The vacation from hell

What to do when your five-star resort isn’t

EDMONTON, AB, Jan 18, 2014/ Troy Media/ – Nightmare vacations. We’ve all had them.

It’s often a vacation whereby the glowing description of that dream resort just doesn’t match reality. That’s exactly what happened to me recently. Looking for an affordable yet luxurious seven-day getaway, I went on to and booked a Mexican vacation through Signature Vacations at the five-star Riu Vallarta hotel in Nuevo Vallarta.

I’m a veteran travel writer and I know what a five-star hotel should be. In my opinion, the Riu Vallarta isn’t truly a five-star resort even though those symbols are proudly displayed on the property.

We got off to a bad start when our Nov. 24 Sunwing Airlines flight out of Edmonton departed about one hour late. The official reason given was a malfunctioning toilet.

My partner and I quickly realized the Riu Vallarta was a far cry from a top-end property. The bed was rock hard. We had to badger staff for packages of coffee to brew in our room. Despite boasts that the resort featured premium brand international liquor, most of it was low-cost house brands. The only wine we were offered was bitter-tasting Mexican plonk.

We’d gone to Mexico to escape the snow but there was plenty of it on the TV in our room that featured a glass picture tube and a dearth of English language channels.

We tried to book the a la carte restaurants that are reputed to have better food than the hotel buffet but were shut out of the top two. One a la carte restaurant we did manage to book featured reheated vegetables and wafer-thin, sinewy rib steaks.

Breakfasts at the main buffet restaurant were equally grim. Coffee was often lukewarm. There was no butter or bacon unless you counted the “Canadian Back Bacon.” Like the best revenge, it was served cold along with other unappetizing cuts of meat.

And speaking of cold . . . that was the temperature of the water in our shower most days. Despite repeated complaints, we seldom had hot water.

We discovered the resort had a neighbouring property close by, the Riu Palace Pacifico. It was also advertised as a five-star. We checked it out and could see immediately it was far nicer than the Riu Vallarta.

Buoyed by that, we asked the hotel-based Sunwing/Signature Vacation rep to move us to the property. After all, I argued, both were listed as five stars, so there should be no problem. They said they’d do it if my partner and I paid another US$500 or so each. We refused, given we’d only paid about $1,000 each for the flight and hotel in the first place.

I wrote a scathing e-mail to Sun Wing two days into our trip demanding they contact me. I got a form letter signed by “Tessa” promising they’d investigate my complaints within 30 days.

So what’s a traveller supposed to do to find out if that much ballyhooed five-star resort is fact or fiction?

A spokesman for a Canadian association of travel agencies says it’s buyer beware. “The rating system can vary from country to country,” said Marco Pozzobon, a spokesman with Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA). “You’re kind of at the mercy of that property.”

Pozzobon says it’s best to do as much research as possible before booking, including by reading on-line travel forums. I had done just that, researching the Riu Vallarta on TripAdvisor but the reviews weren’t conclusive.

Not surprisingly, Pozzobon recommends booking through a travel agent as opposed to doing it online. Often, with package deals, it costs little or nothing extra to book through an agent, he says.

The other advantage is that a travel agent will go to bat for you if your dream vacation turns into a nightmare, he says. “The great thing is you don’t have to wait until you get back. You can call your agent and say ‘this is a nightmare we’re sitting in’ and they can get on the phone right then to the tour operator or hotel.

“One of the bottom lines is use a travel agent,” he says. “Often if a deal looks too good to be true, it may well be too good to be true.”

For its part, Sunwing/Signature later insisted there’s little they can do if a resort doesn’t live up to its claim to be five-star.

The tour company offered my partner and I a $75 travel voucher each but insisted it’s essentially a case of buyer beware.

“We are unable to simply adjust the star ratings of any given resort without their approval, for seasonal variations and fluctuations,” said Max Veldhus, Customer Relations Coordinator for Sunwing Vacations/Signature Vacations.

“This is why we recommend all passengers review their choices on independent review sites prior to confirming their booking, as noted in the terms and conditions of booking.”

Kerry Diotte is a veteran journalist who has travelled extensively and written about his experiences.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by all Troy Media columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Troy Media.

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