Some of Britain’s biggest holiday lettings firms have been reported to the competition regulator after an investigation raised concerns they could be using unfair contract terms to deny customers refunds for coronavirus cancellations.
They have been reported to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) by Which? after frustrated customers of companies such as Sykes Holiday Cottages and Hoseasons got in touch with the consumer champion about problems in securing a refund for holidays cancelled as a result of the UK lockdown.
Which? says some complained about terms and conditions that make the refund claims process difficult, if not impossible.
Some of Britain’s biggest holiday lettings firms have been reported to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) by Which? over concerns they could be using unfair contract terms to deny customers refunds for coronavirus cancellations
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? says it 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.
The consumer champion says that in four of the five 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? says it is concerned that if the right to a refund isn’t provided by additional terms between the property owner and the customer, property owners have 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 not to 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.
One consumer who complained to Which?, Jessica Tappin, says she 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.
Which? says some customers with holiday cottage bookings have complained about terms and conditions that make the refund claims process difficult, if not impossible (stock image)
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.
Meanwhile, Adam Kemp is also waiting for a refund from Hoseasons, who told him he could not 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? says that this week, the CMA has 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.’
Which? claims that some customers describe being unable to contact the company they booked through or being passed between the company and property owner as neither accepts responsibility for refunds
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 May 7, 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.’