Jet lag can really be an awful downside to any exciting airplane trip. You jump on a plane (or two) across oceans, states, or countries, and hours later you are in a brand new place in a different time zone, yet—wait a second— your “body clock” is still on the old time zone! You end up spending most of your time on your vacation or when you return back home in a sleepy zombie-like state. You feel like day is night and night is day and can’t seem to figure out when you should or shouldn’t sleep. And worse yet— you sometimes even WASTE half of your vacation because you can’t seem to adjust to the time difference because of your jet lag.
However, it doesn’t have to be that way! From all the traveling I’ve done over the years, I think I have really perfected the “art” of minimizing jet lag, and I’d love to share my tips with you.
There are many things you can do, in general, to help beat jet lag, but here is the one most IMPORTANT thing you must do: you must—I repeat—must—PLAN your sleep schedule during your travel. Whether you’re taking an overnight red-eye flight, or traveling a massive amount of hours on a transatlantic flight, if there’s a certain time that you really need to sleep… YOU MUST SLEEP! You can’t just “wing it” and expect that you’ll fall asleep easily—or whenever—when you’re flying, so it’s important to schedule out when it’s time to get some shuteye on that flight. This can be done with careful planning and with the aid of any medication that may make you drowsy.
James can vouch for my art of beating jet lag, as he learned the hard way last year when he had red-eye flights two weekends in a row. Before his first flight, I told him to drink a lot of water, borrow my eye mask and neck pillow, buy some ear plugs, and take some benedryl a half hour before the flight takes off (to cause drowsiness and help him sleep better). However, James said he would be fine without (why all the fuss?), and jumped on the flight without heeding my warning about how the day he arrived was going to be busy and he really needed to get his sleep for the night! Sure enough, he barely slept a wink on the 5 hour flight and spent the next day sleeping the afternoon away. He felt jet lagged, drowsy, and totally “out of it” for the rest of the day. The next weekend when he had yet another red-eye flight, he took my advice step-by-step, and this time he arrived feeling refreshed and ready to start the day. Voila!
Anyway, enough of the anecdotes, and on to the “good stuff”! Here is my fool-proof guide to minimizing jet lag!
1. Schedule the exact time(s) that you need to sleep on your flight. Like I just mentioned above, you should NEVER get on an airplane and just “hope” you’ll fall asleep… or worse yet, get on a 7+ hour flight and just sleep whenever your body feels like it. THAT’S A HUGE NO-NO! In order to avoid jet lag altogether, usually it’s best to try to adjust to the time zone that you are traveling TO.
Example #1: As I began writing this post, I was in the Dubai airport on a four-hour layover from Cape Town, South Africa, back to the states. The flight I took left at 6:00pm South Africa time, flew for 9 1/2 hours, with a 4 hour layover in Dubai, then another 14 1/2 hour flight to Seattle (yes, over FOURTEEN HOURS!), followed by a 2 hour flight to Sacramento, California. The time difference from Cape Town to Sacramento is 10 hours… that is, California is 10 hours BEHIND. The next time you travel, look at your travel itinerary and convert all the times of the cities you fly through to your DESTINATION city’s time. In that particular case, it meant that technically I needed to stay up around an extra 10 hours to adjust to California time. I managed to stay awake that whole first flight, and then the layover, and scheduled myself to go to sleep on the second flight (which wasn’t too hard because technically my body was on 7:30am time without any sleep!) I slept during the time it was night IN CALFORNIA, so that when I arrived in California I was a bit more adjusted to the local time.
Example #2: Right now as I write this (on Tuesday), James and I are on a 12 hour flight from California to South Korea. We left at 11:00am California time, but when we arrive in South Korea it will be only 4:00pm… but our bodies will feel like it’s 11:00pm when we arrive. The key is to STAY AWAKE as long as possible that day when we arrive so that we go to bed at a “normal” bedtime and wake up at a normal morning time. Because of this, we allowed ourselves to sleep/nap as much as possible for the first four hours of the flight, since it was technically 4:00-8:00am in South Korea, and then force ourselves to stay awake for the remainder of the flight and the day ahead.
But you may ask—what if you are just plain tired and need to stay awake, or vice versa? Well, that comes to number two:
2. Use a sleep aid to help you get tired or caffeine to help you stay awake. OK, fine… I know some of you are very anti-medication and I get it. But honestly, if you want to “trick” your body into thinking it’s 7 hours ahead or 10 hours behind, then medication is really one of the only ways to succeed with that. **Note that I am not a doctor and you should talk to your doctor about what would be the best medication(s) for you to take on a trip, but this is just what works for me and for other travelers I’ve learned from.** Personally, if I need to sleep on a flight (or when I’ve arrived in a new city and am jet lagged) I will take one of the following a half hour before I want to get sleepy: Dramamine, Benedryl, or Advil PM. Some travelers I know actually take muscle relaxers to help them zonk out, and others will drink a few glasses of wine. From what I’ve read, however, drinking a ton of alcohol won’t help as much with jet lag, because your sleep patterns will be disrupted and the dehydration you’ll experience from the alcohol will make you more groggy in the end. In the past I USED to combine something like Dramamine with a glass of wine, but more recently I tried that and it made me feel incredibly “on edge” and kind of freaked me out! So I won’t be doing that anymore!
