Before you book that long-awaited ski holiday, make sure your tour operator offers piste-closure insurance. It could save you a packet - and a headache
After a longish search, I found what I was looking for in this season's Crystal ski brochure. There it was, inside the back cover. "Piste- closure cover details" was the heading above a short paragraph set in a page dense with information about the tour operator's winter-sports insurance policy.

The gist of the text was similar to such clauses in other winter-sports policies. Generally, piste-closure insurance offers financial compensation (in Crystal's case, pounds 30 per day) to policy-holders who are unable to ski in a resort because of bad snow conditions, either to cover the cost of transportation to another resort or - when that is not possible - to simply make up for their disappointment. But it was the exclusions that particularly interested me. The compensation benefits, said Crystal's terms, did not apply "to piste closure due to adverse conditions other than lack of snow or too much snow (for example, high winds)".

Then I flicked back to the previous season's brochure. The terms of the 1998/9 piste-closure insurance were almost identical, with one significant difference. Here, the policy excluded liability if piste closure was due to "adverse weather conditions other than lack of snow (for example, too much snow)".

Why this sudden interest in small print? Because last summer the travel- trade press reported that (to quote Travel Weekly) "insurers have been forced to widen cover on their winter-sports policies after clients were unable to claim for ruined holidays following the avalanches that hit the Alps last season". Although piste-closure insurance was designed to deal with the lack of snow, it was - so the reports said - having to be extended to cover the situation where excess snow effectively closed a resort.

The massive snowfall in the central Alps last January had tragic consequences: 75 people were killed, most of them in the avalanches that hit Galtur in Austria and the Chamonix Valley in France. It also caused severe problems for British tour operators. Some clients were trapped in resorts and unable to ski; others wanted to cancel holidays before departure because they were concerned for their safety.

Andy Perrin, the group managing director of Crystal International Travel, recalls "a very intense operation over a very short period. We didn't have people in Galtur or Ischgl [the other resort most affected by the avalanche in Austria], so our problem was primarily in nearby St Anton.

"For one week, we allowed customers who had booked holidays there to simply cancel them. And we switched about 200 people to different resorts. The expenses we incurred [Perrin would not divulge how much the operation cost] were mainly accounted for by purchasing airline seats and booking hotel rooms in different resorts: we had to pay for them as well as the unoccupied rooms booked in St Anton."

Crystal's operation far exceeded the liabilities under any piste-closure scheme. But to what extent have the avalanches made compensation available, as predicted, to those unable to ski because of excess snow? Very little. True, the resort of Ischgl, whose main access road is subject to closure during periods of high avalanche risk, has introduced an "access guarantee", under which guests snowed-in will get free accommodation until they can leave, while those snowed-out will be put up elsewhere in the Tyrol area until the road reopens. (In both cases the scheme - the first of its kind in the Alps - only comes into operation after the first 24 hours of road-closure). But as far as winter-sports insurance in the UK is concerned, the changes have been limited.

Even the amendment in Crystal's terms was not, in fact, prompted by the avalanches: it was made for the "preview" issue, which went to press before the avalanches occurred. Certainly some specialist insurers have added excess-snow cover; but the one I consulted, Hamilton Barr, had not done so - because its premium Excel policy already provided for a payment of pounds 35 piste-closure compensation per day for those "unable to ski because of the failure of ski lifts due to strike, industrial action, bad weather or power failure". The Excel policy costs pounds 39.09 for 10 days' cover in Europe; the company's cheaper, standard policy, costing pounds 33.66, still excludes excess-snow conditions.

Hamilton Barr has responded to the avalanches, by extending the Excel cover so skiers whose resort becomes inaccessible can cancel their holiday and claim its entire cost. This was at little risk to the company, I suggested to its sales director, Michael Pettifer, since avalanches similar to last season's had not occurred for 50 years: "People said the same sort of thing about the storms in Britain in 1987, but look what happened in 1998," he countered. Yet some operators' insurance policies, unlike Crystal's, still exclude pay-outs in the case of excess snow.

The First Choice piste-closure terms (in a policy costing pounds 39, compared with Crystal's pounds 43.50) merely cover lack of snow, and are activated only when 85 per cent of the resort's lifts are closed; Thomson's (pounds 43) is similar, although it requires only 80 per cent closure, while Neilson (pounds 44.50) adds the demand that the local ski-school director considers conditions are "unsuitable to teach". But the Airtours (pounds 42.99) terms refer to "adverse weather conditions", presumably including excess snow; and although Inghams (pounds 42) requires almost total closure of the lift system, it will pay compensation if that is caused by "any reason beyond the control of Inghams".

How important piste-closure policies are to skiers is a moot point. The number of claims is startlingly low: Michael Pettifer estimates that Hamilton Barr insures more than 50,000 skiers and boarders, yet it had only 17 piste-closure claims last season. But as Pettifer says, the policies offer "a comfort" and if skiers want peace of mind, excess-snow provisions are essential. Why? Andy Perrin explains that although piste-closure insurance was prompted by poor snow conditions, "the no-snow situation has been rare recently, and if it arises, we prefer to call people up and offer them an alternative resort rather than move them around by bus. But although skiing is more limited when the snow is poor, snow-cannons mean that the question of large-scale piste closure shouldn't arise if resorts do their jobs properly - which, by and large, they do."

Excess snow, however, still occurs - albeit rarely on the scale of last season. "It's usually a big overnight dump, and resorts have to close because the piste-maintenance people can't cope. And in those circumstances the compensation means that, at the very least, customers can go out and have a big meal, and still enjoy their day."

Hamilton Barr, 01483 255666. All the insurance-policy prices quoted are for up to nine days' winter-sports cover in Europe, except Hamilton Barr (10 days) and Airtours (eight).