Money: Crippling costs of skiing without cover

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Carving through the turns, your concentration is absolute - the consequences of a fall should not be in your thoughts. But they should be before you depart for the slopes. Guy Dennis looks at ski insurance.

A skiing holiday is an investment. You will not make money from it, but if things go well you will be endowed with memories lasting a lifetime. However, like any investment, there's an element of risk and you want to get it right: ski insurance is essential.

You may find that you have no choice in the matter - some travel agents insist you use their policies. Of course, their holiday package may be so good that you take it anyway, but given the choice you would probably do better to shop around - especially since insurance sold by travel agents attracts tax at 17.5 per cent compared with 4 per cent on separate policies from specialist insurers.

For example, if you take out ski insurance with Lunn Poly at one of their travel agents it will cost you pounds 44.90 a head for 10 days' cover in Europe. With Columbus, using their 25 per cent discount for last-minute bookers, it costs pounds 23.52 (0171-225-1733).

Either way, it is very important to look at exactly what is covered or, more importantly, what is not. For example, many policies cover off-piste skiing, but may require the presence of a guide. Unless you are an expert you should use a guide anyway, but for experienced skiers it is worth checking. You may also want to check that snow-boarding, tobogganing and mono-skiing are covered.

Piste closure is also featured in many insurance deals but may not be as comprehensive as it appears. For example, according to Assitalia, underwriters for the British Insurance and Investment Brokers Association's "Protect" scheme, piste closure refers to the closure of all pistes in a resort due to a lack of snow. You will receive no compensation if blizzards occur or if just one run is open. Other insurers use similar definitions.

Even if the weather is great, having your skis nicked is not, but especially so if they are not covered by your insurance. Some insurers do not cover skis left unlocked, outside a mountain restaurant for example. One tip is to leave each ski in a different place, making theft less likely, although you should really check that they are insured in such situations.

You may not be a world-class downhiller, but do not ignore the clause in your policy excluding cover in races - what about that fun race at the end of the week? It is worth checking: insurers may cover you if the race is supervised by your ski school, otherwise an accident could be costly.

If you have annual travel insurance you may want to see if it also covers skiing. Some policies offer winter sports cover for a limited period each year, but again, it is worth finding out how comprehensive the cover is.

Certain "gold card" credit cards offer insurance if you pay for your ski trip on their card. For example, American Express's Gold Card for Frequent Business Travellers includes ski insurance as standard. If you have a gold card then you may be covered already but it is not worth paying for the card just to get the ski insurance.

Skiing organisations also provide cover particularly aimed at regular skiers. The French Ski Federation produce Carte Neige: for pounds 29.50 you get cover in France for a full year starting from each October. They also provide European cover at pounds 65 and worldwide cover at pounds 75. In the UK it is available from the Alpine Apartments Agency on 01544 388146. As with most insurers, deals for families and couples are also available.

If you are skiing in Europe then you should remember to take your E111 form, obtainable from post offices. It entitles you to free healthcare within the EU. Whilst it is not a substitute for insurance, as it will not cover expenses such as helicopter rescue, it will soak up some of the excess charges related to healthcare and cover some health problems ignored by your insurance.

As with all insurance policies, the two central questions are, what is covered and for how much? With these in mind you should shop around for the best deal, trying to use a scheme covered by the insurance ombudsman, who will help to settle disputes. However, it is crucial in ski insurance to ensure that your policy is comprehensive.

"Most policies are comprehensive in terms of the medical cover that they offer, which of course is the most important. However, there will be different policies tailored to the needs of the client. It's very much for the client to make sure he checks his policy very carefully to ensure it meets his particular requirements," warns Steve Howard, chair of the Association of Travel Insurance Intermediaries (ATII).

With the cost of a cancelled skiing holiday, and with the potential expense of a skiing accident running into tens of thousands of pounds, his advice should not be ignored. If skiing off-piste is heaven; crashing uninsured is hell.