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For frequent fliers, a Web of useful resources

September 07, 2003|James Gilden | Special to The Times

Perhaps you just need to check your frequent-flier mileage balance online to see whether you have enough for that trip to Florida. Or maybe you're looking for a "mileage run," an inexpensive flight to log miles before the end of the year so you'll qualify for the next level of premium status.

Whatever your status or needs, you'll find plenty of Internet resources to help you. You can perform such mundane tasks as viewing your statement and booking an award flight on an airline's Web site, or you can take it a step further and visit sites that include forums on which members discuss the minutiae of strategies for maximizing frequent-flier mile value.

For the basics, the major airlines' Web sites have at least some frequent-flier functions. Many allow you to check your mileage balance, book awards and see program rules and award requirements.

But booking an award flight online can at times be exasperating. On some airline sites, you are limited to selecting a specific date for travel and searching for award ticket availability. The better ones allow a search over a range of dates and times.

United Airlines' Web site, where I often book award travel, falls in the cumbersome category. I know it's important to be flexible when searching for an award ticket, but United's site forces you to go back and forth between screens, revising your search for every date you might be willing to fly. It can be frustrating if every combination of dates provides the same "nothing available" message.

By contrast, American Airlines' site allows you to choose a range of dates four days beyond the date you select, an innovation that should pay off just in a reduction in phone calls.

US Airways has a helpful award travel suggestions page (click "Dividend Miles" on the home page) that forecasts seat availability. Destinations likely to have seats available are listed a month or more in advance; the best days for award flights are noted.

US Airways also allows you to book an award ticket online up to six hours before departure and does not charge last-minute ticketing fees.

Frequent-flier experts say increasing numbers of award tickets are held back until 20 days before departure, and some airlines classify these as "last-minute fares," which means they charge a late booking fee -- as much as $75. US Airways, however, waives the fee if you book online.

For more sophisticated frequent-flier advice, several sites offer practical tips and hints. You can get advice on how to fly the most miles (not the fewest) from point A to point B and on the latest promotions for earning miles.

Among the useful sites:

* is the online version of Randy Petersen's monthly Inside Flyer magazine. It's accessible when you subscribe to the magazine, or you can pay $12 a year for an online subscription. August topics included secrets to making your miles last into retirement, an inside look at Aloha Airlines' AlohaPass and a mileage makeover for "Paul," who earns 15,000 points a month and is trying to figure out how to maximize his miles for a trip to Hawaii.

*, also run by Petersen, has information on airline and hotel programs, as well as bonus promotions and deals.

There is some duplication of content with "Paul" gets the very same makeover on as he does on, but Web is free. On a pull-down menu is a link to that allows you, for $14.95 a year, to track all your frequent-flier programs on one monthly consolidated statement.

*, also part of Petersen's frequent-flier empire, is a free online community of enthusiasts on which you can post questions and tips. Recent postings on the FlyerTalk Miles forum included such topics as the best use of American Express membership miles, paying the mortgage while earning miles, and ideas on whether US Airways or United has the better frequent-flier program. Postings often receive multiple responses the same day in this very active community.

* also has good frequent-flier information. Its team of editors scours the Internet for deals, some getting to work as early as 4 a.m. Wednesdays, the day the airlines release their deeply discounted fares. The layout and access are easy to navigate. In the "related deals" section, for instance, I found a US Airways offer to the Caribbean for 50,000 miles (versus 60,000 regularly) in first class, 25,000 (versus 30,000) in coach.

The site also sends free weekly e-mail newsletters that contain travel bargains and frequent-flier deals.

* is run by former travel marketing executive Tim Winship, who spent 20 years developing and managing frequent-traveler programs for airlines and hotels. His Web site offers a perspective different from some of the other sites' because Winship tends to be pessimistic about the state of frequent-flier programs. This free site offers tips, a weekly newsletter and a fairly active forum, though I found the split-screen layout of the forum page confusing to navigate.

On the Web

Sites used in researching and writing this column:

The Internet Traveler appears twice a month. James Gilden can be contacted through his Web site,

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