Tips for Jet Lag
I get asked about jet lag all the time but I’ve never written about it. I’ve always thought of it as a necessary evil. When flying across multiple time zones, it simply takes your sleep patterns a while to adjust.
This year (2018) I’ve flown 200,000+ miles, including 24 flights that crossed more than four time zones, and a lot more three-time-zone trips. And most of that is with kids, so not only are my wife and I affected, but the kids are as well – and not always equally. It’s not fun being in a hotel room at 1am wanting to sleep when your toddler is wide-awake! The good news for you new parents is that it gets easier. At 2-3 years old kids can occupy themselves watching movies or playing games (quietly) on devices until they’re ready to go back to sleep. And at this point my kids adjust far faster than I do.
Spoiler: I don’t have a secret cure. But jet lag affects us often, so I’m constantly thinking about it, and what works for us and what doesn’t. Here are my all of my jet lag tips and thoughts:
Fly at Night
We’ve always found it easier to adjust flying from California to Europe, or California to Australia, than vice versa. There’s no pattern there, right? Europe is east and Australia is west. But the key is the flight times. Flying to Europe we typically leave around 5pm. By 9pm or so we’ve had dinner on the flight and fallen asleep. That gives us 6-7 hours to sleep before landing in Europe around noon. Not optimal, but not bad. Then we’re moderately awake during the day, get an early dinner and sleep through the night. I don’t think it ever takes us more than a day or two to fully adjust.
Coming back, though, we leave Europe early in the morning. For most of the 12+ hours flying we’re awake and not sleeping, and then we fall asleep for maybe the last hour or two of a flight. We arrive back home in the morning (California time) exhausted. The same is true for Australia, and Asian destinations like Singapore as well. We can leave LA or San Francisco at 10pm, sleep all night, and arrive at some point the next day (or two days later because of the international date line). That full night of sleep on the plane works wonders for getting us quickly on track. But coming back and arriving into California in the morning, we’re still adjusting several days later.
Break Up Trips Home
Given that it’s harder to adjust coming back home (for us at least), if we can add a stop in between our vacation location and our home, we will. This lets us at least shift our bodies several hours closer to home. This could mean stopping in Bangkok on the way back from the Maldives, or Hawaii on the way back from Japan, or in New York on the way back from Europe. If you can avoid a full 10-hour time zone shift at once, do it.
Anywhere I am in the world, I have a cup or two of coffee (or espresso or cappuccino) in the morning local time. The caffeine wakes me up and seems to get me on schedule faster.
Often I’ll fly to Europe for a conference, arrive jet lagged, and then immediately need to get on schedule for a 9am to 10pm day. So I make myself do it. If I’m active (and have some coffee in the morning) I find that I can forget that my sleep patterns are screwed up.
But…if I can break away from meetings for a quick 20-minute nap, I will. Just another reason to always book a hotel as close to the conference venue as possible. A nap completely refreshes me for evening social functions. And when my son and I flew to St. Petersburg, Russia for a World Cup game this summer, naps helped us to be wide awake for the game.
Don’t Book Travel Back Right Before School Starts
Like I said, trips back home always seem to affect us far more than when we head to our destinations. So we rarely book trips more than three time zones away for one-week school breaks. It’s simply too hard for the kids to get back on track immediately.
The Standard Advice
Note that this is what works for me/us. There’s also a lot of good standard advice for jet lag out there. Start adjusting to your destination’s time zone a few days before you start your trip by waking up and going to sleep a little earlier (or later in some cases) every day. Don’t drink alcohol or coffee on flights; drink lots of water instead. Adjust your watch/phone to your destination time as soon as you start your trip. And be aware how important light is. Your body wants to be awake when it’s light out and asleep when it’s dark. If you’re flying to Scandinavia during the summer, pull your room’s blackout curtains tightly. You need to convince your body that it’s dark until morning, even when it’s not.
The Beauty of Jet Lag
But jet lag isn’t all bad. The four things I’ve come to love about it:
Jet Lag is Great for Early Morning Exploration
If I’m awake early somewhere and my kids aren’t, I’ll leave them a note, put the Do Not Disturb sign on the door, and head out to explore before sunrise. It’s the best time to get a feel for a city’s history, culture and architecture – before other tourists are out. The exercise helps me adjust faster as well, and I can get a coffee on the way back to the hotel. And I’m able to get photos with no one else in them. I wrote a post on this years ago – Sleep is Overrated: An Ode to Walking Around Early. Take advantage of being awake when no one else is! And if my kids are awake too, so much the better. I love when they join me on my early morning adventures. Disclaimer: only do this in safe locations!
