NOTE: Also see Yokai's guide to Trade Computer Extension (TCE) by Eventure for a truly fantastic trade tool that is immersive and fits the "spirit of the game". A lot of that guide elaborates on how to actually apply the principles and processes summarized in this guide.
This guide explains how to use in-game tools and techniques for finding great trade routes and being able to recognize a good/great trade route when you stumble on one. The principles in this guide can be equally applied to using 3rd party crowdsourced trading tools.
Rule 1: A trade route that delivers roughly ~12,000 cr/ton/hour or better should be your goal. At first you will have trouble reaching this number, but later you'll probably change your goal to more like ~14,000 cr/ton/hour. Anything in excess of 16,000 cr/ton/hour is _very_ rare, _very_ hard to find, and often pretty ephemeral. When you're first starting out, you don't want to settle for anything less than ~8,000 cr/ton/hour, and you should drive yourself to look for at least ~10,000 cr/ton/hour.
Rule 2: Until you're ready to buy a T6 or an Asp, you can beat or match the above targets by finding a good "rare items" trading route. There are plenty of other threads and guides on these. When you're ready to buy a T6 or Asp, come back here, because this is when regular commodity trading (per this guide) starts to exceed the return you can get from rares trading.
Rule 3: Better flying skills can mean a ~2000 to ~4000 cr/ton/hour difference over worse flying skills, so a route that you are getting only 10,000 cr/ton/hour out of might be improved to 14,000 cr/ton/hour simply by getting much more efficient at launching, cruising at the fastest possible approach speed, and docking with a station.
Rule 4: As the "cr/ton/hour" metric in the above three rules implies, you CANNOT evaluate any two trade routes or decide "is this a good route?" without factoring in the TIME element. A route that gives you 1700 unit profit in one direction and 1100 in the other direction might actually be FAR less profit per hour than a route that gives you 1300 unit profit in one direction and 1200 in the other direction. In fact, nearly all of the best routes available (in the 14,000 to 16,000 cr/ton/hour range) feature commodities that trade in the 1200-1400 unit profit range. Station to station flying time is often far more important than actual unit profit.
Rule 5: More cargo space is always better, and usually comes with faster flight times too. A Cobra is simply better than a Hauler. An Asp is simply better than a T6. An Imperial Clipper is simply better than a T7. A Python is simply better than a Clipper. The only place this pattern breaks down a _little_ bit is in the T9 versus Anaconda range, because the Anaconda flies faster even though it has slightly less cargo capacity than the T9.
Rule 6: Luxury trade routes can often approach or exceed the best commodity trade routes, but they are ephemeral and many are in fact _not_ better than standard commodity trading. It always boils down to cr/ton/hour. This guide will also explain the tactics for finding luxury routes.
Rule 7: It's much easier/faster to find good 2-station routes (out and back) within only 1 or two jumps (roughly ~25 Ly apart or less) than it is to find good 3-station routes (triangle), which often span distances more like 40+ Ly. Unless you are _extremely_ lucky, you'll find 3-station routes only with the help of 3rd party crowdsourced tools, and even then it can be quite a bit of work for not that much more gain over the much more plentiful and easy-to-find 2-station routes.
Rule 8: Most of the better routes that meet or exceed the ~12,000 cr/ton/hour feature stations on each end that are no more than 2,000 Ls away from the nav beacon. When investigating possible "exported to" stations to go sell at, earn to click on the _planet_ that a station is connected to in the System map. The SEMI MAJOR AXIS of the planet is a good rough guide to how many Ls the station is located from the nav beacon. Roughly speaking, any value of 3AU or less will be a planet that is ~2000 Ls at most from the nav beacon.
Rule 9: Most commodities are junk. Noise. The _only_ commodities that good trade routes revolve around are the expensive ones that cost ~5000 or more per unit. Don't even bother looking at any other commodities.
