The Travel Troubleshooter: Sick in Puerto Vallarta — does my hotel owe me anything?

Question: My partner and I have recently returned from a six-day vacation at Barcelo Puerto Vallarta in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. While we were there, many guests were afflicted by a serious illness. We began hearing about it soon after our arrival and within two days, we were both violently ill with vomiting, diarrhea and fever.

For the last four days of our trip, we were barely able to eat or drink and wouldn’t dare take the chance of leaving the resort for any excursions.

Judging by the large number of complaints posted online, many other guests were also affected. Several even required hospitalization.

Because our annual vacation was ruined by this outbreak, we’d like to be reimbursed or offered some level of incentive for a future trip at another Barcelo property. We’ve written to the hotel, but haven’t heard back. Can you help us? — Daniel Vosburgh, Chicago

Answer: Barcelo should have answered your complaint, explaining what went wrong at its Puerto Vallarta property while you were there and offering an apology, at a minimum.

It’s important to understand that this hotel is an all-inclusive resort, meaning that it’s designed to be the kind of place you never have to leave. Every meal, every drink, every snack is included in the price of your room. So when there’s an outbreak of a mysterious illness, it could potentially affect many guests.

That’s what appeared to happen here. If you read the reports of this outbreak, which happened during the spring of 2010, you’ll see there was speculation that it could be anything from the flu to a gastrointestinal virus. In a response posted online by the hotel’s management, Barcelo claimed that tests of its water and food came back negative, and ultimately, it blamed the sickness on pollution in a nearby river.

While it’s laudable for Barcelo to respond to these problems in a public forum, I think it’s equally important to deal with the outbreaks on a case-by-case basis from customers. Why didn’t the hotel bother answering you? You sent your email to the president, marketing department and the press office of the company, which undoubtedly routed it back to the property. It may have fallen between the cracks.

I might have started with a simple email to the hotel outlining your problem, before going straight to the appeals process. Actually, I probably would have mentioned your illness to the hotel while you were there, and asked if there were anything Barcelo could do by way of compensation. Even though, according to the hotel, it wasn’t responsible for the illness, it should have been concerned that you weren’t having a good vacation.

I contacted Barcelo on your behalf. A representative called you and offered you a complimentary weeklong stay at the Barcelo Puerta Vallarta.

(Photo of Puerto Vallarta beach by :d:/Flickr)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • sirwired

    I just thought I would point out that the most likely cause is probably good ‘ol norovirus.  Such outbreaks are probably not the hotel’s fault (guests are more likely to spread it than employees), and it can take many days of scrupulous cleaning, guest quarantine, and intensive staff efforts to bring an outbreak under control.

  • Tony A.

    I agree. That’s also seen in cruise ships and cafeterias where there is food (self)served in common areas.

  • Blondiesez

    My thoughts exactly.  It’s unfortunate, but it does happen.  

  • MikeZ

    Good on the hotel for stepping up on this, though they should have just done that from the start. At least the customer will get the chance to experience a proper vacation the next time around.

  • Tony A.

    After reading this the 3rd time, I would say what was more important was how the hotel treated and comforted the sick people while they were there. Were they given medical help? Were the guests given fluids and checked for hydration regularly? Were their bathrooms and laundry sanitized to prevent more cross-contamination?

    Blaming the sickness on pollution in a nearby river? What’s that all about? That sounds like a ‘permanent’ problem.

  • Anna

    I think this claim should have gone to the couple’s travel insurance instead of the hotel – unless it can be proven that the hotel (and not a hotel guest) was the source.

    BTW, what exactly can a hotel do if a guest shows up with a contagious virus? Tell them to leave? Lock’em in their room? 

  • Jenny

    “Actually, I probably would have mentioned your illness to the hotel
    while you were there, and asked if there were anything Barcelo could do
    by way of compensation.”

    What Chris said.

  • Gubby

    Some deathly ill employee probably came to work because he or she “wouldn’t get paid” if they didn’t work.  Welcome to Mexico.

  • Mark K

    Welcome to America.  The vast majority of service industry workers face the same situation here.  No work = no pay.

