Tools of the Trade

When I fly internationally, I almost always use my miles to get from Point A to Point Z. But when flying domestically, it usually makes the most sense to pay for a regular ticket. But just because you’re paying for a ticket doesn’t mean you have to pay a lot, it just means you have to have the right tools in your pocket to get the most bang for your buck.

There are three tools I use often to find the best deals. They’re free, and all fairly easy to use.


The biggest key to finding less-expensive airfare when travelling is being flexible. No matter which airline, which route or which locations, the key to finding the lowest cost trips is to have the ability to depart or return on days that are different than what you’re looking for, especially if you’re traveling on or near a holiday.

But almost more importantly than being flexible with your dates is being flexible with your destination. If you’re set on going to a specific place, this isn’t always an option – but if you’re simply dead-set on going on a trip somewhere, you can often find a better deal (or simply just a ticket period) by being open to going to different places.

About a year ago, I wanted to travel for a week, somewhat at the last minute. I considered a range of options as my end destination, but nothing was showing. Then, just two days before my planned trip, I found availability on British Airways to Amsterdam. I wasn’t originally planning on going there, but when the opportunity arose, I took the chance that it might be a neat place to visit – and I’m glad I did!

In the above example, I used my miles and wasn’t looking for a normal fare ticket – but it doesn’t matter. If you have an idea that want to go to Chicago for a weekend in the next month – and no matter where you look, fares are prohibitively expensive – try a different city! You may end up saving a boatload of money and still having a blast. Besides, Chicago will always be there.

Then again, sometimes you really do have to be at, for example, a wedding during the first weekend of September in New York. Maybe with the exception of a day or two on either side of the trip, you don’t have a lot of choices. That’s where the real tools come in handy.

The ‘Real’ Tools

For the fastest, easiest way to find a decent price for a ticket, there’s no doubt about it: is the most efficient way to find a flight, filter out the ones you don’t want, and then buy the ticket right then and there. It’s great for beginners – and even for the more experienced traveler – because it’s got a great load of features without being too overcomplicated.

fare_watcherWant to see which weekend this month might offer the cheapest airfare to San Francisco? Done. Want to set an email alert to tell you if prices go up or down, or if leaving on this Thursday might be better than leaving on this Friday? Check.

Kayak also provides information about whether or not now is a good time to buy the tickets you’re looking at based on historical number-crunching they’ve done. I can’t say I’ve paid too much attention to this feature, but they claim to be able to determine whether or not a fare may rise or fall, which could provide some cost savings for you when deciding if you’re going to book that flight to Cleveland.

Along those same lines, Kayak has a wealth of knowledge about cheapest months to fly, the best value by destination, and places that have rising airfares – simply based on the searches that you perform within the tool. This is called “big data”, and while it can be a little creepy, number-crunching really can result in some great info.


ITA Software Matrix

Matrix is a very powerful tool, and especially useful for doing a little more heavy-duty work. It’s especially powerful when building multiple connections in different places and exploring different options. While something like Kayak easily presents a lot of that information and does a lot of route-building for you, it’s sometimes easier to use ITA’s Matrix tool when you know you want to stop or layover in a certain place, or if you want to see all the options quickly and concisely.

ITA Software Matrix is also a little more no-frills, and that’s something I personally prefer over the slightly heavier Kayak interface.


The simpler, cleaner ITA Matrix interface


While you can’t book flights directly from the app, you can make note of them and either contact the airline directly (web, phone, etc.) or use something like Expedia or American Express Travel (earning American Express Cardmembers 2x the points) to actually book it.

Will those sites have the same flights you just found? It’s possible that another site may not have the exact flights you’re looking for – but since ITA Software Matrix’s software is actually used by many of the carriers and by many of the booking sites like Expedia and Orbitz, it’s highly likely you won’t have difficulty.

Matrix also provides a great graphical representation of the flight times, durations, and layovers it finds in a way that sometimes can be a bit easier to understand when presented with a myriad of options.


Matrix can automatically calculate your CPM value.


Google, the ultimate owners of much in the world – including ITA Software Matrix – also have a great, somewhat hidden feature that you can enable a feature to show the price per mile. For instance, if a round-trip flight to San Francisco from San Diego was $408, and it’s published that you’ll earn 893 miles, it will calculate that each earned mile will cost you 4.57¢ – certainly not the greatest value (this doesn’t take into account other things, like bonuses applied by an airline when you’re an elite flier).

This key feature is a huge time-saver when trying to figure out how much you’ll earn on a standard, revenue ticket. I’ll cover more about calculating the cost of using miles versus the cost of using money.

To see mileage and price per mile when hovering over the price in the search results begin your search on this page: To turn off the hover-over view feature, enter the following web address in the browser bar:

And for those who are environmentally conscious, the tool will also estimate the amount of CO2 emissions emitted as a result of your trip. Feel free to offset that.


ITA Matrix estimates your carbon footprint.

In Summary

Patience, determination, and using the right tools are all key elements in finding cheap airfare when you are forced to pay. There are often great deals to be had, even if you have to pay for airfare. You can’t always fly to Europe for $100 every time, but you can always avoid paying more than you need to.