Jet lag has always been a bit of a mystery to me. I’ve taken trips where it’s been a huge struggle and my body was out of sorts for a week. Other times, it hasn’t affected me at all and I’ve quickly adjusted to the new schedule. The hardest I’ve ever been hit by jet lag was during a week in Barcelona. We had a red-eye flight from JFK, followed by a connection in Madrid. I didn’t sleep much on the trip and by the time we finally reached our apartment in Barcelona, I couldn’t keep my eyes open. A quick nap led to several hours of sleeping followed by a late night out. That first day set me back for the rest of the trip. Typically an early riser, I found myself waking up thinking it was morning and being completely surprised (and disappointed) when it was mid-afternoon.
That week in Barcelona taught me an important lesson about jet lag and it’s that the first day is crucial to getting your body clock adjusted for the rest of your trip. You can’t avoid jet lag, but you can minimize the symptoms and learn how to cope. Here are a few other strategies I suggest for conquering jet lag:
1. Prepare in advance and use the flight to your advantage
Get plenty of rest before you travel. If you’re starting a trip already sleep-deprived, it will be tougher for your body to adjust when the jet lag sets in. Doctors recommend slightly changing your schedule in the days prior to traveling, either going to bed a little earlier or later, in order to adjust gradually to the time in your destination. I’ve never successfully been able to do this, but the theory definitely makes sense and it’s worth a try in you’re very sensitive to jet lag.
Use the flight to your advantage. As soon as your get on the plane, change your clock to the time in your destination. If you’re landing in the morning, sleep on the plane. If it will be evening when you reach your destination, make yourself stay awake for the flight. Come up with a plan in advance as you may want to take a sleeping pill or melatonin or you may need to be prepared to keep yourself busy and stay awake.
Be sure to stay hydrated. Dehydration will worsen the typical symptoms of jet lag such as headache, irritability, and upset stomach. It is suggested that you should drink 8 ounces of water for every hour in the air. It’s also wise to mostly avoid caffeine and alcohol while on the plane.
2. Force yourself to adjust on the first day
Your first day may be tough but it doesn’t have to be worthless.
Whatever you do, try to adjust to the local time on the day you arrive. After a red-eye flight, it’s tempting to crawl straight into bed once you check in at the hotel. However, this can set you up for a huge struggle for the rest of your trip. If you need to, take it easy or take a short nap, but do your best to stay up until the early evening, at least. Otherwise, you will just have to fight the same battle the next day.
Upon landing in a destination, I am usually so full of excitement that I am hyper and full of energy. But sure enough, after a few hours I start to crash. I try to go for a long walk, take in my surroundings, and get a small meal. I’ll allow myself a short nap or rest (never more than an hour or two) and then get out of my hotel room and have dinner or sight see until the early evening or later.
Also, never under estimate the power of a shower and a change of clothes. When you’re feeling fatigued and miserable, a shower can help wake up and refresh you to get through the rest of the day.
Early morning Paris
3. Stay busy
The easiest way to fight jet lag is to stay busy. My foolproof method is to have a plan for the first day of the trip. If you arrive in a destination and have no clue as to what to do or how to get around, you may get overwhelmed and resort to spending the day in your hotel room. Go in with a plan. If you’ve already planned your day (and purchased tickets in advance) you will be motivated to get out and make the most of the day.
My favorite way to beat jet lag is to schedule a guided tour for the afternoon I arrive. This will keep me occupied and introduce me to a new city, but without requiring much thinking or figuring out logistics. Having a guide to do the work allows you to relax and get your bearings. I wrote an entire post about this which you can read here: Quick and Easy Travel Tips: Fight Jet Lag with a Guided Tour
If you’re interested in guided tours, I highly recommend Context Travel who offers small-group cultural tours in cities across the world.
If guided tours aren’t your thing, buy advance tickets for a museum or make restaurant reservations. Pick an activity that you can schedule in advance, but doesn’t require too much transportation, and is relatively easy and relaxing. It should also be something you’re excited about that you won’t want to miss. Check your guidebook and see what sights are free that day. You can go wander around and not feel bad if you don’t see everything, as you can easily go back later in the week when you’re more energized and alert.
Spending time outdoors can also help balance your internal clock. A good first day activity (or if jet lag strikes later in your trip) is to take a leisurely walk around the city. You may want to follow a walk in a guidebook or download an audio guided walk. Pay attention to landmarks and places you’ll visit in the following days. You help get oriented to the city and the fresh air and exercise will help regulate your body and get you feeling better.
** I don’t recommend doing the most important sightseeing or scheduling the things you’re most excited for on the first day. If you’ve always dreamed of seeing Michelangelo’s The David in Florence, save it for a few days into your trip when you’ll be better adjusted and at your prime.
4. Arrive early
If you are traveling for a specific reason (meeting, conference, event), go a few days early to get adjusted to the new schedule. You don’t want to miss out on a great experience because you were jet lagged. If you’re traveling overseas before going on a cruise or meeting up with a tour group, I would recommend getting there a few days before your scheduled tour, that way you are adjusted and won’t miss out once you join the group or get on the boat.
5. Take it slow and stay positive
Depending on the trip, it may take you a few days to adjust. It’s okay to listen to your body and get used to the new schedule gradually. You may find yourself waking up a little later or going to bed a little earlier than you do at home. Don’t be too hard on yourself. If you need to take a short nap or rest in the afternoons, do so. It’s better to take it easy than to overdo it and end up sick and missing out on your trip.
Stay positive and make the most of your schedule. Some of my favorite travel memories are from when I was jet lagged. Walking around an already bustling and sticky Seoul at 6 am, having coffee on a deserted beach in Hawaii before sunrise, and walking the streets of Paris before the city was awake were special moments that allowed me to see parts of the cities I might have otherwise missed. Sleeping late in Barcelona allowed us to experience the Spanish tradition of eating late and staying out late.
If you’re waking up early, take a walk around the sleepy city and stop at a coffee shop. If you’re staying up late, find a local live music venue or ask your hotel for recommendations on nighttime activities.
Hawaiian sunset, courtesy of jet lag
Additional Resources and Further Reading:
What are your strategies for conquering jet lag? Share in the comments below.