Southern Europe is baking, thanks to an unrelenting heat wave with temperatures breaking records across Italy, Spain and Greece. This extreme weather, along with one of the busiest tourist seasons in recent years, raises questions for travelers who want to enjoy their vacations while staying safe. Here’s what you need to know if you’re heading to Europe in the coming days, or are already there.
What areas in Europe are affected?
Italy, Spain and Greece are the countries most affected by the high-pressure “anticyclone,” which originated in North Africa, causing record heat. Temperatures as high as 118 degrees Fahrenheit (near 48 degrees Celsius) are possible later this week in Sicily and Sardinia; Northeast Spain soared to 115 degrees this week, while parts of central Greece reached 109 degrees. The hot and dry conditions also exacerbated wildfires in Greece, Croatia, Switzerland and Spain’s Canary Islands, forcing thousands to evacuate.
How long will this heat wave last?
Forecasts show the heat wave lasting at least another week, until the end of July. However, this particular anticyclone – named Charon, for the ferryman for the dead in Greek mythology – is following close on the heels of another high pressure system from the Sahara. (That one is called Cerberus, after the three-headed dog that guards the underworld.)
Are these places ready for this kind of heat?
In general, European cities are ill-equipped to cope with extreme, persistent heat. Many have ancient architecture, especially in areas attractive to tourists, and fewer buildings in general are equipped with air conditioning. According to a 2018 study, only one in 10 European households has air conditioning, compared to 90 percent in the United States. Some European countries have passed laws drastically limited air conditioner installation.
While some cities, such as Paris, have worked to plant more trees and set up public cooling centers, experts say these efforts have failed. A report published last week in the journal Nature Medicine linked 61,000 excess deaths across the continent to last year’s heat waves; a worker in Northern Italy collapsed and died from exposure last week.
Is it safe to travel to Southern Europe?
Safety is largely an individual question, depending on your age, underlying diseases and physical condition. Regardless, extreme heat has certain risks. You can and should take steps to reduce your risk.
Dr. Myhanh Nguyen, the chair of the travel medicine clinics department for Sutter Health Palo Alto Medical Foundation, travelers are advised to be aware of their medical history and any pre-existing conditions or medications that may lead to increased sensitivity to heat; he noted that infants and elderly people are particularly sensitive.
Talk to your doctor, or a doctor at a travel health clinic, before your trip, about any precautions. Then, while traveling, consider your clothing, accommodation and daily activities.
“It’s important for everyone to reduce the risk of heat-related illness through protective behaviors,” said Claudia Brown, a health scientist in the Climate and Health Program of the Center for Disease Control at the National Center for Environmental Health. How to reduce that risk, Ms. Brown said finding an air-conditioned environment, when available, is the most effective method.
“Beyond air conditioning, limit your outdoor activity, especially at noon, the hottest part of the day, and avoid direct sunlight,” suggested Ms. Brown. “Wear loose, light clothing, stay hydrated and take cold showers to lower your body temperature.”
Dr. also said Nguyen says staying hydrated is key.
“It’s important not only to hydrate orally, but also to have an external source of water, such as a water fountain or swimming pool.” Dr. also suggested Nguyen to pay attention to any kind of official notices or warning systems, and avoiding crowds, crowded attractions and finding shaded areas or woods.
Be aware of the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat strokeand be sure to wear plenty of sunscreen.
Can travel insurance help?
Currently, most travel insurance policies do not have specific clauses that cover extreme heat, according to Beth Godlin, the president of Aon Affinity Travel Practicea travel insurance provider.
“Cancel for any reason policies will allow you to cancel based on weather, just like newer policies that allow you to interrupt your trip for any reason,” he said. But other than that, don’t rely on your travel insurance to cover the heat. Policies may cover emergency care for heat-related illness, such as heat stroke or dehydration, but even then, coverage is for the resulting illness, as opposed to the heat itself.
“Travel insurance policies have evolved, and this could be something that will be covered in the next two years,” said Ms. Godlin. “It’s not exactly an established phenomenon.”
Can I change my plans?
Overall, this summer’s crowded conditions in Europe leave little room for last-minute changes or cancellations to be paid, explains Joyce Falcone, president of the Italian Conciergea New Jersey-based travel agency specializing in Italy trips and tours.
Ms. mentioned Falcone says many of his clients look forward to staying on the Italian coast rather than traveling to smoky cities. But travelers who cancel tours, drivers, hotels and more last minute shouldn’t expect refunds.
“Vendors are scheduled very tightly and don’t have much availability,” Ms. Falcone. “They’re trying to make a living, and there’s a limited amount of time to do that.”
What do the locals do to beat the heat?
“They went to the beach!” said Ms. Falcone. “They’re like New Yorkers leaving the city and heading to the Jersey Shore or the Hamptons.”
Although not all Europeans can escape the city for the beach, many decamp for the country to relatives’ homes to escape the oppressive concrete of urban environments.
If you can’t make it to the beach, how are you going to cool off in the city?
So you’re stuck in the city. Try to limit your wanderings to the early morning hours, before 10 am, or after sunset. Plan a Spanish-style siesta during the hottest part of the day. Underground attractions, such as catacombs in Romeor the Tunnels during the Civil War in Barcelona, are cooler alternatives to explore. Look at going to the movies, which are probably air conditioned. And while it may be too late this year, consider visiting the mountains in the summer months or, better yet, avoid summer travel.
“Off-season travel is the way to go,” Ms. Falcone. “There are fewer people, and the weather is cooler. Take this opportunity to consider November, December, January or February. Italy is wonderful at this time of year.
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