As an expat constantly flying over the Pacific, I was forced to become an expert in avoiding jet lag. But I can definitely tell you that it is possible to either beat jet lag or shorten the duration of jet lag symptoms if you are proactive. This even applies to jet lag with kids.
Don’t let jet lag ruin your next trip (or arrival home) by learning what it is in addition to things to do on the plane as well and after landing.
What Is Jet Lag?
The most basic way to define jet lag, also known as desynchronosis and flight fatigue, is as a temporary condition where one experiences tiredness and sleep disruption due to inability to immediately adjust to new time zones. Other jet lag symptoms include headaches, digestion issues, dry skin, inability to concentrate, dizziness jet lag nausea and more. The symptoms of jet lag vary tremendously among travelers. But if you are feeling severe symptoms, always see a doctor.
Who Is at Risk for Jet Lag?
The short answer is everyone. But taking steps for avoiding jet lag is especially important for those who are particularly at risk. These are the scenarios that are most likely to being on jet lag symptoms.
Flying across multiple time zones
Most people can adjust quickly to travel across a time zone or two. But when flying across three or more is when the body’s circadian rhythms may need time to adjust.
Flying West to East
Leaving California for Asia essentially means that you lose a day. It’s also a bit difficult as we’ll leave San Diego for Hong Kong in the morning and arrive in the evening the following day. It’s tough for your body to lose a complete day. Jet lag east to west is typically easier for people to adjust to. For example, I leave Hong Kong in the morning on Tuesday and arrive to San Diego near the same time, also on Tuesday. It’s much easier for my body clock to make the same-day adjustment, plus the flights are usually shorter due to winds.
The more comfortable and less stressed you are during the flight, the less likely jet lag symptoms will occur. Is first class a sure cure for jet lag? Definitely not (sorry). But beating jet lag is easier if you take care of yourself en route with the tips for flying below.
People who are already poor sleepers tend to have a harder time getting over jet lag. It is also difficult for people dealing with stress as well as frequent travelers because their body clocks are often confused.
How Long Does Jet Lag Last?
The good news is that getting over jet lag takes a matter of days. Jet lag recovery time can be shortened by being proactive.
10 Tips for Beating Jet Lag
Monitor Sleep on the Plane
We don’t always have the luxury of scheduling our flights according to our sleep schedules. For example, if you’re on a 15-hour flight to Asia that leaves LAX at 1:00 p.m. and arrives at your destination at 6:00 p.m. local time, you probably shouldn’t conk out for a majority of the flight.
The reason is that you’ll arrive in the evening and need to sleep again a few hours later. Can you sleep 7 hours on a plane and then another 7 just a few hours later? Most people can’t. Take the time on the plane to enjoy the free drinks and catch up on movies. That being said, if you’re on the midnight flight that lands in Asia first thing in the morning (as they often do), a few hours of sleep won’t hurt as you’ll need energy to conquer a full first day on the ground.
Do Not Try to Cut Calories – EAT!
A huge part of jet lag can be related to eating, because you might need to sleep in the new destination at times when you’d normally eat at home. It’s not uncommon for your starving body to wake you up in the middle of the night wondering where lunch is.
You’ll likely ease into this anyway as airplane meals may happen out of sync with your normal schedule. I find that my jet lag intensifies if I do not eat much on the plane.
My best advice is to go to bed full. Don’t stuff yourself sick, but make sure that you’re not the least bit hungry or feel like you could eat but won’t. Upon landing in Hong Kong at night, even if it’s 10:00 p.m., we order room service dinner anyway. (Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong makes a mean nasi goreng… this is my standard jet lag diet order.)
Drink Plenty of Liquids
It’s always advised to stay hydrated on the plane, but don’t over do it right before bed time. If you have to wake up at night and go to the bathroom, you may never return to sleep. I try to opt for things like coconut water upon landing to replenish those electrolytes. If you’re going to drink wine on the plane (which I always, always do), alternate with water.
Jet Lag Melatonin and Other Medication
I’m not a doctor, obviously, so ask yours for advice. By far the easiest way to avoid jet lag is to take some form of sleep medication. Before I was a parent, I took Ambien on occasion. But here is the key… even if you take it on your first night and successfully sleep through, the second night is usually the hardest. Don’t get overly confident that you’ll be fine since you slept well the first night. Take it for your first two nights on the ground, at least. This is what worked for me initially but I don’t take sleep medication for jet lag anymore. Part of the reason is that I need to be “with it” in case my daughter needs something.
Many people praise melatonin as a jet lag remedy, despite debates in the medical community as to whether or not it has any impact. Melatonin never worked for me, but it is something to consider.
People experience jet lag differently. If your significant other gets it and you don’t, why sacrifice your sleep by listening to them toss and turn. I’m totally serious! There’s no need for both of you to suffer. My husband is not a great sleeper to begin with so when we travel overseas, I make sure to book a suite with a separate bedroom (as I did at Hotel Regina in Paris) at least for the first few nights. And, remember that suites or apartments can exist in all price ranges.
DO NOT NAP
I can’t not stress this enough. I even avoid cat naps because waking up is miserably hard. Under any circumstances, do not allow yourself to sleep 3 hours, for example, in the afternoon. That will totally prevent you from sleeping like a normal person later that night. Do whatever it takes to stay awake during the first two days so that you are on a normal schedule in the new time zone. I promise it will be worth it.
Plan a Day of Nothing Upon Return
When arriving home from a trip, if possible, give yourself a free day before returning to responsibilities. A stressed mind can keep you awake. If you land and have, “I have so much to do, I can’t think straight!” running through your mind, you won’t sleep. Try to organize yourself so all you have to do is laundry, sort mail, and a few chores the day after you return from a trip across multiple time zones.
Go to the Spa
I’m totally serious. If you can swing it, get a massage, wrap or some sort of full body treatment the day after you land. This will help you with any airplane seat related soreness, reduce swelling, recharge skin and get your circulation flowing. Remember that skin is our largest organ and recirculated cabin air is extremely hard on it. I find that a facial after a long haul flight is fantastic but that it needs to be done in conjunction with a hydrating full-body treatment.
I booked a 2.5-hour spa treatment at Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona about 3 hours after landing in order to kill time before check-in. I felt like a new person after the treatment and did not experience any jet lag on this trip. You could also find spas with day passes to lounging facilities for a good steam, sauna and shower after landing. Acupuncture or a lengthy session of foot reflexology after landing has helped me, too. These beauty products also do a good job of hydrating skin after a long flight.
Of course, a myriad of jet lag apps exist that will tell you things like when to sleep based on your flights and destination and even when to take your melatonin. These are the most popular ones:
- Jet Lag Rooster
- Jet Lag App
If you’ve used an app, let me know in the comments how it worked for you. I’ve never needed an app but can see how some people might prefer one.
Pretend Like You Don’t Have Jet Lag
This is harder to do when you return home and lack the adrenaline rush of being on vacation. But, the best way to get over jet lag is to power through it as if you don’t have it. Don’t baby yourself too much, I mean you’re the one that decided to go on holiday, right?
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See also: Tips for Flying Long Haul with Kids.
What are your best tips for beating jet lag?