How to Beat Jet Lag Every Time

Wendy Perrin shares the weird approaches to beating jet lag like blue light therapy, vitamins, and candles that remove curses.

But it really isn’t that hard.

The simple, best jet lag advice is to:

  • Change your watch to local time in your arrival city when you get on the plane.
  • Start behaving as if you’re on that local time as soon as possible, from your meals to sleep
  • Go to bed as close to when the locals at your arrival city do.

When I take an overnight flight to Europe or Asia that arrives in the morning, I take a shower and change clothes. If it’s sunny, take a walk. If my schedule allows I will allow myself a nap. I will get up and make myself go out to dinner, ideally a late dinner, so that I’m tired and fall right to sleep when I get back to the hotel.

If I have the time I’ll let myself sleep in the next day, for me that means 8 am if I have the time, otherwise I’ll get up at 6 am per usual and will be more or less adjusted to the time right away.

But when it’s bed time, I go to bed. I have a tendency to get off of a long flight without internet and think I need to clear my mind, so I check in on e-mail and work and that just sets my mind racing with a million things.

    When arriving at a destination late at night, I will avoid work when I arrive at the hotel. My only concession is that while making the trip from the airport to hotel I will clean out email.

The two hardest things about jetlag are:

  1. Sleeplessness. Going to sleep, you wake up a few hours later and are up throughout the middle of the night. That makes the coming day tough. And it makes staying up through the day tough, but a nap just makes the cycle more likely to repeat.
  2. Flexibility. If you don’t have to push through you won’t, but the best thing to do is to make it until bedtime in your local destination.

I find adjusting to Europe is easy. I go over, stay up until bedtime, maybe sleep in a little bit and I’m fine by my second day. Returning from Europe I get tired by 7 pm for the first couple of days back home.

Coming back from Asia proves more challenge for me if I arrive late morning or in the afternoon. I do much better if I arrive in the US and still have to connect so that I don’t get home until late. That causes me to stay up, and go to bed at bedtime local time.

I find going to Asia the hardest, since being 12 hours off my body thinks it’s the exact opposite of local time — wants to sleep during the day, wants to be up at night. And the older I get the harder it is.

Whether Europe or Asia I love late night departures so that I’m tired enough to fall asleep on the plane when I want (remember: plan based on local time at your destination) and stay asleep.

And I love arriving at my destination mid-day because I can make it through to night — an early morning arrival means I’m likely to lose steam mid-day. That’s when a nap really works for me. A couple of hours in the afternoon and then staying up late.

Many folks suggest drinking lots of water (I do this anyway) and avoid alcohol and coffee (maybe great advice, but I’m not going to follow it)..

What’s your routine? How do you handle jetlag?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I think the problem is that this simple best advice simply doesn’t work. You yourself say that you have all the symptoms — waking too early, “losing steam” at mid-day, and so forth — so I think it’s OK to admit that nobody beats jet-lag. They either power-through or they don’t, but in neither case have they beaten it. My most important change of routine is awareness that I won’t be 100 percent, and I make sure I have a way to get where I’m going on the other end that doesn’t involve driving or operating heavy machinery in the next day or two after travel. By the way, eating dinner and then immediately going to bed is absolutely the worst possible idea for many people. That’s a brilliant way to bring on acid reflux or nightmares or both for a lot of people.

  2. I’ve heard more than once that you can’t adjust more than about an hour per day. Knowing this, and having been bicoastal for a lot of the dot-com boom (live in Portland Oregon, work on Wall Street every third week), I used to get up an hour earlier every day before my weekend flight. It’d annoy my friends who wanted me to hang with them on Friday and Saturday nights, but I was able to hit the ground running Monday morning in New York bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. If you have that option when you go east of getting up an hour earlier per day prior to the trip, I highly recommend it.

