A hotel’s illegal approach to gift vouchers, and a customer left short-changed

There are now strict rules governing the operation of vouchers, but some businesses are choosing to ignore the law

The voucher industry in Ireland is worth hundreds of millions of euro and until five years ago was almost completely unregulated. Retailers were able to impose all sorts of ridiculously consumer-unfriendly terms and conditions on their sale and then hide the rules deep in the terms and conditions.

Vouchers were sold with expiry dates of six months – or even less than that. Shops and restaurants could refuse to give change – even in voucher form – if someone bought something for less than the full value of the voucher. They could stop people using vouchers during sale periods and could refuse to accept two vouchers worth €50 each for a product or service that cost €100.

As many as 20 per cent of all the gift vouchers sold in Ireland in any given year went unredeemed – at least in part because of the overly severe terms and conditions imposed by businesses – which meant over €70 million was effectively taken from Irish consumers by Irish businesses in exchange for absolutely noting.

It was, in short, a shambles.


Finally order of sorts was put on the sector in 2019 when laws came into force imposing consumer-friendly rules on the industry.

So, the Consumer Protection (Gift Vouchers) Act is not new, which makes the email we received late last week so surprising.

“I had a situation occur in a hotel today involving a gift card, which was given to me as a present, and I would appreciate if you could let me know is this right or your opinion on this,” the mail from Sarah begins. “The gift card in question was lunch for two, the value of which was €110. Myself and my Mam dined well had one starter, both had mains, one dessert followed by coffee which all totalled up to the value of €75.”

So far, so lovely, right?

“We presented our gift card as payment, which we had alerted staff to when we arrived, and they had to bring the card off to reception to managerial validation, and we were told not to leave.” Sarah and her mother waited “a long 10/15 mins” and she eventually approached a staff member asking if everything was okay.

She was told the total amount the food came to.

“I then enquired if I had to provide any additional payment, to which they said no, and the voucher was actually for more than we had spent. They then said if we didn’t spend the remaining balance of the gift card, it would be lost. I asked if we could not come back on another occasion and use it. I was told no, but we could instead order more food or drinks.” Sarah was given two choices: pay the amount of our lunch in cash and save the voucher another time or lose the balance.

“I, being the quick thinker, decided to spend the balance on a bottle of wine to take home, but the incident has been on my mind ever since. Can hotels or retailers who sell gift cards scrap the balance of a gift card if not used on one transaction? This surely cannot be legal? Or is there anything to protect the consumer in situations like this?”

The short answer to Sarah’s question is no, it is not legal.

And the hotel should really have known better.

The Consumer Protection (Gift Vouchers) Act clearly bans contract terms which require vouchers to be spent in a single transaction.

If a consumer – in this case Sarah – does not redeem the full amount of the voucher in an initial purchase, the business is required to reimburse any remaining balance of more than one euro by way of cash, electronic transfer or voucher.

That is the law. End of story.

While Sarah was indeed quick thinking to buy the bottle of wine with the change, we can’t help but think she was still ripped off.

We have no idea how much she paid for the wine but we’d be pretty confident she paid restaurant prices which – as you know – are always just that little bit (or wildly) more expensive than the cost in your local off-licence.

Bear this article in mind next time you are using a voucher and are told it must all be used in one go – and if you have had an experience similar to Sarah’s at any point over the last five years, please do give us a shout.

If you have a query or a complaint about a company or service or feel you have been let down or mistreated and would like us to look into it please mail pricewatch@irishtimes.com