6 Real Tips to Conquer Jet Lag

Jet lag sucks. There’s no eloquent way to put it.

Who wants to spend afternoons of your trip feeling groggy and completely out of it, only to be wide awake at four in the morning with nobody to talk to?

There is no end of tips for beating jet lag to be read on the internet, found in travel books or told to you by your mother. But do they really work? It seems to be an entirely individual thing, not to mention different from flight to flight.

But from my way-too-many experiences of jet lag — and what works for a few friends of mine, too — here are my top six hints to help you perhaps not beat jet lag, but at least feel a bit more human when you start your trip.

Sleepy Traveler, Australia
Sleepy Traveler, Australia © S Baker

Tip #1: No Sleep Until Bedtime

No matter what time you arrive at your destination, don’t go to bed until it’s nighttime there.

If you do nothing else, do this. No matter what time you arrive at your destination, don’t go to bed until it’s nighttime there. This will be a big struggle, and you’ll want to sleep more than you ever have before, but be disciplined, stand up, take a long walk, do whatever it takes so that your body can start adjusting to the new time zone as soon as possible.

At the very least, last until nine in the evening before you hit the sack. Or if you absolutely must take a nap, keep it strictly shorter than an hour. On the other hand, if your body clock doesn’t want to go to bed, make it. Don’t stay up past midnight even if you’re not tired. It’s all about getting used to the new situation as fast as you can.

Tip #2: Don’t Lie Awake for Hours

Your body clock might think that the middle of the night is actually morning and you should wake up. Personally, I think the worst thing you can do when that happens is to lie there for hours trying to get back to sleep.

This happened to me recently after a flight from Frankfurt to Singapore, and I was lucky that my husband had the same problem — so we got up for an hour and played cards until we felt a little tired again, then went back to sleep until morning.

If you do get up, don’t make the room too light, or your body will think it was right about it being daytime already.

Tip #3: Get It Right While You’re Still on the Plane

The experts, whoever they may be, are always saying that you have to drink lots of water on a plane, not too much alcohol, get up and move regularly, and the list goes on. But the experts are saying this with good cause and I’m sure that I suffer less from jet lag when I take care of myself on the flight.

As tempting as it can be to indulge in that free wine on a long flight (and heck, I don’t even have to drive!), I try to stop at a small glass with a meal. One glass helps me sleep, so I figure that’s helping. Otherwise I drink endless amounts of water which has the healthy side effect of me having to get up often to visit the bathroom. Since I started following this routine more closely, my jet lag recovery time has substantially decreased.

Woman Asleep on a Train (b&w)
© Philip Bitnar

Tip #4: Are You a Night-Flighter or Not?

If you are keen to avoid jet lag, you might have to go back to the planning stages. You also need to know whether or not you’re good at sleeping on planes or not. And then you’ve got two choices: if you can sleep like a baby as you’re hurtling through the air (I can’t), then you can time your flight to include an “overnight” trip (remember, time is all relative here), which means arriving at your destination in the morning.

Travelers like me who are lucky to snooze for a few minutes should go for a “daytime” flight that lands in the late afternoon or evening, at which time you’ll be so exhausted from a prolonged lack of sleep that you’ll be able to fall asleep at the right time.

Tip #5: Don’t Listen to All the Conflicting Advice

Doctors and websites will tell you all kinds of other facts about jet lag that I think are less useful. The fact that you will be less jet lagged if you travel from east to west is not much use unless you have the luxury of planning a round the world trip and choosing the direction makes sense.

There are also dozens of natural or herbal remedies, over the counter medications or magic drinks that could help — if you find one that helps you, go for it, but know that there’s definitely no cure-all.

Sleeping Cat in Greek Monastery
Sleepy Cat in Greek Monastery © Neal Fowler

Tip #6: Think Positive ”¦ And Just Get on With it

The funny thing is that I always notice jet lag a lot more when I get home than when I head out on a trip. Which surely means that a portion of it is purely psychological. When I’m excited about being in a new city or country and keen to get out and explore the place, being a bit tired doesn’t bother me half as much.

