Wrap up warm with winter sports cover

Don't follow the 20,000 Brits who aren't fully insured for the ski slopes, says Esther Shaw

Whether it's moguls in Meribel or slaloms in St Moritz, the lure of clear skies and fresh powder is strong for many struggling to beat the January blues.

Whether it's moguls in Meribel or slaloms in St Moritz, the lure of clear skies and fresh powder is strong for many struggling to beat the January blues.

As many as 400,000 Britons are expected to head for the slopes in the next couple of months, says insurer Direct Line, and the pound's spending power is part of the appeal.

The cheapest breaks will be available in Romania, says American Express Foreign Exchange, while those visiting US ski resorts will find their pounds stretch further due to sterling's strength against the dollar.

Thousands are also going to new and cheaper destinations such as Bulgaria and Slovenia, according to the Ski Club of Great Britain.

Thanks to the rise of no-frills airlines and "last minute" bargain deals, more travellers now opt for this budget option rather than going via a tour operator.

But it could prove less of a bargain if you suffer an accident and don't have insurance. Despite the higher risk of serious injury, nearly one in 20 skiers fail to buy cover, according to the latest industry estimates.

"Those without insurance expose themselves to potentially huge bills for compensation, medical treatment and repatriation if they're in an accident," says Michael Gwilliam of solicitors Vizards Wyeth, a legal adviser to the travel industry.

Scrapes, cuts and bruises may be inexpensive to treat but torn ligaments, sprains and breaks will hit your wallet hard. "An ambulance to a hospital could cost around £1,000," says Richard Mason, director of the online price-comparison service insuresupermarket.com. "An air ambulance home to the UK could set you back between £20,000 and £40,000."

The first step for anyone travelling to a resort in the EU is to get hold of an E111 form (available from a post office or travel agent). This entitles you to free or cut-price basic medical treatment, but it does not include costly extras like an air ambulance, personal liability, trip cancellation or loss of baggage. Nor is the form valid in popular destinations such as Bulgaria, Turkey and Andorra as they have yet to join the EU.

Most standard travel policies don't automatically cover winter sports either, so you will need winter sports cover as an add-on. And since skiing involves a greater risk of injury, the premiums will reflect this.

A 28-year-old woman travelling to a French resort for 10 days, and buying a single-trip policy with winter sports cover, will pay £46.49 at Direct Line - twice as much as the insurer charges for a normal trip, says spokeswoman Emma Holyer.

As well as personal accident and medical cover, your policy should protect you against a range of non-medical misfortunes such as travel delays, missed departures or closed ski runs. And check to see if you're covered for the loss or theft of ski clothing and equipment, whether you own it or it's hired.

As a guide, Mr Mason recommends you take out a policy offering medical expenses to the tune of £2m and £1m for personal liability.

It is worth taking the time to compare prices before you purchase a policy. If you buy from a travel operator, expect to pay more than double the cost of the best deal on the market, says Mr Mason, so shop around. Well-known insurers can also be uncompetitive, he adds. "Families can pay as little as £55 to £65 elsewhere for a more than adequate level of cover."

Among the best deals for a single-trip policy including winter sports - based on a family of four travelling to Europe for two weeks - is one from SII Direct that costs £56.50. But as Mr Mason explains, this offers only £750 cancellation cover, so you may be better off with a slightly more expensive policy such as that from Egg. This costs £64.16 but has £3,000 cancellation cover.

Anyone taking more than one ski holiday a year should consider annual cover, which can cost as little as £14.50 more than a single-trip policy.

As with all insurance policies, check exclusions before you go. For example, some companies will exclude off-piste skiing, while others provide full cover only if you are in an EU resort.

Be careful about skiing and drinking. If you have your après ski after a morning on the slopes, say, and then cause or suffer an accident after returning to the fray in the afternoon, your insurer may not pay out.

And watch out if you're over 65: many insurers will consider you a greater risk and charge higher premiums.

Also bear in mind that insurance bought from a travel operator isn't covered by the Financial Service Authority's new insurance regulations. In the event of a dispute with the operator, you won't have the same rights on compensation.

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