In order to keep yourself awake, caffeine is always your best bet when it comes to any type of medication. If you’re a coffee or soda person, then go for it! But also make sure to drink a lot of water, since these beverages can dehydrate you. Personally, I did a lot of research into caffeine–mainly because I don’t like coffee or any caffeinated sodas–and I discovered if you cut a “no doz” in half, the 100mg of caffeine in that half tablet is comparable to a cup of coffee (an average cup of coffee ranges between 75 and 150mg of caffeine). And that lower dose is enough to keep me awake but not make me jittery. I used to be SO against caffeine pills because I just thought of them as an unhealthy shock to your heart, but if I cut the 200mg pills in half, it doesn’t seem as much of a health risk since it’s pretty much the same as drinking a cup of coffee or soda.
3. Alter your sleep schedule for a few nights BEFORE you leave for your trip. For a few nights to a full week before you leave for a trip across two or more time zones, go to bed earlier if you are traveling east, or go to bed later if you are traveling west. For example, if you are in California and will be traveling to New York (which is in a time zone 3 hours later) and you normally go to bed at 11:00pm, try to go to bed between 8:00pm-10:00pm for a few days before your trip (which is 11pm-1am New York time) so you will be better adjusted when you arrive to your destination.
For me with our current travels, the time difference between Wisconsin and South Korea is 15 hours (South Korea being 15 hours LATER) which means if I normally go to bed at 10:00pm in Wisconsin, that means it’s only 1:00pm in South Korea. If you force yourself to stay up a little later for a few nights before your trip (if it is possible with your work/life schedule), that will close the time gap a little more, and will make it easier to adjust when you get to the new time zone. This past week I have been going to bed anytime between 2:00am and 4:00am, which means that I’m actually going to bed between 5:00pm and 7:00pm South Korea time, so when I actually get TO South Korea, I technically only have 3-5 hours to adjust to, rather than nine (if I had been going to bed at 10:00pm).
4. Trick your mind into the new time zone. As soon as you get on that plane, change the time on your phone, watch, computer, and anything else that may have a clock on it to the NEW time zone you are flying to. If you are eating, drinking, sleeping, or trying to stay awake, revolve EVERYTHING around this new time. Pretend the old time zone didn’t exist. I swear, EVERY TIME my mom flies to California—even though it’s only a 2-hour time difference—she always tells me night after night, “Well you know, I’m still on Wisconsin time, so technically it’s midnight right now.” NO—no, it’s not… It’s 10pm California time! 🙂 Your mind is often stronger than your body, so if you can use your mind to trick yourself into the new time zone (and stop living in the past), then you will adjust more easily.
5. Drink LOTS of water. What is my “secret” to having so much energy, staying positive, being productive, and staying healthy?—I am a WATER-A-HOLIC! It’s the same for traveling… I carry a water bottle with me EVERYWHERE, but especially when on airplanes, because then I can drink water whenever I want and don’t get stuck waiting for the drink cart to come by once every few hours. If you stay properly hydrated, you will have more energy, less chance of getting sick, and even more control over your emotions and sanity of being “trapped” on a plane for a number of hours.
6. If you need to sleep, make yourself comfortable. If you need to stay awake, keep busy. Back to number one basic: if you need to sleep at a certain time on a plane, YOU NEED TO SLEEP!… and if you need to stay awake, STAY AWAKE! But I know that’s easier said than done. It’s not very comfortable sleeping in an airplane seat, so if you bring a neck pillow, eye mask, and ear plugs, that will definitely help you get some shuteye! Also make sure to bring a sweatshirt to keep you warm, and if you roll up one of those airplane blankets behind the small of your back, it will give you a bit more support and lessen back pain. On the flipside, if you need to stay awake for a period of time on the plane, prepare accordingly: bring playing cards, reading books, activity books (crossword puzzles, word search, sudoku), your laptop/netbook/tablet loaded with games, an mp3 player with music and podcasts, or spend time writing and/or journaling. Watch the inflight movies (or bring movies to watch on your laptop/tablet) and time will FLY by! Drink lots of water, get up every once in awhile and walk around the plane, and constantly rotate your joints (ankles, wrists, shoulders, etc.) and stretch every part of your body. Lastly, if you are worried about the length of your flight, don’t constantly check the time… it will just defeat your mindset and you will spend the entire flight wondering when it will be over. Overall, if you mix sleeping, movie-watching, games, stretching, reading, and more throughout your flight, you will be SURPRISED how quickly the time flies by. I am… EVERY TIME I fly!
7. For important events, arrive a few days earlier to adjust for the time change. A day or two should be enough for a few hours of time difference, but if going overseas, try to allow at least 3 days for adjustment.
I have to say… I really don’t have too many problems with jet lag nowadays since I follow all these tips when traveling across time zones. Sure… a few days after traveling 7+ hours to a new city I am dragging a bit at night and sometimes struggle to stay fully awake and alert when I need to, but for the most part I adjust to the new time zone relatively quickly and get on with my days as I need to.
What works for you to beat jet lag? Please share your own secrets below 🙂