Avoid Overpaying for Flights

Avoid Overpaying for Flights

Flights are the single biggest expense of any trip. In this article we are examining ways to avoid overpaying for flights.

Airlines are using dynamic pricing strategies, and there are always some travelers who pay far more than others. Ticket prices can vary extremely. In this article I will be sharing not only the best times to fly but also provide never-before-heard secrets that can save you 80 percent or more on flights to your favorite destinations.

If you’re booking a flight that’s heading to a vacation destination (like Gran Canaria or Rome ), you’re not going to see that much variability in price. That can make finding a deal harder, since prices are more stable, and airlines can’t rely on selling higher-priced tickets to business travelers to offset the cost.

Buying airline tickets can feel like a bit of a gamble. Even if you know how to play the game, there’s an element of chance involved — and there’s always a feeling of uncertainty when you go to book.

The first step for sidestepping high airfares is to avoid travel during the summer or during the holidays. While it is possible to use the methods that follows to find deals even during the busy times, I prefer to travel during wintertime or early spring. Not only is the weather milder in many locations throughout the world but the places you visit are much less crowded during those months, allowing for a more pleasant travel experience.

How annoyed would you get if you found out the person next to you paid less for their plane ticket? How much more chafed would you be if it were hundreds of dollars less? Are you snagging the best airline deals around or will you find out later that you could have saved a couple hundred dollars just by waiting a week?

However, timing is not the only means of obtaining cheaper flights. The best tool to use for finding deeply discounted flights originates from a site called ITA Matrix. It was developed by MTI engineers and helps you find the cheapest day to fly to a particular destination, but that is not what makes this site unique.

The site offers impressive filtering functions under ‘Advanced Controls’ that no other flight search tools offer. You can dictate where you would like to have a layover or even which layover stops to leave out of the search results. You can also choose to have the results offer one specific airline or exclude specific airlines among many other details.

While you cannot book directly from the site, you can see if leaving a day or two earlier could save you as much as 50 percent or more. Once you find the information you need, you have to go to a travel website or the airline website to book the flight.

ITA Matrix feels like Google Flights on steroids, as though it was developed specifically for aviation geeks who go to great lengths to guarantee an aircraft type, book the absolutely tightest connection, or earn the most qualifying miles for our dollars.

Despite its power, ITA Matrix is not necessarily known for being the most user-friendly. So while we’ve mentioned it in passing a few times before, it’s now time to dig a little deeper into the inner workings of one of the most powerful flight-search tools out there.

Avoid Overpaying for Flights
You’ll see Matrix’s range of search options immediately. You can:

  • Book round-trip, one-way, or multi-city routes
  • Pick the destination city (and nearby airports in the same country)
  • Select the best time of day to arrive or depart
  • Pick your cabin class
  • Pick exact dates or flexible dates within a month
  • Select the desired number of stops
  • Select your currency and city of sale (the city from which you are purchasing the ticket)
  • Include number of travelers
  • Allow airport changes
  • Only show flights and prices with available seats (you would uncheck this if you want to compare all fares across all airlines)

How to search for flights with the ITA Matrix

For this example, we’re looking for the cheapest flights in early June. ITA Matrix lets you select nearby airports, and you can also select “See calendar of lowest fares” to find the best option within a month after your departure date.

For everything else, we’re picking the cheapest available cabin class, with no limit on stops. We’re also looking to stay in Bangkok for two weeks.

ITA Matrix’s calendar option gives a very clear view of when the cheapest flights are.

Avoid Overpaying for Flights(You can update the number of nights you’re looking to book from the calendar page as well.)

The cheapest date is from July 1st, for $773, returning on July 16th. This goes beyond the month calendar view—if you need to stay strictly within the June 6–July 5 dates, the cheapest routes start at $813.

Understanding and filtering ITA Matrix results

This is what the search results look like when you select the cheapest option on the calendar.

Avoid Overpaying for Flights
One of the really nice things about ITA Matrix’s search results is the ability to see what other specific airlines are charging for the same route. If you collect points with American Airlines, for example, you might be willing to fork over the extra couple hundred dollars to fly American.

From here, you can filter through these results. It’s pretty straightforward. The price drown-down menu gives you a slider that lets you increase or decrease the price:

Avoid Overpaying for FlightsThese are your other options:

  • Airlines – select your favorite airlines
  • Depart – sort by departure time, such as afternoon or morning
  • Arrive – same as departure time
  • Flight duration – another slider bar to configure your hours of flying
  • From/to – sort by airports
  • Stop – sort by number of stops
  • Advisory – you can add or remove advisories, like “risky connections” or “overnight flights”

When you click on the price of the flight, you’ll get a detailed itinerary. However, it’s important to understand you cannot book through ITA Matrix. You won’t even get referred to another website; instead, you have to keep the flight details handy and book via a travel agent or directly through the airline or another booking service.

Avoid Overpaying for Flights
Avoid Overpaying for FlightsYou can see just how much mileage you get out of this route (shown to the right of the itinerary). You can also click on the links under “Airport Information” to learn more about the airports. Sometimes you’ll even get information about CO2 emissions, and cost per mile.

