One of the best things about international travel is just that: it’s international! You’re crossing cultures, you’re crossing paths with new friends, you’re crossing off that bucket list…but unfortunately, you’re also crossing time zones. And the last thing you want while exploring the ancient sun temple of Machu Picchu or absorbing the grandeur of the Taj Mahal is a bout of jet-lagged induced drowsiness dragging down your travel groove. So here are some of my best strategies for overcoming jet lag, gleaned from 35 years of travel to faraway time zones.
Overcoming jet lag begins in the days (or nights) prior to your departure. Even though it’s hard to be organized enough to be well rested before you depart, you should try hard to get quality sleep before your overnight flight. It’s easier to deal with jet lag if you’re not overcoming several nights of poor sleep before you’ve even begun your trip.
Try to simulate your new schedule (the one you’ll follow at your destination) starting a couple of days before you depart. If you’re going east, try to have dinner and go to sleep an hour or more earlier than usual. If you’re going west, do the reverse and try to wait until later to have dinner and go to bed.
Reset your watch as soon as you take off. This is a symbolic move toward your new time zone, and it will help set your perspective toward thinking later (or earlier). It’s a psychological “trick” that helps keep you focused on the time zone at your destination.
Do not drink alcohol during your flight. Instead, drink water, and lots of it. Staying hydrated is very helpful to your body, which in turn is helpful in coping with jet lag.
Try to sleep on the flight. Avoid the temptation to eat a heavy meal that is often served at 11 PM or even later, followed by a movie. Put on an eye mask, use your headset to listen to relaxing music and settle into whatever sleep you can manage. Every hour you rest during your flight is an hour you won’t miss when you arrive at your destination.
When I arrive after an overnight flight and find myself 7 or 8 hours ahead of my normal time zone, I stay awake until it’s time for bed in my new time zone. This is really important, even though it’s hard to do. If you can make it until 8 or 9 PM on that first night, you’ll have taken a big step toward overcoming the jet lag that can spoil your trip for days. The next day, when you awake, you’ll be ready to explore and enjoy your adventure. If you typically have trouble staying asleep the first night or two when you travel, consider taking a mild sleeping pill. While it isn’t a good idea to rely on chemical sleep aides on a regular basis, they can be helpful in getting you through the first night or two without middle-of-the-night pauses.
Eat lightly the first full day or two in your new time zone. Your body is expending lots of energy accommodating itself to the new time. If you eat unusual or heavy foods on that first day or two, you’ll be stressing yourself, and you’ll be facing middle of the night wakefulness rather than peaceful sleep.