How to Beat Jet Lag Every Time

There are two things you need to do to avoid jet lag.

  1. Adjust to the local time of your destination as soon as possible, generally as soon as you board your flight. That means eating on your new local time, and sleeping on your new local time.
  2. Stay up until bedtime at your destination the day you arrive. If you go to sleep at noon, you’re going to be off for days. You need to force yourself to power through.

Both of these can be challenging, but there are ways to make them much easier. You’ll enjoy your trip more, and it’s better for your overall health. Jet lag can make you stupid.

The Flight

Get on the plane and if it’s bed time in your destination, go to bed. If it isn’t, stay up. Plan your meals based on the new local time, too. That might mean eating before the flight rather than on it.

Short overnight flights, like flying Eastbound East Coast to Europe, can be frustrating. You leave at night (when it isn’t yet bed time at your local destination) and arrive in the morning and have a full day ahead of you, but to really take advantage of it you need to sleep.

New York, DC, or Boston to London or even Paris can take less than 7 hours. You want:

  • A fully flat seat in business class
  • All aisle access so no one is climbing over anyone else and waking them
  • Meal service to end quickly, and lights out quickly, so you can sleep.

The idea is to maximize the amount of sleep you’ll get. I don’t want to be woken for breakfast, it isn’t very good on most airlines anyway. And I bring my own noise cancelling headset. American Airlines flight attendants collect theirs way too early, often nearly an hour before landing.

Eat before boarding. Skip the main meal. Airlines can help when they certify seats for recline during taxi, takeoff, and landing and get through service quickly.

When You Arrive

Sleeping, and waking on local schedule at your destination, is the number one way to beat jet lag. Then stay up at your destination on arrival and go to bed as close to when the locals do as possible.

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 take a nap. I will get up and make myself go out to dinner. This can be tough. I’ll be dead tired. Doesn’t matter. I want to go out, 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 morning, for me that means 8 a.m. Otherwise I’ll get up before 6 a.m. 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. So it’s a bad idea.

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. That’s why in most cities I’ll avoid public transit, I want to get in the back of a car, fire up an internet connection, and work for however long it takes to get to the hotel in a straight shot without transfers. In Tokyo it works better to take the Narita Express.

Putting It Into Practice

The two hardest things about jet lag are:

  • 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 even more likely to repeat.
  • Flexibility. If you don’t have to push through you won’t, but the best thing to do is to push through 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 as long as I go out to a nice dinner the day I arrive. The same applies to South America after an overnight flight even without significant time change.

Returning from Europe I get tired by 7 p.m. or so for the first couple of days back home. But it’s no big deal.

Coming back from Asia doesn’t prove much of a challenge for me unless I take a flight that gets me home early in the day. It makes staying up until bed time hard. That’s when I need to follow the practice of taking a nap and going out to dinner even when I’m home.

I find going to Asia much harder than anything else, 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.

There’s the usual advice, none of which has much mattered for me — especially to drink lots of water and to avoid alcohol and coffee.

If I’m going to Asia then I will need a full day to adjust. I might be sleepless that first night. The solution is to power through the next day (allowing myself a nap) so that I’m exhausted at local bed time on day two.

Routine matters a lot. Begin to get into the local time as soon as possible. Set your watch to the new time right away. Plan your sleep schedule based on when you want to sleep at your destination — don’t sleep the last several hours of a flight if you need to sleep on arrival for instance. And try to time your meals closer to when you’ll be eating at your destination.

And a good business or first class experience on the way over makes this all much easier.

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. Interesting. I have found that adjusting to Asia time is not to difficult. But I tend to be ruined for days when I return home!

  2. @Tommy Leo

    I agree with your comment 100%.

    I feel great after arriving in Asia.

    I feel and sleep horribly for a week or more when I return to America.

  3. I agree with tommyleo….Asia is easy. I leave on midnight flights…sleep then arrive in the mornings. I never have a problem going to Asia. The problem is getting back home…then it takes about a week to get over it. And I really do the same thing of the return flight….night flight….getting sleep…then arrive in the afternoon…go home then to bed my normal times.

  4. Gary you’re in the small portion of humans who finds going east easier and going west hard. That’s exceptionally unusual in my experience from discussing this with hundreds of people over time.

    But most of your advice is sound for anyone.

