By Travel columnist
updated 5/9/2005 5:22:36 PM ET 2005-05-09T21:22:36

Ryan Sober is a former frequent traveler. So frequent, in fact, that he ended up with nearly 500,000 points and elite status with Hilton. But now, two years after trading in his frequent flier wings for a desk job, he discovers that all of the points in his account are gone. Hilton says he can earn his way back to elite status – for a price. But Sober doesn’t think that’s right, after being such a loyal customer. Does he have a case? And can his points be saved?

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Q: I used to be a very frequent business traveler. I was a regular at the Hilton chain, where I collected more than 500,000 points and became a Diamond VIP member, their highest elite level, for a number of consecutive years.

But for the past two years, I’ve been in a more stationary job and have not been traveling for business.

Well, this year my wife and I began to plan a summer vacation to the Pacific Northwest. We were interested in tapping into some of the Hilton points, most of which had not been used.

I found the hotel I preferred to stay, verified availability using points and went to book. But to my dismay, I discovered my points were no longer available. I was told by Hilton that since there was no activity on my account for a one year period that I had “lost” all of my points.

I spoke to a supervisor but he really seemed to have no sympathy for my situation, nor did he care about my prior loyalty.

The manager did offer me what he said was a very “generous” offer. If I were to have two paid stays in a Hilton I could get half my points back, and with five paid stays I could get all of my points back. So after a countless number of stays and thousands and thousands of dollars spent at a Hilton, I now have to earn all of that back again?

Needless to say I am angry, frustrated and feel used and abused. Is there anything I can do?

— Ryan SoberBethesda, MD

A: Not really. If you read the fine print in your terms and conditions, you’ll see that you’re just plain out of luck.

If you do not earn points in any 12-month consecutive period, Hilton reserves the right to remove you from its loyalty program and you are subject “to forfeiture of all accumulated points.”

But don’t hold Hilton to that, because it also reserves the right to “add, modify, delete or otherwise change any of the rules, procedures, conditions, benefits, rewards or reward levels pertaining to the program at its sole discretion, with or without notice,” according to its contract.

In other words, it’s up to you as a frequent guest to keep running tabs on your program’s fine print. That’s convenient for Hilton, but not so convenient for you.

In fairness to Hilton, I should mention that it has one of the best loyalty programs in the business. And its disclaimers are pretty much boilerplate. In fact, I’ve seen a lot of other terms and conditions from other travel companies that are even more outrageous. Hilton’s lawyers are just doing their job, which is to protect their company from liability.

But is throwing the book in your face any way to repay you for all that loyalty?

I don’t think so.

I mean we’re not talking about a couple of hundred points, here. This is some serious status that you’re looking at loosing.

If you ever find yourself in this situation again – sitting on a pile of points – my advice is to burn them quickly, especially if there’s little chance you’ll resume your traveling lifestyle any time soon. Miles are being devalued at an alarming rate (it’s affecting the airlines, mostly) so what you have earned today probably won’t be worth the same amount in another year or two.

I contacted Hilton and asked them to take another look at your expired portfolio. I heard back from Cindy Baker, the vice president of Hilton’s HHonors Customer Service Center. I would like to say that my intervention made the difference, but it was actually your decision to apply for a Hilton American Express card that put you over the top. Hilton returned all 423,170 of your forfeited points.

“Clearly,” Baker wrote to me in an e-mail, “the man still has feelings for us.”

Somebody get me a tissue, please.

Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman and a nationally syndicated columnist who specializes in solving your travel problems. Got a trip that needs fixing? Send him a note or visit his Web site. Your question may be published in a future story. Want to sound off about a story? Try visiting Elliott's forum.

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