When people ask where to search for airfares I usually just tell them to check out Kayak.com. It’s not where I search for flights and fares, but it offers reasonably powerful functionality and a pretty easy-to-use interface.
My first stop has long been ITA Software. Specifically, Matrix1.itasoftware.com, I know that the ITA Software folks don’t like that but the ‘old school’ interface is much more to my liking. They’re not going to support it forever, and the newer one has gotten better to work with over time, but the simply entry format and cleaner page just works well for me.
ITA Software is a software company, recently acquired by Google, which provides back-end functionality to several airfare booking engines. But on their website they offer more functionality than the public booking websites offer, no doubt because those websites are aimed at the traveling public as a whole and the ITA Software website is a beta test engine and is used as a demonstration tool inside the industry.
The sort of thing that ITA lets you do on their website is specify what city you want a connection in, or specify a specific flight that an itinerary must include, or the specific airlines to search — either for a specific segment or an entire itinerary. And you can include combinations of airlines in a search.
That’s hugely powerful for finding best fares, for constructing mileage runs, for coming up with best available flight options given specific travel constraints.
Unfortunately, ITA Software doesn’t sell airline tickets, they just power others who do. So when you find your itinerary you have to take it and reconstruct it on another website, such as Orbitz or Expedia or the airline site (usually using multi-city search). And depending on the website you’re using it may not be as ‘smart’ as ITA so it can be a pain to construct the itinerary with the exact same flights, and it can be a challenge to get the booking engine to price it the same way.
So along comes Hipmunk which I initially took to be a Kayak-wannabe, a site that’ll search airfares and let you slide things around with a nifty user interface to find the best flights. Basically an entry-level friendly tool for newbies, not a tool for experts.
Turns out, it seems to be both: on Tuesday evening they announced some very cool new tools on Milepoint, the ability to do much of what ITA Software offers in terms of control over searches (specific airlines, specific flights, specific connecting cities) and then taking it to the next level by actually letting you book the flights that you find. Very cool.
Hipmunk has just released a feature that lets you use a basic, ITA-like route language to search for flights. Unlike ITA’s Matrix, we also give you a way to book your flights! Just type two colons after your departure city, and then you can specify route airlines or cities.
A few examples:
- Want to do a mileage run on United-marketed flights from San Francisco to Toronto, forcing 2 connections? Type SFO::UA UA UA into the “from” field, and YYZ into the “to” field. Here are the United-only flight results.
- Want to fly round-trip from New York to Jakarta, forcing a connection in either Hong Kong or Tokyo in both directions? Just type NYC::TYO,HKG in the “from” field, and CGK::TYO,HKG in the “to” field. Here are the results for connections in Hong Kong and Tokyo.
- Know your exact flight numbers? Finally, you can specify your precise desired routing! Here’s a specific route’s results from San Diego to Boston (SAN::AS575 AS2563 AS349 AS24 to BOS).
I like that in the examples they give, there are specific fixed URLs which initiate searches based on specific parameters as well.
Now, Hipmunk doesn’t mirror all of ITA’s functionality. For instance, ITA Software will allow you to specify a particular fare basis code and then it will search for itineraries which match that fare.
But it’s great progress — one of the fears with the ITA Software acquisition by Google is that some of the great functionality that the site offered would go away, the business model would change and their interest in making available their internal tools to the really engaged frequent flyer community would dissipate. I don’t see why this would necessarily be true, but it was certainly a fear that many people had. The interesting thing here of course is that ITA doesn’t inherently have a monopoly on that kind of functionality. Hipmunk is proving that out. They apparently perceive a market opportunity, so in the end it may not matter much what sorts of decisions Google makes for the new company.
Now, so far I actually see good signs out of ITA Software and they haven’t been ‘changed’ by the acquisition, ITA Software was a sponsor of the recent Chicago frequent flyer seminar and I had a chance to chat with one of their executives between sessions. Their presence in Chicago certainly underscored a desire to remain engaged with the more expert community.
I love it when competition heats up, and I’m really pleased to see the direction that Hipmunk is moving, hopefully they continue to innovate along this dimension.