What’s one of the hardest things about international travel? For me, at least, it’s adjusting to a new time zone. Jumping forward five or six hours can take a toll on the body if you’re not prepared. My husband and I learned that the hard way the first time we traveled to Europe. We were jetlagged for the first three days of our trip; we were crabby and snapping at each other and falling asleep on benches in public parks; it was not a positive start to what was supposed to be our big, adventurous whirlwind trip around Europe. But the next time, I’d learned from my mistakes bigtime, and I did all kinds of research on how to best beat jet lag. Here are the steps I take to beat jetlag when I’m traveling overseas and start my vacation right.
1. One week before you leave, start adjusting to the new time zone.
Here’s what I do: Seven days before departure, I get up half an hour earlier than I normally would. The next day, I get up an hour earlier than I normally would, then an hour and a half the following day, and so on and so forth. It may seem backward to do this when you’re going to be jumping forward five or six hours, but it actually gets your body clock closer to what it would be if you were already overseas. By the time the departure date rolls around, I’m usually getting up at 3 a.m. To a lot of people, this seems crazy, but think about it: 3 a.m. Eastern time is 9 a.m. Central European time. Plus, getting up that early on our departure date ensures that I’m hella tired for our overnight flight.
TIP: There are apps, like Jet Lag Rooster, that were created to help you do exactly this. I downloaded this one but didn’t end up using it; I just, you know, used my brain to go backward in increments of 30 minutes and set my alarms accordingly.
TIP: I’ve found that it’s a lot easier to fall back than it is to jump forward (I just wake up way earlier, which I don’t mind), but you can just reverse the princple and wake up later and go to bed earlier for seven days—if you have that kind of flexibility!
2. Take an overnight flight, and for God’s sake, sleep on the plane!
The first time we went to Europe, not only did I not try to adjust to the time change beforehand, but I also didn’t sleep on the plane, too hopped up was I with excitement for my first big international adventure. SUCH a big mistake, you guys—I cannot stress this enough. Make sure you sleep on the plane. Or, barring sleep, because I realize sleeping on a plane is no bueno, at least close your eyes and rest. Even if you’re not sleeping, you’re still giving your body some much-needed rest. Don’t do what this dummy did and watch four movies in a row. Here are some things I take with me on the plane to help me rest and/or sleep.
Wear an eye mask.
Just having something to block out the light helps you immensely. Flight attendants are going up and down aisles, other passengers are getting up and turning on their lights, maybe the person in front of you is watching the TV and the glow is emanating right onto you. Just pull down your eyemask and block it all out. I use Lewis N. Clark Comfort Eye Mask. It’s only $8-$10, depending on color, and it blocks out all of the light.
Good passenger tip: My mom wanted to bring a lavender-scented one on our trip to Italy. I realize lavender is soothing so some people; however, I personally get a migraine from the smell of lavender, so I asked her to kindly get an unscented one. You never know who on your flight might have sensitivities to certain scents, so it’s best to err on the side of caution. You wouldn’t like it if someone had bathed in cologne and sat next to you for eight hours, would you? No? Didn’t think so.
Bring a travel pillow.
So determined was I to sleep on our flight to Europe in 2015 that I researched travel pillows and narrowed it down to two contenders: The J-pillow Travel Pillow and the Sleep Scarf. The reviews for both on Amazon were phenomenal, so we figured we’d order both and see which one we liked better. As it turned out, I liked the sleep scarf, and my husband liked the J-pillow.
About the sleep scarf: Yes, you do look really stupid in it, but it does help support your head in a more natural position than an ordinary travel pillow, it’s fleecy so it’s cozy, and you can use it to cover your mouth if you wish—you know, to block out recycled airplane germs and all that jazz. (My friend Kate totally made fun of me when I told her about the sleep scarf, but she also totally bought it for her flight to Russia.) The other nice thing about the sleep scarf is it’s much easier to pack because you can wrap it up and it lays almost flat.
About the J-pillow: The big problem I have with the J-pillow is it’s kind of a hassle to carry around on your travels. It’s bulky, and it’s a weird shape (rather phallic, no?), so it doesn’t fit as easily in your luggage, especially if you’re trying to pack light. My husband more often than not ended up attaching it to the outside of his backpack and we were going from place to place, but I shudder to think about all the germs it picked up. However, the sleep scarf didn’t serve me as well as I would have liked on our way back from Hawaii, so I decided to give the J-pillow a try on my flight to Italy, and I have to say, I do think I ultimately prefer the J-pillow from a comfort perspective. Mine, however, has a neat little bag I can squish the pillow into, so it’s a little easier to pack (my husband is very jealous).
It all comes down to preference; test them at home and see which one you like better before committing to a pillow for the long haul.
Download soothing music or relaxing sounds (like ocean waves) on your phone and make sure you bring your earbuds. Or, if you prefer, bring ear plugs
I find that downloading meditations designed to help you fall asleep or calming sounds like rainfall or ocean waves helps inch toward sleep a little faster, plus it blocks out all that extraneous sound the other passengers make. I kept mine on loop all night so even when I would wake up (which is often on a plane, let’s be honest), it would help lull me back into sleep.
For extra assistance, find a sleeping aid that works for you.
As I mentioned before, getting up super early the day you leave helps a ton, but there’s nothing wrong with getting a little extra help if it means you’ll be ready to go when you land at your destination. melatonin works for some, but I want to be knocked the hell out. I want to guarantee that I at least get a couple hours of sleep. So as soon as I board the plane, I pop a sleeping pill. But test it before you leave because some sleeping aids work better than others (some, like Nyquil, actually make me wide awake, and that totally defeats the purpose).
Wear comfortable clothes.
Don’t wear jeans. Don’t wear heels. Don’t wear a suit. Nobody’s going to care what you look like. Wear sweats or leggings or pajamas. You’ll be sleeping (God willing), and you’ll never see 98% of these people ever again.
TIP: Wear layers on the plane, one of which should be a sweatshirt. It gets really cold on those overnight flights, and those sad little handkerchiefs the airlines give you to snuggle with don’t really provide a whole lot of warmth. Trying to sleep when your whole body is contracted with the shivers is sort of a non-starter.
3. Have meals at mealtime in your new time zone instead of your old one.
If you arrive in the morning, have breakfast. If you arrive at lunchtime, have lunch. It’s simple, really. Adjusting your eating schedule helps your body adjust to the time change.
4. Go to sleep at bedtime in your new time zone the first night.
The absolute worst thing you can do is take a nap when you reach your destination. You need to stay awake the whole day and go to bed at a normal bedtime in your new time zone in order to adjust properly to the time change. It sort of resets your internal body clock. My recommendation: Schedule a walking tour on your first day. It’ll keep you moving and occupied; staying stationary will just make you sleepy. SANDEMANs offers walking tours in just about every major European city, for example.
Follow these four simple steps to beat that pesky jetlag and adjust quickly to a new time zone—nothing can slow you down now!