It had been a horrible year. My trip to the Scottish highlands in May had been cancelled. At least for that trip I could get a refund as the hotel I had booked was closed (though it took a long time for them to pay it) and I had booked a flight with Easyjet who also allowed me to claim a refund for the flights (as they were cancelled) via their website.
I had another trip book for July. That too got cancelled because accommodation was all still closed in Scotland (but irritatingly, only by a couple of days) and at the time the English were still banned from Scotland other than for essential reasons (Nicola Sturgeons’ dream had come true….).
Unfortunately by then Easyjet had tried a new trick to try and keep my money. Rather than admit my original flight from Luton was cancelled as they did in May, they sent me an email about how it was great news they were still allowing people to go on holiday this summer but it meant they’d had to make a change to my booking. The net result was my flight was now departing a day later, from a different airport (Gatwick) at a different time and with a different flight number. Naturally they didn’t mention anything about a refund for the car hire which would also be cut short by a day since my return flight had not been pushed back by a day (though was also now going at a different time and to a different airport). By now they’d removed the ability to request a refund on their website and said the only way to get a refund was to call them (but if I wanted a voucher, which I didn’t, I could do that via the website).
I had a big dispute. I tried to call many times always either getting a message that they were very busy and to save me waiting “a really long time”, they wern’t able to take my call at the moment (and then cutting me off) or waiting more than an hour before I had to give up (I had to call on my lunch break as the opening hours of the telephone line had been cut short so much). I tried sending an email explaining I didn’t want to take the revised flight and wanted a refund. I got an email after the flight was already due to leave that told me to consult their FAQ. I replied again and was told, weeks later, that I wasn’t entitled to a refund because the flight ran. Well the one I actually booked didn’t! The CAA make it quite clear that if the flight number is changed (it was), it’s a cancellation and the airline is required to offer a refund and pay it within 14 days. In addition it was a package because it included car hire and I had an ABTA certificate attached to the booking which meant that too entitled me to a refund. However none of this appeared to make any difference to Easyjet. As far as they were concerned, they had my money and they were keeping it.
Having found Easyjet refusing to refund I took it up with the credit card company who when I called and explained the situation and they immediately did a chargeback and refunded me. A few weeks later I got a letter from them saying that Easyjet had disputed it, submitted evidence to prove it and so my refund had been reversed. I was fuming!
Fortunately the credit card I used when I booked was American Express and they are excellent. I got through immediately, to a real person on a free phone number and explained the situation. They listened to what I had to say, told me I’d need to submit my evidence but it sounded like I had a good case. They also said they would share the evidence Easyjet provided to them with me. I was shocked, because when they did so it turned out Easyjet had provided a booking showing only the flight they had moved me to, not the one I originally booked, an extract from their system showing I never checked in for that flight and so was classed as a “no show” and exceptionally rude (and false) statement saying I’d made no attempt to contact them in advance (a lie) and I wasn’t entitled to a refund simply because I was unhappy to travel in the circumstances (despite not knowing why I hadn’t turned up). None of that was true. I had contacted them, that wasn’t the flight I booked and I would happily have travelled if there was actually any accommodation open in Scotland at the time (which at the time there wasn’t). Fortunately submitting all my original booking information, email exchanges (including the one showing the change) and telephone records to show I had called them on multiple occasions before the flight was enough to convince American Express that I was indeed entitled to a refund, had proved I had tried and failed to get one myself and as a result Easyjet had no case. They even told me on the phone that having reviewed it, they thought that Easyjet were “just trying it on”, that they had had a lot of other people in the same situation and in addition they would pay me a small amount of compensation as a goodwill gesture for reversing the refund in the first place. As I said, American Express are excellent!
Still after that trip was also cancelled I had managed to book 4 nights at a hotel in Kyle of Lochalsh in early August in the hope hotels would be open by then. There are two hotels there neither particularly well reviewed. The Lochalsh Hotel and the Kyle Hotel (I think I can see how they came up with those names). I booked the latter as it had slightly better reviews. Unfortunately, it was owned by Bespoke Hotels, owners of the Caledonian Hotel I had stayed at on my last few trips that was very run-down and poor quality and who also owned the Royal Hotel in Thurso where I stayed previously and also found run down (or at least they did own it at the time I booked, but it had been sold on by the time I actually stayed there). Unfortunately I was unable to book the whole time in Kyle of Lochalsh as it was full, so I will have to move to a different hotel in a different town half way through the week.
