Disclaimer: We are not insurance brokers or lawyers and have no affiliation with any companies mentioned here. Seek your own professional advice before settling on your preferred insurance policy. Information in this post is current at December 2018 and may have changed since.
There’s usually a lot of questions about travel insurance while skiing overseas that pop up on social media forums, but very few sources of definitive information about what you’re actually covered for. This is especially confusing in relation to backcountry and off-piste skiing and snowboarding for Australians heading to Japan.
Thinking about the fine print in Product Disclosure Statements is a pretty boring way to get psyched for a big trip, but the reality is that if you do have a major accident overseas it could literally bankrupt you.
The main considerations are the general terms most insurance policies include in relation to skiing and snowboarding:
1) Most policies that say they cover “off piste” usually stipulate there being “no warning signs” or that the terrain is within the resort boundary. The reality of most off piste skiing in Japanese resorts is you will have ducked a rope to hit a pow stash, at which point your insurance is totally void. If you are doing this, be sure you know what your options are in the event of an emergency.
2) Most policies that allow “backcountry skiing” stipulate you need to be with a qualified guide with very specific qualifications (i.e. IFMGA recognised Mountain or Ski Guide certification). If you head out alone, even through a permitted resort backcountry gate, you are not covered by your insurance policy. Check with the guide you’re considering using to ensure they have the relevant certifications before you book.
3) Most policies do not include search and rescue costs, which the Japanese will give you a bill for if you’re found alive, or your family if it’s your body retrieval. Helicopters are expensive! The exception is Austrian Alpine Club membership which provides €25,000 rescue cost coverage, but you’ll need this in addition to a standard travel insurance policy for medical care and repatriation home. Note that most guiding companies’ waiver forms place rescue cost coverage on the guest. In other countries like New Zealand and Canada, rescue costs are covered by the government.
4) Many policies have wording like “recklessly placing yourself at risk” which is wildly open ended from a legal perspective if you needed to contest it. Would a “reasonable person” consider dropping a cliff line “reckless”? If so, your insurance company will probably use this to deny your claim.
5) Most policies have a general exclusion of “Failure to follow a ‘Do Not Travel’ warning issued by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs”, so that excludes places like Kashmir, but also includes Japan around Fukushima nuclear reactor. You can check the current status at SmartTraveller.
6) All policies exclude accidents that occur whilst under the influence of drugs or alcohol, so a couple of beers over lunch could tip you over this clause, as there’s never any definition of acceptable limits of intoxication in most PDS’s we’ve reviewed.
Where does this all fit in relation to policies that are available for Australians skiing in Japan? We’ve reviewed the fine print in some of the more well known policies that cover “off piste” skiing listed at CompareTravelInsurance in 2018 (Note that many of these policies will have changed post-COVID):
When buying a World Nomads policy, you can add specific adventure activities to be covered, in this case Level 3: Skiing – Backcountry / Outside of resort boundary / Alpine ski touring.
- Skiing on or off piste within resort boundaries is covered.
- Skiing in a terrain park terrain park is covered, excluding “acrobatics”. There’s no definition of what “acrobatics” means, but assume this means any aerial tricks to be sure.
- Skiing backcountry/outside of resort boundary or by helicopter/snow cat is covered but you must be with a professional, qualified and licensed guide or operator.
- Any search and/or rescue operations are not covered.
- “Failure to take reasonable care to act as a reasonable, prudent person would in similar circumstances” and “Taking a needless risk or acting with disregard for one’s own or another’s safety or property” is not covered.
- “You go against local authority warnings or enter closed or restricted areas or places or situations known to be unsafe or dangerous”, i.e. ducking ski boundary ropes.
World Nomads provided a longer explanation of their policy on Snowsbest.
This is a ski-specific policy from 1Cover insurance company and looks good at face value, covering things like piste and bad weather closure and unlimited rescue expenses. However, it totally excludes any backcountry skiing and the heli-ski option doesn’t cover you for any accidents involving the helicopter itself.
- “‘Off piste’ means any skiing within a short distance from designated areas of ski report boundaries on groomed terrain or marked slopes or trails that are open, maintained, monitored and patrolled by the ski resort.” You’d be safest to stay within resort boundaries for this to be honoured by this policy.
- “‘Backcountry’ means skiing in a sparsely inhabited rural region over un-groomed and unmarked slopes (i.e. marked pistes are not present) where fixed mechanical means of ascent are often not present.” This is not covered at all.
