Out in the cold and under cover

Steve Lodge on how to steer clear of the winter holiday insurance crevasses
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The Independent Online
The strength of the pound, this year's windfall payouts and the fine skiing conditions in Europe last winter are all expected to boost ski holiday bookings this winter. Nearly 400,000 Brits are expected to head for the ski slopes of Europe and, increasingly, the US and Canada.

But whatever sterling's buying power, skiing is still not a cheap pastime, and while the savings to be had from shopping around for ski insurance may seem relatively minor, wide differences in policy "small print" make it well worth while comparing what is on offer.

While all too many travel agents selling holidays in the sun continue to insist on you taking their travel insurance policy to get a particular deal, skiers are often not penalised for sorting out their own insurance.

According to research by Columbus Travel Insurance, a one-week ski policy for Europe could cost as much as pounds 47 a head from some travel agents, compared with equivalent policies from specialist insurers costing pounds 25 or less. The potential cost advantage from going "direct" is in part explained by a change in the tax rules. Since April, policies sold through travel agents have included a 17.5 per cent insurance tax levy from the government, compared with 4 per cent on policies sold direct.

But skiers should focus on more than price. Do not assume that all policies give the same cover and be wary of vague explanations by sale speople. Travel agents can be particularly bad at explaining what policies include - and one direct seller contacted by the Independent on Sunday even appeared to have trouble understanding "off-piste".

Many policies will not cover you for snowboarding or off-piste skiing (or they may insist you have an approved guide), so if you have an accident with the wrong policy, you face paying your own medical expenses.

Ski theft - even from mountain-top cafes - can be a problem. One insurer's tip is not to leave both skis standing together, but some insurers will only cover you for theft if your skis are locked up.

A number of policies now include "snow promises" - compensation if you cannot ski because there is no snow - but cover if you cannot ski because of blizzards is less common and many policies seem vague about how much of the resort has to be unski-able for the snow promise to kick in. If your holiday is brought to a halt by an accident, insurance-based rebates for pre-paid ski passes, ski hire and pre-paid tuition can vary widely.

The Ski Club of Great Britain, which normally charges pounds 45 a year to join, this week launches an insurance deal open to non-members that includes a year's free membership. The club, which offers free guiding round the pistes of major resorts and a range of discounts, is charging pounds 25.64 for six days' European skiing cover (pounds 31.02 for 10 days). It includes off- piste skiing - even without a guide - snowboarding and even heli-skiing. If there is not enough snow to ski, you are entitled to cash compensation of pounds 20 a day (kicking in after one day of not being able to ski and only for resorts over 1,000m high). Pre-paid costs of up to pounds 75 a day for such things as ski passes, ski hire and tuition are covered if you can't ski because of injury, but there is no compensation for bad weather.

Columbus's standard policy, which also includes snowboarding, unaccompanied off-piste skiing, and pounds 20 a day compensation if you are unable to ski because of no snow as well as blizzards, costs just pounds 22 for a week in Europe. But it only covers skis against theft if they are locked up - even on the mountains - and if you have an accident, the refund of pre- paid costs is limited to pounds 15 a day.

If you already have an annual travel policy, this may well include winter sports cover; if you don't, there are some good-value deals around that do not cost a whole lot more than some single-trip policies, particularly if you plan to ski in the US or Canada. Bradford & Bingley building society has a pounds 70 annual travel policy that includes 17 days of winter sports and on which, unusually, there is no claims excess.

The policy includes off-piste skiing (so long as you have an approved guide), snowboarding (so long as the board is "leashed" to your ankle), a "snow promise" worth pounds 30 a day and no limit on compensation for pre- paid costs if you have an accident and can no longer ski. The skiing can be anywhere in the world, as can any of your other holidays in the year. Which? magazine gave B&B's policy a string of "best buy" awards earlier this year; other insurers rated "best buys" in past Which? surveys for skiers include InterAssurance and WorldCover Direct.

q Ski Club of Great Britain Insurance, 01403 225303; Columbus, 0171 375 0011; Bradford & Bingley, 0800 435642; InterAssurance, 01252 747 747; WorldCover Direct, 0800 365121.