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Vacationers searching for answers after finding chewed mattress, missing toilet seats at resort

A relaxing vacation in Cuba was what Jeff Phelps thought he was signing up for when he booked a 20th wedding anniversary trip with Sunwing. 

That’s not what they got when they arrived at the Grand Memories Varadero, listed as a 4.5-star facility, during the holidays. 

The family opened the door to the room and “the first thing that comes out at us is this cockroach,” Phelps said from Calgary, telling the story a week later.

“And it just gets worse from there. The toilet seat is missing, something has eaten the side of the bed.”

CBC News spoke to multiple people who booked recent stays at that resort through various vacation sites. They all detailed similar experiences with unsanitary rooms, missing items and broken amenities.

Now, they’re trying to get answers from the travel companies.

When the Phelps family tried to move rooms, the front desk said there were no others available.

Eventually, they were moved to another room — with a toilet seat — but Phelps said the problems didn’t stop. Activities and buffets were closed, the alcohol they paid for in the room wasn’t there and the iron was missing. 

Two travellers CBC News spoke with said there were no toilet seats in their room at the resort. (Submitted by Jeff Phelps)

The travellers say trip brokers — like Sunwing, Air Canada and SellOffVacations — should bear some responsibility for selling stays at resorts that clients feel don’t meet basic health and safety standards. 

“They should have some kind of checkpoint meeting or a review of those resorts on a regular basis and provide that feedback to the parent company. And that, to me, is why I hold someone accountable. They took my money. They should know what I’m buying,” Phelps said.

Company regrets customer issue

Sunwing, in response, said it regularly reviews facilities and communicates with the destination partners to address issues that arise. 

“Sunwing Vacations consistently shares feedback with our hotel partners from our reviews and insights gleaned from these various sources, including this customer’s, to ensure the best possible customer service and standards in destination,” the company said in an emailed statement.

“We regret the customer’s vacation experience in destination fell short of the standards we stand by at Sunwing.”

But a travel agent also warns these issues are widespread at most major beach destinations, especially since the pandemic — and customers should also try to apply extra layers of due diligence.

“I think talking to an agent about that can really help paint the picture, and ask lots of questions. What is the experience generally like in Cuba? Am I going to have hotel problems? Am I going to have a room problem?” said Nikola Berube, the director of sales at AMA Travel.

She says if you arrive to a sub-par room, you should take pictures and speak to management, then contact the travel agency you booked with. 

“Once you’re home, you have used the vacation, you’re unlikely to get any compensation or refund or any resolution to your complaint. It goes through an arduous complaint process through the travel supplier.”

CBC News has reached out to other travel agencies that book with the resort and to the resort itself for comment, but has not received a response.

‘We kind of wanted to go home’ 

Jennifer Hurst also booked at the Grand Memories, with Air Canada Vacations, for a stay over the holidays. 

She’d been there six years ago and thought it would be predictable. When she walked into her room this time, she said it immediately smelled like mould. And the shelf above the fridge was leaning at a suspicious angle. 

“I’m like, ‘What the heck is wrong with that?’ The shelf was completely rotted, I guess from the condensation from the fridge,” she said.

They were moved to another room, but the door wouldn’t lock and there was no hot water. 

“At that point, we kind of wanted to go home. We just figured, ‘Let’s cut our losses.’ I can’t imagine spending the whole vacation there,” she said. 

After days of trying for a solution, both travel groups were moved offsite to another resort.

Subtract 1.5 stars

Berube says a tip for hotel ratings is to assume the resorts are the equivalent of about 1.5 stars lower than they would be in North America. So a five-star Cuba resort is closer to a three-star. 

She also said that during peak travel times, like the Christmas season, many resorts are at capacity and activating rooms that have been neglected because they aren’t used during regular demand. 

And those factors, she says, mean sometimes the vacation attendants touring the facilities may not be getting the full story, either.

Meanwhile, the travellers are wondering how what they saw online and where they stayed could be so different.

“Stuff happens. People are busy, hotels overbook,” Phelps said. “They made it right in the end. But you can’t make it right four days later and not provide some kind of compensation. So I’m a pretty fair guy. But I feel I’ve been duped here.”

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