Finally my luck was in. Hotels in Scotland would be open by that date. Now I needed to sort out how to get there. I wasn’t going to use Easyjet again after my experience trying to get my money back from them before. British Airways weren’t running any flights at the time to Inverness and FlyBe, who used to, had since gone bust. So flying there wasn’t really an option.
What about the train? Well no. There was only one train a day I could get there on. The journey was to involve 4 trains (plus the tube across London), so something was bound to go wrong and the return price was quoted as £348. It took 13 hours and I’d have to wear a mask the whole time and there was no catering “due to Covid”. In addition I would need a hire car when I got there and there is nowhere that hires cars in Kyle of Lochalsh. Or I could take the sleeper train from London to Inverness, which was even more expensive (and I doubted I’d get much sleep anyway). It wasn’t a hard decision to rule that option out.
That meant the only practical option was to take my own car and drive myself, which was also why I opted for a longer trip than usual (9 days/8 nights) though it would take a whole day to get there and a whole day back, giving 7 days of walks. My 12 year old Renault Clio with more than 100,000 miles on the clock perhaps wasn’t ideally suited for the 592 mile drive but it would have to do (I normally walk to work so don’t see the point on spending a lot of money on a “nice” car).
Nearly 600 miles was a long way to drive in a day (and I was glad we haven’t yet been forced into electric cars, where I’d have to add another 3 hours or so of “recharge time” perhaps making it impossible in a single day). Well the drive wasn’t too bad most of the way until I hit a delay on the M90 where roadworks had reduced the road to a single lane and then someone had crashed in this section. That caused a 90 minute hold up, but after that it was clear and I reached the hotel at 8pm. On checking in, I was told that last orders in the restaurant was 8pm but they were fully booked anyway due to reduced capacity due to the dreaded “social distancing”. Oh goody. So no dinner there then. I headed instead to a nearby takeaway where I was told it was cash only and after placing an order I had to stand outside in the rain to wait for it because I wasn’t allowed to wait inside anymore. So pizza in the car for dinner, then. Welcome to travel, 2020 style.
My room, on the 1st floor was pretty tiny, basic and run-down as I expected (though it did seem some of the rooms on the ground floor had been recently refurbished).
The headboard of my bed was against the paper-thin wall to the corridor. My room was at the end of the corridor with a door to the car park right next to it. Every time someone went out to smoke or get something from their car (which was often) the door would close with a loud bang and the wall would vibrate. In addition a hand sanitiser dispenser had been mounted on the wall right the other side with instructions to always use it on entry to the hotel and that made a loud beep and whirr anytime anyone did so (I quickly discovered however that most people didn’t bother). Well I wasn’t expecting much from this hotel but it was still disappointing and I wondered how much sleep I’d get with all the noise. In addition I was told my room would not be cleaned at all during my stay (and I had been provided a bin bag for rubbish), I had to ask at reception for clean towels or tea bags and that capacity at breakfast was limited so I mate have to wait for a free table and I must book for evening meals. Again, welcome to travel 2020 style.
Well having unpacked (one advantage of going by car is I can full the boot with lots of stuff, as I did) I thought I’d take a quick look around Kyle of Lochalsh. Despite all the difficulties in getting here it was so good to finally be back to somewhere by the coast I’d never been before, 11 months after I was last here.
Kyle of Lochalsh is a small place really, more a village, but it did have a bank with cash machine, a CoOp with quite long opening hours, a couple of hotels and pubs, a couple of takeaways and a petrol station. Oh and even the luxury of a railway station (the last time I was anywhere on the coast with a station was Thurso, and indication of just how remote much of the coast of Scotland is). In short whilst it may not be big, it had all I needed. Luckily for me it turned out the other possible hotel, the Lochalsh Hotel was still closed. It was a huge hotel too.
I suspect at one time, Kyle of Lochalsh was a more important place. It was one of the main ferry ports for the Isle of Skye (the other being Mallaig) and I expect many people would stop here whilst waiting for the ferry and perhaps stay overnight on the way there or back. That was probably why the large Lochalsh Hotel had been built at all, being practically opposite where the ferries used to depart. But the opening of the bridge to the Isle of Skye had taken that away. No need for ferries any more and Kyle of Lochalsh was now somewhere most people simply passed through without stopping on the way to Skye.
I enjoyed the views from the town and the rainbow, signalling the imminent arrival of a heavy shower (after months and months of glorious weather across the whole UK, it seemed it had broken just as I got here).
I headed back to the hotel. I was looking forward to tomorrow very much. At last, I’d be able to do a new coastal walk, after 11 months away. (I worked out 11 months had been the longest time for almost 25 years I’d gone without doing a new coastal walk!).