Award tickets are not free. Victoria Casey knew that when she made plans to fly to Europe on US Airways this summer. Each reservation cost her $50, in addition to the 320,000 miles she spent for four first-class tickets.

But Casey never imagined she’s be paying the airline for nothing — and paying it a lot more than $200.

Hers is a cautionary tale about the value of frequent flier mileage programs.

First, let’s hear her story:

I wanted to pass along what I consider an incredibly unfair practice to frequent flier customers. I have been a US Airways frequent flyer for many years, and use their visa card to accrue miles.

Last summer I booked four first-class tickets to Italy for this coming summer. Due to an unfortunate family situation, we are forced to cancel our trip. When I called to do so, I was informed that there would be a $250 fee per ticket to get the miles redeposited in my account. Add this to the $50 fee to book the ticket, it has now cost me $1,200 to go nowhere.

Of course, we intend to go on this trip at another time, so there will be more fees accrued. I spoke to a supervisor at US Airways and asked them to waive or reduce the fee because I had been a long-time member, which she said she was unable to do. She did suggest that I wouldn’t have to pay the fee if I just gave up the miles.

My question to you — this seems like an unduly punitive fee to loyal customers. If it only costs $50 to book the ticket, why charge five times that to give the miles back? I have always been a loyal customer to US Airways, but I feel ripped off by this.

I asked US Airways about this. Here’s what a representative told me:

We charge $150 to change/re-deposit a domestic award, and $250 to change/re-deposit an international award ticket. This is consistent with what we charge for changes to revenue tickets.

We charge the change fee regardless of form of payment (miles or cash) since we’ve held the inventory. We’re not alone here as all legacy carries charge for re-depositing miles. Our award travel policies and fees are clearly indicated on our Web site.

I ran that answer by Casey.

I understand a fee, but $250 per ticket seems extreme.

Also, they will be able to sell the seats as I canceled three months before the flight! I guess next time, I should just wait until the day before. While the policy is spelled out, I doubt that people accrue hundreds of thousands of miles to book special trips with the intention of canceling their vacations.

I am disappointed in US Airways. I have been a 20 plus year member. So, after I use my miles, I will transfer my loyalty elsewhere. Not that it will matter to them…

US Airways is entirely correct, and at the same time, entirely incorrect. Just because the other legacy airlines do something, doesn’t make it right. And now Casey has decided to take her business elsewhere. That should matter to US Airways, which has lost $1.3 billion in the last 24 months.

So how is US Airways entirely correct? Well, to the extent that its policy is clearly spelled out, and that Casey should have known about the consequences of canceling her award flight, the airline is right.

These punitive policies shouldn’t exist at any airline. But that’s not the world we travel in. It hasn’t been for a long, long time.

(Photo: Caribb/Flickr Creative Commons)