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Travel tips: How to avoid jet lag

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Published: January 5, 2011 at 11:31 AM

Each Wednesday, for the next several weeks, I'll be devoting a post to some of my favorite travel tips. Today, we'll kick off the series by talking about how to fight jet lag.

Jet lag's cause is mental. Your mind is telling your body what time it thinks it is - but it's wrong. So the key to fighting jet lag is to convince your mind to communicate the correct time to your body.

Jetway

Here's what I do: When I walk down the jetway to my flight, I think of myself walking into a time machine. When I step into that plane, the time magically shifts to the time at my destination. I change my watch, my cell phone and my computer to my destination's time zone, and put out of my mind any thought that it could be any other time.

Your mind takes time to adjust to a new situation. Better to make that adjustment within the (relative) sensory deprivation chamber of an airplane than at your destination, where you're supposed to be enjoying a vacation.

So if it is time to sleep when you get on the place, sleep. If it is time to eat, eat. If it's time to stay awake and work, stay awake and work.

This is a big deal on some overnight flights from the U.S. to Europe, where you might get a meal service after take-off, even though it's close to midnight (or later) at your destination. Skip that meal, and prepare for sleep instead.

Much of what feels like jet lag on (and after) a trip is actually exhaustion. Travel can drain your energy. Few of us ever get any decent sleep on an airplane. So support your effort to fight jet lag by getting rest before you leave.

Make the 24 hours before your flight departs your quiet time. Finish packing before then. Don't schedule any errands, meetings or deadlines during that time. Get all that done before the 24-hour period before your vacation starts. Don't plan any parties or dates then, either. Make your last 24 hours before the flight a quiet time at home. Get to bed at a reasonable hour, but don't sleep in on your travel day.

If you'll be trying to sleep soon after boarding your flight, be sure to eat your "dinner" before you get on the plane. Whether you eat at home or the airport depends upon what time it will be at your destination when you walk onto the plane.

Other than switching your final pre-trip dinner time if needed, I'm no fan of trying to slowly adjust your mental clock to your destination time zone in the days leading up to your vacation. All that's doing is substituting jet lag at your destination for jet "lag" at home.

Help yourself to stay comfortable on the plane by avoiding alcohol in the day leading to and during your flight, but drinking all the water you can. (If you're afraid that you'll get hungry on the plane because you skipped the meal service, ask for orange juice when the drink cart comes by.)

Take your shoes off when you board, too. That really helps your comfort level on board. Don't stress out if you can't sleep when you're supposed to on the plane, either. Just pull down the window shade, get under your blanket and be quiet. Read a book or listen to some calming music if you need something to occupy your mind. Get what sleep you can and don't worry about it. Like I said, few of us get decent sleep on a plane.

When you reach your destination, stay with that local time. I try to plan a lot of outdoor walking for my first day in a far-away destination, to reaffirm to my body what the correct "day time" is. Sunlight (even on a cloudy day) resets your mind and body clock better than any other stimulus.

Finally, don't forget to do the same thing when you're ready to come home. Too many travelers forget to stick with their anti-jet lag strategy for the return leg, and end up spending their first several days back home in a mental fog. Make the final 24 hours of your vacation a quiet time, too. And set those clocks to your home time when you step down the jetway for your flight back.

Do you have a jet lag horror story? Or success story? Please share your jet lag story, in the comments.

Readers' Opinions

From Meow Mix on January 5, 2011 at 12:14 PM
Since, as you say, most jetlag is due to exhaustion, my approach is to sleep as much as possible regardless of local time. Most Americans go abroad for too short a time to adapt to local time anyway. I just can't trick myself to sleep when my brain doesn't want to sleep.

This leads to touring sites at odd times, but it's less stressful than worrying about jetlag all the time. Some travelers obsess over it, even when they have no business or meetings to attend to! Relax.

When flying to LHR or AMS, there are some wonderful "pod hotels" inside the terminal where you can pay per hour and sleep or shower after an uncomfortable flight. Four hours at "Yotel" in Heathrow's terminal 4 costs 26 pounds and feels like you've given yourself an upgrade.

From Larry Zimmerman on January 5, 2011 at 1:24 PM
Key tips to get sleep on a plane -- carry opaque, comfortable eye shades and soft but effective ear plugs. I buy the 32-db rated yellow and pink soft foam plugs sold under the Stanley brand name (in your hardware store's safety gear section) and they work great at blocking out unwanted noise. You'll find that even if you don't get as much sleep as you'd like, the earplugs will block the majority of the low-frequency rumbling from the engines, and the high-pitched slipstream noise that ALWAYS penetrates the soundproofing into the cabin. Freedom from those noises makes a BIG difference in your long-flight fatigue factor!

I can also recommend Bose's QC15 noise-cancelling headphones, but trust me -- the earplugs are a lot less expensive!

