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Coping with Jet Lag

Pauline Kenny, David Ronis, Jane Parker

Jet lag. Some people experience it, some say it does not exist, others say you can set yourself to your new time zone easily. When you fly to Europe from the US, you usually fly overnight. If you leave from the east coast, you leave in the evening and arrive in Europe early morning. But with the 6 hour time change (5 hours to the UK), you are really arriving just after midnight. So you miss a night's sleep. If you fly from further west in the US, you have more of a time change: 8 hours if flying from the Mountain time zone, 9 hours from the west coast.

"Five hours' New York jet lag and Cayce Pollard wakes in Camden Town
to the dire and ever-circling wolves of disrupted circadian rhythm."
- - Pattern Recognition, William Gibson, 2003 - -

How to get the best of jet lag - a sensible approach

David Ronis

People are always concerned about jet lag when they travel abroad - and with good reason. If you're only on your European vacation for a week or two, you want to feel as good as you can as soon as possible. If you're traveling on business, all the more reason to need to adjust to the new time zone as quickly as possible.

Not that I'm a frequent traveler, but I've done it enough to know what works for me - how I can travel to Europe and feel relatively human relatively quickly. What follows is just that - what works for me. I suggest that other people try it or a variation on it. (Note: for travel to Asia, some of the basic theory might work, but it's more complicated and more extreme since the distances are further and the initial trip is usually in a westerly direction.) I make absolutely no guarantee that my method will work for others. I think ultimately that you have to find what's best for you.

Another note: The majority of flights from the US to Europe are "red eyes" - overnight flights. Lately some airlines, most notably British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, are running flights that leave US cities during the morning and arrive in Europe in the evening. Although the basic precepts of this FAQ should be helpful, this approach is NOT specifically pertinent for travel on those flights - it's only for overnight flights. All of that said, here's what I do for eastbound travel - US to Europe.

The basic theory of this approach is that the sooner you get your body to be on or closer to the new time zone, the easier a time you'll have adjusting when you get there. It's based upon the idea that light and darkness are very influential in regulating your body clock. It's not original at all, but I've found it to be very effective. I have a two-pronged approach.

Before You Leave

First of all, I live in NY so travel to much of Europe usually involves a 6 hour time difference. Starting a week or more before my departure date, I make myself get up and go to bed progressively earlier - usually a half an hour - each day or two. The goal is to be getting up at around 4 am on the day of departure. Now this means to really be awake at 4am, not just to remain in bed with your eyes open, but still semi-comatose! You need to be up and around "pretending" that it's a normal thing to do. Some people get up very early to begin with so they won't have too much of a problem with this one. I don't usually get up until 8am or later, so this is always painful for me, but well worth it. You see, if I'm up at my normal 8am in NY, it's the equivalent of waking up at 2pm in Rome. If I wake up at 4am in NY, it's like waking up at 10am in Rome - closer to a "normal" time. You can see what I'm doing here - trying to get closer to European time so that when I do arrive in Europe, the jet lag won't be as radical.

Those of you who live on the West coast will have more of a challenge. If you can deal with it, I'd try to get up even earlier - perhaps closer to 2am PST (11am in Europe, 10am in Great Britain) as well as going to sleep in the days before you leave at a corresponding ridiculously early hour - like 7 or 8pm. I know - this might not be feasible for many. What if you don't get home from work until 8pm? I advise people to just do it to the extent that they can. If you can't wake up at 4am, but you can manage to wake up at 5:30am, that's ok. It's still better than 8am. Your body will still have less of a time adjustment to make.

On the Day of Travel

So you've gotten yourself up at 4am or some other ungodly hour, you've stayed awake all day without sneaking a nap and now it's time to go to the airport. (Actually, for all of you neurotic travelers, running yourself ragged on the day of departure can make you collapse in exhaustion into your airline seat. Well done!) You've also eaten lightly during the day - the lighter you eat, the better.

At the time of departure, figure out what time it is at your destination. For instance, if your flight leaves New York's Kennedy airport at 6pm, it's midnight in Rome. Immediately act as if you are in the time zone of your destination. If it's midnight where you're headed, then it's probably past your bedtime and you had better get to sleep. Hopefully, if you've been up since 4am already, you'll be tired and it won't be as difficult to fall asleep as you think. I always take a sleep aid (melatonin, anti-histamine, prescription sleeping pill) about one hour before the time when I want to be asleep. Going back to my example, if I want to be asleep as soon as possible after the 6pm departure, I'll take something at about 5pm.

