If you're lucky enough to find a flight amidst the air-travel chaos then this year's ski season could prove to be a belter. Snow falls are already high and most resorts, even this early in the season, are fully open. But as well as packing those salopettes and ski jackets, what about winter sports cover? Travel insurance is usually a must on any holiday, but even more so for holidaymakers spending their limited vacation time snowboarding or skiing.
The financial implications of being without cover can be frightening. Medical bills can quickly reach tens of thousands of pounds; the cost of being air-lifted from the piste on a mountain in France to a local hospital could set you back £2,500, according to the Ski Club of Great Britain, whilst in the US, and Canada, it could cost nearer £9,000. With such expensive gear, skiers could also lose hundreds of pounds if their equipment is stolen or damaged.
"It's vital to ensure you've got insurance when you're on a snowboarding or skiing holiday," says The Ski Club's Vanessa Fisher. "But always look at the small print. Look to make sure you are covered for ski theft and for the right amount, especially if you are skiing with the latest kit."
Leo Storey, from Bristol, has reason to be grateful for insurance. He nearly died after a snowboarding accident at the French resort of Chamonix in 2008. "The fact that I'm alive is just luck. I was going at about 60mph and I caught a heel edge and was wiped out," he says. He broke his spine and had to be sledded off the mountainside.
The cost of Leo's care would have topped £30,000, but he had cover. "I was planning to travel without insurance, but I saw that the NatWest Premier bank account came with free insurance as one of the perks," says Leo. "I remember getting one hospital bill for £26,500, and even a year after the accident I was getting bills from different hospitals, but I just forwarded them on to the insurance company."
Leo was also able to claim for his damaged equipment, iPod and clothing. He has since made a full recovery, although he doesn't have full functionality in his neck, and plans to snowboard again next year.
The good news is that winter sports cover can be easily added on to most travel-insurance policies or bought from specialist providers such as the Ski Club, which offers Standard, Super and Executive policies specifically for snowsports.
As soon as the trip itself is brought and paid for, start hunting down the best policy you can find. Cover for a two-week ski trip to France for two adults and two children is available from only £21.25 with OUL Direct, according to comparison site Moneysupermarket. Annual multi-trip cover is a better bet for regular skiers, and a worldwide policy for two adults and two children costs only £45.72 with Protectyourbubble.com, but you should look for more than simply the lowest price.
As is often the case, the level of cover you can expect from insurance policies with additional winter sports cover may vary from one provider to another, so do your homework.
"Check that your policy covers the country you are travelling to. I know that sounds rather obvious, but when buying worldwide cover, for example, you must specify if you want to include the United States and Canada – both of which are popular ski destinations. Your policy might not include those countries," says Stephen Ebbett, director of specialist online travel insurer Protectyourbubble.com.
As well as the usual criteria – cover for scheduled airline failure and cancellation if any unforeseen circumstances prevent you from taking the trip, baggage cover and medical expenses – there are several crucial features to look at when it comes to winter-sports cover.
"Ski-specific things to look out for are cover if you need to be airlifted from the slopes to hospital following an accident," says Bob Atkinson, travel expert at Moneysupermarket.
Make sure you are covered for repatriation back to the UK, which can be very expensive. In European Union countries, the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) does offer some protection, so don't get on the plane without it, but this only entitles you to state-provided healthcare in member states, not private medical bills or transportation costs so this must only be used as additional protection, not as a replacement for travel insurance. Some French resorts also offer a Carte Neige for a few euros a day, sold alongside the ski pass, which will mean you can be airlifted off the mountain side without having to pay a fee and then claim it back from your insurer.
As well as protecting yourself against the cost of an accident, a good insurance policy should also provide cover for injury caused to others. These claims aren't common but can potentially reach hundreds of thousands of pounds, which you would be personally liable for without insurance. Above all, look carefully for exclusions, caveats or limits before buying any policy.
"Check if you're covered off-piste and during all hours of the day (you may only be covered during daylight hours)," adds Mr Atkinson. "Really look at the detail in the terms and conditions – are you covered for piste closure and lift passes, which can run into hundreds of pounds?"
New research from financial analysts Defaqto shows that 64 per cent of single-trip policies offering winter-sports cover provide only £500 worth of cover or less for winter-sports equipment, and 45 per cent cover £200 or less for total closure of the piste. If you have expensive equipment you may need to upgrade the level of cover and be careful where you stash it – some policies may be invalidated if you fail to separate your skis, or leave your equipment in an unattended vehicle. Daredevils planning to forgo the skis for a snowmobile should also ask their insurer whether they are covered for any other slope activities they fancy getting involved in whilst on holiday.
"If you're going to do anything slightly unusual such as toboganning, snowshoeing, heli skiing, ice skating or other non-skiing activities, make sure your policy covers you for these," says Ms Fisher.
Another crucial point is that all travel- insurance policies have clauses about claims relating to alcohol consumption, so think twice before that glass of wine at lunchtime. Annual policies may also have a limit on the number of ski trips that can be taken in any calendar year, as well as a maximum number of days the policyholder can ski per trip so regular skiers may need to take out extra cover.
Ski-enthusiasts planning a trip next year may want to act fast to save money by booking their ski insurance before 4 January, when insurance premium tax (IPT) – a tax which UK insurance companies and brokers pay – is due to rise.
"In January, IPT is rising along with VAT, from 17.5 per cent to 20 per cent," says Mr Ebbett. "So it could be worthwhile to take out an annual travel policy now, and avoid that extra cost."