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Cover before you leap

Adequate medical and legal insurance are vital for winter sports, says Tim Collison
WE'RE NOW into peak skiing season, with more than a million Britons taking off for the slopes this winter. The costs of falling over or crashing into someone else can run into thousands of pounds - in medical costs and even legal fees. German and American skiers are notoriously quick to sue clumsy skiers who collide with them on the slopes, so make sure your policy covers you for public liability and legal fees as well as medical bills.

But choosing the right cover is not so simple. The market for travel insurance has mushroomed over the last few years, with many insurers selling cover over the telephone and a few surprise names like Boots and Tesco getting in on the act.

The big travel agents, such as Thomas Cook and Going Places, have started to throw in free travel insurance with package holidays. This is a reaction to a recent ruling preventing them from linking compulsory insurance to holiday discounts. But the policy may not provide enough cover for winter sports, and you will probably have to take to a lower discount on the holiday. You are far better off shopping around for cover.

The price of cover varies dramatically. For a week's skiing in Europe for one adult, it will cost you pounds 18.70 with Family Care and pounds 20 with Options. Boots comes in at pounds 30 and American Express at pounds 50.50.

Premiums go up for the US and Canada. Two weeks in the US will cost you pounds 50.60 through Options, pounds 53 with Columbus and pounds 99.30 through American Express. If you travel more than two or three times a year, you may want to consider an annual policy. Prices for these start at around pounds 40 for one person.

While some of the cheaper policies are genuine bargains, a lower premium will usually mean lower levels of cover and a greater number of restrictions, so it is essential that you go through the small print.

The first thing you should check when comparing policies is the medical section. The minimum level of medical expenses cover you can get away with is pounds 1m for Europe, but more is recommended. The average limit is pounds 5m, but some companies, such as Options and Boots go up to pounds 10m. While these limits may seem unnecessarily high, private medical care abroad can be very expensive. The costs of treatment are highest in the US, but Switzerland is now coming in a close second. Travel insurance specialist Home & Overseas says that treating a minor injury such as a sprained ankle will cost around pounds 100 in the Alps, but will set you back pounds 500 in the US. Break your leg in Switzerland and you could run up a bill of pounds 25,000.

You must also ensure that the policy has an assistance service that will provide a mountain rescue service and air ambulance back to the UK.

Accidents requiring emergency assistance and repatriation are worryingly common and can involve the most experienced skiers. Last season, Adam Condell returned to the same resort in Austria where he had been skiing throughout his teenage years to start a ski and snowboard instructor course. However, on the second day his training was brought to an abrupt halt. "While warming up I realised the slope was very icy. When I got to the bottom I collided into the safety rope and tripped on to a steep ice face. My instructor came and got me and at first I did not think I was too badly hurt," said Adam. In fact, he suffered a torn ear, two bruised ribs and a spinal fracture. Adam's insurer, Primary Direct, flew him home with a private nurse and organised private ambulances at both ends of the journey. He received NHS treatment back in the UK, but the total bill still came to nearly pounds 3,500.

Even if you are not hurt in an accident you may injure someone else, so you must ensure your policy has adequate public liability cover. A limit of pounds 2m is advisable. On top of that, check the policy covers legal expenses. Andrew Blowers, managing director of Options, says: "Legal expenses cover is very important. People now sue as soon as someone crashes into them. This is particularly so in Germany and the States." Options offers pounds 50,000 worth of legal expenses cover, and Boots and Columbus both provide up to pounds 25,000.

Next on the check list is cover for personal belongings and ski equipment. Columbus estimates that theft of ski equipment went up by 20 per cent last season, with restaurants next to cable cars being the key targets for thieves. Look for policies that have sections for your own ski gear and for equipment that you have hired, and remember that all policies will have a claim limit for any one article, usually around pounds 200.

If you are fortunate enough to go skiing for more than two weeks at a time, check the number of days your policy covers. The average is 17, but the Ski Club of Great Britain - which also offers some useful benefits to members - goes up to 31.

Many policies will cover against piste closure, although this will usually only be between December and March, and insurance is also available for delays due to avalanches, and loss or theft of your ski pass.

Unfortunately the list of what is not insured is often just as long as the growing list of add-ons and less important covers. Remember that many insurers will steer clear of insuring perceived high-risk activities such as snowboarding, glacier skiing and ski jumping. Some more expensive policies will cover off-piste skiing and snowboarding, but nearly all will charge extra for those brave enough, or mad enough, to attempt bobsleighing or heli-skiing.

Columbus, 0171-375 0011; Family Care, 0990 561224; Options, 0870 848 0870; American Express, 0800 700 737; Boots, 0845 840 2020; Home & Overseas, 0171 434 3002; Primary Direct, 0990 775 885; Ski Club of Great Britain, 0181 410 2000.

Tim Collison is editor of `Professional Broking' magazine.

dodge the sports pitfalls

These are the most common mistakes made by Britons setting out for the slopes.

Assuming that their ordinary annual travel policy covers winter sports.

Relying on travel cover provided free with credit cards.

Assuming an E111 medical form provides enough cover.

Not taking out or specifying dangerous sports cover.

Source: BIIBA