The Matrix series of films was a rare combination of complex storytelling and a financially successful film franchise, but an even more richly opaque Matrix is ITA Software’s Matrix Airfare Search.
In the right hands, the Matrix Airfare Search can be a very powerful tool for finding flights at the right price. Like the better known search engines such as Orbitz, Expedia, and Kayak, the Matrix allows you to search with a flexible date range, restrict airlines, and even select nearby airports for an origin and destination.
However, the Matrix also offers powerful tools for frequent travelers, such as restricting a search by an alliance, forcing connections at specific airports, and searching for available flights with availability in certain fare booking codes. I used it frequently during my mileage running days before earning elite status and, more recently, multi-city bookings became much more difficult.
Once you’ve used the Matrix, you might be ready to move on to the advanced functions it offers frequent flyers. Google, which owns ITA Software and its Matrix Airfare Search tool, published a guide for the advanced routing codes that will search for flights using a variety of criteria. I recommend checking it out. However, if you feel like you need a basic primer on using the advanced routing codes, the folks at Upgraded Points list tips for finding the right flight using the Matrix.
Both guides are very long and detailed, but knowing how to maximize the potential of this flight search tool could help plan the right itinerary for you. It helped me when I used to care more about flying frequently.
It’s been a little more than two weeks since I lost my elite status with an airline, and I’ve already become sentimental about all the travel-hacking methods I used to use. Last night, I was working with yet another art historian, and we started to talk about travel hacking. I quizzed her with an easy one.
What is the difference between a direct flight and a nonstop flight?
Most humans don’t know the difference, and my friend didn’t either. So, class, let’s review:
a nonstop flight goes from A-B without any intermediate stops, whereas
a direct flight goes from A-B but makes an intermediate stop at C, without requiring you to change flights. However, you might have to change planes.
I think the direct flight is best compared to train travel. For example, I can take a direct train, on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor line, from New York to Washington, but my train is going to make intermediate stops in Newark, Trenton, Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore, if not more. However, a nonstop train would make no stops until it reaches its final destination. I know of no such train between here and our nation’s capital.
Most of us, however, travel via connecting trains and flights. For example, taking the train from New York to Los Angeles, which I will do one of these days, requires me to board the 20th Century Limited and then catch a connecting Southwest Chief train in Chicago. (Or something like that.) And remember that year I qualified on segments, not miles, flown? That was because each one-way trip required at least one connection. Sure, I got greedy a few times and booked a few six-segment trips to Southern California when there are always plenty of options to catch a nonstop between JFK and LAX, but I basically got silver status that year on about seven trips.
For our subsequent lessons, we’ll get into the finer points of perfectly reasonable hacks like open-jaws, stopovers, and free one-ways. We’ll also be sure to cover some sketchier tricks like hidden city fares, nested ticketing, and throwaway ticketing.
We’ll skip mileage running because, after all, what’s the point?
With the end of the year is a mere ten weeks away, I’m sure that many potential travelers are looking for airfares to either reach or maintain elite status with an airline or to just get a decent fare for the holidays. Finding a good airfare isn’t as easy as simply going to a travel booking site and sorting by price. That might work sometimes, but if you are flexible with your travel dates and times, as are most people doing mileage runs or booking leisure travel, you can really score a good fare with a bit of work.
What is the Lowest Published Fare?
Update: At the moment, the Fare Compare mileage run tool is not available. I’m leaving the instructions in case the tool returns, but until it does, the site is completely useless and full of SEO tricks to generate page views. Gross!
Throughout the day, I go to the FlyerTalk Fares at to find the lowest published fares for my region.You have to do this frequently because the best airfares are sometimes available for only a few hours, and airline sales have been notoriously bad deals. Also, don’t get lost looking at the rest of this site. The FlyerTalk Fares and the Custom Fare Alerts are the only useful parts of this site. The rest of the site stinks of link baiting and SEO gaming.
