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Winter sports with no cover is skating on thin ice

Skiers and snowboarders are just asking for trouble if they take to the slopes without adequate insurance, says Chiara Cavaglieri

If you are planning to bring in the new year by hitting the slopes, get the right travel cover in place or you could spend the rest of 2014 paying off a huge bill.

Anyone is taking a risk if they go abroad without comprehensive travel insurance, but for skiers and snowboarders planning an adrenaline-fuelled holiday, it is a massive financial gamble.

Losing your luggage is one thing, but serious injuries that require mountain rescue cost thousands of pounds, and you'll be footing that bill from your own pocket if you don't have insurance.

Tom Bishop, head of travel insurance at Direct Line, says: "A good winter-sports policy will include generous medical cover. This is important because trips to foreign hospitals, piste evacuations and getting patients back home to the UK can be extremely expensive. For example, a piste rescue by helicopter could cost upwards of £2,000, and an air ambulance back from the Alps could exceed £10,000."

Some insurers offer winter sports as standard on their policies but otherwise you can usually extend the cover. If you book your holiday through a travel agent, they may try to sell you insurance but always see what else is on the market or you could pay over the odds.

Comprehensive medical cover should include emergency transport to hospital and back home to the UK. Stephen Ebbett, director of travel insurer Protect Your Bubble, says that one of the highest winter-sports claims he has dealt with totalled almost £15,000.

"High costs can ensue if you need to be rescued from the mountainside or repatriated to the UK. If you have a leg injury, your insurer may have to book multiple seats on a plane for your return journey, or with more severe injuries you could require repatriation with a medical practitioner, which could cost thousands of pounds," he says.

If you are holidaying within the European Union, some medical bills are covered by the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which entitles you to state-provided healthcare, but this is not a replacement for travel insurance. It won't be any use if the resort has a private clinic or you need an air ambulance back home, which can cost around £10,000 from Europe and £40,000 from the US and Canada.

For extra peace of mind, you can pay a local premium at the ski resort, which covers rescue and transport on or off-piste. For example, in France skiers can buy a Carré Neige pass for a few euros per day, which covers rescue and a few basic medical bills. But you still need a travel-insurance policy to protect you against other costs.

"If you ski or snowboard into someone and injure them, and they then take legal action against you, the costs could run into thousands of pounds. Comprehensive winter sports insurance will include personal liability cover to protect you should this happen," says Mr Ebbett.

It is essential that you declare any medical conditions, both when you take out a new policy and to your existing insurer if you develop an illness or start taking medication. If you fail to inform them and later make a related claim, your policy will be worthless and you will have to cover the medical bills yourself.

Cover can vary hugely from provider to provider, and simply plumping for the cheapest one is often a mistake. Agreeing to pay a higher excess can reduce your premiums, but this is no saving at all if you can't actually afford to cover it in the event of a claim.

Comparison site MoneySuperMarket.com found that a family of four skiing in Europe for one week can insure themselves for £21.14 with insurefor.com, which offers £750 worth of cover for personal baggage and £350 for ski equipment, with an excess of £150 to pay for both. For just £12 more, the Cover for You Premier policy offers the same family a far more generous £1,500 for baggage and £1,000 for ski equipment, with a lower excess of £100.

Bob Atkinson, travel expert at MoneySuperMarket.com, says: "It is essential to check the small print on these policies to so you know exactly what you are covered for while away. While the cheapest policies will ensure you have more money in your pocket, you may find that you won't be covered enough, especially for expensive ski equipment."

It's not much fun but do read the exclusions and caveats before you choose your policy. If you already have insurance through a packaged current account or a credit card, check to ensure it offers adequate protection. The "summary of cover" is a good starting point but you can always phone the insurer if there's anything you're not sure of.

Many policies routinely offer less than £1,000 for accidental damage, theft or the loss of winter sports equipment (typically on top of standard baggage cover) so if you have particularly expensive gear, look for a more-generous policy and always check the conditions. For example, Direct Line offers £500 cover if your equipment is damaged, lost or stolen on your journey, but this is subject to a single-item limit of £250 and it must be under five years old.

Helpful extras include cover for unused, lost or stolen ski passes, as well as payment to travel to another piste should it close if there is an avalanche or a lack of snow.

Some policies exclude off-piste skiing altogether but others will cover you if you are supervised by a qualified instructor, or if you stay within the boundaries of the resort.

If you're a bit of a thrill seeker, extra activities such as heli-skiing and heli-boarding, luging, bobsleighing and racing in an organised competition are unlikely to be covered, so you may need to pay for a more-flexible activity policy from a specialist provider such as Snowcard. If you enjoy the après ski, insurers will probably refuse your claim if you are under the influence of alcohol.

If you are planning any other trips, you can save money with an annual policy but be warned that some limit their winter-sports cover to a set number of days per year or a maximum number of ski trips.

Similarly, couples and families can be put under one policy, but the premiums will be based on the oldest traveller, so if you are travelling with someone aged 65 and over, it may be better to get them a separate policy.