TRAVEL CLINIC / Getting insured

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The Independent Culture
ONE well-travelled friend of mine has probably put several Lloyd's names out of business in the past five years. She was mugged in Jerusalem; had chicken-pox in Malaysia; lost her passport in Italy; had her bags stolen in Portugal; was involved in a minor air accident in the Channel Islands; and missed her plane at Gatwick. She has had good reason to be thankful she was covered by travel insurance.

Less accident-prone travellers, too, would be unwise to go abroad without some provision for such emergencies - the treatment for the chicken-pox, for instance, required a couple of weeks in an expensive hospital in Singapore. But trying to avoid being ripped off by big premiums and the small print can be as much of a headache as choosing the holiday itself.

There are three types of travel insurance to choose from: the standard one-off policy; the catch-all annual version; and the budget, essentials-only type of cover. Which to choose depends on how much you travel, how many risks you want covering, and how much you're prepared to spend. I've picked out some of the best deals offering sensible levels of cover at a reasonable cost. Prices given (except for annual policies) are for two weeks in Europe.

The market for the traditional one-off policy used to be sewn up by tour operators and travel agents who'd have no trouble selling insurance to holidaymakers simply by adding it to the bottom of the booking invoice. But competition from banks, building societies and direct-sell insurers offering comparable policies much more cheaply is hitting them hard. Among the best value are Columbus (071-375 0011) at pounds 16 and Whiteley's Kingfisher Travel Insurance at pounds 14.60 (0422 348411). These prices compare with a typical premium of about pounds 25-pounds 30 for many policies sold by travel agents and tour operators.

Insurers who charge such high premiums are fond of blaming them on the costs of dealing with large numbers of fraudulent claims for stolen money and possessions. 'We've had more claims for Pentax cameras than ever left Japan' is a typical quip (though anyone who has tried to claim for such a loss will know that most policies limit the amount that can be claimed for each item - this can be as low as pounds 100 - while the first pounds 15 to pounds 50 'excess' of many claims is also excluded).

As a way of cutting out this risk altogether, some insurers are now offering 'budget' policies which don't cover personal possessions at all. While they are much cheaper than most policies, you can still get full cover at little extra cost by buying from Columbus or Whiteley (telephone numbers above). Among the cheapest of the budget deals is Frizzell's Carefree Holiday Plan (0202 292333) which has an option excluding money and baggage at pounds 14.73, and Crispin Speers' (071-480 5083) Essential policy at pounds 13, which covers only medical costs, accident compensation, cancellation and personal liability.

Meanwhile, those who travel abroad a lot will almost certainly benefit from annual cover. If you took out a separate policy each time you travelled, and went on two or three holidays a year plus a skiing trip, the cost would be more than pounds 50 a year - and probably more than pounds 100 if travelling outside Europe. Families could easily spend pounds 150 and pounds 300 respectively. This compares with annual policies for worldwide travel from Bradford and Bingley (0800 585612) at pounds 75 for an individual and pounds 157 for a family; Nat West (0272 263703) at pounds 88 and pounds 129; and the Independent on Sunday's current offer with General Accident, which also has particularly low rates for those travelling in Europe only (see panel above right).

Whichever you decide to buy, take a copy of the policy abroad with you so that you know how to make a claim. Watch out for the small print - common activities which some policies won't cover include riding a hired moped or motorbike, parascending over water, scuba diving and, with ski insurance, off-piste skiing.

If you have had a travel problem which would be of interest to other readers, send brief details and a contact number to: Independent on Sunday Travel Clinic, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB. We are unable to answer letters individually.