you want, you can click on them for more information. Unfortunately, you can’t book flights through the ITA software, so you’ll need to take this flight information to another website to complete your booking.
Tips and Tricks for Using ITA Matrix
A website like Google Flights is good enough for most flight searches, but there are many scenarios in which using ITA Matrix will prove valuable for savvy travelers. Keep these tips in mind to get the most out of ITA Matrix.
Advanced Airport Search
In a typical flight search, you’ll input the specific airports you want to depart from and arrive at. But that’s not necessarily the best option.
According to Alex Miller, founder and CEO of Upgraded Points, you can often get better deals by expanding your search. “Take advantage of ITA Matrix’s ‘Nearby Airports’ feature to uncover savings opportunities,” he says. “Expanding your airport search by just 50 miles can open up cheaper flight options you may have otherwise missed.”
Advanced Routing Codes
Using advanced routing codes can be a great way to customize your flight search. For example, you can use this tool to help narrow your search to airports with your favorite lounges. Let’s say you’re a fan of Capital One lounges. You can use the code “DFW-IAD” to indicate you only want flights with layovers at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) or Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD), which are the only options that currently have a Capital One lounge.
The multicity search feature is a great way to build an itinerary that’s more involved than a typical round-trip journey to and from the same airports. For example, you can search for flights from Chicago to Paris to Miami. Or, you can book flights from New York to Los Angeles, then San Francisco to Tokyo, and then Tokyo back to New York, all on one itinerary.
You can’t actually book your flights through ITA Matrix. For simple itineraries, it’s easy to manually plug in the flight information to an online travel agency or airline’s website. However, that could prove to be difficult for more complicated itineraries involving multiple legs and airlines.
For those instances, check out BookWithMatrix. This site allows you to copy and paste your desired itinerary from ITA Matrix into BookWithMatrix. Just click on “Copy itinerary as JSON” in ITA Matrix, then paste that into BookWithMatrix. Your itinerary will populate on BookWithMatrix, along with links to booking engines, to complete your reservation.