And while I’m not that good at following this advice myself, do the same even if you’re returning home. Stay active, stay positive and don’t dwell on your jet lag — and it’ll probably disappear that much faster.

30 Responses

  1. Christine Gilbert

    Jet lag does suck. I try to start living by the new time zone before I even leave. If it’s day time there, I don’t sleep on the plane. Then I go out an have a couple of glasses of wine the first night, and usually that makes me pass out. Not sure if it’s doctor recommended, but it works for me!

    Reply
  2. Anthony

    Tip #1 is sooo true! I recall arriving in Barcelona at around 9 am (3 am EST) in Spain after being awake for about 24 hours. Knocked out for about one hour towards the evening, then knocked out for sure later that night, slept 12 hours and woke up fresh and ready to go after being awake for the greater part of 36 hours. What jet lag?

    Reply
  3. Tom

    I’ve traveled back and forth across the Pacific countless times and I make a game out of not getting jet lag. I look at the flight like time traveling and when I wake up from my sleep I am in a new land and a new time and my head is wrapped around that concept. I think if you keep comparing the new time to the time you just came from it causes nothing but trouble

    Reply
  4. Amanda Kendle

    @Christine, yeah, I’ve tried that living by the new time zone thing but I just don’t have the discipline =) I agree with the glasses of wine though.

    @Anthony, good to hear you’ve had the same experience. Hard to stay awake that first day but well worth it!

    Reply
  5. Chris

    #1 is definitly a must but I still have to take into account a few days of feeling tired when I plan my trip. I try to make sure I’m staying at my first destination for a couple days before moving on again to kinda relax and decompress from travel. Great Advice!

    Reply
  6. Joy

    I took a physical chemistry class this time last year and I remember my professor saying that jet lag is largely related to photoreceptors in your skin. His solution? Get out in the sun! The photoreceptors (and your body) need to ‘learn’ when day and night are so that your body can align it’s circadian rythm with your destination’s time zone.

    Reply
  7. Tara

    For me, it is h20 that works wonders. Drinking gallons of water before, during and after air travel seems to work wonders.
    As much as I love a glass of champagne on a plane, it always seems to make the jet lag worse.

    Reply
  8. Amanda Kendle

    @Tara, I agree, water is the miracle worker. I think it’s so useful on flights because it also makes you get out of your seat often.

    @Chris, agreed too, allowing a bit of space in your schedule for jet lag is a good idea. If you don’t end up suffering so much, then you’ve got some bonus time to explore something unexpected.

    Reply
  9. Sue

    Great article! I have a couple more tips used by heads of state, etc. who have to be sharp quickly when traveling as they are usually on a tight schedule.

    1. Three or four days before your flight start alternating light and heavy eating days, ending with a light day on day of flight.

    2. Have caffeine ONLY between 3 PM and 4:30 pm those same days (coffee, tea, chocolate, etc.)

    3. When you get on the plane set your watch to destination time and eat and sleep accordingly. They will hold your meal until you are ready for it. The reason you experience more jet lag on the return home is that you do not take the time to prepare for the journey as you do before you leave home.

    Reply
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  11. helen

    i recently travelled from brisbane to san francisco. I’m one of those people who is lucky to get half an hours sleep on the plane, no matter what i try. But after 30+ hours without sleep, i crashed for 12 hours at 9pm, and voila- no jet lag!

    Reply
  12. Phill Rogers UK

    Flew from US to London yesterday, battled through it untill 37 hours without sleep. Work up for work this morning feeling great

    Reply
  13. Libby

    recently flew from middle east to chicago.
    My top trick that works every time: set your watch to destination time the second you step foot on that plane. Live by that new time.

    Thanks to that trick I’ve never had a day of jet lag in my life.

