CONSUMER: Hilsea woman in six-month battle to get holiday payment refunded

Marguerite and Rex Ponsford at their home
Marguerite and Rex Ponsford at their home
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When Debbie Lawson tried to cancel a Prague city break booked without her knowledge by her elderly infirm parents, she didn’t realise she’d end up in a frustrating six month battle trying to get their payment refunded.

The 58-year-old self-employed Hilsea mobile chiropodist divides her time between running her foot care business and acting as a carer to her parents Marguerite and Ron Ponsford.

She only discovered eighty-year-old Marguerite had booked the break with Super Escapes Travel Ltd so the couple could visit their son to see the latest addition to the family.

But her mother’s dementia and her father’s heart problems completely ruled out their capacity to contract. Neither was in sufficient good health to travel to the Czech Republic to see their grandchild.

‘I have a brother who lives in South Bohemia, ‘ Debbie explained, ‘and my parents were on a bus one day going to Sainsburys and found a Metro paper with an advert offering a Prague flight for £70.

‘They took it into their heads, as it was just a couple of days after the birth of their grandson that they’d like to go out there.

‘Although I see them every day they hadn’t told me what they’d done. I have their passports and everything because they’re not really capable, and they don’t have the health to go away.

My mum phoned up and booked it putting the total cost of £267 including a hotel on her card.

As soon as I found out about it I said to them that in Prague the temperature was going to be minus six and they weren’t fit enough to travel.

‘My brother lives two and a half hours away and he wasn’t going to travel with a new born baby all the way to Prague.

‘Within four days of booking it and after a family conference, mum phoned them up and cancelled it saying she really couldn’t go.

‘They said no she couldn’t cancel it so I rang the company. They asked me to supply a doctor’s letter which I duly organised and claimed a total refund including costs of £293.45.’

But this was to be just the beginning of a frustrating run around.

Debbie sent off all the paperwork by recorded delivery, but when she didn’t get an acknowledgement or reply she rang the company to find out how the refund application was coming along.

She was told the matter was being looked into by a manger, but her patience wore thin when no one called her back.

Debbie made a series of follow up calls to the company but it became clear that no one was listening.

In frustration she started emailing them when to her astonishment she learned that no one would admit to receiving the refund request, despite it having been signed for.

To add a further layer of complication, she was told in no uncertain terms that although she’d been talking to the correct travel team, her letter had turned up in the wrong branch of the company.

What Debbie hadn’t realised was that Super Escapes Travel Ltd. were part of the Broadway Travel Consortia. She was being ignored because her mum had no contract with them and wasn’t insured.

Unlike traditional travel agents selling packaged holidays, they were one of a number of new online booking agents who simply put holidaymakers in touch with airlines and hotels and made reservations on their behalf.

Fed up going around in ever decreasing circles a friend suggested getting in touch withStreetwise to see if we could help sort out the problem.

We explained to Debbie that there was a loophole in the law which meant that booking agents weren’t obliged to refund customers for cancelled bookings.

Their holidays are not legally classified as package holidays and anyone booking with them - unlike conventional travel agents - isn’t protected by the Package Travel Regulations.

In an effort to draw a line under the situation, we got onto one of Super Escapes Travel’s top bosses, Adam Smith, and expressed Debbie’s indignation at being studiously ignored for more than five months.

As her mother’s carer she had responsibilities to her under the 2005 Mental Capacity Act, and simply ignoring her request without explanation was insensitive and not an option.

Following our intervention Mr. Smith got back to us with some encouraging news for Debbie. Although the firm weren’t obliged to pay out anything he was prepared to help.

He explained: ‘When Mrs Lawson contacted our customer service line with a request to cancel this holiday and obtain full refund, we advised her that the booking had been confirmed under Non-Amendable and Non-Refundable contract therefore the suppliers are unwilling to refund any amount.

‘We tried our best to obtain refund from the suppliers but as per the booking conditions they are unable to refund or reduce the booking cost.

‘We were really sorry and disappointed that we couldn’t help Mrs Lawson on this occasion.

However, as a goodwill gesture we have offered Mrs. Lawson £133.50 amounting to a 50% refund of the total holiday cost despite the refusal or our suppliers to make any contribution.’

Debbie was relieved that we were able to help, but concerned that people may be unaware if they booked a holiday online with a company that was just an intermediary there were no refunds if they couldn’t travel for any reason.

‘People need to waned and read the small print,’ she said. ‘If I hadn’t been put in touch with Streetwise I’d have just remained upset and angry that vulnerable people could get caught out in this way.

‘My parents were just so grateful for the way you helped us.’