Don't let your skiing holiday leave you financially crippled

Skiing is expensive, but with attention to detail, costs can be minimised, says Helen Monks

The new ski season gets under way this week, with the first winter holidaymakers digging into their pockets for what is often families' most expensive holiday of the year.

But by choosing the right insurance, getting the timing right and picking their destinations with care, snow enthusiasts can easily keep their spending down.

If you break a limb or some other calamity befalls you on the slopes it could cost you thousands of pounds, and when decent cover can cost as little as 18, there is little reason for skiers and snowboarders to cut corners. Nevertheless, many people still don't bother to insure themselves adequately when they take a winter break.

Research by Esure suggests that of the three million Brits expected to head to the pistes this season, around a quarter will be uninsured.

Many assume the European Health Insurance Card (Ehic) which replaced the old E111 will provide enough cover on European slopes when, in fact, it only covers emergency medical treatment. This can be free or it might just be offered at a reduced cost.

"Most hospitals on the pistes are privately run and if you break your wrist, for example, it might end up costing you as much as 3,000 in Europe," warns Graeme Trudgill of the British Insurance Brokers' Association (www.biba.org.uk).

Also, the Ehic does not cover the cost of getting you to a treatment centre bad news if you have no insurance but need an air ambulance to hospital.

Standard travel insurance policies do not automatically cover snow trips, so you must either buy an add-on winter sports element for your annual standard travel insurance or take out a standalone winter sports policy.

But be warned, these contracts can be riddled with caveats and there are a number of areas you should be clear on before deciding to buy a policy.

Comparison site Moneysupermarket.com suggests your insurance should cover 2m for medical expenses, 1m personal liability and cancellation cover of up to 3,000. The Ski Club of Great Britain, a not-for-profit organisation, warns that liability claims, following accidents on the slopes, have risen sharply and are becoming major sources of litigation so it's well worth checking you're covered.

You should also check out to what level baggage is covered, particularly if you are taking your own skis or expensive clothing. On this point, Trudgill says holidaymakers might be able to get as much as 15 per cent off their premium if their possessions are covered by their home insurance.

Policyholders should also be clear what their provider means when it says you are covered even if you go "off-piste" this can mean only if you are supervised by a qualified instructor, or only if the resort managers have given safety clearance to a specific area.

After last season's problems with snowless slopes across Europe, take extra care to check how you might be recompensed if the snow fails and pistes are closed.

For example, some policies only pay out if all the lifts in your resort were closed for 12 hours, while others insist that this period must be at least 24 hours and then you may only expect a pay out if you have a written statement from the resort management. Also, even if your holiday was ruined by a snow no-show, many policies will base payouts only on the cost of travelling to the nearest resort, which might only amount to a few euros a day, while other providers compensate disappointed travellers on a daily rate for the time they could not ski.

Moneysupermarket advises checking the small print to see whether you are covered for inability to ski due to other reasons, such as accident, sickness or the loss or theft of your ski pass, or following an avalanche.

When it comes to keeping the overall costs of your winter trip down, one of the easiest ways to save money is to time your trip cannily.

For example, the Ski Club of Great Britain (www.skiclub. co.uk) says one week in a hotel in Val d'Isre with Mark Warner over New Year will cost 1,295; one week later it will set you back 748. A month or so later over half term, and it shoots up again to 1,643. Also, booking your trip at the last minute can offer travellers big discounts.

If you are a beginner or going with small children then it may be worth considering a trip to a smaller resort where ski passes will be much less than at the big-ticket destinations. Alternatively, you might save on pass costs by waiting to ski until after lunch or getting half-day passes.

For a budget trip, the Ski Club recommends choosing destinations in Eastern Europe, including Bulgaria and Slovenia. It says Switzerland is not nearly as expensive as many people assume and these days can prove considerably cheaper than France.

Staying in one of the satellite villages rather than in the main resorts will help those on slim budgets. For example, instead of basing yourself in the popular Swiss resort of Verbier, you could look into cheaper accommodation in nearby Veysonnaz, La Tzoumaz, Bruson or Nendaz.

Finally, you can save cash on transport from the airport to your destination by spurning expensive private transfers and car hire for buses or trains. Go to the Ski Club website for information on how to get to most of the large European resorts by rail.

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