My flight landed in Hong Kong at 8pm. Two hours later, my friends and I were at a rowdy Kowloon restaurant eating spicy food and shaking off the cross-Pacific cobwebs.
A few hours later, I woke up at 4 a.m., my normal time. I hit the gym and met my friends for breakfast. Then it was off for a quick walk through a local market and back to the airport for a flight to Thailand.
The next two days were fine. Then jet lag hit. Hard. (The afternoon poolside drinks didn’t help.) I crashed at 6 p.m., giving my friends the opportunity to take pictures for future blackmail.
Jet lag can be a major nuisance. You might have been able to push through it 10 or 20 years ago—possibly using a “young person” approach—but no longer.
“When I first became a professional traveler,” writes Andrew Harper, the famed reviewer of luxury hotels, “I dealt with jet lag the old-fashioned way, which is to say that I drank a few Old Fashioneds (or the equivalent) on the plane, popped a mild sedative, and knocked myself out for most of the flight.”
As we age, however, Harper admits that jet lag becomes harder to avoid. He no longer goes about it the old-fashioned way; “new age” preparation is now his go-to method for avoiding the loss of a few days of travel to exhaustion.
I’m with Harper. And while the secrets I’m about to share for defeating jet lag are not all that sexy, they work. So no more excuses about hampered productivity on work trips abroad or vacation days lost to bad travel prep.
Use these 7 tips and you’ll be set the moment you get off the plane.
1. Don’t order booze on your flight
It’s far more memorable to enjoy a nightcap in Bar Hemingway at the Hotel Ritz in Paris than on American Airlines flight 44 from NYC to Charles De Gaulle.
Even if it’s a special occasion, like an anniversary trip, save the bubbly for when you get to the hotel—not for runway revelry.
To be clear: Don’t just “limit” your alcohol intake on the flight. You must strictly avoid it. While alcohol might help you fall asleep on the plane, the quality of that sleep is not good and it certainly won’t help you navigate international customs upon arrival.
Stick to water or juice.
2. Pause the caffeine
One essential rule of good sleep hygiene is to stop caffeine intake 10 hours before bed. That’s the average length of time your body needs to metabolize the drug’s effect (and yes, caffeine is a drug). If you drink a cup of coffee or energy drink too close to bedtime, it becomes difficult to fall asleep, stay asleep, and get deep, restful sleep.
So no coffee midair, okay? You can get back on coffee time as soon as you see daylight (or land) from the airplane windows. But until it becomes “morning” on your journey, stick to water, juice, and herbal tea only.
3. Sleep through it
Every summer, I attend the SovereignAcademy.org event in Lithuania. It’s four days of teaching young entrepreneurs and trying to keep up with their partying at night (I fail miserably here). It’s an amazing weekend and I need to be well-rested for it, so I look forward to getting a decent night’s sleep on the flight from Toronto to Vilnius.
As soon as the plane takes off, I set my watch to Lithuania time, the eyeshades go on, earplugs go in, the seat reclines, and I tell the attendants not to wake me. While six hours of sleep through turbulence and the clanging cutlery of meal service don’t make for the best night’s rest, it’s better than eating a late dinner, watching a movie, and napping for two hours.
Now I know a lot of people struggle to sleep on planes, but here are a couple of tips that might help:
a) Sleep like a local
Dr. M. Rizwan Sohail of the Mayo Clinic offers this advice: “If you’re traveling east, go to bed one hour earlier each night for a few days before you leave. If you’re traveling west, go to bed an hour later for several nights. Adjust your meal schedule accordingly, too. And make sure you’re well-rested before you go, because starting a trip with too little sleep will make jet lag worse.”
b) Choose flight times wisely
Put an early bird like me on an 8 p.m. flight to Europe and I’m sleeping like a baby in 30 minutes (assuming we have an on-time departure).
If you’re a night owl, take the latest flight out so it’s as easy as possible for you to get some shut-eye. That means you’ll arrive (in Europe) closer to noon, and that also makes it easier for you to stay up and adjust to a local bedtime on your first night.
c) Choose your plane wisely
Older planes were not built for jet lag-fighting flyers. The cabin air is dry and the pressure is not the same as what we experience on land. As a result, the environment leaves us tired, even if we manage to sleep overnight.
However, the Airbus 350 and Boing 787 Dreamliner were engineered to “pump the highest pressure, which actually makes conditions on the plane feel more like those found on the ground,” according to the website Boarding Area. “They also offer higher humidity, which does less damage to your ears, nose, and throat—which helps prevents fatigue. New planes also filter air in safer ways, offering actual air, rather than engine air.”
4. Stay awake when you land
Don’t try to cram in a visit to EuroDisney, a trip up the Eiffel Tower, and a five-star meal at Le Cirque on day one in Paris. Instead, here’s what to do…
“The cheapest and least complicated way to tackle jet lag,” says Dr. Sohail, “is to force yourself to stay awake when it’s daytime wherever you land, then end the day tuckered out, so you’ll sleep most of the night.”
After you get to your destination, avoid the temptation to “just lie down for a minute” on your comfy hotel room bed. Instead, put on your walking shoes and get outside to take in some culture (hopefully in sunshine).
“Exposure to bright light when you arrive at your destination can help your body adjust its circadian rhythm to your new schedule,” says Dr. Sohail. “For example, if you travel east, exposure to sunlight or other bright light in the morning can help you adapt. If you travel west, seek out light in the evening.”
Still struggling? Change your state. Have a cold shower. Take a plunge in the pool. Hit the gym. Get a vigorous massage in the spa. Do anything but lie down for a quick nap in the middle of the day.
Lastly, Andrew Harper recommends self-administered acupressure. I’m no expert on this, but you can read more here.
6. Eat like a local
Finally, some good news! When you land, it’s time to start eating like a local and adjusting to a regular mealtime as soon as you can. It’ll be all the more enjoyable to have a simple meal at a café in Paris after skipping out on the so-called “gourmet” airline food.
7. If all else fails, stick it out.
Roll with it. Do your best to grind it out until 7pm local time. Then crash. Sleep like a baby. Wake up at 6am and dominate your first “real” day abroad.
But if you do give in to an afternoon nap and then find yourself struggling to sleep like a local on your first night, Dr. Sohail recommends over-the-counter sleep aids such as Tylenol PM or Advil PM. “Taking a relatively low dose of melatonin (0.5 milligrams) has also been shown to be effective,” he adds.
The most important lesson is to delay your gratification. Avoid the cheap temptations during your journey and it will make every meal and moment far more enjoyable when you reach your destination.
P.S. If you have any tips you’d like to add, I’d love to hear them in the comments below. Bon voyage!
Here’s what you need to keep your travel productive…
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