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Dirt? Ants? Run away and get a refund

USA Today

Posted 10/3/2006 3:32 PM ET

Question: We booked a five-night, six-day all-inclusive vacation in June for our family, including our three young children, at Beaches Turks & Caicos through Unique Vacations, Beaches' travel partner. But conditions at the resort were deplorable and we had to leave after the first night.

It was not long before we realized our expectations were not being met. It started with our room not being ready, so we had lunch while waiting. The food and service at the buffet restaurant were horrible and there was no air conditioning in the restaurant or any resort restaurant. When we went to our room, we discovered that our luggage had been left unattended in the middle of the outdoor hallway. The floor of the room was filthy, littered with can tabs and old batteries, as well as spiders and ants. The crib we had requested was not in the room, and it was delivered only after we called three times.

We decided to check out the grounds, pool, and beach. At the beach, we were told there were no towels available, so we should walk back to our rooms and get our bath towels. The beach shower was broken. The pool with slides was closed, and the main pool was cloudy and had broken plastic cups and straws floating in it. We called the manager to express our concerns.

After swimming we returned to our room to shower and get ready for dinner. The bathroom was moldy, there was little water pressure, and the water was lukewarm at best. It took four phone calls, the last to a manager, to get extra towels delivered to our room. We also discovered that the television was broken.

We went to dinner, but the food was terrible and we all left the restaurant hungry. When I took two of my children to the restaurant restroom, I found there was no toilet paper holder, and the only roll of paper was sitting on the floor behind the dirty toilet. It's a family friendly resort, but every highchair we were given had broken straps.

At that point, we felt trapped and were very worried that we had to stay here another five days. We went to the main office to speak with a manager and told her we wanted to leave. The manager was said she would try to get us a different room the next day. We wanted to give the resort another chance, so we agreed to wait until morning to decide.

We tried to start fresh and wanted to take the kids out to dessert since they didn't have dinner. We went to two dessert spots and both were out of ice cream, this at 8:45 on a Saturday night. We have stayed at plenty of resorts, and never have I been served food so poor in quality and quantity.

In the morning, the manager called to find out if we wanted to stay. I told her about the ice cream incident and than now the toilet was no longer working in our room and that we wanted nothing more than to leave. She said we would receive a refund for the four nights we didn't stay. We also paid for a Sesame Street character breakfast for the kids, and another $400 in airline change fees to get home early. Can you help get our entire vacation refunded?

—Eliza Busk, Pembroke Pines, Fla.

Answer: All-inclusive resorts sell a dream of relaxation on white-sand beaches. But if the reality doesn't match the brochure—or you're mismatched to the wrong resort for your travel style—you may end up counting the days until you get to leave instead of luxuriating in paradise.

Busk's too-brief vacation was plagued by one frustration after another, which ultimately pushed the family to return home early. Beaches checked its records to see if other guests logged significant complaints that same week, which might indicate a larger problem at the resort.

"To the contrary, guest satisfaction is high at Beaches Turks & Caicos," says representative Cathy Decker.

The resort garners mixed reviews from traveler opinion sites like Tripadvisor.com. Some visitors were ecstatic about their vacations, but others heaped scorn on the resort—and many of their complaints echo Busk's.

How can visitors report such different trips, even in the same time frame? Clogged toilets and dirty rooms aside, part of the problem may be traveler expectations.

"If you book a cheapo trip, that's one thing," says San Francisco-based travel attorney Al Anolik. "But when you're talking about an expensive all-inclusive resort, expectations are much higher."

Beaches is a family-oriented brand, and its "ultra all-inclusive" vacations aren't exactly bargain-basement. The Busks paid $4,200 (plus airfare) for a five-night stay for two adults and three children. At that price, they weren't inclined to accept service lapses, ice-cream shortages, and garbage in the pool.

"Beaches Resorts prides itself on providing outstanding family vacations, but the experience Mrs. Busk describes regrettably falls short and the company wants to make things right," says Decker.

Beaches had already credited the Busks for the four unused days of their failed vacation. After reviewing their complaint, Beaches agreed to further refund the family for the prepaid character breakfast, plus the one night they did spend at the resort, for a total of $890. The company declined to reimburse Busk the $400 in airline change fees, but offered the family a complimentary night at a Beaches resort of their choice for a future stay.

How can you avoid trouble?

Work with a travel agent who understands your expectations and can match you to the right vacation spot. Like cruises, various all-inclusive resort brands are designed to appeal to distinct types of travelers, and a mismatch will likely lead to a nightmare vacation. And unless you've already been to the resort you're considering, Anolik recommends booking through an independent agent, not the resort's marketing department, so you can get unbiased recommendations.

Get the lowdown from other travelers before booking. Consumer-review sites like Tripadvisor (www.tripadvisor.com) air the good, the bad, and the ugly about resorts, and can help you steer clear of trouble.

Ask the resort to make it right. Document your concerns and meet with the manager. Give the resort time to correct problems, if possible, such as cleaning your room anew or giving you a different one.

Hit the road. If conditions are truly intolerable and can't be remedied, ask the hotel to put you up at another nearby resort instead. If you must leave, get the manager to agree to a refund of your unused nights—in writing—before you go. Be warned, though, that leaving is a last-resort, risky strategy: Getting a refund after the fact may not be easy, and you likely won't be reimbursed for extra expenses.

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Linda Burbank first began troubleshooting travelers' complaints for the Consumer Reports Travel Letter. She now writes regularly for Consumers Union publications and is a contributing editor for National Geographic Traveler. E-mail her at travel@usatoday.com. Your question may be used in a future column.

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