James and his wife, Georgina, both key workers worked long days through lockdown. By the end of July they were more than ready for their holiday.
“We were literally all packed, kids had their rucksacks,” says James. “Half the stuff was in the car.”
They were just about to set out on the four hour drive to Alder Country Park in Norfolk, when the phone rang.
The holiday that they booked before Christmas was no longer available.
“I was shell-shocked,” says James. “We said, how can it not be available? We booked it last year.”
Their eldest daughter is in a wheelchair so they plan well ahead to ensure they find somewhere that can accommodate her needs. But they were told that a maintenance problem at the lodge they’d booked meant it was cancelled.
In a normal year Hoseasons, the firm through which it had been booked, says it would have tried to find them an alternative, but with demand for UK holidays sky high this year, everywhere was fully booked.
“I came off the phone and said ‘sorry kids, no holiday’, says James. The younger ones burst into tears.
They aren’t alone. Dozens of holiday-makers have contacted BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours programme to say their holiday has been cancelled at short notice. A Facebook page set up by disgruntled Hoseasons customers has more than 500 members.
Rod Leaman booked a four night stay at the Welcome Family Holiday Park in Devon through Hoseasons in February.
Less than a fortnight before he was due to go he received an e-mail saying that his booking had been cancelled as the dates he’d chosen were no longer available.
When Mr Leaman phoned the holiday park itself, he was told that when it reopened in July the owners had decided not to take bookings for less than a week.
“I would happily have paid for the extra three nights, but that option wasn’t given to me,” he says. The booking was for his daughter Claire so she could get away for a holiday with her partner and her fifteen-year-old daughter Rayah.
Some disappointed holidaymakers were given no explanation at all. Jill Turner, a teacher from Poole in Dorset, received a text message from Hoseasons, apologising for cancelling the caravan she’d booked for four nights in mid-August.
It took Jill an hour to get through to the company on the phone, she says. Even then, she says they didn’t offer any reason why they couldn’t honour her reservation. After the BBC looked into Jill’s case, Hoseasons admitted the caravan had been double-booked.
“I’m really disappointed about the whole situation, that a company who we thought we could trust… that they could send an ‘oh we are sorry’, when they weren’t”, says Jill.
“What was really annoying was that no-one actually seemed to care.”
Hoseasons is part of the holiday rental company, the Awaze group. The group also owns Cottages.com, many of whose customers have reported similar last-minute cancellations.
Hoseasons told the BBC that double-bookings had occurred in a small number of cases because of the large volume of bookings and rebookings taking place as lockdown was eased.
On 31st July, the day James and his family were told their holiday was cancelled, Henrik Kjellberg chief executive of Awaze UK published a letter of apology to customers.
“Though we expected demand to resurface as UK travel restrictions were lifted, we didn’t plan for a tenfold increase, which is what we’ve experienced on some of our platforms in recent weeks,” he wrote.
“To put it simply – our systems didn’t scale to the level we needed them to and this regrettably caused some duplicate bookings to occur.”
The firm says as well as the technical glitch there have been a handful of other reasons for cancellations. Hoseasons doesn’t own the properties it takes bookings for and says some became unavailable after owners decided to withdraw them, either to use them themselves, or as a result of concerns around Covid-19.
The firm says late cancellations have affected less than 1% of bookings in July and August and those affected will be promptly refunded.
But customers who contacted the BBC and joined the Facebook site said it has been hard to get hold of Hoseasons to arrange a refund.
The firm says it will be adding further capacity by hiring more staff for its contact centre.
James and Georgina, who paid the full £1,500 bill for their holiday back in January, have been told they will get some compensation, but they haven’t yet received it or their money back. They are still angry and feel they are owed an explanation.
Countrywide, which owns Alder Country Park, says the maintenance issue at the lodge, caused by a hot tub, was only identified on the day James and Georgina were due to arrive. Countrywide apologised for the late cancellation.
James says he still feels like he’s in limbo, but in hindsight it is less about the money than the disappointment.
“It’s been tough for everyone – during what’s happened in lockdown. It’s been tough for Hoseasons, I get that. What I don’t get is just dropping it on us with five hours’ notice. How can they not have known?”
You and Yours is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 12.15pm