Several travellers who bought an all-inclusive vacation package in Mexico say they got a nasty surprise after arrival — they were booked into a hotel for one night less than expected and had to check out 17 hours before their morning flight home.
"Everyone in our package was in the same boat," said Tony Lucas, who bought the Sunwing/Signature vacation package from Vancouver to Puerto Vallarta with his wife, Stacey Riediger, at the end of November.
"It was a great deal …[but] it was a travel ripoff."
The couple from Abbotsford, B.C., paid $1,451 for the all-inclusive, eight-day package. It was Riediger's 40th-birthday celebration and her first time on an airplane. The couple — along with several others — ended up sleeping in the lobby of the hotel Riu Jalisco on their last night, because they had to check out early.
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Dozed on lobby chairs
"It was cold. There was a lot of people with blankets sleeping on chairs and it was noisy. And it is open to the outside, so you are basically outside," said Lucas.
"The end of the vacation was definitely ruined. The beginning was ruined too, with wasting a day in the lobby … trying to get an answer to what's going on."
The Sunwing package is advertised as "eight days," with no reference to hotel checkout times in the booking confirmation from Expedia, the site the couple booked through.
"Especially being my first trip, I was nervous and I checked out everything," said Riediger. "We didn't see anything that said we had to be out at noon [the day before the flight back]."
It wasn't until the first afternoon in Mexico — at a Sunwing orientation — that the couple, along with several others, learned they were expected to vacate their rooms after seven nights.
"I felt like I had been lied to," said Riediger.
Lucas and Riediger said the Sunwing representative at the hotel gave the group two options: pay an extra $130 for a "late checkout" on their last day or take a "late-night tour" for $90 per head.
If they took the late checkout, they still had to vacate their room by midnight, the night before their early-morning flight home.
Option was to pay more
"It's all-inclusive. Why am I going to pay more money? I have already paid for the all-inclusive," said Riediger.
One explanation they were given is that their first night — while they were flying — counted as a paid night in the hotel. However, they said they were not told that when they checked in early that morning.
"They [Sunwing] are saying, 'Well, you know this is the situation, but for this amount of money you can get out of the situation.' I consider that an up-sell," said Lucas.
The "eight-day" Sunwing charter flights leave Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary for Puerto Vallarta every Friday night, arriving early Saturday morning. They depart between 3 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. the following Sunday.
"The largest group of the people there was by far Canadians," said Lucas. "After the orientation, there were quite a few irate people in the lobby."
Joanne Wanhella of Nelson, B.C., was another traveller who slept in the lobby on the last night.
"This appeared to be a regular routine that the hotel sees weekly," Wanhella said. "The staff gave blankets out to the guests and then tried to discard these before the next Sunwing vacations guests came in."
Based on what a Sunwing phone representative told CBC News about these travel packages, it appears this was not an isolated incident.
1 night short
"Technically, it's a seven-night stay," a phone representative explained when we called inquiring about the weekly packages as a customer would. "Eight-day stay. Seven nights. You are staying in a room for seven nights. However it's an eight-day stay."
The representative clarified this only after repeated questioning. There is no reference to "seven nights" on Sunwing's website.
Lucas sent an email complaint to Sunwing, but said he received no response. Expedia apologized to him and gave the couple a $50 voucher for future travel.
Murray Mashford, a police officer from Saanich, B.C., who was on the same Sunwing charter with his four-year-old son, said he didn't go to orientation and didn't learn about the early checkout until his last day. He begrudgingly paid the extra $130 so his child could get some sleep.
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"I think Sunwing Vacations should be ashamed of their dubious business practices," said Mashford. "Do they expect people with children to sleep on a bench somewhere, once they've kicked them out of their rooms?"
CBC News was also contacted by a Sunwing customer who travelled to Cancun, Mexico, a year ago — in January 2010 — and had a similar experience.
Julie Allen's documents from her booking agent state her Sunwing package included "eight nights." She later found out it was only seven and she also slept in the hotel lobby on her last night.
"Also, my friend was married in Cancun in April and experienced an identical problem," Allen said. "As it was a wedding, her father didn't want to make waves and agreed to pay the [extra] cost per room [for an extra night]
for he and his wife, the newlyweds and her grandmother.
"It is clearly a case of false advertising on their vacation packages."
No response from Sunwing
CBC News left several messages with Sunwing and Signature Vacations — two companies that have merged — asking for a response, but received no reply.
Expedia did respond in an email, which said:
"We have looked into this issue further and can certainly sympathize with the inconvenience and of course, disappointment travellers experienced. Incorrect information was communicated by Sunwing/Signature to travel agencies, including Expedia, and was unfortunately the cause of this issue."
"[We] are following up with each Expedia customer affected to make sure this experience is set right with them. We are also following up with Sunwing/Signature Vacations to ensure this doesn't happen again."
By the way these packages are structured, Lucas said, it appears Sunwing could sell the same rooms to different customers — for the same nights.
After outgoing passengers who buy the "late checkout" leave at midnight, their room could be cleaned and given to incoming passengers who arrive early in the morning, and counted as their first paid hotel night.
"This has been going on for quite some time, I think, and they are doing it because they are making money," said Lucas.
Vancouver travel agent Barry Chen told CBC News that standard hotel check-in times are in the afternoon and checkout is usually noon or earlier. He said if the check-in and checkout times are not spelled out clearly, up front, that should be a red flag for any customer or booking agent.
"It's just a scam," said Chen. "To have to pay for something else when you are led to believe you have an all-inclusive … it's really taking advantage of people," Chen said.
"In the end, you are paying more than the advertised price."