It was an inexplicable fall on an easy run just an hour into our skiing holiday in the French resort of La Plagne. My legs twisted awkwardly, I heard a horrible crack and when I came to a stop, I knew immediately I had either broken my leg or damaged ligaments so badly that my holiday was already over.
Until this happened, I’d never properly understood what the phrase ‘adding insult to injury’ meant. Now I do. The injury was a fractured fibula, the smaller lower leg bone. The insult was the extraordinary and dispiriting treatment I went on to receive from my travel insurer, AXA.
My accident happened near the end of a run, and by putting all my weight on my other leg, I somehow managed to make my own way to La Plagne’s clinic - therefore avoiding a £350 bill for rescue by ‘blood wagon’ sledge. The next morning at a hospital in Moutiers, surgeons inserted a plate into my leg.
The doctors said I would have to spend four more days in hospital - after that I could fly home as long as my wife Carolyn looked after me on the journey.
We had driven with our sons Jacob and Daniel to La Plagne from our home in Oxford. There didn’t seem much doubt that AXA would have to arrange some other means of getting us and our vehicle home.
Annual family travel insurance, part of a package of benefits from my Lloyds-TSB ‘Premier’ account, costs £25 a month. I assumed that everything would be taken care of. After all, the policy promised that I was covered for all ‘reasonable costs’ arising from an accident in order ‘to repatriate you to your home’. How wrong I was.
Pushing AXA to deliver its obligation to get us all home took 27 calls from my hospital bed. Whatever the doctors might be telling me, AXA said it believed it was not obliged to fly the rest of my family home, but only to provide transport for myself.
Then the firm claimed it had not received my medical notes so could not even arrange a flight for me. ‘But I’ve already faxed your records over three times,’ a highly efficient woman in the hospital’s administration department told me on December 30.
When AXA eventually found them, I was called by a member of staff who said that flights for the whole family were being arranged - but getting the car back to England was another matter. As neither Carolyn nor I could drive it back, we would have to make and pay for all the arrangements ourselves.
In vain I pointed out the implications of this refusal: that anyone setting off on a trip by car, thinking they were insured, might face an enormous liability, even in circumstances where the company had agreed to provide alternative transport.
Arranging for our five-year-old Mazda people-carrier to be picked up by a company called Medecar would cost £930. But I had to make the arrangements - more expensive phone calls.
Meanwhile, AXA had a final trick up its sleeve. On December 31, the day before we were due to fly, another operative phoned me and demanded my credit card details, saying that the firm was not paying for the flights after all.
Our conversation became rather heated: finally she said she would check. Whoops. No need for a credit card after all. But it took a further five phone calls to get the confirmed flight details and a booking reference. However, late on New Year’s Day, we were all safely home.
I complained to AXA about its service, and though it still insisted that the hospital had not sent any faxes via Axa’s ‘communications centre’ based in Mauritius, it apologised and sent me a cheque for £50. Meanwhile, I had run up large bills, such as £150 each way for an ambulance between La Plagne and Moutiers. But the biggest, of course, was the £930 for repatriating the vehicle. This AXA refused to cover.
I contacted Jatin Patel, Lloyds-TSB director of current account services, who said: ‘You’ve had a poor customer experience, not what we expect.’ As for the car, he admitted that the policy was vague. ‘Technically, AXA is right in saying you’re not covered. But I can see it was impossible for you or your wife to drive the car home. On this occasion, I am happy to meet this cost as a gesture of goodwill.’
This was welcome. But Mr Patel knew I was a Mail on Sunday journalist, and I can’t help thinking that if I were not, I would have remained out of pocket.
So how can you protect yourself?
The only way is with a specialist European vehicle breakdown policy. I hadn’t bothered to take one out because our car has never broken down, and we are covered for accidents abroad on our ordinary vehicle insurance.
Potentially, that was an expensive mistake.