To find my fares, I use both “NYC” and “EWR” since those fares are listed separately. I rarely fly to international destinations so I stick with North America as my zone. The default list sorting is by Price Per Mile, but I change that to Sort by Total Fare. Then I look for places to go. If I want a mileage run, then I look for fares with low PPM, but if I want to go a specific place, then I look for fares. If I don’t like the prices, then I stop looking and go back to my life.
If I do like it, I then note the fare bucket (the first letter of the fare class) and the airline. Then I look for the fare rules.
What are the Fare Rules?
There are a number of sites that can help you find fare rules. The two sites I’ve used with great success are ExpertFlyer, which is a premium site with very powerful tools, and Wandering Aramean’s Travel Planning Tools. In either case, you want to pore over the fare rules. You should pay attention to:
is the fare one-way or round-trip?
if it’s a round-trip fare, what is the minimum or maximum stay?
what is the advance purchase requirement?
is the fare valid only on certain days of the week?
when does the fare expire?
are there blackout dates?
does the fare require nonstop travel or are transfers allowed?
If you feel you can live with the restrictions, which the cheapest fares almost always have, then look for flights that meet these requirements.
You have to use the advanced options to find flights that meet the conditions of the fare.
Note that the “Departing from” and “Destination” fields are pretty straightforward, but the codes below each city/airport need explanation. I used “UA+” to one or more flights on United, but you should use the two-digit code for your airline. The “/F” means to search for flights that meet the following fare conditions. The “BC=G” tells the Matrix to search for flights that are listed with the booking code “G”, but you should use the code that you found with Fare Compare.
Change the dates to what works for you, and begin your search.
It’s possible that the Matrix doesn’t find flights that meet your criteria. If that’s the case, then you should change your dates and search again. It’s also possible that despite the fact that there’s a fare published for your origin and destination (“city pairs”, as they’re called) but flights do not have any seats available in that fare bucket. This is how airlines manage their pricing: they published specific fares, the impose restrictions on those fares, they make available in or withhold seats from certain fare buckets.
Once you find flights that work for you, go to that airline’s site and buy the tickets there. There are lots of advantages to doing that, not the least of which is that the airlines can control the reservation should something go wrong. It’s probably not something you’ll need, but it’ll make things easier should your plans go awry.
Works for Me
I discovered this method about a year ago, while scouring the FlyerTalk message boards and finding a ton of valuable information that travelers have posted on online fora, countless blogs, and a couple of wikis. The “commons” have been a valuable resource for strategies on finding good airfares. Using this method, I was able to book some very inexpensive flights to the Pacific Northwest, including a pure mileage run to Seattle. There’s nothing more satisfying than learning to do something yourself and seeing it actually work.
But if you prefer to skip the research for learning the system, Nicholas Kralev wrote a nice concise explanation to Decoding Air Travel. I probably knew 80% of what was already written here, but had I read this a year ago, I would have saved a lot of time and spared my eyesight some. But I’m a scholar so I am not supposed to fear doing research.
Perhaps it is a bad sign that Sarah and I didn’t get to ride our bikes to Montauk this year, but we are taking our first mileage run this weekend. We will be going to Seattle, by way of Los Angeles, leaving at 7:00 AM on Saturday morning and landing at JFK just 24 hours later.
I upgraded our seats to business class on the westbound JFK-LAX segment so we will have a very comfortable place to sleep and a little breakfast once airborne. Unfortunately, we won’t have the sundae bar, which is one of my favorite parts of flying United’s JFK-LAX/SFO business class service, but we will have an almost lie-flat bed. We have a long layover in Los Angeles on the outbound portion and will be having breakfast with my dad at Pann’s Restaurant near LAX. On the turnaround in Seattle, which begins about three hours after we land in Seattle, we will be having dinner with Sarah’s friend Grace at Thirteen Coins, what Sarah calls an old man restaurant near the Seattle Airport.
The inbound portion of the run will be pretty streamlined with no long connections so there won’t be much time for any more visiting. At best, we will have time to hang out at the club, get a nightcap, board our flight, and get some sleep after a long day and almost 6,900 butt-in-seat miles.