A cancelled holiday cottage … but why no option for a refund?

I have a break booked this month with Sykes Holiday Cottages, which has confirmed that it will not be going ahead. Sykes is allowing people to rearrange holidays due before June, but the rescheduling must be to the same property. There are limited dates available for next year to rebook, and the prices are significantly higher for those that are available. Sykes is insisting that my contract does not allow refunds.
RS, Sheffield

After the government ordered people to stay at home I wanted to cancel the holiday I’d booked for early April with Sykes Holiday Cottages, but was told that my only option was to amend the date. However, there’s only one week available for the property this year, and none in 2021 or 2022. Sykes told me that the owner has blocked bookings from September, possibly because they will no longer be letting it out, but are refusing to refund the £1,805 that we have paid.

Holiday home agencies seem to be ripping up the rule books with more gusto than the rest of the travel industry.

While many airlines, hotels and tour operators are approving refunds, albeit reluctantly, for customers who can’t amend their booking, some rental companies appear to be heaping the costs onto holidaymakers. Sykes has aroused particular ire with two populous Facebook groups dedicated to its behaviour.

The agent’s argument is that customers’ contracts are with the individual property owner, rendering it helpless. Initially, it told me that holidaymakers whose reservations had been cancelled could merely amend their booking at the same property to a later date, and it would waive its amendment fee as “goodwill”.

Then it decided to allow those unable to do this to request a refund, but a “refund” in Sykes’ lexicon has a singular definition. If the owners agreed to pay out, Sykes would pocket the money and issue a credit note to the customer valid on any property for up to two years.

In RS’s case, the owner did agree to repay the money via Sykes, but Sykes merely offered RS a credit note. The firm has finally agreed to refund payments for rentals up to 30 April, minus its service fee which it will hold as a credit note against future bookings. Provided owners cooperate. “Things are ever-changing and Sykes is constantly working with its owners and customers to adjust and evolve as we all learn more,” it says.

RS has now received his funds, minus a 25% service charge worth £435 which Sykes is withholding as a credit against a future booking. This, too, is a goodwill gesture, it says, since it says the fee is for services already rendered.

As for AJ, it told me the owner has now decided to continue listing the property so more dates are available, and if the new booking proves more expensive it will “see what it can do to help”.

Hospital consultant RS of Hereford turned to the Observer when a holiday rental booked for his 40th birthday this month was cancelled.

“Cottages.com has offered a credit note not a refund,” he wrote. “I will now be working in the hospital on my birthday, on call for 48 hours over the Easter bank holiday and on 12-hour night shifts after that,” he said. Cottages.com declined to answer whether it was requesting refunds from owners when customers couldn’t reschedule.

“We are doing everything we can to help customers rebook their breaks, including offering price-matched breaks for the same or equivalent date in 2021,” it says. However, RS was quietly refunded after I highlighted his key-worker status.

Aman Johal, director of consumer law firm, Your Lawyer, advises holidaymakers to check the terms and conditions of their contract. “It seems that some agencies may be trying to create loopholes which contravene consumer rights,” he says. “However, it is the responsibility of the contracting party to resolve it so it might be the holiday cottage owner who needs to sort it.”

Unfortunately, UK holiday rentals are not protected by the Package Travel Regulations which entitle customers to refunds if their holiday is cancelled and, deep within the small print of Sykes and Cottages.com, is a clause excluding the agents and owners of liability if a contract is frustrated because of events beyond their control. However, Sykes’ terms and conditions say nothing about withholding cash refunds issued by owners who agree to stump up.