Alice Jordan paid more than £1,800 for a special family holiday over Easter in a cottage on the Isle of Wight.
Then she saw her plans thrown into chaos by the coronavirus outbreak.
She booked with Sykes Holiday Cottages and, like thousands of other customers, the company told her she could not travel owing to the government’s restrictions.
But she was also told that if she cancelled she would lose all her money. Sykes was not cancelling the booking, but allowing customers to rebook instead, without incurring normal amendment fees.
Initially, that was impossible, but Sykes would not give her a refund. Later, when the cottage became available again, she discovered it would cost her £49 to secure it for the same period next year.
‘Why no refund?’
Her case mirrors that of many others, furious that Sykes said it would not provide full refunds, because the option was not in their contracts.
“They are a large corporation and I think they should be in a position, as some other companies have done, to offer guests such as me a refund if we want it,” said Mrs Jordan, from Tilehurst near Reading.
Some customers have found that they are being quoted more to rebook the same cottage at the same time next year.
Radio 4’s You & Yours has been looking at the additional charges some other customers have faced.
Steve Burgoyne, from Ipswich in Suffolk, was quoted an additional £61 for the same cottage in the corresponding week next year.
“That’s approximately a 15% increase in price and that is much higher than I would expect it to be if prices were increasing in line with inflation [the cost of living],” he said.
Hannah Fowler, from Felton in Northumberland, had paid £1,578 for a three-night stay for a big family get together in North Yorkshire but found the price had gone up by 47%.
“We tried to look at the same time next year because obviously if we book different times then we knew the prices might change a bit,” she said.
“So when we looked at the same three days next year the price had gone up £700 more. We wouldn’t be able to afford to rebook for that price so that’s why we want our money back so we can go elsewhere.”
Other customers have found they can rebook easily for the same price.
Sykes Holiday Cottages has over 19,000 properties on its books in the UK, Ireland and New Zealand. It is, in effect, an agent between owners and those booking a holiday.
It said customers’ contracts were agreements with holiday cottage owners rather than with the company, so it was the owners who were responsible for refunds.
But the owners never get all of the money. Part of it, believed to be around 20%, is kept by Sykes to cover its fees.
If property owners are willing to return money, then Sykes is offering credit notes covering the full value of bookings, which can be used for another of its holidays over the next two years.
Alternatively customers can choose to get a cash refund from any property owner willing to do so, but Sykes will not return its share in cash, instead offering a credit note to cover that bit.
Peter Stonely, a trading standards consultant specialising in consumer rights law, said he understood why Sykes would want to protect its business and its cottage owners.
Yet, he added that there would be situations where a compromise was not found, and a refund could be a last resort in those cases.
Clare Campbell, a travel litigation specialist at Leigh Day solicitors, said it would be “hugely unfair” to charge anyone significantly extra to rebook the same cottage at the same time next year.
In a statement, Sykes Holiday Cottages said: “A small number of bookings, such as those made using late booking discounts, will have seen price increases when looking at similar dates a year in advance, but this is part of business-as-usual processes not in response to the coronavirus outbreak.”
The company said the large price increase in Hannah Fowler’s case was because she had booked just a month before her holiday when demand was low and so she had got it at a discount.
She has been promised a cash refund from the property owner, but that will still leave her out of pocket by around £300 because Sykes will not reimburse their fees, and the credit note it has offered is of no use to her because she does not plan to book with them again.
Meanwhile Steve Burgoyne and Alice Jordan have now been told their bookings for next year can go ahead at no extra cost.
Sykes Cottages said it is working with customers and property owners on a “case by case basis”.
It said that if a price had increased beyond what customers would ordinarily expect, they should email the company at email@example.com.
The company said it was working with owners to “facilitate credit notes to customers for the full value of their booking” which it described as “simple and complete compensation”.
Hear more about this and other stories on BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours on the BBC Sounds app