Rule 10: Most of the commodities worth trading are also associated with High Tech, Industrial, and Refinery economies. There are a few commodities from other economies that can sometimes be just as good, but these are hard to indentify without using 3rd-party crowdsourced tools that crunch the numbers for you. If you are using only in-game mechanisims, you should filter your Galaxy map to display ONLY High Tech, Refinery, and Industrial Systems.
Rule 11: A large _supply_ quanity is critical. Don't even bother building a trade route where one commodity shows less than 70,000 supply at the station that sells it. Why? Because the price you can buy it for will be unstable and might rise very fast if other players find the same station. Or you might run down the supply far enough to change the price all by yourself in just a few runs. To speed up the process of finding stations with such large supply quantities, you should filter your Galaxy map to show ONLY systems with a large population. Set SHOW BY SIZE to "POPULATION", and set the MIN slider to about the 66-75% mark. Leave the MAX slider at the 100% mark. Now your Galaxy map is displaying ONLY large population systems centered around High Tech, Industrial, and Refinery economies. You will find the good/great/amazing trade routes only among this relatively small pool of candidates, because only large, very large, and huge stations are likely to have good commodities in supply quantities of 50,000 or more.
Rule 12: Generally, you should ignore the HIGH, MEDIUM, and LOW labels next to the supply and demand quantities. All these labels indicate is a small variance in price for the size of the population and the actual quantity amount. For example, if two "large" populations have the same 30,000 units of a given commodity, and one of them lists the supply as 30,000 HIGH and the other one lists the supply for that same commodity as 30,000 MEDIUM, they will be roughly the same price but the one marked HIGH will be slightly cheaper to buy. By contrast, however, if you find a "huge" population with 240,000 MEDIUM for that same commodity, chances are it will be much cheaper than the "huge" population with 30,000 HIGH is selling it for. The bottom line is that the number matters far more than the label HIGH, MEDIUM, or LOW. Rule 12 is why some tools such as Slopey's don't even bother tracking or displaying the HIGH, MEDIUM, and LOW labels. They're essentially useless noise.
Rule 13: Observed price fluctuations and the notion of a "background economy simulation" might seem arbitrary, but they're not. There is a logical pattern, described in this post from another thread.
THE STEP BY STEP PROCESS USING ONLY IN-GAME TOOLS
1. Set your Galaxy Map filters as described in Rules 10 and 11 above.
2. Find the nearest colored system to your current location and look at the System Map BEFORE flying out there.
2a. Click each station/outpost in the System map and discard anything that isn't listed as "Wealthy, Very Large Population" PLUS is a Refinery, High Tech, or Industrial economy.
2b. For the candidate stations/outposts that remain, click the PLANET they're attached to and look at the SEMI MAJOR AXIS of the planet. If it is larger than 3AU, discard that station.
2c. For the _outposts_ that still remain after the preceding steps, double-check that they list "COMMODITIES" in the FACILITIES list. If not, discard that outpost.
3. If step 2 yielded any stations/outposts that passed all three criteria, you have a GOOD CANDIDATE for one end of a trade route. Now, you must fly to that system and take a look in each candidate station/outpost.
4. For each candidate station/outpost, look at the commodities and scan the SUPPLY column for large numbers of 50,000 or more. For each commodity with supply >50,000 you should next ignore everything that costs less than ~5000 in the BUY column. Only those commodities that cost more than ~5000 each AND which also have a supply quantity of 50,000 or more should be considered a candidate for continuing this process. If no candidates appear, stop now and check the next station.
5. For each candidate commodity that you find in step 4, look at the summary data in the top right box and specifically at the systems in the EXPORTED TO list. These systems will typically be within a 1-2 jump range (at FASTEST path routing).
6. For each candidate commodity and its respective EXPORTED TO system, repeat step 2.
6a. If the EXPORTED TO system is not visible on your galaxy map (no colored dot, hence not a large population High Tech, Refinery, or Industrial station, discard that candidate.
