Don't let travel agents take you for a ride

Holidays can be expensive. But for parents with several children the cost of insurance can send the price sky high

Next time you are tempted to complain about the cost of your own family holidays, spare a thought for parents with twins, triplets or quads to transport around the world. They must pay not only for multiple plane tickets, multiple meals and multiple treats, but for multiple travel insurance as well.

Next time you are tempted to complain about the cost of your own family holidays, spare a thought for parents with twins, triplets or quads to transport around the world. They must pay not only for multiple plane tickets, multiple meals and multiple treats, but for multiple travel insurance as well.

A two, three or four-fold happy event brings all kinds of extra costs which parents with a single child would never dream of. Ruth Stone is director of the Twins and Multiple Births Association, organisers of this week's Twins Triplets and More Week (July 2 - July 9). She says: "People almost invariably find that they need a different car to the one that they've got. The vast majority of people who have multiple births end up with people-carriers, which are more expensive than normal family saloons. Just mention shoes to anyone with small children and they will visibly blanch. When they're under five, they are having shoes every three months. They're usually around £35 a pair, and when they want trainers as well, you are talking about getting rid of a couple of hundred quid every time you go out to buy shoes."

These expenses hit more UK families than you might imagine. There are around 10,000 multiple births in the UK each year, and the hard-pressed parents involved often get a raw deal when buying their holiday cover.

Our own survey, based on a two-week European trip, found that the most expensive policy on offer for a couple with one child was four times the price of the cheapest. Look instead at a couple with three children, and the cost of the most expensive policy swells to become well over six times higher than the cheapest. The dearest policy in each case came from Thomas Cook, and the cheapest from Primary Direct.

With a price difference like that, you might expect the dearest policy to give you a host of superior features which its cheaper rival lacks. In this case, though, both Thomas Cook and Primary Direct offer much the same benefits. Both meet the Consumers' Association's suggested minimum cover in important areas like medical expenses and personal liability.

Even Thomas Cook spokeswoman Jane Smith admits that her company's policy offers no substantial improvement on Primary Direct's. She says: "We can't deny that it is more expensive. We price the insurance at a price that is right for the business. Our aim is to offer customers an all-round, one-stop holiday service."

No doubt that is true. But how many travel agents' customers would persist with this blase attitude if they realised they were swallowing such a huge price hike in the process? Paying four times the price you need to pay for the cover on offer may seem bad enough. But, as the table below shows, many families with two or more children end up paying six or even seven times the price they would face elsewhere.

One way to avoid this trap is to buy a policy which prices your family as a single entity, and charges the same joint premium no matter how many children you have. Providers with family policies like these include AA Insurance, American Express, Boots and Primary Direct. Travel agents such as Going Places, Lunn Poly and Thomas Cook instead add an extra premium for every child you take along.

The gap in premiums produced by these two different approaches is a dramatic one. Primary Direct director Helen Dwyer says: "The difference is absolutely enormous, depending on where you are shopping."

Despite all this, many people routinely buy insurance from their travel agent anyway. Some critics accuse travel agents of capitalising on this inertia by claiming the rival insurance already held is not adequate for the trip, or insisting that full policy details be produced before they will confirm your booking.

Many tour operators ask travel agents to check whether the customer is insured before they - the operators - will accept a booking. For this reason, travel agents are justified in asking you whether or not you are insured when taking your booking. They may even legitimately ask for a quick sight of the policy. But anything beyond this starts shading into sales pressure.

Travel insurance delivers the agent a far superior profit margin to the holiday itself, so the temptation is always there for unscrupulous agents to flog their own insurance by whatever means they can.

Dwyer says: "Travel agents are still using bullying tactics to get people to buy their travel insurance."

Smith replies: "At the end of the day, the customer has a choice. We are not forcing anyone to buy anything."

Association of British Travel Agents spokesman Sean Timpson believes the most effective curb against sharp sales practice is the sheer number of travel agents around. He says: "It is such a competitive market. In a major high street, there are probably two or three travel agents. If the agent is doing something that the client regards as obstructive, that client will just go next door and book with somebody else."

Another way to cut your costs is to opt for an annual policy instead of single-trip cover. If you are travelling outside Europe, where single-trip premiums are high, this may prove worth doing even if you plan to holiday only once a year. AA Insurance, for example, would charge a family with four children £192.62 for a fortnight's single-trip cover outside Europe. The company's premium for the same cover on an annual basis would be just £149.52 - a saving of 22%.

This anomaly arises partly because travel insurers find it more convenient to sell annual policies, and so build a small price incentive into their structure. But the claims experience shown on annual policies is very different too.

AA Insurance spokesman Luc Warner says: "The underwriters find that there are fewer claims from people who have annual policies than there are from those who take single policies. People who have an annual policy just seem to claim less. Maybe they are more used to travelling. Maybe they are more careful. I'm not sure."

If you do decide to opt for an annual policy, check the small print to see what happens if only certain members of the family are going on one particular trip. Some policies insist that every member of the family named on your original policy must be included on the trip before they will accept liability. Others allow any of the individuals covered to travel independently and still make a valid claim.

Mr Dwyer says: "You have to make sure that you check when buying an annual policy that Mum and Dad can travel independently and also that the children can. A lot of policies stipulate that everybody must travel together."

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