    Those of us with sick time or other compensation for missing work due to a non-major medical issue are fast becoming the exception.

  • Mark K

    Does the resort draw its water from the “polluted” river?  Is the river on the property and offered as a recreatoinal spot by the resort?  Unless all the guests that got sick at the property went to the river, blaming it on that sounds like a dodge to me.  From the description, it sounds like the “cruise ship flu” that was rampant at one time – stuff a bunch of people into a closed location and the slightest failure in food safety procedures causes a breakout of illness.

  • Joel Marcelo

    As always, awesome article! I am a fan of your work. You take me places. 

  • LeeAnneClark

    Blaming it on a polluted river seems rather disingenuous – if the resort is located in an area that is so polluted that large percentages of their guests get violently ill, then this would make the resort uninhabitable 100% of the time!  Who would want to stay at a resort where the very location causes you to get sick?  Seems like a pretty dumb thing for them to say.

    I agree with Sirwired – this was almost assuredly a norovirus outbreak.  Those are brought in by people, not caused by rivers.

    This is a common dilemma on cruise ships:  what to do when a large part of a passenger load gets sick?  Most cruise lines these days will not provide any reimbursement, because unless you can prove that the illness is the cruise ship’s fault (almost impossible to do), they can claim that you came onboard with the illness, or caught it from another passenger, something they have zero control over.

    While it’s wonderful for this couple that they received compensation, imagine if everyone who got ill while on vacation demanded compensation?  Not exactly fair to the resorts.

    Getting sick while on vacation is always a risk, and the reality is that you generally cannot get any compensation for it.  It’s just a fact of living on this planet.  Prior to any vacation, I take steps to avoid encountering any pathogens:  I stay far away from anyone with even a sniffle; I avoid crowds or new places; I wash my hands and use antibacterial products regularly.  Once I’m on my vacation, especially if I’m on a cruise ship or in a third-world country, I avoid touching things that are touched by hundreds of people; I carry antibacterial wipes/gel with me and use them frequently; I keep my hands away from my face (that’s how many viruses enter your body – by touching something, then touching your mouth or eyes); I avoid eating unwashed vegetables; I’m careful where I eat, staying away from local venues that might not be clean/safe.

    That’s about all we can do.  If we do get sick (which has happened to me more than once)…oh well!  I must have touched or eaten something I shouldn’t have.  Too bad for me.

  • Tony A.

    I agree with Mark. Plus, take a look at the back of your restaurant or hotel. I bet you find a lot of Mexican workers there. So ain’t no difference…

  • Tony A.

    There is one more thing you can do to protect yourself …
    Sometimes you cannot avoid those food-borne pathogens and you may get gastroenteritis. I’m very susceptible to this problem and I travel to Asia quite often, so I scour the world for better solutions. The best one I have found (better than Imodium or Lomotil) is a therapeutic dose of Good Bacteria.
    Sanofi-Adventis has a product called Enterogermina or Erceflora which they sell in Asia (and I think Latin America). They come in liquid form inside a small 2ml plastic vial. Essentially each vial has 2 billion units of
    Bacillus clausii read

    Whenever I get really sick (e.g. diarrhea), I pop a vial open and drink the contents. I repeat with another vial about 12 hours later. Usually, I don’t even get to the 3rd vial and I fell OK already. So what usually takes 4-5 days of agony is now 1-2 days for me. The above is my personal experience and is not meant to endorse or recommend a product or therapy. Consult your own doctor.

  • Anna

    “While it’s wonderful for this couple that they received compensation, imagine if everyone who got ill while on vacation demanded compensation? Not exactly fair to the resorts.”

    I agree. It’s one thing if the guests get food poisoning from hotel food, but there is very little a hotel can do about people-carried viruses. Imagine the outcry there would be if one sneeze meant a hotel guest could be sent to his/her room…

  • cjr001

    Cruise lines will ask passengers to quarantine themselves if they show signs of illness. But, yeah, I’ve never really heard what, if anything, a hotel can do in a similar situation.