  3. I find that I don’t have any problem adjusting when *going* anywhere. The excitement of the trip and having a full schedule of things to do–whether for vacation or for work–forces me into adjusting. The usually plentiful and often free supply of coffee also plays a big role. Returning home is a different story, but I don’t often have to turn around and go back on the road, so being a bit a bit tired or going to bed a little bit early for a week isn’t a major hassle for me.

  4. We all know those simple tricks. They help.
    To avoid the dreaded “wake up in the middle of the night”, I like to pop a Melatonin pill.

  5. Gary, what is your favorite departure time from JFK to HKG? It will be my first time in F with Cathay and I want to enjoy the flight but also rest to adjust to the local time. I will be in Thailand for a week only. I am booked at the 9:00 am flight, but if award space opens, I am willing to change it for a better time. Thanks!

  6. @Henry M – I like the late night departures because I’m tired, I can sleep. I find, say, the 9am JFK-Hong Kong flight really rough. The flight is about to end before I’m able to sleep, or if I do lay down during the flight it’s just for a short nap. Plus I like to have breakfast prior to arrival in Hong Kong, I prefer Cathay’s breakfast over dinner 🙂 But that’s very unique to me.

  7. Often if I’m going to Europe from the West coast I start rolling my bed time back an hour per week weeks in advance. I’ve done this until I am already on Europe time when I leave which I find a strange adventure stateside where I turn myself upside down but incrementally so that there is no real stress. It also makes it easy to adjust for going only to the East Coast. This is easier for one who works from home since I can often have my work done by the time the sun comes up and go out during the fewer daylight hours. I make sure the room is kept dark when I come home to watch some TV and get to bed early. By doing this I have never had to experience jet lag on annual trip to Europe.

  8. The problem with theories about trying to adapt immediately is that the body largely only adapts by about an hour a day, irrespective of what you do. Maybe a couple at best. So staying awake until the locals go to sleep is not sensible if you’re flying east to west (EU to US) You’ll still awake at your normal waking time, plus a couple of hours for tiredness, but after only having had a couple of hours sleep. If I land at 6 pm in NY, and get to bed by 8 (1 am for UK), I get 7 hours sleep to 3 am. If I stay awake until 11 pm, I likely still awake at 3 am, but after only 4 hours sleep.

  9. I find managing exposure to daylight very helpful. If I’m aiming to sleep on the plane I’ll start wearing sunglasses from a few hours before I head to the airport and continue wearing them till its time to sleep on the plane. Most of the lounges at my home airport (Melbourne) have no windows and whilst this is disappointing for many reasons it does help keep the light levels down. The QF lounge has a wonderful soft light which really helps before a transpacific day flight.

    Of course you do look likes but of a pillock wandering round the airport with sunnies on, especially at night.

    Melatonin helps too.

  10. I’ve had good success following this regimen – but sometimes it’s not quite enough, and I still wake up in the middle of the night.
    I carry Sonata for trips to Europe or Asia – they have a gentle sleep-inducing effect and wear off after about 4 hours, so they’re perfect for those wide-awake moments at 2am when I don’t want to be up all night but can’t afford to be groggy in the morning.

  11. I pretty much follow your strategy. One possible difference is that I don’t normally drink coffee and when I do, it’s always in the morning. So on a trans-Oceanic flight, I might sometimes find myself drinking a couple cups of coffee at midnight (my home time). Go to bed after 8 or 9PM on arrival and then have a cup of coffee around 8AM. Used to use the Jet Lag Diet, but it became too much of a hassle and I get the same results with what I’ll call the Coffee Diet (which actually was a small part of the Jet Lag Diet)

  12. Oh, and I neglected to add that I love to visit countries where you can buy valiums OTC (Laos, India, Bangladesh….and others where you can talk the pharmacist into it; failing that, I’ll get my home Doc to prescribe some).

  13. What about sleeping or not on the plane? I think that has the biggest impact on my ability to adjust to a new time zone.

