UK holiday cottage rental firms have been forced to defend themselves after consumer group Which? claimed they could be using unfair contract terms to deny customers refunds for coronavirus cancellations.

Some holiday lettings companies have been reported by Which? to the competition regulator just days after the Competition and Markets Authority launched an investigation into holiday accommodation refunds.

The consumer association revealed that customers of providers including Sykes Holiday Cottages and Hoseasons have complained about problems in securing a refund for holidays cancelled as a result of the UK Covid-19 lockdown.

The terms and conditions of five UK holiday letting companies – Sykes Holiday Cottages, Holidaycottages.co.uk, Hoseasons, Cottages.com and English Country Cottages – were checked to understand consumers’ entitlement to a refund for cancellations under these circumstances.

Which? 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? said it was concerned that if the right to a refund is not 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 the 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.

Which? travel editor Rory Boland 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.”

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 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 7 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.”

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