We have featured the ITA Matrix numerous times – it is a great free tool to find cheap flights (that not too long ago was only available to travel agents).
ITA Matrix is still our tool of choice to find dates for EXISTING airfare deals. The strength of ITA Matrix is to search a certain route (and nearby airports) over a 30-day time frame. The results are almost always directly bookable at Expedia or Orbitz (but need to be pulled up separately).
However, ITA Matrix has a number of shortcomings:
– searches take a long time
– it's time-consuming to search many routes
– search often fails (times out)
– if you search for a large radius (e.g. several thousand miles) the search does not find all results (only a subset and there is no way to tell which combinations have been searched)
– discount and low-cost airlines DO NOT appear in search results
So what are the alternatives to ITA Matrix? Enter our favorite tools to find cheap flights:
Kayak Explore is your blogger's favorite tool for finding cheap flights. Kayak uses the search archive of Kayak.com users to show you the lowest price for a route.
Danger – some technical background
Understand that the airfare search business is 'special' – you can't just run thousands of searches triggered by robots. This works in many other areas of search, but for flight search the search providers pay for each search. While it is cheap enough, Kayak only makes money when you click on on a result and go to an advertiser page (e.g. Orbitz). Kayak earns between 50 cents to a dollar per click. The ratio of searches and clicks needs to be constant for Kayak (or others) to make money – running robot searches kills that ratio. This is not unique to Kayak – every search engine and OTA has the same problem.
But Kayak.com produces a ton of data every day, triggered by user searches, and they make this data available (with minimal lag) to us via Kayak Explore.
It is very easy to use and allows you to see all the airports that are cheap right now. Bookmark it for your home airport(s) and look at it every day.
Pros of Kayak Explore:
– lowest prices ever found are easily accessible
– low-cost airlines (often via wegolo.com) ARE included
– direct booking link – so you won't have to input the results manually like with ITA Matrix
Cons of Kayak Explore:
– search interface can be slow and is not accessible via mobile devices/tablets
Orbitz does something similar to Kayak Explore, but the presentation is not as easy to use or understand.
You will need to find and bookmark the respective page manually. You can easily do that by googling for 'orbitz.com san francisco'
The results should contain the word 'from' or 'to' in the URL.
In my example, the flights to Los Cabos and Las Vegas seem really cheap (all prices listed are round trips incl. taxes and fees).
Orbitz suggests dates (which you should not change) and then you should click on search. Unless the fare has expired already, it should come up in a live search with the same price.
Orbitz has a much longer lag – the time between the original search and when it shows up can be much longer.
However, I still suggest that you bookmark the page with your home airport(s).
Pros of Orbitz (historic fares):
– fast interface that works on all devices
– direct booking link into Orbitz
Cons of Orbitz (historic fares):
– data is often too old to be useful
– no low-cost airlines covered
Google Flights is built on top of ITA Matrix (which the company owns). Recently the company has added a map that looks much like Kayak Explore. It shows the price per airport based on historic searches.
However, it is based on your pre-selected departure date – you can't directly search for the lowest price irrespective of dates (e.g. for the next 12 months). This can be great if you have a weekend getaway in mind and know your dates but do not know your destination yet.
The kind of fares we feature here are usually date sensitive.
Pros of Google Flights:
– if your dates are fixed, this is the best low fare map
– direct booking link for your result
Cons of Google Flights:
– search interface needs a powerful computer to work fast, otherwise it's very slow
– no low-cost airlines covered
What is your favorite way to find low fares?
Picture courtesy of chinasmack.com