My family and I were looking forward to our holiday in a self-catering apartment overlooking the sea in a small Spanish town. The photographs looked idyllic. But the reality was far from it.
As soon as we walked into the dark, narrow flat, on a side street next to the train station, my vision of sitting on the terrace watching the waves at sunset dissolved.
The bedrooms were small and gloomy; the beds were nothing more than rickety sofa beds, and the livingroom couches were the same, with mattresses not so cleverly disguised by a bedspread and adorned with stained cushions.
I have no problem slumming it for a night or two, but the photographs on the website were of a different apartment
Eating on the balcony (which was only large enough for two chairs and overlooked a building site) was not going to happen, and the diningroom table was squeezed into a corner between the sofa and a dresser – we had to form an orderly queue in order to get to our seats.
It was a dismal set-up, and the thought of spending an entire week there was depressing, to say the least, particularly as the “swimming pool” was only big enough to take three strokes across and was surrounded by concrete walls with no space to sit – it was really just a plunge pool, and after a quick dip you would have no choice but to walk up three flights of stairs to the apartment to dry off.
It was going to be a long week.
I have no problem slumming it for a night or two, but I really wasn’t happy about the situation – the photographs on the website were of a different apartment, and although the dimensions were roughly the same the quality, decor and overall cleanliness were far superior in the advertisement.
I tried calling the manager, but there was no reply, so I sent him an email to say that the property was not what we had expected and was there any chance we could move.
That done, we adults made a point of putting on a brave face and getting out and about to explore the area – and once we found the sea and the beachfront bars and restaurants things began to look a lot brighter, and we vowed to make the best of a bad situation.
The psychologist Peadar Maxwell says this is the right approach. "If the accommodation disaster is fixable, then accept it or a part refund, but don't keep talking about it on your holiday. If not, demand a change or change yourself and sort out the travel insurance when you get home – but either way make a decision and stick to it.
“Once you are over the disappointment don’t try to re-create every aspect of your original plans. Instead come up with a realistic plan for the time you have left and get on with having a nice time: the area may still have the lovely walks, beautiful beaches or lively nightlife, so get out and enjoy that.”
Yet despite vowing to be optimistic, things went from bad to worse during the night: the rooms were stifling, with no air-conditioning, so the windows had to be kept open, which resulted in an endless cacophony of noise. First it was the trains, then a gang of dogs had a barking competition until the early hours, and once they stopped a cat fight started underneath the window.
Lying in the dark on the cramped, flimsy bed, we waited for silence. When it finally came, around 3am, we drifted off, only to be woken 40 minutes later by a bin lorry emptying the six recycling bins located on the street outside.
This was followed by a trio of noisy motorbikes. Then, after a brief respite, the dawn express train made its presence felt, and from thereon in a train would screech past every half-hour or so.
Then, to add insult to injury, the paper-thin ceilings alerted us to the early-morning rituals of our upstairs neighbours. If we hadn’t been so shattered it would almost have been funny.
We packed our belongs and walked, laden down, to the new location, a palace in comparison – light, bright, airy and clean, with a beautiful balcony overlooking the sea
The upside of our sleepless night was the fury I felt when I fired off another email to the apartment manager, listing in great detail everything that was wrong with the property and demanding that we be moved to another apartment or given a refund that day.
A couple of hours later he responded – greatly wounded by my criticism but offering us the opportunity to move to another location a few streets away. We packed our belongs and walked, laden down, to the new location, which was like a palace in comparison – light, bright, airy and clean, with a beautiful big balcony overlooking the sea – exactly what we thought we had booked in the first place. It was heavenly.
We were very fortunate, as the solicitor Gríana O’Kelly says booking holiday accommodation independently can be tricky, because it’s down to the customer to ensure everything is as it seems.
“Booking a package holiday through a travel agent gives consumers more protection,” she says. “The obligation is on the agent to ensure the holiday and each part of it runs smoothly. But if you choose to book your holiday separately you will not have as much protection.”
But O'Kelly, who is a partner at Lavelle Solicitors in Dublin, says there is some good news for consumers. "The new directive (EU) 2015/2302 on package holidays and linked travel arrangements is targeted for transposition into Irish law by July 1st, 2018. Under this new legislation the protections offered to package holidays will be broadened to include customised packages."
The legal expert says there is no clear entitlement to a refund if photographs are slightly misleading, so I did well to get alternative accommodation.
The combination of my lengthy email and its tone – firm but not threatening – seemed to do the trick, so I would advise holidaymakers who feel they have been duped to follow a similar tack – and, if this doesn’t work, either find alternative accommodation and sort out the legalities afterwards or try to make the best of a what you have.
But wherever you end up, and regardless of whether your home from home is a palace or a shack, enjoy the break from routine and have a happy holiday.
• For a great choice of properties at home try dreamireland.com
• If you are planning an Italian retreat tuscanynowandmore.com has a fantastic selection that could be worth a look.
• Heading to the Spanish coast? Look no further than catalanways.com, the site of an Irish company based in Spain.
• For a break in a beautiful house in rural France try facebook.com/maisonfleurdelisbagnault
• And if you prefer to avoid the kitchen while on holiday, barcelo.com has a vast range of family- and couple-friendly hotels around the world.