Family's five-night holiday falls short

OLIVIA WANNAN
Last updated 05:00 09/08/2013
Penny Sinclair
KENT BLECHYNDEN/Fairfax NZ
UNHAPPY HOLIDAYS: Penny Sinclair’s Rarotongan getaway was ruined after she found her family’s five-night holiday package included only four nights in a hotel room.

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Penny Sinclair
SURF'S UP: Penny Sinclair had a good time till it came to going home.

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Flight Centre has been accused of misleading customers after a Wellington family's "five-night" Rarotongan holiday turned out to be four nights and a 2am departure.

Miscommunication then left them stranded at the airport without a flight home - leading to them having to fork out $3700 for new flights, on top of the $6500 cost of the holiday.

Upper Hutt couple Penny Sinclair and Robert Raines complained to the Commerce Commission this week over a June 16 newspaper advertisement with flights and "5 nights garden room" for $1065 a person.

"It was a fantastic holiday, up until the fifth night," Sinclair said of the mid-July trip with her teenage sons.

When she booked and paid at Flight Centre's Queensgate store in Lower Hutt, she found their itinerary listed a four-night stay plus a 6pm checkout for the 1.45am flight departure on the fifth night.

She argued that constituted false advertising, saying most people would interpret "five nights" as five full nights in a hotel room.

"It most certainly grabbed our attention, hook, line and sinker, and misled us."

Flight Centre refused to comment on that claim, but said that many Pacific holiday packages had flights departing in the early hours of the morning on the last night. It was company policy to explain this to customers before they booked, to avoid confusion.

After spotting the early departure in the itinerary, Sinclair complained to the agency. She said she was assured via a text message from her agent before they left New Zealand that the family's hotel room, transfers and flights with Virgin Australia had been updated to include a fifth night's stay at the Edgewater Resort.

But when they arrived at the airport on the sixth night, they found they had been booked on the previous night's flight, leaving them stranded. They rebooked at 2.25am with Air New Zealand, at a cost of $3660.

"I was really annoyed - especially when we raised the issue with Flight Centre and they turned around immediately and said, ‘It's all your fault'. They were very difficult," Ms Sinclair said.

Flight Centre managing director Michael Friend said the company offered this week to compensate the couple for the cost of the emergency flights.

He admitted the agency gave confusing information to Sinclair as to when the family would be flying home.

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"Our consultant told them the wrong thing. It was our mistake, simple as that." But he would not comment on Sinclair's claim of misleading advertising.

The Commerce Commission said it had received the complaint but had not decided whether to investigate.

Sinclair's complaint to the commission also alleged Flight Centre used "bait advertising" with the $1065-a-head deal in a Sunday paper.

The advert ran on June 16, with the sale due to finish on June 17.

Sinclair contacted her agent on June 16 and booked two days later - but said agency staff told her the package had sold out "months" before.

The family's total bill came to $6500, about $2200 more than they expected to pay for four people.

Friend denied Flight Centre had used bait advertising, which offers a great deal in very limited numbers to entice customers to a business.

It is illegal under the Fair Trading Act. Companies found in breach of the Fair Trading Act can be fined up to $200,000.

Andrew Olsen, chief executive of the NZ Travel Agents' Association - of which Flight Centre is not a member - said he thought all the agency's deals would be thoroughly scrutinised before being advertised.

"I would be very surprised if they have positioned anything with the public that would have misled them."

The commission had received 28 complaints in the past year about travel agents.

CHECK THE FINE PRINT

Travel deals that seem too good to be true often are, Consumer NZ says.

Chief executive Sue Chetwin said would-be travellers should be wary of newspaper advertisements of the "three-nights-in-Fiji variety" and should check the fine print.

"We have quite an issue with them. Often, once you've spent two days travelling, there's not much holidaying left. Most of them are virtually impossible to take up."

Instead, the ads were used to lure people in. Once they discovered the advertised option was not practical, they could be persuaded to opt for other, more expensive, holidays.

The Flight Centre advertisement sounded like a variation on that tactic, although it would appear it went further with its "five-night" claim, she said.

"If it says 'five-night' and you are led to believe it's five nights, then that is potentially misleading."

- The Dominion Post

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