In the “How to buy this ticket” breakdown, you’ll notice information for “rules” and “Fare Construction.” If you’re booking this flight with a travel agent, they’ll need this information. This is useful especially if you can’t find this deal yourself on other search engines. Let the travel agent work his/her magic.

Let’s go back and search for a flight with more specifics. This time you’re flying from Los Angeles to London and you’re looking to get the best bang for your buck. The dates are more specific, but you want to play around with comfort and customization.

You don’t want an early morning flight, you’re looking for business class or higher, and you want to get there with minimal stops.

Avoid Overpaying for Flights
Note the “Nearby” menu option next to the destinations. With London, you can select a range of airports in the UK and France. This is useful for when you’re looking to just make your way over to Europe.

How to use ITA Matrix’s advanced features and routing codes

Now let’s explore some of ITA Matrix’s advanced features.

You might have noticed in your search results (like from Los Angeles to Bangkok) that you’re automatically taken to the “complete trip” breakdown. The “individual flights” tab lets you pick the best flight per leg of your journey.

Would you rather overnight on the way to Bangkok, but not the way back? You can do that here.

At the beginning of the search page, you might have noticed an option to view “advanced controls” underneath the boxes for departure and destination airports.

Avoid Overpaying for Flights
When you click on “advanced controls” a whole new set of fields show up. And if you click the “?” next to each field, you’re met with some code breakdowns.

Avoid Overpaying for FlightsDon’t be overwhelmed. Once you know the basics, this gets easy (or at least easier).

You can use these codes for:

  • Choosing or avoiding specific airlines or alliances
  • Forcing connections (or avoiding connections) in certain cities
  • Creating a stopover
  • Searching only direct flights on specific carriers
  • Adding more filters (like cabin class)

These codes allow you to search for a very specific flight without having to navigate all the filters in the search results. Spend some time getting to know the syntax and definitions. The “Examples” tab is also particularly useful for wrapping your head around how this works.

Avoid Overpaying for FlightsGoogle Support has a full list of codes. For example, airlines are marked with their two letter codes, and airports are marked with their three letter codes.

You can do things like search for a direct route with a specific carrier (or more than one carrier), search only for connections in a certain city, specify airline alliances, and even set a minimum connection time.

Here’s an easy example. Let’s search from Austin to San Francisco, traveling direct only (as indicated by “N”) and with United Airlines (as indicated by the airline code “UA”).

Avoid Overpaying for FlightsThe results are tailored perfectly.

Avoid Overpaying for FlightsNow let’s try a search with more specific search requirements. This time, we’re going from New York to San Francisco. But:

  • We want to stop over for a few days in Chicago to visit family
  • We want non-stop flights
  • We’d prefer a flight with Oneworld alliance
  • We’d start in the multi-city tab, and select our destinations and dates.

Avoid Overpaying for FlightsAs you can see here, the “N/ alliance oneworld” denotes a non-stop flight with a Oneworld airline.

Here are the results from the first leg.

Avoid Overpaying for FlightsHere is our final result.

Avoid Overpaying for Flights$369.30 for three flights. Not bad at all!

You can really go as far in-depth with this as you want. Once you get a hang of the codes, the sky’s the limit.

Changing currency with the ITA Matrix

Sometimes you can find cheaper fares when you change the currency and location. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to why this is so, but you can play around with it and see what results come up.

Taking our original example of Los Angeles to Bangkok in early June, ITA Matrix defaults to USD and Los Angeles as the sales city.

With that search criteria, and flexible booking for +/- 2 days, the cheapest airfare currently is $812.43.

Avoid Overpaying for FlightsWhen changing the sales city to New York City, there is no difference in cost, but when we change the currency to Thai Baht (THB), the flight is slightly more expensive at $822.

Avoid Overpaying for FlightsThe difference isn’t significant, but it goes to show that playing around with your search options can yield different results.

Booking with ITA Matrix

It is important to understand that you cannot book through ITA Matrix. You can try to find your flights on an OTA (an online travel agency, like Google Flights), book directly through the airline, hire a travel agent, or use a website like BookWithMatrix.com—just remember if you’re not booking with the airline, the OTA’s cancellation policies apply.

How to see extra fees with the ITA Matrix

You won’t be able to see extra fees (like checked baggage or seat selection) until you’re starting the booking process through the OTA or airline’s website.

How to identify basic economy fares with the ITA Matrix

You can, however, identify basic economy fares with ITA Matrix—in a roundabout way. In the example below, you’ll see that your economy ticket is marked with either a (K) or a (S).

Avoid Overpaying for FlightsA quick search for United Airlines’ fare classes show that Economy (S) and Economy (K) means a step above Basic Economy, and you’ll earn 100% of your premier qualifying miles. However, fare classes can vary widely by airline.

Bottom line: The ITA Matrix can be clunky and complicated to use for the average leisure traveler just looking for the best price, but if you have very specific travel needs, it can quickly cut through the clutter to surface the exact flights you need.

Google eventually bought the site and merged the technology onto Google Flights – the best travel tool I have found to date. While ITA Matrix still offers a way to better filter preferences, Google Flights is a bit more user friendly and has a few features that I prefer. I’ll go through Google Flights in detail in a later article.

Avoid Overpaying for Flights, compiled by Tor Kjolberg

Other articles in this series:
Experience More for Less
Long Flights = Long Holidays. Really?


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