Which? has reported some of Britain’s biggest holiday lettings companies to the competition regulator after an investigation by the consumer champion raised concerns that they could be using unfair contract terms to deny customers refunds for coronavirus cancellations.
Frustrated customers of companies including Sykes Holiday Cottages and Hoseasons have complained to Which? about problems in securing a refund for holidays cancelled as a result of the UK lockdown.
Some have complained about terms and conditions that make the refund claims process difficult, if not impossible. Others describe being unable to contact the company they booked through or being passed between the company and property owner as neither accepts responsibility.
Which? checked the terms and conditions of five of the UK’s biggest holiday letting companies – Sykes Holiday Cottages, Holidaycottages.co.uk, Hoseasons, Cottages.com and English Country Cottages – to understand consumers’ entitlement to a refund for cancellations under these circumstances, and found terms that could potentially be challenged as unfair under the Consumer Rights Act.
In four of the five companies’ contracts, the terms set out how owners of properties rented through the sites are allowed to cancel the holiday if circumstances outside of their control prevent them from being able to provide the property, but do not explain what the consumer’s right to a refund would be in these circumstances.
Which? is concerned that if the right to a refund isn’t provided by additional terms between the property owner and the customer this term gives property owners too much leeway to keep a customer’s money if a booking is cancelled – making it potentially unfair according to the law. The Holidaycottages.co.uk contract was the only one to not contain this potentially unfair cancellation clause.
Hoseasons, Cottages.com and English Country Cottages also tell customers that bookings are subject to the additional terms and conditions of the property owner and that these are “available from the suppliers if you ask”. While the booking terms say other information may be provided to the consumer during the booking process, if this doesn’t include these additional terms and they are only available on request, Which? believes this could also potentially be challenged as legally unfair.
Jessica Tappin has been waiting for over a month for a full refund from Sykes Holiday Cottages, after receiving a partial refund and being told the remaining balance would be credited to her account. When she still had not received the outstanding sum and heard of other customers getting full refunds, she tried sending a letter from a solicitor – but she told Which? that she has still not received the remaining payment.
Adam Kemp is also waiting for a refund from Hoseasons, who told him he cannot claim a refund without cancellation insurance, despite not cancelling the holiday himself. The company sent him a voucher for the value of the holiday instead.
Adam told Which? that Hoseasons pointed him to its terms and conditions about compensation in the event of circumstances beyond its control, which state that the company doesn’t cover additional losses. But Hoseasons did not point to any terms around refunds for cancellations made by the owner of the property.
Which? has reported its findings with the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which this week launched an investigation into unfair terms and bad practice in the UK holiday lettings sector.
Rory Boland, Editor of Which? Travel, said:
“With the coronavirus outbreak wreaking havoc on holiday plans, it’s extremely concerning to hear of so many people being refused refunds from some of the UK’s biggest players in the holiday lettings market.
“The CMA must investigate, and where terms are unfair, take action to ensure that companies act fairly so that holidaymakers are not left out of pocket for their cancelled holidays.”
Notes to editors:
- The Hoseasons, cottages.com and English Country Cottages contracts may be viewed as containing a term “which has the object or effect of irrevocably binding the consumer to terms with which the consumer has had no real opportunity of becoming acquainted before the conclusion of the contract”. Such terms are open to challenge as unfair under Section 63 of the Consumer Rights Act 2015.
- Sykes booking conditions: https://www.sykescottages.co.uk/terms/booking
- Hoseasons, Cottages.com and English Country Cottages are all trading names of Vacations Rentals (UK) Ltd and so use the terms and conditions detailed below.
- Hoseasons booking conditions: https://www.hoseasons.co.uk/booking-conditions
- Cottages.com booking conditions: https://www.cottages.com/assets/booking-conditions.pdf?v=7f070d7a7bcf8101f7c1cbe774bbf586
- English Country Cottages booking conditions: https://www.english-country-cottages.co.uk/assets/booking-conditions.pdf?v=1a1267dcb6dabaad1de64c4c15dbb167
- CMA to investigate concerns about cancellation policies – https://www.gov.uk/government/news/cma-to-investigate-concerns-about-cancellation-policies
Rights of replies:
A spokesperson for Hoseasons, cottages.com and English Country Cottages said:
“We are doing all we can to help customers and homeowners during these exceptional times. This includes offering price-matched breaks for the same or equivalent date in 2021, as well as refunds in appropriate circumstances. We have responded and adapted to the evolving issues caused by the Covid-19 pandemic as we have received new guidelines from the government. Following the statement from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) yesterday we have now expanded the options available to support any customers who were due to travel with us during government imposed travel restrictions and who prefer not to accept one of our vouchers.”
A spokesperson for Sykes Holiday Cottages said:
“We are doing everything we can to support our customers, property owners and employees during this difficult time.
“Where customers have been due to travel on or before 7th May 2020 and we have received owners’ consent, we have issued thousands of customers with all funds returned to us by the owner of the property, paid directly to customers’ original payment methods. If that refund does not match the price originally paid, as a goodwill gesture we have applied an ex-gratia credit to customers’ Sykes Holiday Cottages accounts to represent the fees we have been paid by owners for facilitating these bookings. These can be used on any holidays departing within 24 months.
“Due to the volume of bookings affected, we are working with owners to process these refunds as quickly as possible and we would like to thank our customers for their patience.”