Your Money: Don't let insurers take the piste

Skiers should cast a wary eye over compulsory travel cover, warns Steve Lodge
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Moves by two separate watchdogs this week are intended to help clean up the selling of travel insurance and should serve as warnings to the 750,000 skiers and many thousands of other holidaymakers booking jaunts for the coming winter.

This week's broadsides were aimed at the common practice of travel agents and companies requiring holidaymakers to buy tied travel insurance policies with their holidays.

The Office of Fair Trading is concerned that these compulsory add-ons can be "unsuitable or expensive" and referred the practice to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. If the MMC finds against the travel companies the practice could be banned, although probably not for at least a year.

Separately, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) issued guidelines on the advertising of holiday deals that include these compulsory insurance policies. The requirement to take out this insurance and its cost is often unclear in advertisements and brochures, making difficult the meaningful comparison of holiday deals on offer, said the ASA. The authority will now require travel agents and tour operators to make clear the total cost of a holiday, including the insurance, or give a full breakdown of the various costs.

The Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) has endorsed the ASA's guidelines and both watchdogs say they will take action against companies that fail to comply.

The price of these compulsory travel insurance policies can be high compared with policies bought separately, and the ASA's move should help highlight this. But nor can you rely on travel agents and companies to spell out whether a policy will cover you adequately, or any shortcomings it might have. Although they are meant to point out relevant exclusions - for example, many winter sports policies do not cover snowboarding unless you pay an additional premium - the person at the travel company selling you the policy is unlikely to be an insurance expert and may not mention this. At worst you could be left dangerously uninsured while assuming you are covered.

Of course, you might still be getting a very good deal overall by signing up for a holiday package which includes the requirement to buy seemingly expensive travel insurance. And it may be a convenient way of buying necessary insurance for many people, skiers in particular.

Despite the prevalence of such conditional deals, ski companies may be willing to let you provide your own insurance and simply pay a supplement for not taking out their own policy. There is no fixed scale for these supplements, but you might be charged, say, pounds 10 rather than an insurance premium of pounds 30-plus. Many of the increasingly popular annual travel policies now on offer include adequate skiing cover, in which case holders paying a supplement will save at least some unnecessary cost.

But whichever route you take, it is vital to check that the policy covers you properly, particularly given the expense of medical treatment. The insurer Columbus Direct reports that medical costs have risen by 42 per cent over the last two ski seasons and claims can run into tens of thousands of pounds. An estimated 13,000 skiers are expected to return home early due to serious injury this winter.

The following are some areas to look out for:

q "Essentials" cited by the October issue of Which?, which carried a guide to best-buy ski insurance, include cover for mountain evacuation and pre-paid expenses such as skiing lessons. Some policies may not include evacuation by helicopter, for example.

q Whether you are covered for anything more than basic on-piste skiing. You may not be covered if you ski off-piste, if you are a snowboarder or you heli-ski, mono-ski or go tobogganing.

The basic best buys listed by Which? (which should be available in public reference libraries) start at pounds 20.50 for a week in Europe (from Inter Assurance) or pounds 62.54 (from Europ Assistance) for an annual policy that will also cover a week's skiing in Europe. But if, for example, you are a snowboarder the cheapest premiums for a week in Europe start at pounds 30.72 (Artac World Choice, which is also reckoned a best buy if you have expensive equipment or you want extra cover for delays in getting to the resort and transport to another resort if there is no snow).

q The extent of theft cover. Theft of skis and the like from mountains and ski resorts is reportedly an increasing problem. Insurers say that some policies have strict conditions on where you can leave skis, and some will only provide cover against theft for skis that are locked up.

q If you are buying a family policy, does it require you to ski together?

q With annual policies, can you take more than one skiing holiday? While most annual policies will offer 17 to 21 days of winter sports cover, with some this might be limited to one trip. WorldCover Direct, which charges pounds 75 for a year and which last year had a claim to offer the "world's best value travel insurance" upheld by the ASA, is among those that allows any number of ski trips.

q Try to stick to travel insurers that are members of the insurance ombudsman scheme. This is a free arbitration service for disputes over claims. And the general laxness of travel companies in giving out policy documents and not pointing out unusual exclusions can stand you in good stead in rulings by the ombudsman.