A company is offering insurance against deciding not to travel. Mark MacKenzie reports

B ook your flight, then decide not to go - will anyone insure you against changing your mind? One online agent launched last week what it claims is a genuine first in the travel insurance market - a policy that offers financial protection even if you decide you don't want to travel. Ebookers.com, which takes around 2,000 flight bookings a day, calls it "disinclination cover".

"Of course, most customers book flights in the belief they will be able to take them," explains Ciaran Lalley, the company's managing director for the UK and Ireland. "Yet circumstances often arise that prevent them from doing so and this cover offers peace of mind."

The press release accompanying the product's launch goes a step further, describing it as "the perfect solution for commitment-phobes and oversubscribed intrepid travellers". One might be inclined to ask why those with commitment issues about going on holiday are booking flights in the first place.

Nevertheless, for as little as £5, purchasers of the new product can insure themselves against a range of short-notice emergencies that prevent them from flying. These include: a family illness; being called for jury service; the breakdown of public transport; and a fire or burglary at home. And should you simply not want to set out, the USP is a 50 per cent reimbursement of the cost of your flight, provided you cancel at least one week before departure.

The UK's travel insurance industry is worth an estimated £600m annually and offers a vast range of policies, covering tourists for everything from skiing accidents to acts of terrorism. Given that some cover for short-term eventualities already exists on many policies, isn't this just a case of re-inventing the wheel?

"It is true that most travel insurance policies will cover you if your house burns down or if you cancel because a close relative is taken ill," explains Malcolm Tarling of the Association of British Insurers. "The same is true of a fire which requires you to be at home, as well as flights missed due to the failure of public transport. A policy based on a disinclination to travel, however, is something we haven't seen before and shows that insurers are continually having to be creative to win custom."

The attitude of most airlines towards missed or cancelled flights varies. The more accommodating, including the bulk of major carriers, will do their best to rebook you, often up to a year from the original date of departure. It is, however, a facility not usually available for flights purchased through "discount" websites, of which ebookers .com is Britain's third largest.

"Deciding not to travel is often an entirely sensible and pragmatic decision," Mr Tarling adds, "but [until now] has rarely carried much sway with insurers.

"If, for example, the Foreign Office merely advises against travel to a certain region, rather than expressly warning against it, most insurers won't honour a claim should you cancel."

His words are a reminder that many of us still travel without full knowledge of what our insurance policies cover us for. In recent months, an investigation by the consumer watchdog Which? found that only one in five customers who bought travel insurance on the high street did so with a complete understanding of what they were buying.

"Ultimately," says Tarling, "this has to be a good thing for the consumer." He also points out that the insurance industry remains lucrative precisely because the majority of customers never claim. Moreover, getting some sort of refund on your flight is one thing - but persuading your accommodation provider or car hire firm to be so understanding is quite another.