Don't let the problems snowball if your ski holiday hits the skids

Despite all the risks, many Britons head for the pistes without cover, exposing themselves to huge medical bills. Nargis Ahmad and Julian Knight report
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The Independent Online

As well as fun and frolics, skiing brings dangers ranging from inclement weather that confines you to your chalet or hotel, to broken bones if you take a tumble. Nevertheless, according to insurer esure.com, one in four Britons going on a winter sports holiday do so without insurance, risking empty wallets to go with their broken limbs.

"Winter sports is a high-risk activity so you need insurance to cover all eventualities – especially expen-sive medical costs, which can escalate quickly. For example, a broken leg would incur between £3,500 and £7,000 in medical costs in Europe, but in America this would be £13,000 to £16,000," says Erik Nelson at insurer Norwich Union.

Medical fees can vary drastically between different countries. In Europe, for example, a helicopter mountain rescue service costs around £1,500, while repatriation costs some £4,000. But head across the pond to the US and these expenses escalate further – with repatriation costing an estimated £35,000.

Europe-bound winter sports fans may take some comfort in a European Health Insurance Card. The EHIC (application forms are available in doctors' surgeries or online at www.ehic.org.uk) replaced the old E111 card and entitles you to free, or cut-price, basic medical treatment on the same terms as all nationals in EU states. However, the protection is limited. It will not, for example, cover extras such as an air ambulance, personal liability, trip cancellation or loss of baggage, and should not be seen as a substitute for full winter sport travel insurance. "The EHIC will cover basic medical care but not repatriation to the UK, so you will still need a travel policy," says Betony Garner of the Ski Club of Great Britain.

Another common cause of distress to skiers is bad weather, with problems ranging from poor snow falls to blizzard conditions that lead to slope closure. Some insurance policies will pay if the slopes are closed, and compensation can be as high as £200 for each lost day.

However, insurance providers will want a letter from the resort confirming the closure and will often insist that the slopes are out of use for a minimum of 12 or 24 hours before a payout is triggered.

With poor snow falls across Europe in the past few winters, many skiers and snowboarders have been venturing off piste in search of more snow. But doing so could invalidate the insurance. Mr Nelson warns: "Off-piste skiing and snowboarding are covered on the condition that the person insured is with a qualified guide in areas that the ski resort's management consider to be safe."

And be wary of indulging in too much après-ski as it can also invalidate your cover. "Of course you want to relax, but policies won't pay out if you are under the influence of drink and drugs," adds Mr Nelson. "Also, look after your skis; if they go walk-about, they might not be covered as this would be seen as negligence."

If you fancy sampling some of the resort's less mainstream winter sports, again the advice is to check the small print of your policy. "Sometimes when you are on holiday, you might want to try sledging or bobsleighing, so check if the policy covers hazardous sports. Because of the nature of winter sports, the cost of claims tends to be higher," says Clare Francis from comparison website Moneysupermarket.com.

With many different kinds of insurance products, it can be difficult to decide on just how much cover you need. But Moneysupermarket recommends at least £2m for medical expenses, £1m for personal liability, £3,000 cancellation or enough to cover the cost of your holiday, £1,500 for baggage and £250 for cash.

But these are just minimums and Ms Garner at the Ski Club of Great Britain urges skiers to tailor their cover to what they plan to do on holiday. "Some policies do cover advanced skiers for off-piste runs but they might not insure beginner skiers who try tobogganing or dog-sleighing. So you need to be sure you are fully insured."

Right policy pays dividends: 'I had my cheque within a couple of weeks'

Jackie Calder, 55, owner of an events firm in Edinburgh, knows all too well that things can go wrong on a skiing trip. In February 2007, she was on her annual holiday with two friends in the small French resort of Valloire when a criminal struck. "My friends and I go on a ski trip each year and have a great time. We were relaxing after a day skiing over a Tapas meal when thieves stole all our skis."

The equipment had been hired from a local shop and Jackie lost her deposit of £120 and had to rehire three sets of skis. "It was a real nuisance and such a surprise as it's a very sleepy French resort so you don't expect this sort of thing to happen." However, Jackie has an annual travel insurance policy with winter sports cover added, bought from Direct Line. "I never travel without insurance, particularly not to a ski resort. There is so much that can go wrong, from taking a fall to bad weather closing the slopes. Everything is so expensive and it could cost a fortune if I were to break a bone or worse and need to fly home."

Armed with a police report and the receipt for the deposit on the skis, Jackie filed a claim with her insurer. "They were great about things, really quick. I had my cheque within a couple of weeks of my return and no harm done."

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