IMPPORTANT: if you're using a 3rd party crowdsourced tool you can ignore this particular criteria: for example, some times an Agricultural system will have a Refinery station in it, and that Refinery station might be a perfectly great place to sell the commodity at a high profit AND ALSO have a good commodity for selling back in the other direction. However, the in-game tools cannot show you this information so it's simply more expedient to move on to other candidates.
6b. If the EXPORTED TO system passes all three criteria in step 2, you have a REALLY STRONG CANDIDATE for the other end of a good/great trade route.
7. Take a full load of the candidate commodity and fly to one of the candidate systems from step 6. Fly a candidate station/outpost in that system. Sell some units of your cargo and check the unit profit. If there are _other_ candidate stations/outputs in that same system, save some units to sell to them as well. If you don't earn AT LEAST 1100 unit profit, then cross that station/outpost off your candidate list.
8. If you don't pass step 7 with at least one sale worth 1100 unit profit or more, start at step 1 and investigate a different starting point. If you DO pass step 7, then repeat steps 4-6 to see if any candidate commodity points back at the system you just came from. If so, you probably have a good or great trade route staring you in the face. Buy up that candidate commodity and head back to the station you came from and sell it off. If you earn AT LEAST 1100 unit profit on the return trip, you might be sitting on a good/great trade route.
9. Now look at how long it takes to do the round trip between these two stations. If you followed all the rules in the BASICS section, you should be looking at a 15-minute round trip or faster. Run it a few times with a stopwatch and focus on efficient launching/cruising/docking techniques. Once you have a reasonably accurate "average round trip" time:
9a. Divide 60 by that value. For example, an 11.5 minute round trip = (60 / 11.5) = 5.22 trips per hour.
9b. Total up the unit profit for both directions. For example, 1307 in one direction plus 1239 in the other = 2546 unit profit per trip.
9c. Multiply the two preceding values: (5.22 * 2546) = 13,290 cr/ton/hour.
9d. Compare the result from 9c against Rule 1 in the BASICS section. Decide whether to look for better or stay put and milk it.
TIPS FOR REDUCING YOUR FLIGHT TIME
Per Rule 3 in the BASICS section, improving your flight efficiency can significantly improve the cr/ton/hour you're able to generate from any one trade route. Here are the main tips:
1. Learn to multi-task. Click Launch and while the game animated your pad lifting, dial in your destination system and lock it. Retract your landing gear at the same time you're thrusting up off the pad. Don't bother using the Galaxy map to dial in your destination system (it takes too long); just flip to the first star out in your route using the Navigation panel. When you hit that first star, use the Nav panel again to lock in your next system while you're pitching up to avoid hitting the star. Stuff like that.
2. Learn to optimize your Supercruise approach to each station. There are advanced spiral in techniques and whatnot, but the two simplest things that ANYONE can learn to master are:
2a. Don't fly straight at the target. Fly _under_ (or _above_, lol) the ecliptic plane, so that you approach the planet and the station's orbital path from "above" or below at a perpendicular vector. In other words, use a parabolic approach and come in from the north or south pole of the planet.
2b. Use max throttle in SC until your time horizon indicator hits exactly 0:10. Then immediatly drop your throttle indicator to the exact middle of the blue zone. Once you learn to nail this, you'll see your speed reliably drop from a 0:10 horizon to a 0:06 horizon in short order, without you needing to nurse the throttle in any way. A 0:06 horizon is the fastest speed you can approach when outside a 0.10 Ls range (otherwise you'll overshoot).
2c. When the range drops into the 30Mm distance, you can safely nudge the throttle forward quite a bit again and drop the horizon as low as 0:02 or even 0:01. Just be ready to drop out of SC the moment you hit <1Mm range, or you can still overshoot.