Ok, you've drugged yourself and are trying to settle into your uncomfortable economy class seat. The flight takes off and the flight attendants start preparing to serve dinner. Don't eat! Starve yourself. The food is bad on planes and you don't need the extra calories unless you have an eating disorder in which case I can't advise you. Instead, go to sleep. I know you're excited. Whatever sleep aid you use, try to take something that will truly allow you to sleep.

In addition, try to know whether you're more likely to be able to sleep at a window or aisle seat. I'm a cocoonish person and I always book a window seat. At a window seat I have control over the window shade(s) next to my seat. I close them. Then I hoard a couple of pillows and blankets and arrange my body in the most comfortable position in which I'm likely to sleep - for me that's up against the wall of the plane. Some people do better in aisle seats. I find that the movement up and down the aisle of the flight attendants and other passengers can be disturbing. The farther away I get from the hubbub, the better. I've even gone as far as to cover my entire body, head included, with a blanket! Who cares what other people think. I want to have a good vacation with little jet lag!

Hopefully you'll be able to get to sleep. Stay asleep for four or five or six hours. If you are dozing and waking up occasionally, that's ok. Make yourself go back to sleep. If you can't sleep, pretend! Stay in the dark. Don't get up and read or watch the movie. Close your eyes and rest and make sure it's dark around you. Depending upon your destination and how long your flight is, it is actually possible to get some semblance of a night's sleep on a plane - even in coach. Of course it's easier in business class. If you can fly business or first class, I encourage you to do so. You're more likely to have an easier time sleeping.

After four or five or six hours, the sun will rise. It will be morning and you'll be over the eastern Atlantic or perhaps already over the European continent. Wake up and "pretend" it's morning. I know, I know. Even though it's 6am in Europe, it's still 11pm in Chicago and you were just in Chicago! You live in Chicago! Fahgetaboutit! You're on Europe time now. Get with it!

It's 6am and the flight attendants are serving breakfast. Wake up and eat a little something. Important: open the shade(s). Light is very important to overcoming jet lag. The more you expose yourself to daylight at the appropriate time (when it's light at your destination) the easier time you'll have with jet lag.

Ok. So now you're up, it's morning, the sun is shining over the fields of Normandy. You arrive in Milan an hour later after seeing the spectacular Alps through the plane windows. It's 8am and Europe is starting its day. Become a part of it. This is your new time zone. Stay out in the light as much as possible the first day or two. Absorb it. Stay up all day. Don't take a nap if you can possibly avoid it. Take a nice, relaxing walk during the afternoon in the daylight. Try to stay up until a normal bedtime - 10pm or so. An hour before bedtime, take another sleep aid. This will help you stay asleep at the time you're supposed to be asleep in the new time zone. I take melatonin and gradually lower my dosage over the course of the first 4 nights I'm in Europe. This continues the adjustment process.

I've actually found that I don't have too much problem sleeping through the night the first night of my vacation. I tend to have more problem the second night and then it gets better. If you have a problem sleeping, don't panic. Go back to bed, no matter how excited or bored you may be, and rest - sleep if you can, or "pretend" you're asleep. Maybe this play acting will actually work. The important thing is to be in a dark place during the night. This will help your body adjust.

It has been said that it takes one night for each of the time zones you've traversed in order to adjust. There might be some truth to that. If I travel from NY to Italy with a 6 hour time difference, I should be completely adjusted in 6 days. But I've found with my technique of handling jet lag I feel pretty normal in a day or two.

Now when traveling home from Europe - in a westward direction - I've had more jet lag problems. I don't have any extra pearls of wisdom for going west. I basically do the same thing in reverse. Since I'm on vacation and I try to get as much out of each day as possible, I tend not to wake up later and later (closer to NY time) in the days before returning home. It's my vacation. I get up when I want to in order to do what I want - which might be early - or might be later, depending.

Anyway, when I get on the plane to go back to the US, I stay awake for the entire flight. Even though it might be 9pm in NY when I arrive (thus 3am in Rome) I make myself stay awake until a normal time to go to sleep in NY - perhaps only another hour or two. During the next few days I repeat my process of staying in the daylight as much as possible during daytime hours as well as using a sleep aid to help me sleep at the appropriate times in my new (home) time zone. But there's something about traveling in a westerly direction that makes it a bit harder for my body to adjust. Whereas going to Europe I've felt little effects of jet lag after a day or two, it's taken longer upon return.

There you have it. Again, this is what works for me. If you find it useful, that's great. But others might have different techniques that work for them. I'd be interested in hearing about other techniques. Who knows, I might change my ways! Good luck.

Just give in to the jet lag; it can't be conquered!

