In March, we booked a holiday for a fortnight for a family of four, all inclusive, at the Almond Smugglers Cove in St Lucia – a four-star hotel.
The price was £1,734. At the time of booking we received the this message: "The hotel chosen is 'subject to availability', which means we do need to reconfirm the room categories and dates requested. You will know this reservation is fully confirmed when you receive a Confirmation Invoice by email outlining the price, your deposit, arrival and hotel details plus any balances. If any of the dates are unavailable we will contact you immediately by phone or email."
The confirmation arrived on 17 March with reservation details. We then booked our flights. Two weeks later we got an email informing us of a pricing error and quoting a new price of £3,338, nearly twice what we'd originally been told. We refused the offer of the accommodation at this new price and the company promptly refunded our deposit of £173.
But as we'd already booked our flights we faced losing half of the cost of those if we cancelled. And the only hotel anywhere near our original price was a three-star one which had some negative feedback on the internet and was still more expensive. We wrote and phoned Caribbean Hotels asking them to make good the price they'd originally given us. Eventually they offered us a £300 voucher against the Almond Smugglers Cove. So we then had three options – all of which would cost us more. We could: accept £300 off our chosen hotel and pay about £3,000 for it; cancel the flights and lose about £750; or spend £2,184 on a hotel we had serious misgivings about.
In the end we did book the inferior hotel but now none of us is looking forward to the holiday. We feel we have done nothing wrong. We waited until Caribbean Hotels confirmed the reservation with Almond Smugglers Cove before we booked our flights – only to be told two weeks later a mistake had been made. We're out of pocket. There must be something we can do.
I have spoken to people in the travel trade and they all say your case illustrates graphically what can go wrong if you don't book a package. By booking independently you aren't afforded the regulatory protection that might allow you compensation. I've checked with Abta, the travel association, and the hotel company isn't a member so there's no recourse through them.
Abta says: "The general rule of thumb with mistakes over pricing is the following: if a travel organisation has made a mistake on pricing they must offer a full refund (or ask whether the customer would like to pay the extra). If you have paid the full amount, you can say that you will pay the extra under protest, and pursue the claim after you return from holiday. You have then mitigated your loss and left the door open to pursue a claim. However, it may well be difficult to claim that money back.
I have tried to talk to the company you booked with but they've refused to discuss the case with me citing customer confidentiality – which frankly seems ridiculous as you have contacted us to act on your behalf. I suggest readers looking to book in St Lucia ought to bear Caribbean Hotels' response in mind.
The only recourse then is to claim compensation on the grounds that by coming back to you so long after you'd received your hotel confirmation the hotel company had been unfair. (Everyone I've talked to did think that two weeks was a long time before admitting there'd been a pricing error). But legally it's a difficult point to argue successfully as the rules don't cover them in the way they do package companies and you were offered the full refund or the chance to pay the extra. Making a claim could cost you more money without a satisfactory outcome. I'm sorry but I can only suggest that you take legal advice, and remember that one solicitor may say you have a good case where another might think you'd lose.
I know you're planning to make the most of your holiday despite this, and I do hope that the hotel you've finally booked won't live down to your expectations.
Do you have a consumer complaint?
Write to Julian Knight at the Independent on Sunday, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5HF