What the ski brochures really mean

Stephen Wood gets hooked on the small print
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The Independent Travel
My friend Magnus does not have happy memories of his last skiing trip. It was a disaster. Less than a week before he left, the tour operator told him that his accommodation had to be changed: instead of a three- star hotel in the centre of the resort, he would be staying in a two-star establishment a kilometre away.

Then, on the coach transfer from the airport - having discovered that his skis had not arrived on the plane - he lost his passport. The next morning, at the ski hire shop, he met someone who had made a late booking and paid 20 per cent less for the same holiday. His own skis got to the resort two days later - along with warm weather. The thaw meant that most of the lifts were closed for the rest of the week.

OK, so I made up that story. But those things happen, which is why they feature in every brochure: as a counterpoint to all the full-colour fun up front, the small print at the back deals with the downside of skiing, from delays through to nuclear disaster and death. The booking conditions section (or, as Inghams' The Edge snowboarding brochure has it, the "Really dull legal stuff") details how the tour operator will put things right if your holiday goes wrong. You know it's important; but you are not a lawyer, you never wear an anorak, and you don't read small print. So I've done it for you.

And I have made important discoveries on your behalf. First, they are not all the same: the small print in the brochures published by the six major operators differs considerably. Second, one of them has better terms than the others. And third, reading booking conditions is addictive.

All tour operators offer compensation to clients for "major" changes to a holiday, in accommodation, flight timings and so on - unless caused by force majeure. The definitions of force majeure vary with delightful subtlety (though none of them, oddly, mentions the old standby "Acts of God"), and compensation terms vary, too. My imaginary friend Magnus would have pocketed pounds 100 for accepting inferior accommodation from Thomson, much less if he had travelled with Neilson (pounds 60), Inghams (pounds 40), or Crystal (pounds 20) . Alternatively, of course, he could have cancelled the holiday and got a refund.

The small print is more vague about what happens if you get separated from your skis. All tour operators charge a ski-carriage fee of pounds 12 on charter flights, and if your skis don't turn up at the other end, most of them, with the notable exception of Airtours, promise to refund the pounds 12 - which is a bit like that old 50 per cent scam of predicting the sex of a baby ("Your money back if we get it wrong"). The brochures all contain a rather unspecific commitment to get your skis to you as soon as possible, but only Thomson and Neilson also undertake to loan you skis if necessary.

Compensation for delayed skis comes with many of the brochures' insurance policies. Airtours pays out pounds 100 to hire replacements, Crystal only pounds 30 - and that wide variation is characteristic of brochure policies. Although they all cost the same, about pounds 35 a week for Europe, they all give you something different.

There is an argument (ask any small-print freak) for reading the brochures backwards, because the insurance can differ more than the holidays. Say you fancy a week at the Hotel Aujon in Flaine on 8 February: how do you choose between Thomson and First Choice, which both have a brochure price of pounds 399? Start from the back, and it's easy. If you're mildly accident- prone, you go with Thomson: its "loss of passport" benefit is pounds 700, compared with the standard pounds 250 offered by First Choice. If you're wildly accident- prone, you choose First Choice: its medical benefits are an astonishing pounds 10m, while Thomson's are at the bottom end of the normal pounds 2-pounds 5m range.

The fashionable insurance to have this year is piste-closure cover - it even appears at the front of some brochures. First Choice, Airtours, Inghams and Crystal include the cover in their brochure insurance: the best offer is Airtours', with travel to an alternative skiable area when 80 per cent of your resort's lifts are closed for lack of snow - or, if that's impossible, pounds 30 per day compensation instead. Both Neilson and Thomson, however, include the driving around in search of snow in the cost of the holiday (although you need insurance to qualify for compensation). Take a calculator if you have First Choice's insurance because it only kicks in when 85 per cent of the lifts are closed; don't bother if you're insured with Crystal or Inghams, because they require that the whole resort be shut down.

If you start a brochure at the front, you probably also think the prices are the most important thing in it. And there's another argument for starting at the back. What does the small print say about prices printed in the brochure? Essentially, that they may be correct, or they may not, so ask your travel agent before booking. Once you have booked, however, all operators guarantee that the price will not change - except for Thomson. It admits that the price could go down: "if we reduce the total price of a holiday after you have booked it, we will charge you the new lower price".

If that isn't quite all it seems (it wouldn't apply if the lower price were for a subtly different holiday), it's a good offer - like everything else in Thomson's back pages. True, the print is not very small, which makes them a bit accessible; and there are weird nuggets like Crystal's off-hand "ski boots above size 9 may not be available in Romania". But I was impressed, and said so to Thomson's product manager for skiing, Ian Simkins. He was as pleased as Shakespeare would be if you told him you adored his stage directions. Great: I was impressed by the one part of his brochure that nobody reads.