Pauline Kenny

Flying to Europe from the US is difficult; it is a long flight and there is a big time change. Nearly all flights to Europe are overnight. You leave the east coast around 6pm and arrive at your destination in Europe around 9am the next day. It may be morning in Europe, but it is only 3am east coast time. (There is a 6 hour time change from the US east coast to Italy.) If you are flying to a major hub and changing planes in Europe, the trip is even longer.

For example, the Delta flight from Atlanta to Rome leaves at 5:35pm and arrives at 9:10am. That is a 10 hour flight and a 6 hour time change. Fortunately, the flight is long enough for you to sleep. Unfortunately it is not always possible to do so.

If, like us, you live in the middle of the country, you first have to spend the day flying to the east coast. Then you get on the trans-Atlantic flight to Europe. And, with the extra time change, it is like arriving in Europe at 1am. (There is an 8 hour time change from US Mountain Time to Italy).

David's advice above is excellent, but I am not that disciplined. He recommends the two things I dislike the most - getting up early and not eating!! My own reality is more like three days of total chaos before we leave; getting the house and cats ready for house sitters, endless packing and unpacking, downloading all that last minute information that I want, and then we usually have one huge disaster in our work or personal lives just before we leave - so coping with that. Then the night before flying I am in a total panic and hardly sleep. I am exhausted for the whole day of travel. Then we do the long flight - Albuquerque - Atlanta - Europe - sometimes another plane change in the US even. I hate sleeping on the plane - even sitting in first class. Yuck. We arrive and collapse into a taxi, then collapse into a hotel room and sleep the whole afternoon. Out for dinner, back to bed. I am pretty good the next day.

Things to do on the flight

Do not drink much alcohol. Do not eat much sugar. Drink lots of water. Get the flight attendant to give you spring water in the bottle, not in a glass with ice cubes. Ice cubes in general can carry bacteria which is unhealthy, but they are particularly bad on planes. I read an article that said they make the ice from local water (wherever they fill up) and there have been instances where the water was bad and people got sick.

Dress comfortably on the plane; take your shoes off. Walk around a bit. Do not wear any fragrances (perfumes, aftershave, skin creams with fragrance); you will be breathing in the chemicals that they use to create these products for the whole flight. It is bad enough that you are breathing in all the pesticides and cleaning chemicals that they use on planes - don't add to your chemical load. Try to sleep on the overnight portion of the flight. Carry a toilet kit with you, so you can wash and brush your teeth.

On the day of arrival in Europe

Do not plan on driving anywhere when you arrive

Arrange to take a taxi to a hotel and spend your first two or three nights there or have a car and driver pick you up and take you to your vacation rental. I think it is dangerous to get into a car and drive after a long flight. I cannot understand why or how someone would do this. A one hour drive would be the most I would ever consider. 

Sleep during the day on your first day

Arrange for an early checkin with your hotel or vacation rental. We have paid for a night of vacation rental that we did not use, just to be sure we could check in first thing the next morning. Do some unpacking, change out of your airplane clothes, maybe have a relaxing bath or shower.

By now it is noon. Take a walk in the sunshine - get as much exposure to the sun as you can (this helps set the body clock to the new time zone). Have lunch. Then sleep for the whole afternoon! You deserve it! You have worked hard! You will wake up feeling tired, but go out for a nice, leisurely dinner. Then back to sleep for the night. Go to bed at a normal time that first night. You will be tired and ready to sleep. I usually wake up in the middle of the night the first few nights, but I make myself go back to sleep.

Don't plan any sightseeing that arrival day. You are usually in shock those first 24 hours, just getting used to how different things seem to be in Europe. The more often you travel to Europe, the less shocked you are, but you still need a good day to adjust.

The next few days

The next day, the day after your arrival, is your first day in Europe; that arrival day is technically a travel day. Be outside in the sun and walking around as much as you can. Get fresh air. Have an easy day. See some of the city where you arrived. Have an afternoon nap again, but shorter this time.

By the third day you are adjusted and ready to go. You are even ready to pick up your rental car and approach those European roads.

That's my method!! You may think this is extreme, to not do anything for your first two days in Europe, but I think if you handle it right, you will benefit for the rest of the trip. Many people do not like to travel and I think it is because they travel too fast (remember, this web site is about Slow Travel). They hit the ground in Europe with their feet already running and they do not stop until they get back home. Then, of course, they think they have seen it all and do not need to go back for another trip (and do not want to go back).

A word about Melatonin

Melatonin is supposed to help you adjust to time change. You have to use it correctly - I think you start taking it before you leave. We tried this a few years ago. Steve thought it helped, but I thought it just made me jittery.

