We’ve all got lots of ‘stuff’ haven’t we? The charity shops on my local high street are struggling with the volume of donations as people clear out their wardrobes to ensure their possessions go on to have a second life.

As a consequence, lots of people are doing their best to avoid buying more possessions for people this Christmas. Instead, there’s been a surge in interest in experience days, vouchers and gift cards and other ‘virtual’ gifts.

Buying someone an experience is a lovely idea. Creating a great memory for your loved ones to share is certainly very appealing after all we’ve gone through over the last few years. However, thousands of people make complaints about these virtual gifts every year. Here’s what you need to look out for.

Experience days

From balloon trips over the British countryside to pamper days at luxury spas, experience days can seem like a novel and adventurous gift. But it’s very important that you do your research.

Complaints about experience days fall in to two broad categories. Problems with redeeming the vouchers and the experience not living up to expectations.

Like any other voucher, an experience day has a finite life. It may not be prominent in the packaging, but you will need to book the experience within a set period of time, usually a year. This caused no end of problems over the pandemic because many events could not take place, which led to a considerable backlog of outstanding vouchers.

In addition, some people have told me that they have been informed by the providers of some of the services that the timescale on the voucher relates to when you have the experience, not the date you book it. So if you book in February, the voucher expires in March but the event takes place in April, you could be too late. I think this is outrageous, frankly, but nethertheless, make sure you read all the terms and conditions before booking.

Voucher websites

Voucher websites offer a huge range of goods and services, from days at the races to discount garden furniture. The websites don’t provide the goods or services – but they do offer big discounts for the vouchers to buy them.

This causes problems when the goods or services turn up and they aren’t what you wanted or expected. One of the most common complaints I hear is about poor-quality items, broken or damaged goods or disappointing events. Voucher websites have been warned that they need to improve their customer services and not pass the buck on to the provider of the goods and services. But clearly, lots of problems are still occurring, so check on the website what to do if you are unhappy.

Disappointing experiences

Things get complicated when the quality of an experience is raised. Having a good time is subjective and isn’t something that is generally legislated for. However, if your voucher experience promised one thing but patently failed to deliver it, the person who bought the experience has the right to make a complaint.

Many of the experience days I’ve seen have tons of unnecessary restrictions on them, like significant restrictions on when you can redeem the vouchers, or lots of extras that you need to enjoy the day but have to pay for. I recommend taking screenshots of the promises made on the website and checking in advance to confirm that the experience covers all the things you are expecting. If things are fundamentally different, the purchaser can make a complaint, arguing that the service has been misrepresented, under the terms of the Consumer Rights Act.

All of which is a bit rubbish, isn’t it? So it pays to be cautious. My three top tips are:

  • Pay on a credit card if the experience is over £100, so you have some extra statutory protection.
  • Find out when the expiry or ‘use by’ date is and make that clear when you give the gift.
  • If the experience is poor, make a complaint at the time and take it further!

Martyn James is a leading consumer rights campaigner, TV and radio broadcaster and journalist.

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