The five-star Retallack Resort near Newquay is one of Cornwall’s top watersports centres, where guests are housed in self-catering lodges with glazed frontages overlooking a lake, and Ian Tomlinson and his family were looking forward to spending their summer holiday there.
However, when they arrived after a four-hour drive they were told there was no record of the reservation he had made via the online travel agent Booking.com six months previously. Nor was there any possibility of fitting them in. Booking.com, alerted to their plight, fired off an email reassuring the family that it had found them a similar alternative – in Uxbridge, a London suburb close to Slough. The email said it hoped they were having a great day.
“Uxbridge was 250 miles away and not a place anyone would choose to have a holiday,” Tomlinson says. “I had two very tired, upset children who were looking forward to all the resort’s attractions including a FlowRider wave machine for surfing, and my wife was in tears. We were not having a great day.”
Demand for UK holiday accommodation soared this summer as Covid-19 restricted overseas travel. Tomlinson is just one of the travellers who have reported being left stranded and out of pocket when reservations confirmed by online travel agents proved to be illusory.
Tomlinson’s destination of choice has an aqua park, a floating volleyball court, a wave pool and wakeboarding. The “similar” alternative in Uxbridge was a hotel with an 18-metre swimming pool and a sauna.
His initial attempts to engage with Booking.com by email and phone failed. The email went unanswered and the phone line went dead. The family returned home. “Fortunately, we had not yet paid for the hotel but we are out of pocket for petrol and for pre-paid tickets to the Eden Project,” Tomlinson says. “Plus, we lost the holiday we’d spent all year looking forward to.”
When he finally received an email 11 days later, Booking.com claimed the hotel had overbooked and that it would consider refunding his costs but it would not provide compensation for upset children. Aria Resorts, which owns the hotel, lays the blame with Booking.com. “Unfortunately, it seems the booking was not confirmed correctly through Booking.com into our reservation system,” a spokesperson says. “We have had no further contact from Booking.com regarding this guest’s concerns.”
After Guardian Money got in touch, Booking.com refunded the cost of the petrol and the Eden Project tickets and paid £700 in compensation, but declined to explain how the error arose. “In exceptional circumstances where a property is unable to accommodate a guest, we always seek to rectify that immediately and will be working with this partner to ensure all future guests have a good experience,” a spokesperson says.
Another Booking.com customer, Helen Mundler, was stuck with her husband and their luggage in London late at night after a problem with their reservation at the Park Grand, Paddington Court. When they arrived at 10.30pm, she says: “All the lights were off and there was no sign of life … Finally, I discovered a note on the door stating that the hotel was closed for maintenance.”
The couple, who had booked for four nights, had to tour nearby hotels until they found one with a spare room at more than twice the price of their original booking. They say they received no response from Booking.com. The company has since refunded their extra costs but neither it nor the hotel responded to a request for a comment.
Holidaymakers who booked through other sites have also been left stranded and out of pocket after finding their hotel was unavailable. Hannah used the online agent Hotels.com to reserve four nights at the Ramada hotel in Solihull. She arrived after a three-hour drive to find that it had been designated a government quarantine hotel and could not admit her. She says she could not get hold of Hotels.com by phone or webchat and was forced to find alternative accommodation and pay an extra £324. Hotels.com eventually agreed to refund her the original hotel cost and gave her an £80 voucher in compensation but she was still £324 out of pocket. After pressure from Guardian Money, it covered her losses in full.
“We are really sorry to hear that on this occasion the customer had a bad experience with us,” Hotels.com spokesperson says. “Unfortunately, the hotel did not inform us they were no longer accepting bookings until the day after the customer was due to stay.”
Alex Forrest and his family made an eight-hour trip from Stockport to Devon before discovering that the cottage they had booked had been sold six months earlier. The booking agency, Marsdens Devon Cottages, had continued to send updates, including instructions for the key safe, the night before their planned stay.
Marsdens, part of Original Cottages, promised an investigation and that was the last Forrest heard from it. The company refunded the booking and added £1,200 in compensation and £400 in vouchers after the Guardian intervened. It declined to explain how the error arose. “We are currently reviewing our processes to ensure this doesn’t occur again,” a spokesperson says.
Online travel agents (OTAs) have an ambiguous legal relationship with customers, which makes it unclear where to complain or seek reimbursement when things go wrong. The small print tends to insist that the contract is between the customer and the travel provider and that the booking agent cannot be held responsible for failings.
That is true when it comes to the quality of the accommodation but if the OTA botches a booking, it is liable, says Gary Rycroft, a partner at Joseph A Jones & Co. “The OTA has a legal responsibility for the validity of the booking and a duty to keep the consumer informed if it cannot proceed for any reason,” he says. “If they fail to do so, the consumer should be entitled to claim any direct losses such as travel expenses and alternative accommodation from them under the Consumer Rights Act, regardless of what the terms and conditions say.”
Rycroft says disappointed customers should always send a “letter of claim” first, setting out to the OTA what they intend to claim and giving it a deadline for a response. “If that doesn’t work you can claim via the small claims track,” he adds.
Top Tourist attractions: Cornwall v Uxbridge
Surfing and water sports on a choice of 12 sandy beaches.
The Blue Reef Aquarium has an underwater tunnel through a coral reef tank displaying hundreds of tropical marine species.
Sea safari and fishing trips from the historic harbour.
The Cornwall Aviation Heritage Centre offers aerial tour of the coast.
The Eden Project represents environments from around the world in giant biomes.
The Battle of Britain Bunker is the only original Battle of Britain RAF Fighter Group Operations Room open to the public.
Hillingdon Sports and Leisure Complex is a restored 1930s lido with cascades at either end of a 50-metre pool.
Denham Country Park has 28 hectares (69 acres) of green, including paddling possibilities in the river, and a canal.
Hunt Fun takes you on a free code-and-clue-busting trail round the sights of the town.
The Pavilions shopping centre – Primark, Wilko, Iceland and many, many more!