Gibraltar’s status as one of the few destinations on the UK government’s green list prompted a surge in demand from Britons wanting Mediterranean sun without quarantine requirements.
But dozens were left stranded last month after arriving at a hotel only to find that it was full.
Vincent Howell* and his partner were among those who were turned away from The Eliott Hotel in the old town at the start of an £1,800 package holiday. They had booked through Lastminute.com, and say the agent did not help when they found that there was no room.
“We were told that the hotel had been rejecting new reservations for more than a week, but that Lastminute.com had continued to accept new customers,” he says.
“There were multiple people in the same predicament in reception. We were advised to call Lastminute.com immediately as the hotel couldn’t put us up. We did so, and were promised a call back within the hour, but it never came.”
The couple tried to find other accommodation, but no hotels or holiday rentals had vacancies.
Eventually, The Eliott offered them the option of checking in and out of different rooms as they became available during the week. However, they had to pay £200 a night, since the hotel said it had not received their original payment from Lastminute.com.
And on top of that, they were told there was no room available for one of their seven nights. “We were left with the prospect of sleeping on the beach, or having to cross the border into Spain to find accommodation and then having to quarantine on our return home,” says Howell. “We again called Lastminute.com to advise we were homeless in a foreign country, and in emotional and financial distress, and were again promised a call back that never came.”
Howell says the hotel told him that it had dealt with 51 people who had been affected by overbookings.
“It was dragging beds into rooms that were being refurbished to accommodate people, including a man who told us he’d booked the holiday to help him recover from heart surgery,” says Howell, who eventually found a bed after touring a succession of hotels.
By the end of their stay the couple had paid £1,490 for accommodation, on top of the £1,800 that they had handed over for their flights and hotel.
On their return to the UK, they demanded a refund, but three weeks after submitting the required paperwork they were still waiting for a decision and apology.
“As well as a refund of our expenses we feel we are due compensation to reflect the difference between the holiday we booked, and what we received,” says Howell.
“The week was wrecked by having to pack up and check out of our room every morning, then check into another room at 3pm, which meant we could never properly unpack or relax and lost hours faffing about.”
Customers who book a package holiday have the legal right to claim compensation from their provider under the Package Travel and Linked Travel Arrangements if their trip is not as described.
Under the rules, a holiday company must provide swift assistance, including replacement accommodation, if there is a problem during the holiday and, potentially, a payment to reflect the difference between what the customer paid for, and what they got, out-of-pocket expenses and loss of enjoyment.
Customers who book with a member of the travel trade association Abta can turn to its dispute resolution scheme. It says that overbooking is more likely to happen in peak periods: “The usual cause is the provider selling more rooms than it has availability for, on the basis a certain percentage of guests will cancel.”
After the Guardian intervened, Lastminute.com agreed to repay the couple’s expenses and offered £150 compensation. It blamed the issue on a third-party trade supplier which, it said, had not yet returned the original payment.
After further pressure from the Guardian, it agreed to pay £500 compensation. Neither it, nor the hotel, responded to requests for comment. In February, Lastminute.com was threatened with legal action by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) after it missed a deadline to refund customers whose holidays had been cancelled due to Covid. The CMA had ordered it to pay more than £7m in December after finding it had refused to reimburse more than 9,000 holidaymakers. Reviews on Trustpilot suggest many more are still awaiting refunds for cancelled or botched bookings, including a holidaymaker who arrived at his hotel to find it had closed.
‘It’s worrying that a company as established as Lastminute.com does not have a crisis team with a set procedure to follow when customers run into issues abroad,” said Howell. “They showed a total disregard for our safety and wellbeing and never even apologised [after] we had effectively paid double for a ruined holiday.”
*Not his real name