- No cover if “You do not act in a responsible way to protect yourself and your property and to avoid making a claim.” i.e. No cliff drops.
- No cover if “Your claim arises from you participating in ski acrobatics or backcountry skiing”.
- “We will not pay if your claim arises out of you travelling in helicopter, or embarking or disembarking a helicopter.” Not the best cover if you’re relying on it for actually heli-skiing!
Travel Insurance Direct
TID is a very widely used policy by Australians and has a snow sports coverage add on for their standard policy.
- Cover includes “Snow skiing and snowboarding on-piste and off-piste within resort and terrain park boundaries on groomed or ungroomed runs and marked trails which are patrolled or monitored by resort authorities.”
- Cover includes “Backcountry snow skiing and snowboarding, including heli-skiing and cat skiing, only when on a guided tour with a licensed tour operator”
- No cover for any search and rescue expenses.
- No cover “A loss arising from your intentional exposure to a needless risk or not taking reasonable care.”
The Budget Direct policy was surprisingly one of the more detailed, and while it excluded most of the standard things other policies do, it did provide more specific cover for terrain parks than any other policy we reviewed.
- Cover for “Recreational skiing / snowboarding, cat skiing, glacier skiing, heli-skiing, off-piste skiing (with a professional snow sport instructor / guide only)”.
- “Any kind of backcountry or off-piste activity on the snow is not covered without the attendance of a ‘Professional Snow Sport Instructor’”.
- “Ski / Snowboard Fun Parks: An area of a piste, or ski trail, created for freestyle skiers and boarders to use / undertake half pipes, moguls, jumps, rails, skier cross tracks etc.”.
Promoted as “Insurance for people looking for adventure”, Insure4Less is owned by PSC Insurance Group and backed by Berkshire Hathaway Specialist Insurance. They get mixed reviews for their services, but their product is specifically designed for snow sports.
By selecting their “Excel Plus” package and all ski options you get $5000 search and rescue expenses and off-piste cover without a guide. A month of full cover insurance for an individual currently costs about $1000.
- “Off-piste (or backcountry) skiing or boarding means ‘going out of bounds’, i.e. outside the resort boundary (if there is a boundary) or off the marked pistes if within the resort area.”
- “If you state that you want off piste cover you are insured for off-piste without a guide provided that you are not going alone or going against advice.”
- “If a section is marked ‘closed’ there will be a very good reason for it (e.g. high avalanche danger) and ignoring such signs or advice may invalidate your cover.”
- Does not appear to cover Heli Skiing in the PDS.
- Does not cover areas with a “Do not travel” advisory.
For travellers who want full peace of mind when doing extreme sports in remote locations, Global Rescue provides a very high degree of protection. We asked them specifically about backcountry skiing coverage and got the following answers in writing:
- “Global Rescue does not place any restrictions on activities, elevation, places traveled, or nationality of our members” but not for destinations with “Do not travel warnings from the US State Department” like Kashmir.
- “We will arrange and pay for the cost of an emergency evacuation from the point of injury or illness to the nearest well-equipped hospital or facility. If you require additional hospitalization, Global Rescue will transport you to your home country hospital of choice once you are stable and fit-to-fly. Any hospital bills that you might incur would have to be paid for by you, your personal health insurance, or a traveler’s insurance.”
- They also provide a “Security Membership Add-on” that provides evacuation in the event of a non medical emergency, like a military situation, but not for areas already under a “Do not travel” advisory.
Under Global Rescue’s plans, you can buy an annual membership from US$329 or 7, 14 and 30 day individual trips from US$119. You would then need to purchase a standard travel insurance policy in addition to this.
With all this in mind, what would we do personally?
- Choose a policy that has specific snow sports cover. The more detailed their PDS explanation of what is and isn’t covered the less grey areas there’ll be to argue if it comes to that.
- Read the Product Disclosure Statements (PDS) of any policy you’re considering in detail and get clarifications in writing from the insurance company on any grey areas you have concerns about.
- Choose a company that has a good reputation for honouring claims and activating emergency cover when you need it. Be sure you and your travel partners understand how to activate help from the insurance company on your behalf if you are injured.
- Take out Austrian Alpine Club membership, which is relatively cheap and will cover the search and rescue costs that no other travel insurance company will.
- Ski knowing what risks you might be taking by ducking a rope or heading backcountry without a guide. An informed risk is better than assuming you will be covered and you can ski in a way that minimises the risk of injury.
If we’ve made any incorrect assertions or you have your own experiences to share, feel free to leave a comment.