3. Practice boosting into the station and contacting for docking privileges at the same time, and using your landing gear and thrusters as dual air-brakes as you get near the letterbox (or exterior pad). Practice blowing in through the letterbox at >100 Ms. Practice slipping alongside and past other ships in the slot. And practice always having your landing gear deployed _before_ you hit the slot (it makes fine control easier as you shoot through the slot).
4. Fuel scooping wastes precious time. So does "Economical" routing in the Galaxy Map. If you have a good/great cr/ton/hour cash flow, you'll ultimately make money far faster by always using the "Fastest" path and just paying for your fuel outright. Yes, even in a gas-guzzling Python.
SO ABOUT THEM LUXURY ROUTES...
Even the "not so good" luxury routes typically have cash flow rates exceeding ~10,000 cr/ton/hour, and they are relatively easy to find and identify with a little filtering and sleuthing through the Galaxy and System maps. The better ones can easily hit the ~14,000 to ~16,000 cr/ton/hour range, and with really excellent flying techniques (and arguably exploitative launch techniques), they can even approach ~32,000 cr/ton/hour.
That's awesome, right? Well, there are downsides:
A. They tend to be ephemeral. Boom states don't last forever.
B. They tend to be highly volatile (when supply AI isn't bugged) and just a handful of other traders discovering it can reduce supply quickly and knock down the actual cr/ton/hour by QUITE a lot in VERY short order.
C. They count as "smuggling" and therefore do not contribute to _any_ reputation gain for the minor faction that controls the station (or the major faction they're allied with).
That said, here's the deal for finding them. They're nice "easter eggs" while they last.
1. Filter your galaxy map to show ONLY High Tech systems with large populations, similar to the process outlined in preceding sections. Only High Tech.
2. Now examine the system map for _every_ nearby large-pop High Tech system. Click on each one and look in the INFO box for the system as a whole. TIP: drag the entire map to the left a bit to force the INFO box to populate the faction details. Yeah, it's an annoying bug.
3. Look at the STATE value for _every_ faction listed in the INFO box. If one says BOOM, you have a candidate for a luxury route. If the "controlling" faction (the one at the top of the list) says BOOM, then you almost assuredly will find luxury traders in that system.
4. Click each station in shown in the System map until you find the one(s) that are controlled by the BOOM faction. Make sure they are a HIGH TECH economy station. The ones that are BOOM _and_ HIGH TECH are your candidates for a good lux route.
5. Now fly out and approach the candidate stations from step 4. As you get close, look for "Seeking Luxuries" locations in the Nav Panel. If you don't see any as you get _really_ close to the station, drop your speed and repeat from step 1. This candidate is a dud.
IMPORTANT: Many "Seeking luxuries" instances are HIDDEN until you get close to the station that is in Boom. You can't tell just from dropping in at the nav beacon and looking at your Nav panel.
6. If you see a "Seeking Luxuries" near the candidate station, check that they are within ~30Ls or less of the station. Ideally the best ones are listed in distances of only 5 Mm to 25 Mm of the candidate station. What you're looking for is a round trip of no more than 6 minutes from the nearby station that sells Performance Enhancers. Anything farther than 30 Ls from the station will take more than 6 minutes.
7. If you get past step 6, land at the candidate station and look at the price and supply of PERFORMANCE ENHANCERS. You want a HIGH supply, with a price near 6100 cr per unit. Up to a MAXIMUM prioce of ~6375 cr per unit. Any more expensive than that, or not in HIGH supply, and your unit profit will be less than 1100 to 1300, or the supply will drop too fast (cutting the unit profit even more) as other traders find the spot too.
Examples: Assuming a 5 minute round trip time:
* A price of 6375 will yield 14,040 cr/ton/hour, which is excellent.
* A price of 6205 will yield 16,080 cr/ton/hour, which is a gold mine ala the famous "Tenche" and "Beta Scorpulii" runs from January 2015.
7. DON'T TELL ANYONE ABOUT IT. lol.
OTHER TIPS FROM OTHER COMMANDERS