    Reply
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    Reply
  15. Tony

    To sleep better, I recommend 2 Temazapam, neck pillow, ear plugs and eye cover, plus Melatonin if you can get it. Got 7 hrs sleep yesterday coming from LA to Sydney, and I’m not a great sleeper.

    Melatonin is good at destination at bedtime to help keep you asleep. I agree with what you’ve written too.

    Reply
  16. Monique

    Very helpful tips… as I am sitting here in the dark at 3:46 in the morning while my husband and cats are sound asleep. I just flew from Chennai to Toronto a few days ago. Never felt jetlag like this before. Will force myself to stay up until bedtime tomorrow, no matter what! Thanks for the advice.

    Reply
  17. Dave

    I fly from San Francisco To london at least twice a year. When I was younger I never got jet lag, now I am noticing that I am feeling it more and more. One thing I do that I think helps is when I get on the plane in San Francisco, even though it is still on the ground I turn my watch to London time, then I try and plan my eating and sleeping with the new time. My flight usually leaves around 1pm which means it’s 9pm in London, I stay awake for a few hrs then try and sleep (or in my case at least rest since sleeping on a plane is impossible for me). When we land around 7am I make sure to stay up all day and not lay down till at least 10pm. By that time I am usually very tired and able to sleep, if even for a few hrs. When I wake up I like to get up and try and get and get active, get out into the sun light (if i can find it in london). I usually find that helps me and within a day or so im pretty set on the new times. just my opinion.

    Reply
  18. yang razlan

    Too late i am having jet lag now. From asia to scandinacia.
    Have been awake for hours now. Dont know how to adjust.

    Reply
  19. Blake Spencer

    Hi Amanda,
    Easy to tell you have travelled loads!!!
    #1 is less confronting as long as people are okay with #2!! Too true.
    Doing lots of travel myself now, I have started a list with the LOT: http://www.how2surviveyour20s.com/ultimate-jet-lag-tips/
    For me it’s really simple, the more of these I plan for the easier I fly! Or conversely if I don’t, the harder jet lag HITS!!
    If home is Australia for you #6 is probably good general advice, but your body is also dramatically affected depending on which direction (clockwise vs counter-clockwise) the plane flys!! Thanx

    Reply
  20. Al

    People make too much of this. I’ve traveled more than enough to know about jet lag. If possible, arrive a day or more before you must, sleep when you are tired and dope yourself to sleep at the local bedtime. Use coffee (or ritalin) to get yourself awake at the local morning time and Booze+ Xanax (or similar) to go to sleep. Simple. Done (but the trick is to NOT use these drugs regularly at home!). If you are anti coffee, ritilin, booze and xanax, then enjoy your jet lag. If you aren’t anti-science, you’ll be adjusted in 24h using the booze-ritilin-xanax-coffee method. Otherwise, I hope that all that water and positive thinking helps!

    Reply
  21. Urvashi

    I got back from a two-weeks trip to the states to New Delhi 3 days ago and I am still recovering. It took me only a day to recover while going to the US. Now there are a few reasons why this was much easier the other way round. Having done this particular trip a few times in my life I can definitely vouch for it being much worse going west to east. I went to the US for a trip so there was the added excitement. I was meeting friends after a few years and the desire not to miss out made me stay awake till bedtime and not sleep through the day. I did more outdoors stuff in US and now back in India I am always indoors (office or home). I guess this post is more of what not to do while trying to avoid jet lag.

    Reply
  22. Jeanne

    Good Luck to all these lucky people who have just got off the plane after for example, staying awake for 37 hours. Yeah, your first day or so may be good. Wait until you return home and talk to me then!!! I am still battling jetlag almost a week after returning from a 3 week holiday in Europe!!! This is my third trip to and from Europe, and the pattern remains the same. Half a sleeping tablet has been keeping me functional, but the mid evenings are hell …… waiting for the weekend to go on a long hike to finally sort things out. Wish me luck guys!!!

    Reply

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