And if there are sites that get busy later in the day, use jet lag to your advantage and arrive right when they open. Agra’s Taj Mahal and Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque are amazing with no one else there. The earliest reservations of the day at the Eiffel Tower and Florence’s Duomo are the best, since you’re not battling others at the top, and it’s easier to go up and down as well. And Kyoto’s top attractions like Fushimi Inari and the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest are far more enjoyable before the tourist buses arrive.
Jet Lag is Great for Getting Things Done
I’m a writer. If I’m awake at 2am, I write. There are no distractions.
Jet Lag is Great for Getting the Best Table at Breakfast
I can’t even count the number of times we’ve been waiting at the door for the hotel’s breakfast restaurant to open. But being first has its advantages. We always get to choose the best table. And we get to place our omelet or waffle orders first.
Jet Lag is Great for Your Sex Life
Both on vacation and when we get back home, my wife and I are frequently awake at crazy times when all of the kids are asleep. So we take advantage of it!
Your Tips for Jet Lag
Everything above is specific to us, based on my/our experience. A lot of people find it easier to travel east to west, regardless of the time of day. And we’ve never used melatonin or other drugs/natural substances to help with jet lag. If you have things that have really helped you and your family adjust, please let me know. I’d love for the comments below to offer up more tips to help other travelers.
Tom Bartel says
Some pretty good tips here, Eric. And many I use. Especially no drinking on the plane. But, I warn you, as you get older, it gets worse. Just back from India with a 11 1/2 hour difference. After a week, I still don’t know when to sleep.
Eric Stoen says
Yep, I’m finding that as well. Getting old sucks.
I totally agree with most of your comments and suggestions! As a fellow T-bird, I’ve had up to a dozen multi-national trips per year and my biggest tip is that if you hit a wall, take the 20 min – 2 hour nap. Everything resumes right in schedule after that. Happy Travels! CJ
Eric Stoen says
Thanks Cheri! Is there some sort of virtual Thunderbird handshake or fist bump we should have?
Visiting the hotel pool upon arrival does wonders for holding off the kids sleepiness. After arriving at 6am to Singapore from Michigan (22 hours of fly time with 3 kids) I had a hotel booked so we could go immediately to our room. It meant paying for an extra night but it was worth it. We dropped off our stuff and hit the pool until lunch time. We planned 1 activity for the afternoon and kids fell asleep in the cab home at 6pm.
Eric, I really enjoy your photographs and love your posts. Always so informative and inspirational!
Eric Stoen says
Completely agree on the early check-in and immediate activity. I’d stay away from thinking activities like city tours or museum visits, but parks and pools work great.
I love your posts… you’re like my Spirit Animal, and inspire me to figure out ways to take my children all over the world!
I travel a lot for work, and hardly ever have jet lag issues, mostly because I’m lazy. I always pack at the last-minute, which means I’ll be up most of the night, getting very little (if any) sleep. Then I’ll push to the airport, with, at most, two hours of sleep in me. By the time I get on my long-haul flight, and eat the meal, I’m exhausted. I find that by being “super” tired before the flight, the 4-6 hours of sleep I get on the flight are remarkably restful/high quality. I wake up feeling amazing, and seldom have issue getting through the full first day at my destination.
I’m not sure I’d recommend the all-nighter/exhaustion approach, but I find that when I go into a trip with a good night’s sleep, it takes me far longer to adjust!
Eric Stoen says
Thanks Jonathan! I’m the same way – if I have an early flight, I sleep terrible, between the late packing and not trusting the alarm. I think sleeping on planes works best, though, if you’re arriving at your destination in the morning or early afternoon. If I get a good night’s sleep on a flight and then arrive at night, I’m wide awake and it takes forever to adjust. That hit my daughter and I last time we were in Japan. Every morning for a week we were wide awake at 2am.
Yes, Sir… when you can’t get in rhythm, it sucks. I did two weeks in New Zealand earlier this year, and had no issues until I got home. That first night back, I was completely upside-down, and it stayed like that for a week!