Why we insist on at least two recovery days

We arranged for a car and driver to take us to our vacation rental on our last trip to England (May 2000) and it worked great. We got to avoid the expensive London hotels and go straight to our cottage. Our driver was cheerful and entertaining and brought us up to date with current events in England. He also pointed out places to visit and good driving routes. He dropped us off at a local car rental agency near the cottage and the owner of the cottage met us there to show us the way. 

This was a good way to arrive in Europe, except that in this case Steve caught a flu on the plane and was really sick by the time we got to the cottage. I do not know how to drive in England, so we were trapped in our country cottage with not much to eat (the owners had provided a welcome basket with a few things, but we needed a bit more). My good planning saved us! The cottage was within walking distance of a village (one mile), so I took an afternoon nap, then walked out for the day's groceries and Steve was better by the evening. We had wanted to be within walking distance of a village, so we wouldn't have to use the car all the time. 

On our next trip (October 2000), flying to Zurich, it was me who was sick when we arrived. I was very happy to be bundled into a taxi and taken to our nice hotel. 

Now you see why we have to make such elaborate plans to look after ourselves on arrival! I think part of it is that we take these long trips (1 to 2 months) and we are very busy before we leave getting everything arranged. It is easier leaving if you will be back home in two weeks. By the time we get on the plane, we are worn out and more susceptible to all the bugs in that recirculated air.

No Jet Lag pills work!

Jane Parker

Unlike both David and Pauline, we don't do much to combat jet lag on a trip to Europe. Like Pauline we don't have the self-discipline to follow David's system and we don't lay back for a couple of days once we arrive as Pauline and Steve do. Once there we are ready to go and get involved ASAP. I should add that we have made this trip eleven times so it isn't that we feel that we are on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

Being from the west coast, our trips are particularly long as we need to fly from San Diego to Dulles (or San Francisco, Chicago or Denver) and then on to our destination. We always leave here early in the AM and arrive in Europe sometime around 7 AM the next day. Since there is a 9 hour difference for us, this is usually around 14 hours altogether - ugh!! Anyway, once there we pick up our rental car and drive to our first destination. On our recent trip it was from Milan to Montepulciano. This works well for us as it keeps us in daylight and uses up some of the adrenaline we have from excitement about returning to Europe. Upon arriving, we unpack, check out our surroundings and then rest (sleep, hopefully) for a couple of hours. After resting we shower and then either go to the grocery store, take a walk, explore the town or whatever. Then we come back, catch the news, have a glass of wine and then go to dinner. We usually hit the bed around 10 PM and then the next day begin a normal existence. We do a full day of exploration and then rest and relax until our usual 8:30 dinner hour, a little early for Europeans but fine for us.

On the flight we do make certain to drink lots of water and we do sleep, or at least I do. Ken finds it more difficult to sleep on the plane than I do. He usually watches movies. I just put my headphones on and listen to classical music or show tunes, something not too auditorially boisterous. We eat meals but avoid coffee and alcohol (at least I avoid it, Ken is not so good about this). We also immediately set our watches to destination time so that we begin thinking that way. Another thing we do that helps a lot is fly Business or First which we do with mileage upgrades. This makes a huge difference in how one feels after a flight. If you have a way to accomplish this, it is truly worth the miles (or $$$ if you have them).

This last trip we used No Jet Lag which we felt was beneficial, particularly on the trip home. It is the return trip which always gets to us. I know the prevailing wisdom is that flying west doesn't result in as much jet lag but I have never found that to be true. Ken typically returns to work within a day but in the past it has taken me several days to feel human. This time I was up and about and alert within a day. So, at this point I am an advocate of No Jet Lag. I just picked it up at a place called Trader Joe's here in CA. I also saw it at a luggage shop (El Portal) but it was $4 more there.

I do recommend staying at an airport hotel the last night where you can check in during the afternoon, return the car, relax, have a nice dinner and then just have a short jog or taxi ride to the airport the next day. Over the years we have learned that is MUCH better than having to rush around the day of departure. The best place we have found for this is the Sheraton at the Frankfurt Airport but the Villa Malpensa at Milan is really good, too. London works well with the Heathrow express train.

I hope this different perspective is helpful to some. So much has been written about jet lag and techniques to avoid it that I think it gets too blown up and makes people fearful. Mainly, we believe that it helps to get started absorbing the new culture right way.


David Ronis is a classical singer, actor and translator living in New York City.

Jane Parker lives in San Diego, CA. She and her husband are frequent travelers to Italy as well as other parts of the world. www.janeandken.com

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