Travel: A year of travelling confidently: Travel premiums can mount up quickly over a year, but the Independent's new insurance policy offers attractive savings, reports Simon Calder

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The Independent Travel
Cleethorpes was not the ideal place to begin April, but the month rapidly improved as I moved from All Fools' Day at the wet and windy seafront to a weekend in New York and Detroit, followed by a longer trip taking in the West Coast, the Grand Canyon and Mexico. In mid-month I changed planes and socks at Heathrow, and sped off to Australia by way of Dubai, Singapore and Borneo. Travel journalists are privileged to spend a preposterous amount of time sampling places from Humberside to the Great Sandy Desert. But the more you explore, the higher your chances of coming to grief.

Horror stories abound of impoverishment arising from medical bills, particularly in North America. Cover of pounds 2m in most policies looks ridiculously high, but cash can be devoured feverishly by the American health business.

According to an American Express survey, medical expenses are the second most common reason for a claim. The most 'popular' cause is lost baggage - for which you need to produce as much documentation as you can muster from the local police. Insurers are hot on attempted fraud because fictitious claims are rife. A hitch- hiker I once met boasted: 'I've had that rucksack stolen three times.'

Insurance also provides valuable protection against cancellation: if you are booking your winter holiday now, there is no way that you and your nearest and dearest can know whether you will be hospitalised or affected by an air-traffic-control strike on the day you are due to depart.

Compensation for delay can be a gratifying antidote if the start of your holiday is problematic, but the small print can exclude extra expense caused by difficulties on the homeward journey. Roger Hedley, a reader from Watford, found himself caught up in last autumn's Air France strike, which closed down French airports. He had to get back to work and reached the UK by surface transport, only to find his insurers refused to pay for the additional expense.

Some of the benefits of travel insurance seem a little improbable: I am entitled to pounds 200 for each day I am held as a hostage in a hijack, but if the situation lasts more than a week the payments stop. Do not, however, rule out the risk that you might die abroad. If you do, there is, of course, no option but to lie down and keep quiet. However, your bereaved relatives could face huge bills repatriating your body unless you are insured.

Anyone travelling anywhere more exotic than Cleethorpes needs good insurance - but you do not need an expensive policy. For some travel agents and tour operators, insurance is more than a useful service to clients: many discount holiday offers depend upon you taking out the agency's policy (for instance, Stena Sealink's new offer of a 20 per cent reduction on its cross- Channel fares requires you to buy its travel cover). Commission for the agents may be as high as 40 per cent, consequently premiums vary widely even though cover is similar. For example, insurance for a 14- hour trip to Lapland booked through Canterbury Travel costs pounds 17 - which would buy you 18 days' worth of European cover through Campus Travel's policy.

When choosing a policy, beware of exclusion clauses. Cover can be denied if you are too old, too pregnant or too ambitious. Winter sports insurance usually involves an additional premium, as does scuba diving. Serious climbing is usually defined as involving ropes or guides, so the trek to the top of Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia is excluded. The authorities there insist you take out their insurance, which for pounds 1 covers you against lost toes ( pounds 125 for each severed digit) and 'repatriation of remains' should you topple from the top.

If you travel abroad more than once or twice a year, the cost of your separate premiums mounts up very quickly. For the best-value policies to cover my April meanderings, for example, I would have paid pounds 72 - not counting the Cleethorpes excursion. Yet this is more than half what I pay as the annual premium to cover all my trips: my monthly insurance cost works out at around pounds 10. The benefits of a year-round policy are more than financial; the time saved is substantial and developing a relationship with an insurer is also helpful.

My insurance company is now accustomed to a plaintive letter every year or two beginning 'You're not going to believe this but . . .', and describing close encounters with Brazilian bandidos, or attacks by muggers in Havana and New Orleans in the same week. The more beautiful a place, it seems, the higher the likelihood of being robbed. I was most comprehensively turned over in the lovely Colombian city of Cartagena. (The cheque arrived by return post.)

Sadly, the next time the renewal arrives I must discontinue my relationship with the claims department. The new Independent/General Accident annual holiday insurance package costs pounds 50 less than my present policy and the cover is just as good. You even get 17 days of winter sports coverage, which could attract me to Courmayeur next year rather than Cleethorpes.

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