I had almost given up on a holiday abroad this summer as they’re now so eye-wateringly expensive. Flights alone cost over a quarter more than last year.
But then I saw an advert by discount website Wowcher that brought a holiday for me and my wife back into my miserly grasp.
The deal offers flights and two-nights’ accommodation for two somewhere abroad for just £99 per person.
The only catch? The trip is labelled ‘The Ultimate Mystery Holiday’ — in other words, we would not know before paying for it where we would be going.
The advertisement showed tantalising images of New York, Las Vegas and Mexico, along with sun-kissed beach scenes that looked as if they could be Barbados or the Maldives. So, I decided to gamble.
Promise: Wowcher’s mystery deal offers flights and two-nights’ accommodation for two somewhere abroad for just £99 per person
The original advertisement showed tantalising images of New York, Las Vegas and Mexico, along with sun-kissed beach scenes that looked as if they could be Barbados or the Maldives
These are the list of the best long-haul deals that were offered up which included New York, Dubai, Las Vegas
The chance to jet away for a romantic weekend with my wife for under £200 seemed too good an offer to pass up.
The deal promised we would be given four-star accommodation — and 1,386 such breaks had already been snapped up in June and July.
Not wanting to miss out, I fumbled for my wallet to pay for our mystery trip.
However, I quickly learned that the £99 price was only from the autumn — as we want to go before the summer is out, the price was actually £129.
And then there was a £9.99 ‘administration’ charge, bringing the total to £267.99.
Trip to a place that does not exist
Still, I was feeling hopeful when, within hours of paying, I received an email asking for some date options for when we would be available to jet off. I excitedly broke the news to my wife.
Then we waited patiently, passports at the ready as the first weekend that we had asked for came and went. Eventually, a week later, I finally received that expected call.
Ashish was courteous and friendly, ringing from a call centre in India. There was a rehearsed sense of theatre to the proceedings — as if he were opening a golden envelope.
‘Congratulations . . . you have two tickets to Sofia in Germany,’ he announced. I have been to Sofia in the past and I’m pretty sure it’s in Bulgaria. Is he sure?
‘Ah yes. Sorry. It is Bulgaria,’ admitted Ashish. Although I have nothing against this lovely country, it was not what I had in mind for our summer break and I asked if I could have another go at the lucky dip. This time he came back with Gdansk in Poland.
Again, nonplussed. I told him I was willing to sulk on the line until he found a weekend break more to my liking.
Originally they were going to put me off the main island at Hotel San Giuliano. It was a basic three-star some five miles out of Venice itself. I looked it up and could have got it for £170 for two nights if I’d booked directly. So, if I had booked the break myself I would have paid £10 less than with the mystery offer
Lista Di Spagna: I was upgraded to a four-star hotel (as initially promised in the promotion) in Venice. This accommodation costs £300 to book directly — so by using the Mystery Holiday deal I was now £120 up
Special deal doubles in price
My intransigence paid off and after ten minutes Ashish came back — with an offer of Milan in Italy at the end of July.
We went through the itinerary and when Ashish said we would be flying from my local airport Stansted, just 12 miles away, I was delighted.
There was a slight hiccup in that the break was for three nights not the two as requested — but as I was hopeful I could arrange the extra time off work, I still eagerly agreed to the offer.
‘Because you are booking for an extra day there is a supplementary charge of £129 per person,’ Ashish then calmly added. I argued that I should not have to pay the supplement since it was the decision of the tour operator — not me — to extend the trip.
But my argument failed to impress. Suddenly the price of the holiday had doubled and an initial expectation of £198 had risen to a total of £525.99. Not quite the money-saving trip I had in mind.
Ashish explained that ‘because June and July are so popular there is much less choice’.
As a compromise I was willing to forget the summer break and go any time he had available.
Other European destinations included two-night breaks in Dubrovnik, Genoa and Santander
Bargain bucket: Wowcher’s ‘Ultimate Mystery Holiday’ deal offers two nights for just £99 per person – but you don’t know where you’ll end up
Summer stay — in winter
Ashish then went away for a further 20 minutes to find what else might be in the tour operator’s mystery locker. I was feeling grateful for finding someone so helpful.
He could all too easily have told me there were no more choices on the table or done what so many firms do these days when they don’t want to help — and just hung up.
It also helped that I remained courteous, understanding all too well the unnecessary abuse call centre staff often suffer when just trying to do their job.
Eventually Ashish came back on the line: ‘Okay. Venice in November. That is the best I can do.’
The negotiating was over and I felt this was a fair result as it cost the original £267.99 I had paid for. Yet it was still not for when I actually wanted to travel and would involve going from Gatwick airport — considerably less convenient than Stansted.
The itinerary was emailed through moments later from a company called ‘Weekender Breaks’. Apparently, we would be travelling via Wizz Air (it holds the dubious honour of being ‘the worst short-haul airline’, according to consumer group Which?).
Had I bought two return flight tickets separately for these journeys, it would have cost just £88. Naturally, the tickets only included a hand baggage allowance. If we had taken suitcases they would have cost more than the flights.
But the hotel was the biggest disappointment — as it was a basic three-star some five miles out of Venice itself. I looked it up and could have got it for £170 for two nights if I’d booked directly. So, if I had booked the break myself I would have paid £10 less than with the mystery offer.
Great expectations not quite met
This mystery holiday had turned into a bit of a damp squib and I called the next day to explain my disappointment.
In preparation, I was armed with the knowledge that when booking a holiday under package travel regulations there is protection if the holiday does not turn out to be as expected.
And it would be fair to assume that when booking an advertised break in Venice, this is where I might expect to stay.
Politely I put forward this case. To my surprise, it worked, and I was upgraded to a four-star hotel (as initially promised in the promotion) in Venice.
This accommodation costs £300 to book directly — so by using the Mystery Holiday deal I was now £120 up.
The deal promised four-star accommodation – and claimed that 1,386 such breaks had already been snapped up in June and July
Odds of winning the perfect break
Weekender Breaks is the trading name of Viva Holidays, which is an agent for Hays Travel.
Delve into the small-print terms and conditions — tucked in a link under ‘the fine print’ — and you will find holidays are sold in batches of 1,000 to a wide variety of destinations.
Only one in 1,000 bought are to Barbados. And you get the same odds for hitting the jackpot with locations such as New York and Dubai.
There are more than 50 other ‘winning’ destinations, with many offering dozens of breaks — almost all of which are in Europe.
A tip for anyone tempted to buy a Mystery Holiday — print off the full list of available destinations and have it to hand when you are told where you are being sent, so you are better prepared to fight for where you really want to go.
A spokesman for Hays Travel says: ‘We advise people to always read the small print on deals offering holidays costing well below the market value. It helps keep expectations realistic.’
But is the mystery holiday worth a punt? Well, after quite a bit of haggling and several phone calls, I ended up making some savings.
But — as with so many things in life — I discovered you get what you pay for.
Have you ever been on an ‘Ultimate Mystery’ holiday? Please email your experience to email@example.com
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