Are you covered on the slopes?

Buying insurance can be a daunting experience, sat at your computer weighing up the odds of X being stolen, Y breaking or Z going horribly wrong, but it seems to carry more gravitas when you are insuring your holiday. Aren’t they supposed to be sacred?

It becomes even more complicated when it’s not just cancellation or lost luggage that you have to worry about. So welcome to the world of winter sports insurance.

To snow ‘virgins’, your average single trip travel insurance policy will not cover a ski or snowboard holiday, with winter sports often excluded. This is simply because there is much more risk when you head up the mountains and the cost involved if those risks become reality are much greater than a family losing some luggage in the south of France.

This might seem obvious but every year it is reported that people are going skiing or snowboarding without buying a policy, or checking that the policy they have bought is valid on the slopes. One of the first mistakes many make is expecting a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) to cover them should anything go wrong – this is false. The EHIC only covers necessary state healthcare and does not cover, for example, slopeside recovery after an accident, which is performed by private companies and costs a lot of money.

According to statistics compiled for Moneywise by winter sports cover specialist Alpha, emergency medical attention is the most common claim by a long way, with healthcare accounting for 85% of claims dealt with by the company in 2014, and 75% in 2015.

Such claims were not only the most common but also the most expensive, with the average claim in 2014 worth £724, and £581 in 2015. This seems like a lot of money but it pales in comparison to the cost of an emergency slopeside helicopter rescue in Europe without insurance – about £2,500. The approximate cost to those requiring a similar service in the United States, plus a flight home, can face a bill of up to £40,000, according to insurance specialist, Columbus Direct. There’s a reason that medical expenses cover can stretch to the tens of millions of pounds.

Winter sports insurance, will also cover the cost of cancellations of trips, and lost and stolen equipment and belongings – the average cost of a cancellation claim in 2015 (9% of total claims) was £504, and the average cost of “other” (13%), which includes everything from lost baggage to stolen skis, was £176.

Ski holiday insurance can also provide peace of mind, besides the usual knowledge of having your back covered in the event of an accident. It can also pay out if the dreaded strikes – no snow. Although the terms and conditions are strict and there often have to be no lifts open at all, insurance companies may pay up to £500 a day for the time you’re spent sat in the chalet looking longingly up at sun- dappled mountains.

Your policy might also cover the cost of transport to nearby resorts where lifts are open. Last year, after a particularly slow start to the season in much of Europe, Alpha reported a steep rise in the number of ‘no snow’ claims.

How to buy winter sports insurance

Purchasing winter sports insurance is not as straightforward as buying normal travel insurance, thanks to the breadth of activities open to those who pay upwards of a thousand pounds to spend a week in the mountains.

“We tend to throw ourselves into adventurous activities far more readily when we are on holiday, like trying out snowboarding for the first time or off-piste skiing,” says Tim Whelan, head of commercial services at the Ski Club of Great Britain, a group formed in 1903, which now has around 30,000 members.

“Travellers need to make sure that what they plan to do, or think they might do, is covered under their insurance.” The Ski Club launched a new specialist winter sports insurance earlier this year, with a view to giving its members the range of cover required from a ski holiday.

Whelan says skiers and snowboarders must check that the activities they intend to take part in on holiday are covered by the policy, or they risk having their claim refused immediately. “Take the time to look through the activities covered.

You might need to spend more to buy an additional activity pack,” he says. “Many winter sports insurance policies offer different levels of cover.”

Some insurers provide a comprehensive set of activities as standard, including off-piste skiing or boarding without a guide and ski touring but others may only cover you when you are accompanied by a guide, or stay within the resort boundaries.

For the more adventurous, they should check that the likes of cat-skiing (being dragged up a mountain, into the off-piste, by a piste-basher), heli-skiing (being dropped at the top of a mountain by a helicopter), or off-piste adventuring (the most common omission from skiers’ policies, where deep powder, crevasses, cliffs and climbs await) are covered.

Other intricacies in policies worth considering include the FOGG Medicard, which means in the event of an accident or illness on the mountain, rescue teams will not request any sort of up-front payment, safe in the knowledge they will be remunerated. Whelen says, as incredible as it sounds: “It can be a common occurrence that you are asked to pay for treatment before you receive it, even when on the side of a mountain.”

The compulsory wearing of helmets is an interesting development in winter sports insurance, which has become more widespread in the pastfew years following the high-profile deaths or accidents involving a number of celebrities on the slopes, including actress Natasha Richardson in 2009, who was not wearing a helmet, and Michael Schumacher’s 2013 accident, from which the Formula One racing driver is still recovering, with years of rehabilitation ahead of him. Schumacher hit his head on a rock in Méribel, France. He was wearing a helmet.

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Essential Travel was one of the first to introduce the policy that insurance is only valid if the skier or snowboarder is wearing a helmet. A number of other insurers have followed suit, so it is now always worth checking the small print.

Again, like other insurance policies, pre-existing conditions must be declared at purchase. And retain all receipts and documents so you can use them when claiming. Also, when dealing with a theft, ensure you have the required police documentation, and claim within the necessary time limits.

Indeed, at the point of purchase, makes sure any excess charges are reasonable – otherwise, it can rather defeat the point of having insurance in the first place.

Whelan concludes: “Quite simply the biggest risk [of travelling without insurance] is that you end up being out of pocket. Travel insurance exists to protect you against a range of unfortunate incidents, if you have an accident, fall ill or have something stolen, to name but a few. Getting the proper insurance cover means that you can have peace of mind that if something does happen, you are protected and you can make the most of your time on the slopes.”

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