How to Combat Jetlag

The Medium-haul Redeye

Who doesn’t love 4-8-hour redeyes? 😉

The most common examples of these flights are those from the US east coast to Europe, where aircraft often depart between around 6-11 PM and arrive across the pond the following morning. Some flights from Europe to Asia, as well as transcontinental flights (such as eastbound flights crossing the US, Canada, China, or Australia), are also medium-haul redeyes. While these flights are popular with time-sensitive travelers such as businesspeople since they essentially don’t waste any time, the fact that these flights fly eastwards means that time is actually lost while traveling, and considering taxi, takeoff, and landing times, it is very possible that travelers only get a few hours of sleep on these flights.

So what’s the solution? While these flights are rough no matter what way you swing them, the best way to prevent jetlag is to sleep as much as possible. In addition, on arrival, while it may be tempting to take a nap, this will further solidify the body’s desire to stay in the origin’s time zone rather than adjusting to the destination. Instead, consider going out, enjoying a nice meal, and if you are up for it, even a relaxing activity. Sleep at a semi-normal time, and by the next day, you should feel fine.

Alaska Airlines operates many transcontinental redeye flights. Photo by Grant Wickes via Flickr

The Medium-haul Day Flight

These flights are generally Westbound and are often the same types of flights listed in the above section, just in the opposite direction. Both because the flights normally take place during the day and because the flights essentially slow time down rather than speed it up, the effects of jetlag are generally muted compared to eastbound flights. In this case, my advice would be to stay up for the entire flight. This may be easier said than done since, by the end of the flight, it may be nighttime at your origin, but if you sleep during the flight, it will be tougher to fall asleep at your destination.

Icelandair operates many westbound medium-haul daytime flights from its hub in Reykjavik to the US and Canada – such as my recent flight from Reykjavik from Newark.

The Eastbound Long-haul Flight

These are your 9+ hour-long flights, such as North America to Asia, Asia to Australia, etc. Two important things to realize about most of these flights compared to their medium-haul counterparts are that 1) these flights often arrive and depart at about the same destination time, and 2) these flights are sufficiently long enough to get a full night of sleep.

This means that generally, while the massive time change will make it difficult to immediately adjust because the flights are so long, the traveler has a lot more control over their schedule. If the flight departs and arrives at 9AM, maybe it’s a good idea for you to get as much sleep as possible. However, if the flight arrives and departs at 9PM, perhaps it’s a good idea for you to limit your amount of sleep and watch a nice movie instead. And of course, it is a good idea to build a meal plan based on adjusting to the destination time if the airline hasn’t already done this for you.

Air India flights from the US to India are examples of eastbound long-hauls. Photo by MitRebuad via Flickr

The Westbound Long-haul Flight

As I explained above, is normally far easier to adjust to westbound flights than eastbound ones; this holds true for longer flights as well. However, the longer flight time and a greater number of time zones crossed means that if you mess up your sleep schedule, the consequences may be far more severe at the destination. These flights are most often either through the full day or through the night. On full-day flights, it is best to stay up as long as possible so that you can get good sleep on arrival, but on overnights, it is advisable to get as much sleep as possible to wake up at a semi-normal destination time and be prepared for the day ahead. Once again, in terms of meals, trust the airline, which normally has workers that meticulously design a meal plan that benefits the most number of people.

Qantas operates many Westbound overnight flights from the US West Coast to Australia. Photo by Vismay Bhadra via Wikimedia Commons

The Antipodal Flight/Polar Route

These flights are relatively rare, but consist of ultra-long hauls such as New York-Singapore, Los Angeles-Sydney, Dallas-Hong Kong, and even arguably London-Perth (just on a different axis). Since these routes are so long and jetlag is basically inevitable, I’d simply recommend doing what you feel is right for your body. If you feel strong enough to immediately switch your watch to the destination time (which may result in you staying up or having to sleep for long hours at a time, as well as eating meals at weird times), that is probably the best way to fight jetlag. But if it is easier for you to stay on the origin time and then take the hit when you land, that may be the best option. Basically, if you can’t fight it, just relax.

Singapore Airlines operates the longest commercial flight in the world between the New York area and Singapore – a route that crosses 12 time zones! Photo by BriYYZ via Wikimedia Commons

General Tips

In addition to sleep and meal schedules, there are a few other ways to stay as awake and fit as possible.

Hydration is arguably the most important factor. Air in a plane is many times drier than on the ground given the higher altitude, so drinking water at regular intervals throughout the flight will make your body feel much better.

In addition, moving around every so often when not sleeping allows your blood to flow and muscles to stay active, which besides preventing deep-vein thrombosis, helps the body feel less groggy on arrival.

Finally, setting your watch to the destination’s time zone right after boarding is a great way to immediately begin adjusting your body. This may help travelers subconsciously adjust to the destination’s time. This is extremely difficult to follow and in some cases may even feel impossible (such as if you are traveling a lot in a short period of time), but if you are up to it, it is worth a try!

Bottom Line

As you can see, your mileage really does vary when it comes to combatting jetlag. But in addition to your personal preferences, there are many strategies you can utilize to ensure you make the most of your inter-time-zone trip.

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