THE WIDE world is a dangerous place. Even when the Foreign Office gives a country such as Yemen a green light for travellers, the adventurous will have to run risks - risks which often are not insured.

Standard travel insurance policies have not kept up with the boom in adventure travel, and are almost always sold as a one-size-fits-all contract, best suited for use in popular European holiday resorts. The most useful benefits are medical insurance and compensation for stolen belongings. Even skiing costs extra on some insurance deals - something which many winter sports enthusiasts only remember when they find themselves being asked to meet astronomical medical expenses. A broken leg in Switzerland can cost pounds 25,000 to fix.

Because insurance is often inadequate, many experienced travellers don't buy dedicated travel cover at all. The Foreign Office advises Britons that in Libya, for example, there is no British consul to help travellers in trouble. Tour operators running trips there have liability insurance (which pays out when a firm is sued by customers) and they insist on travellers having their own insurance. But Barnaby Rogerson, a guide and writer who takes small groups to Libya with a number of tour firms, doesn't bother with personal cover. "It's not really worth the paper it's written on," he says. Mr Rogerson believes it is more important for travellers to have an experienced local guide who will help them develop "city eyes" - survival skills for every situation they meet, which are different in each city.

It may seem distasteful to put a price on an individual's life, but travel insurers set it at pounds 25,000 or pounds 50,000. This is the amount paid out for "accidental death" abroad. There is usually a pounds 100,000 payment for death in an accident on a commercial flight. Even pounds 50,000 is a paltry amount to compensate for a death, and travellers should not expect any claim to be accepted if they travel anywhere on the Foreign Office list of countries to avoid.

Industry experts believe families of the Yemen victims would probably qualify for loss of life pay-outs under a standard travel policy because there was no state of war declared in Yemen at the time of their kidnap, and Yemen was not on the Foreign Office's "no go" list.

To be worth serious money, dead or alive, one has to be rich to start off with. Most Britons travelling abroad are unaware they are part of the uninsured underclass. Their travel policies won't pay out if they survive kidnap or give their families any help towards meeting a ransom demand. Some standard travel policies do offer a derisory pounds 50 for every day the insured is held captive on a hijacked plane - but that is barely enough to pay for an hour of post-stress counselling.

Meanwhile, the rich can turn to underwriters at Lloyd's of London who will create tailor-made policies to insure travellers and business people. As an indefatigable risk-taker, and head of a multi-million pound commercial empire, Richard Branson's life is reputedly insured for pounds 50m. There is a booming trade in underwriting for business travellers who are more at risk than tourists of being kidnapped or held to ransom.

Virtually any risk can be insured, for a price. Insurers and big businesses are cagey about kidnap and ransom policies, fearful that any publicity will simply encourage criminals. And the cost is astronomical. A businessman going to Russia for a year might pay pounds 750,000 for a policy which would be worth pounds 1m in professional help in the aftermath of a possible kidnap and ransom bid.

The irony is that travellers killed abroad will still get a payment on life insurance bought back home in the UK. Such policies - which pay out if one dies during a specified term, usually 20 or 25 years - have never been cheaper.

A premium of pounds 11.50 a month to Legal & General would secure a pounds 200,000 death payment for a 30-year-old woman on a 20-year term. Men tend to die younger and therefore cost more - pounds 16.70 a month at 30, rising to pounds 62.30 a month for a new 20-year policy for a 45-year-old man (pounds 40 for a woman). It is an indication of how relatively safe modern life in the West is, and of life insurers' confidence that they won't have to pay out for many premature deaths.

Isabel Berwick