I have another interview coming soon and no time for writing new posts. This blog has grown tremendously since I started writing in January, so I thought I’d share a few of my earliest and most popular posts this week. I’ve also gone through and edited them for clarity in some cases. But this is the kind of stuff I wanted to write when I started, and I want to keep writing it once I have more time again. Hopefully you’ll agree.
Nearly every search I do starts with using Fare Matrix by 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. I hope that this three-part walkthrough will be thorough enough to help anyone learn to use this great tool. But if it’s still overwhelming or if you just think it’s more than you need, then I usually recommend Hipmunk, which I’ve reviewed in two previous posts here and here.
Even if you’re already familiar with ITA, I’ll also be describing some of its advanced route language in later posts this week.
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. I prefer to access the ITA website using this link, which includes a special feature that calculates the price per mile (PPM) of every flight. 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.
The Home Page
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.”
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.
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.
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. (You can click on “Stops” and de-select some cities, but that will only get you so far.) Fares for most options were very close together, and 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?
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, just like with the complete itineraries we saw above. 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. In other words, you may get a perfect outbound flight at a great price, but to keep that price you need to pick a really bad return–all the other return flights could cost a little more or even several hundred dollars more. The fares aren’t any different than you get by searching “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.
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.
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. [Obviously with the merger now complete since I first wrote this, Continental flights don't exist anymore. But the logic remains the same.]
Let’s use time bars. I almost always fly United, so I’ll choose a morning flight, UA916, as my outbound, for a fare as low as $509. Remember, it can go up depending on my return option, but there is at least one return option that will let me get a total roundtrip fare of $509 if I select this outbound flight.
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.
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. I’ll talk more about how to force detours in certain cities later this week, which can be useful for finding mileage runs.
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, in particular the part just after the price that reads “VE213QN” describes the published fares and its associated rules. More about that later this week. [Totally embarrassing that the volume icon is in this screenshot...]
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. 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.
However, ITA is throwing up more bugs lately since they were acquired by Google. Sometimes you’ll get some strange results, like a list of flights with connections even though you know non-stops exist. In this case, just be a little more specific with your search query. ITA does time out after searching for a little while and could give incomplete results if you are overly broad. I’ll discuss these advanced features tomorrow. They are 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.