Travel Troubleshooter: A $150 fee to redeposit my miles?

Question: I booked a round-trip frequent-flier ticket (25,000 miles) on American Airlines last year for a trip from Chicago to San Antonio when I learned that my Army son was going to be promoted to major in San Antonio on Labor Day weekend. As is common in the Army, he was sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., a few months later, so he had his promotion ceremony in Illinois, not Texas.

I called American to see whether I could get my miles back and was told that it would cost me $150 to do so. I was wondering whether you thought there was any chance for me to get the miles back at no cost, or for a reduced cost, since it was only because of the military's change to my son's orders that I did not complete the trip as planned.

I've been a military mom and mom-in-law to four active-duty members over the last decade, and six tours of duty were performed by Air Force and Army family members in Iraq and Afghanistan during that time. I know they did all the work, but I spent a great deal of time supporting them in various ways while they were deployed. As I mentioned, the only reason the trip needed to be canceled to that destination is due to the Army changing my son's orders.

- Diane Downs, Grayslake, Ill.
Answer: Thank you for your son's service. While it's true that airlines relax their change rules for members of the military, that privilege doesn't necessarily transfer to their family members. And when it comes to frequent-flier miles, the rules are a little different. Airlines like American waive these redeposit fees, but only for their top-tier elites. If you don't have the status, they will make you pay.

The $150 is hard to justify. Does it cost the airline $150 to put the miles back into your account? No. It's a simple, quick electronic transfer. Are your 25,000 miles even worth $150? Maybe, maybe not. You might have been able to pay less for an economy-class ticket from San Antonio to Chicago.

But American is well within its rights to impose this punitive fee. In fact, if you read your program agreement closely, you'll find that those 25,000 miles don't even belong to you. They're the airline's property, and it can remove them from your account at any time and for any reason.

Still, having the right to do something doesn't make it right. I mean, a military mom trying to support her son - that must count for something. What's more, you showed your loyalty to American by collecting those points in the first place. Is this how it repays you for your business?

I think you could have sent a brief, polite email to one of the American Airlines executives I list in my online database of customer-service contacts. They might have seen this your way and helped reduce or eliminate your redeposit fee.

Again, American had every right to charge you the redeposit fee. But in the end, it decided not to. One of our advocates contacted the airline on your behalf. American waived the $150 redeposit fee, "due to the circumstances." That's the right call. Thank you, American.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the author of "How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler." You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org, or email him at chris@elliott.org.