Back to basics
Basic cover for two weeks in Europe costs around pounds 30-pounds 40 with major operators like Thomson, Airtours, Lunn Poly or Thomas Cook. Buy direct from an insurance company and you'll get similar cover from pounds 13 (try Premier Direct and Direct Travel) or from pounds 32 for a family of four ( Family Care, Churchill and Premier Direct). If you're travelling long-haul, particularly to the US, expect to pay more. This is primarily due to expensive medical costs. Lunn Poly charges pounds 245.90 to cover a three-week family holiday (two adults and two children) to the US. Churchill Insurance charges pounds 74.30 - that's a saving of pounds 171.60.
So why are we buying through major operators and paying so much more? Suzanne Moore of the Association of British Insurers says "it's because tour operators are rewarded with commission from insurance companies and the reason they get so much is because people still continue to buy insurance through the tour operator or travel agent instead of looking around." She points out that "sometimes with the tie-in deals that operators and travel agents offer you can end up getting your travel insurance 'free', but from November that arrangement will no longer be legal." Her advice is to "be clear on what you are getting and in most cases it still makes more sense to shop around."
A year in wherever
If you plan to travel on holiday several times a year then you will definitely save money by buying annual travel insurance. Annual policies are now offered by most insurance companies and will normally cover you for unlimited trips, though there may be a restriction on the length of your stay. While cover for a single, two-week trip for an adult to Europe costs at least pounds 13 and three weeks in the United States would cost pounds 32, European annual cover with Travellers Protection Services costs just pounds 39 for an adult, and pounds 55 for a family of four through Travel Protection. Annual cover anywhere in the world (including the US) for adults costs pounds 45 to pounds 49 from Travel Protection and Travellers Protection Service, and a family of four would pay pounds 80 through Willis First Response and pounds 85 through LeisureCare.
Look for policies that cover at least pounds 1m medical expenses, pounds 1m public liability (pounds 2m in the US), pounds 1,500 baggage and belongings (with a limit of around pounds 300 for single items) and cancellation and curtailment. This pays out if you need to cancel or abandon a trip for any reason. Also make sure that the insurers you choose are members of either the Personal Insurance Arbitration Service or the Insurance Ombudsman Bureau.
The small print
Most travel insurers will have exclusions. Some of them won't cover you if you buy an emergency flight home, if you're already ill or if you want to take part in a dangerous activity, so make sure you read the small print properly.
With most policies, as long as you're fit when you set off, you'll be covered despite having a pre-existing condition. The best deals on travel policies which include unlimited medical cover for two weeks in Europe are through Barclays (pounds 22.50) and Halifax (pounds 24.62).
... and remember
If you have "all risks" house contents insurance, you can save money by deleting baggage cover from some travel policies. All-risks house insurance usually covers your belongings abroad for up to 60 days. If you have any valuable items (over pounds 400) it works out cheaper to add these to your house insurance and let the insurer know you plan to take the items overseas.
If you use your card to pay for the holiday, many credit cards offer travel accident insurance which pays out if you have a serious accident or die. But don't rely on this for full travel insurance.
If you carry form E111, available from post offices, you are entitled to free or reduced price emergency medical treatment in most EU countries. The UK also has reciprocal health agreements with other countries such as Australia and New Zealand. You still need full travel insurance for baggage and to cover yourself against cancellation and emergency flights home.
Karen Banyon is a travel writer and broadcaster.