Gift vouchers that never give: The problems with ‘experience days’

Gift vouchers that never give: Why you shouldn’t buy trendy ‘experience days’ like wine-tasting as presents without checking the small print

  • Complaints soaring about vouchers for experiences — such as spa days
  • A common gripe is that there is a very limited number of dates to choose from
  • Look out for short expiry periods, some vouchers are valid for just three months 

It isn’t easy trying to find the perfect present for loved ones who seem to have everything, which is why more of us are opting for gift vouchers.

However, with complaints soaring about vouchers for experiences — such as spa days and wine-tasting events — it is vital that you check the fine print before you buy.

One of the most common gripes is that there is a very limited number of dates from which to choose when trying to redeem a voucher.

Sour taste? Paul Giamatti sampling wine in the film Sideways. Vouchers for wine-tasting events make popular gifts. But don’t be caught out by short expiry periods

In some cases, customers can book to use their voucher only on one day a month, Money Mail research can reveal. 

Others are caught out by short expiry periods, with some vouchers valid for just three months. 

And some customers who have booked through websites such as Wowcher or Groupon, which offer services and experiences at heavily discounted prices, have even found that the company which is supposed to be offering the service has since closed down or the event has been cancelled.

When they then try to get a refund, they are told they can only have credit to spend on another voucher.

And because the industry is unregulated, there is no official body to complain to. Demand for ‘experience vouchers’ increased by almost a fifth between 2017 and 2018, according to trade body the UK Gift Card & Voucher Association.

But figures from online dispute service Resolver reveal that complaints have also rocketed 6,889 per cent in just four years. In 2014-15, there were 99 complaints — last year, there were 6,919.

As Christmas approaches, experts warn shoppers to check the small print before buying this type of voucher. 

My £100 gift expired before I could use it…

Jane Lowther was given a £100 Red Letter Days gift voucher by her husband for Christmas last year.

But when the couple, from Basingstoke, Hampshire, tried to use it to book a meal out for Valentine’s Day, they could not find an available date at the restaurant they had chosen.

Mrs Lowther, 55, an events organiser, then fell ill and decided to wait to try again, not realising that the voucher was valid for only ten months.

When she came to use it last month, it had expired.

She says: ‘Who decided on a ten-month redemption period? It is as though the company wants to catch people out. My husband gave the firm £100 and we got nothing.’

A Red Letter Days spokesman says that customers can extend their vouchers if they are still within their expiry date for a £20 administration fee and that it would be extending Mrs Lowther’s voucher for free as a gesture of goodwill.

He added that less than one per cent of Red Letter Days customers who contact its website do so to complain and says that the vouchers are exchangeable if a customer encounters any issues in booking their preferred date.

Martyn James, of Resolver, says: ‘You must really be aware of the sneaky small print when buying experiences for loved ones.

‘The explosion of complaints makes it explicitly clear there’s little protection for people who are gifted vouchers when things go wrong. 

‘From vouchers that turn out to have a ton of restrictions, to dodgy firms that vanish into the ether, so much can go wrong — it’s clear the industry needs to be regulated.

‘If you do want to buy a voucher deal, make sure you do so from established companies that have a clear complaints process on their website.

‘It pays to check how you redeem the voucher, too, and the deadline for using it.’

Research by Money Mail shows how easy it is for customers to be caught out by restrictive terms and conditions.

Shoppers can purchase a Red Letter Days voucher for cheese-making and wine-tasting for two in Surrey for £180. 

But the small print reveals that customers can attend only on one Thursday each month and the voucher is valid for just ten months.

Virgin Experience Days is selling a £50 voucher for a tour for two at a coffee roastery. It is valid for 12 months, but the tour runs only on the last Monday of each month, and it is recommended that you book at least four weeks in advance. 

Groupon offers a voucher for afternoon tea with prosecco at a London restaurant for £35. But the deal expires after four months, and customers can only book a Monday to Thursday slot.

Meanwhile, Wowcher is selling vouchers for spa packages for two for £99. However, they are valid only until February 29 and three ‘premium locations’ are available only from Monday to Thursday.

Groupon, Virgin Experience Days, Wowcher and Red Letter Days all said terms and expiry dates are made clear at the point of sale. 

A UK Gift Card and Voucher Association spokesman says: ‘We would always recommend that customers looking to purchase vouchers buy them from a reputable provider and thoroughly read the terms and conditions.’