Mileage site Milepoint rolls out welcome for newbies

— -- Randy Petersen seems to eat miles and points for breakfast, lunch and dinner. With 135,000 miles flown in the last year, plus lifetime elite status in four major airline loyalty programs, he's also one of the country's top frequent-flier evangelists.

Now, the founder of the leading online frequent-flier forum site, 13-year-old FlyerTalk, has launched a competitor called Milepoint. His goal remains the same: to help legions of travelers get the most out of their favorite loyalty programs — and perhaps gain elite status and beyond.

Compared with FlyerTalk, which Petersen sold to Internet Brands in 2007, 9-month-old Milepoint should hardly be in the conversation. Granddaddy FlyerTalk boasts 17.2 million posts and 370,000 members, while upstart Milepoint (of which Petersen is the majority owner) has slightly fewer than 1 million posts and 39,000 members.

But Milepoint is innovating strategically, technically and socially, which is driving its growth.

Petersen acknowledges that his former baby, FlyerTalk, with its mammoth content, reputation and scale, "is still the hub for frequent fliers online," but he touts Milepoint's alternative approach.

Like FlyerTalk, Milepoint features forums and threads related to airline, alliance, hotel and credit card programs, to name a few. But while FlyerTalk can be intimidating to the uninitiated, Milepoint is doing a much better job of rolling out the welcome mat for "newbies."

Referring to FlyerTalk's admittedly "strong and rabid format," Brent Conver, director of travel and leisure at parent company Internet Brands, concedes that FlyerTalk "is difficult to consume, I think it is fair to say, for the general users."

If you're just getting started in the loyalty game or are a less-than-frequent flier, the lingo can seem foreign and the strategies, baffling.

"First time MR help: MR (AS, AA or DL) from SEA," reads the acronym-laden headline of a Milepoint post from a traveler who wants to embark on a mileage run (where you fly merely to accumulate points with no concern about the destination) on Alaska Airlines, American Airlines or Delta Air Lines from Washington's Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

To help new users understand the baffling acronyms, Milepoint offers a sleek, dynamic glossary. It doesn't require you to navigate elsewhere on the site to look up definitions. Instead, you highlight or double-click the acronym, and at the top right of the page, a box appears explaining that YYZ stands for Toronto Pearson International Airport and SWU for System Wide Upgrade.

In a similar vein, Milepoint has Newbie Guides on "Picking a Frequent-Flyer Program," with basic rules, and "Award Booking without Elite Status," although some are more cogent and helpful than others.

Milepoint has other advantages:

• Milepoint was able to start with a newer technology platform, while FlyerTalk, with its millions of users and gigantic archive, is less nimble and has to retool to make changes.

• Milepoint is easier to search and often displays newer threads than FlyerTalk, which sometimes answers queries with threads from 2007.

• While FlyerTalk enables you to subscribe to a thread and receive e-mail notifications instantly, daily or weekly when someone replies to the thread, Milepoint, which also has e-mail notifications, goes a step further. It optionally displays a red flag above "Alerts" on the top right of the page when someone updates the discussion.

• With its massive community, FlyerTalk defined "social media" before anyone knew the term. But Milepoint has become a bit more social, installing a "like" button. This enables users to highlight useful posts and Milepoint to show the most relevant content as judged by the crowd.

Conver of FlyerTalk says the site is working on its search features and trying to figure out how to "elevate great content and make it more consumable for general travelers." The site also has designated some forum participants as "ambassadors" and redesigned its blog, The Gate, all to be more helpful to newcomers, but the effort has a way to go.

With airlines consolidating, joining international alliances and revamping rewards programs, both sites provide great value to an engaged community of travelers looking to cash in on award-mile flights, first-class upgrades and other benefits.

If you already are immersed in frequent-flier culture and are looking for a deep historical perspective, FlyerTalk is your best bet.

But if terms such as "consolidated mileage managers," "double dip" and "fare basis" make your eyes glaze over and you're a fan of newer tech features, Milepoint has more than a thread of a chance of being your go-to site.

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