Skiers enjoy a clear run on insurance

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Travel companies selling ski holidays are pushing their own insurance much less than feared, an Independent on Sunday investigation has found. Skiers are often free to shop around without being penalised by the company selling them the holiday, and doing this should save them money.

But our investigation also highlighted the concern that a significant number of travel companies are prepared to sell their policies without understanding or explaining what is covered and their exclusions. Skiers planning to do more than basic on-piste skiing might find this a particular problem because many policies do not cover such things as snowboarding or skiing off-piste without a guide.

Of the 18 companies we telephoned pretending to want to book a ski holiday, only four offered deals that also depend on buying the company's own insurance policy. Last week the Office of Fair Trading referred this practice of conditional selling to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, expressing concern that these insurance policies could be "unsuitable or expensive". Separately, the Advertising Standards Authority issued guidelines on the advertising of holiday deals that required the purchase of a company's own insurance, aimed at highlighting to holiday-makers the full cost of a deal. Two-thirds of companies we contacted did not include the cost of their insurance in their quotes - but then most did not insist on its purchase as a condition of the deal.

Whether compulsory or not, our investigation found that skiers can get cheaper policies elsewhere that could also offer better cover. For a week's skiing in Europe our 18 travel companies quoted between pounds 31.50 and pounds 51 - an average of pounds 36.28. By comparison, the October issue of Which? magazine listed "best-buy" ski insurance starting at pounds 20.50 (from Inter Assurance). This policy includes snowboarding and other types of more advanced skiing.

Many people, however, may regard the savings of shopping around not worth the trouble and, out of convenience, simply buy the policy on offer from the company with which they are booking their holiday. The danger here, we found, was that even when pushed, a third of companies could not explain what their policies covered. Under a code of practice issued by the Association of British Insurers, travel companies should point out where more adventurous activities are not covered, particularly when skiers indicate they plan to do them.

Our research highlighted differences between travel agents and specialist ski tour operators. The agents were more likely to hard-sell their policies while knowing less about what they covered. The ski companies tended not to require you to buy their own insurance but also knew their policies better.

As a general rule skiers and other holiday-makers are recommended to get hold of a copy of the small-print document of any travel insurance policy before paying for it, and to talk direct to the insurer if the scope of the cover remains unclear. Areas for particular attention include whether you are covered for evacuation by helicopter from mountains, pre- paid expenses such as ski lessons, "adventurous" skiing such as snowboarding or off-piste and limitations to theft cover (for example, some policies have strict conditions on where you can leave skis.)

The four companies in our survey that offered deals that included the requirement to buy their insurance - or the payment of a supplement if you do not - were Lunn Poly, Thomas Cook, Airtours and Snowline Skiing.

The others were Thomson, Going Places, First Choice, Ski World, Inghams, Mark Warner, Crystal, Ski Total, the Ski Company, le Ski, Simply Ski, Bladon Lines, and Ski Scott Dunn.