Southern Europe is baking, thanks to an unrelenting heatwave with record-breaking temperatures across Italy, Spain and Greece. This extreme weather, coupled with one of the busiest tourist seasons in recent years, raises questions for travelers who want to enjoy their vacation while staying safe. Here’s what you need to know if you’re going to Europe in the next few days, or if you’re already there.
Which areas of Europe are affected?
Italy, Spain and Greece are the countries most affected by high pressure “anticyclone”, which originated in North Africa, which is causing the record heat. Temperatures up to 118 degrees Fahrenheit (close to 48 degrees Celsius) are possible later this week in Sicily and Sardinia; northeastern Spain saw highs of 115 degrees this week, while parts of central Greece hit 109 degrees. The hot, 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 that the heat wave will continue for at least another week, until the end of July. However, this particular anticyclone – called Charon, for the ferryman for the dead in Greek mythology – follows closely on the heels of another high-pressure system off the Sahara. (This one was called Cerberus, after the three-headed dog that guards the underworld.)
Are these areas ready for this type of heat?
In general, European cities are ill-equipped to cope with extreme, constant heat. Many have ancient architecture, especially in areas attractive to tourists, and fewer buildings are equipped with air conditioning altogether. According to a 2018 study, only one in 10 European homes has air conditioning, compared to 90 percent in the United States. Some European countries have passed laws drastically limiting 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 fallen short. A a report published last week in the journal Nature Medicine attributed 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 medical conditions and physical conditions. Regardless, extreme heat comes with decided risks. You can and should take steps to mitigate your risk.
Dr. Myhanh Nguyen, the department chair of travel medicine clinics for the Sutter Health Palo Alto Medical Foundation, advised travelers to be aware of their medical history and any pre-existing conditions or medications that could lead to increased heat sensitivity; she noticed that babies and the elderly were particularly sensitive.
Talk to your doctor, or a doctor at a travel health clinic, before your trip about any precautions. Then when traveling, consider your clothes, 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 with the Centers for Disease Control’s Climate and Health Program at the National Center for Environmental Health. As for 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 in the afternoon, the hottest part of the day, and avoid direct sunlight,” Ms. Brown suggested. “Wear loose, light clothing, stay hydrated and take cold showers or baths to lower your body temperature.”
Dr. Nguyen also said staying hydrated is key.
“It’s important not only to hydrate orally, but also to have an outside source of water, such as a water fountain or swimming pool.” Dr. Nguyen also suggested heeding any official notices or warning systems, and avoiding dense, crowded attractions and seeking shaded or wooded areas.
Be aware of the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat strokeand be sure to wear plenty of sunscreen.
Will travel insurance help?
Currently, most travel insurance policies do not have specific clauses covering extreme heat, according to Beth Godlin, the president of the Aon Affinity Travel Practicetravel insurance provider.
“Cancel for any reason policies will allow you to cancel based on the weather, as will newer policies that allow you to interrupt your trip for any reason,” she said. But other than that, don’t count on your travel insurance to cover heat. Policies may cover emergency care for a heat illness, such as heat stroke or dehydration, but even then, the coverage is for the resulting illness, as opposed to the heat itself.
“Travel insurance has evolved, and this may become something that is covered in the next couple of years,” Ms Godlin said. “It’s not exactly an established phenomenon.”
Can I change my plans?
In general, this summer’s crowded conditions in Europe leave little room for last-minute changes or cancellations that will be refunded, explained Joyce Falcone, president of the Italian ConciergeNew Jersey-based travel agency that specializes in travel and tours in Italy.
Ms. Falcone mentioned that many of her clients were hoping to stay on the Italian coast instead of traveling to steamy cities. But travelers canceling tours, drivers, hotels and more at the last minute shouldn’t expect refunds.
“Vendors are scheduled very tightly and don’t have a lot of leeway,” Ms. Falcone said. “They’re trying to make ends meet, and have a limited amount of time to do so.”
What do locals do to beat the heat?
“They’re going to the beach!” Mrs. Falcone says. “They’re like New Yorkers who leave the city and go to the Jersey Shore or the Hamptons.”
While not all Europeans are able to escape from the city to the beach, many leave for the country to the homes of relatives to escape the oppressive concrete of urban environments.
If you can’t get to the beach, how can you chill in the city?
So you are stuck in the city. Try to limit your wandering to the early morning hours, before 10 am, or after the sun has set. Plan a Spanish-style nap during the hottest parts of the day. Underground attractions, such as the catacombs in Romeor the Tunnels from the civil war era in Barcelona, there are fresher alternatives to explore. Look into going to the movies, which tend to be air-conditioned. And while it may be too late this year, consider visiting the mountains in summer months or, better yet, avoid summer travel altogether.
“Off-season travel is the way to go,” Ms. Falcone said. “There are fewer crowds, and cooler weather. Take this opportunity to consider November, December, January or February. Italy is wonderful that time of year.”
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