  14. I find that my body adjusts to time zone changes quickly. My challenge is that I don’t sleep well on planes (even in lie-flat class). So I just need to allow myself lots of sleep when I get there; I’m fine within a day or two.

    As I’ve gotten older and softer, I’ve also started taking advantage of the “24 hour connection” rule on international itineraries to overnight at a strategic connecting city along the way.

  15. Unfortunately adjusting your body clock to a new time zone generally takes 1 day per hour of time change. So for West Coast to Europe that’s basically a week. All the tips above are good and useful but they can’t overcome physiology. You will still wake up in the middle of the night because your body clock thinks that’s the right time.

    So for short trips, the only solution that really works is to take sleeping pills. On the plus side, it’s easier to sleep on return flight when you are exhausted, and a you’re back on home time with no trouble.

  16. Boraxo, I gave a way above to avoid jetlag completely. It may not be practical for most to adjust before leaving, but for those who work at home or are retired it works perfectly. The choice is to suffer jetlag at your own home in a controlled environment where you can ratchet wake time back over time, or during your vacation. I have not had jetlag on any of my Europe vacations.

  17. Something I’ve NEVER seen anyone mention in all avoid-jet-lag-articles on travel sites:

    In flight, 1hr spaced melatonin doses (1mg).

    Reading about the inevitability of jet lag is always frustrating for me because of how well this protocol works.

    I’ve used it (along with friends and family) for 2 trips to Europe and 1 to Asia/Oceania and back.

    The Method:

    1) Acquire a melatonin supplement in tablet, capsule or liquid form. You need 1mg dosages.

    2) If your flight crosses 5 or more time zones take a 1mg dose of melatonin as your flight takes off. Take another 1mg dose every hour until your flight lands in your destination time zone. I set vibrating alarms on my iPhone to go off every hour after the first dose as a reminder.

    3) Once you arrive at your destination and if it is still day remain awake until local bedtime (e.g. 9 or 10 PM local time). If you arrive at night or approximately local bedtime you can go directly to sleep on arrival. Either way when you awake in the morning you should be adjusted to the local time zone.


  18. I think everyone is psyching themselves out by overthinking this. If you are going to Asia, you stay up a super long time through a flight and/or the rest of the time there until local bedtime. If you are going to Europe, you stay up through an overnight and an incredibly long/painful first day . If you are coming back from either you get up in the morning and leave and get back in the morning/afternoon and have a super long day. In all of these scenarios you end up dead tired, sleep 8 hours out of necessity, and then get up and hit the ground running in your local time zone. Just my experience.

    And yes, +1 or +2 or +10 to melatonin.

  19. Greg – your method may work for retirees but not too useful for those with children at home and jobs that require normal office hours. I can’t dial back bedtime from midnight to 4pm. Have not found melatonin to be particularly effective either.

    Honestly I find the best way to adjust is to sleep in late for a few days – which works on vacation but is never possible on business trips.

    I do think there is some value to sleeping on the flight, but not overdoing it. I do pretty well if I can get 5 solid hours, east or west.

  20. Sleep East / Awake West.

    I have made several trips to Europe and can never nap more than 10-15min on any of the flights. Takes a week to start sleeping normal.

    West – I do good, just get tired in middle of day for a few days.

  21. I have a lot of mixed results on some of the overseas flights. I went recently to South Africa 16.5 hours non stop. Landing in SA I had really no problems. I had dinner went to sleep and was ok the next day. The flight back we had to connect in ATL which was a hassle and yet for the most part very little jet lag over the next 3 days. I few early wakeups but not in the middle on the night. I had issues getting back from AU years ago and Japan. Even going to HI form FL I had problems. I have no issues sleeping on the place. Going to Europe with mixed results on 8-9 hours flights. For me so far I have no real solutions. However coming back from a redeye (vegas or La) I try to sleep a few hours on the plane, come home and get 3 more hours of sleep. I am usually ok at that point.

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