In the 20 years since American Airlines launched the industry's first frequent-flier program, travel-related reward programs have spawned more than 67 million "miles-and-points junkies," many of whom earn more free trips outside an airplane or hotel room than in one.
If you're among them, the Web offers an array of resources, from airline sites that post destinations with high award availability to the online equivalent of an airport watering hole. A sampling:
* Colorado-based Randy Petersen has been called "the most influential frequent flier in America," and a tour of his online empire shows why.
The first stop should be WebFlyer, http://www.webflyer.com, a virtual clearinghouse for updates on dozens of frequent-flier, hotel and car rental programs. Among the site's highlights: MileMarker, a handy tool that lets you calculate how many miles you'll earn from one airport to another; a blackout calendar showing restricted travel dates; and InsideFlyer, the online edition of Petersen's popular print magazine.
A recent story, "Top Ten Trends 2001," included good news for infrequent fliers: A few airlines have cut the number of miles needed for an "off-peak" domestic ticket from 25,000 to 20,000 and are offering short-term mileage sales to selected destinations. Petersen predicts that others may add discounted "zone" awards that cost fewer miles than a coast-to-coast version.
Another Petersen site, FlyerTalk, http://www.flyertalk.com, ranks as one of the liveliest bulletin boards on the Web. It's laced with insider tips, musings and rants about everything from the best ways to get bumped from a flight to creative strategies for racking up extra miles and points. The most notorious example of the latter: FlyerTalk's own "Pudding Guy," a Sacramento civil engineer whose $3,140 investment in Healthy Choice chocolate pudding earned him 1.25 million frequent-flier miles, good for $25,000 worth of free flights.
* Smarter Living's stable of savvy consumer travel experts includes Tim Winship, whose Frequent Flier Guide, at http://www.smarterliving.com/frequentflier/, includes a rundown of limited-time airline bonus offers, answers to common questions on how to earn and redeem awards, and monthly columns on such topics as how the dot-com meltdown is affecting Web-based reward programs that dole out miles, points or other incentives for reading ads, filling out surveys and buying online. (The unsurprising answer: Many are in trouble.)
Winship's own site http://www.frequentflier.com, includes more program news and updates.
* About.com's air travel guide Linda Nelson, at http://www.airtravel.about.com, gives passengers plenty of reasons to bookmark her site, including her well-chosen "Frequent Flyers" links. Recent examples include a cautionary MSNBC report on buying and selling miles ('doing either can be loaded with peril and fraud') and a story detailing a little-known American Airlines "challenge" program that lets frequent fliers earn elite status by flying at least 8,000 miles in a three-month period.
* Although most airline Web sites have sections outlining their frequent-flier programs and noting current account balances, members usually need to pick up the phone or post a letter to redeem miles and book a free trip. But Northwest, http://www.nwa.com, and United, http://www.united.com, permit award flights to be booked online.
US Airways, http://www.usairways.com, Delta, http://www.delta.com, and Continental, http://www.continental.com, direct flexible fliers to award destinations that boast ample availability.
Electronic Explorer appears once a month. Laura Bly welcomes comments and questions; her e-mail address is LSBly@aol.com.