From 193.35.132.40 on January 5, 2011 at 1:36 PM
Works beautifully if you're a single traveller. I'm taking 3 under 5's from London to Florida next year. Any advice for that?
From Robert Niles on January 5, 2011 at 2:41 PM
Well for my early-elementary-aged kids I'd suggest telling them that it's time for school when I wanted them to sleep and telling them it was time to go to bed when I wanted them awake. :^)

Seriously, with kids, the best thing you can do is set an example and hope they sometime follow your lead. Beyond that, try to keep them as comfortable as best you can.

It helps if they've taken local flights before, so that they don't feel the excitement of a first-time airplane flight - keeping them up for the whole thing. If that's not the case, just accept that they're going to be excited and their time clocks are going to be whacked out. (Actually, flying from London to Orlando during the daytime, excitement keeping you awake can be a good thing. It's the flight back that can be a bear.)

Exude as much calmness as you can. Try to apply your normal day/night routine to the destination time zone as soon as you get to the airport and during the flight. Change into jammies at the destination's bedtime and into day clothes at the destination's morning. But be ready with snacks and juice when tummies grumble and the kids get cranky.

If they see you calm and happy, you've got a chance that they'll be calm and happy as well. If they see you angry and stressed, then you've got no shot at an enjoyable flight.

Good luck.

From Rod Whitenack on January 5, 2011 at 7:19 PM
When you get where you're going, take off your shoes and socks and walk around on the carpet and make fists with your toes. Better than a hot shower and a cup of coffee. Trust me, I've doing it for 8 years.

What a movie geek I am.

From 90.222.94.76 on January 6, 2011 at 4:14 AM
There is a region of your brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) which has a very accurate clock. That clock then indirectly controls a similar molecular clock in EVERY cell in your body. Jet lag represents the disparity between your experienced time your internal time - during the day when your body would normally be churning out natural steroids and adrenaline, it thinks it's night. This has a whole host of physiological complications but above all - it makes you feel rubbish. You can only adjust your internal clock (SCN) to a new time zone by, at most 2 to 3 hours a day. It is principally light (it sits juts above your optic nerve) that makes it change, the brighter the better. Exercise when you would be asleep in the new time zone will also help. It is always easier to deal with jet lag when travelling west - you are effectively waking up later and hence your body is already 'turning itself on' when you need to get up. Whe you travel east, your body is turning itself off when you nee d to get up.
If you are travelling from the US to Europe it will take you 3 to 4 days for adapt.
As a doctor, having done regular sets of night shifts, I only wish there was some was of getting around jet lag! If I'm on vacation in US, I am normally so excited (I'm a big kid at heart), it's not so much of a problem.
From 82.9.115.58 on January 6, 2011 at 4:26 AM
In late May last year I traveled from London, UK to Orlando MCO for the opening of the WWoHP. I stayed at Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando. Anyway, my flight out was 11.25am UK time. I arrived at around 3.30pm Florida time.

By 5pm I had arrived at Universal Orlando, and at 6pm I was on The Hulk.

To this day, I still cannot believe how quick and easy it was to A) get through customs and bag claim at MCO; B) check in to the Royal Pacific and find my room etc.; and C) redeem my special unlimited pass tickets at the IOA front desk.

Some of you might it horrendous that I went straight to IOA after a 8hr flight from the UK, but it was this pleasant experience that has made me come back again in June 2011. Let's hope it goes just as smoothly this time!

P.S. on night 1 I stayed until closing time, 10pm. The following morning I had to be up early to make use of my voucher for a free breakfast at The Three Broomsticks at WWoHP, so I entered IOA at 7am. I didn't leave until closing time again, 10PM.

On day 3, I was very ill with sunstroke, exhaustion, and blisters on my feet, so I came home from IOA after a few hours and spent the rest of the day in bed. :(

From Donna McKay on January 6, 2011 at 6:41 AM
I hail from bonny Scotland and when travelling to Orlando have to get to the airport at 4am for my connecting flight to London. This makes for a VERY long day as I've usually been up for at least 24 hours by the time I hit the hay in Orlando. I always try to keep awake that day so that by the time I reach Orlando I am wiped out and sleep like a baby. Then its off to Seaworld on day one as a gentle start since there are generally no queues there.

On the way home, I do exactly the same. I know I won't sleep on an overnight flight but I try hard. I usually reach home at about 10am following 17 hours of travel. I NEVER go to sleep. Instead, I power on until around 8pm when I call it a day and crash out. I'm usually fine the next day. In fact, I started a new job the day after a trip on one occasion. Its mind over matter in my view.

From 70.127.191.4 on January 6, 2011 at 7:51 PM
My nightmare - I'm in Florida right now and am flying back to the UK Saturday so I won't get home until lunchtime Sunday. I'm terrible with jet lag and I have the first of two weeks of accountancy exams Tuesday. I'm terrified, but I have no choice but to get over it!

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