    The single best “trick” which is rarely reported, by the way is *eat breakfast at the breakfast hour in your new time zone*. It sets a giant hormone cascade going at the proper time of day and sleep cycles / circadian rhythms adjust based on hormones.

    Also, you’re fueled for the day’s activities so this has no discernible downside.

  5. I have used the app Timeshifter for 3 Asia trips so far and the closer I follow their recommended schedule the better adjustment I have. They get a little intense at times because it focuses really hard to light exposure to reset your circadian rhythm. You will be wearing sunglasses (even indoors) until around noon the day before your trip, and drinking coffee slowly until 5pm, but it’s worth it.

  6. Well, I can’t sleep soundly on planes, even in the nicest F seat (though LH and JL almost get me there), so I end up effectively staying up straight through to wherever I’m going. And that means that wherever I’m headed to, if I follow rule #2 – stay up until bedtime local time, which I do – I’m gonna be dead tired, sleep 8-9 hours, and then wake up pretty refreshed and on local time. Never seems to be an issue beyond that big first push for me.

    One thing that I do notice is that when I come back to the U.S. East Coast from Europe, I find myself absolutely STARVING at about noon because my body things it’s dinnertime!

  7. I disagree with so many points in this article…
    First… never ever allow yourself a nap. That’s just recipe for disaster. You take a nap and you are done.
    If you fly to Asia always take midnight flights… they arrive in morning. And makes adjusting so much easier.
    I agree with few people on comments. Flying to Asia is a breeze. Getting back I tend to be a wreck. Specially the third day.
    Third… nonsense of trying to adjust on time before. Just sleep during the flight. Try again to take flights that arrive in morning… then power thru the day and tire yourself up. I do agree that if you fly business skip the dinner service. Specially on Europe flights. Go to bed right away. Eat in the lounge. First it’s different. I just tell them to hold the meal to whenever I wake up.
    Finally… no coffee? That’s crazy. You need it to power they the day. Drink coffee. Avoid that nap.
    Those are my two cents. I fly almost 400k a year…

  8. I find that arriving in Asia early in the morning works better than arriving at night. If you’re tired and it’s still 6:00 or 7: 00 a.m., you can sleep till noon, and then you have enough time left in the day to get tired again and sleep at night. However, if you arrive in Asia in the evening and you’re not really tired (having slept on the plane), then you’re likely going to suffer from sleeplessness for a couple of days. Happened to me going to Singapore from Canada: could not fall asleep until 4:00 a.m. for 2 days…

  9. @Gene +1 The two nuggets here are:

    “And the older I get the harder it is” (when I was 20-30 I would adjust in a day or two) and

    “There’s the usual advice, none of which has much mattered for me — especially to drink lots of water and to avoid alcohol and coffee.”

    Keep in mind most people need 1 day per hour of time change so it takes a week to fully adjust from West Coast to Europe or Asia. For most trips I just take sleeping pills and never really adjust naturally.

    I have recently tried the CIA method (adjust stomach to new time and skip dinner & alcohol on plane) to be helpful. But still the best course for me:

    (1) Book 10+ hour nonstop flight that departs in evening, which leaves plenty of time to sleep.
    (2) Sleeping pills (ambien) at destination for as many nights as needed
    (3) 2nd night (and following day) after arrival is always the worst
    (4) If possible avoid the 7-hour TATL or TATL Eastbound that departs at 1pm

  10. “New York, DC, or Boston to London or even Paris can take less than 7 hours. You want: A fully flat seat in business class”

    Sure, if you’re buying. Otherwise, I’ll take the cheapo $150 fare and take my chances with jet lag. 🙂

  11. I find Asia much easier than Europe. With many Asian flights I get it mid to late afternoon. I only need to power through for a few hours before I can sleep. With European flights I get in early morning and need to power through a whole day.

  12. I don’t really have jet lag problems going to asia. Typically arrive in the evening and just go to bed. Maybe I wake up extra early like 5am or something but I really have no jet lag. When I come back from Asia though I am extremely messed up no matter what i do. Maybe you aren’t staying in Asia very long so that is why it doesn’t impact you, but if I am in Asia I am usually over there for an excess of 2 weeks so my body is on their time schedule will I return.

  13. Your advice is spot on for Europe. Flying East take the latest flight possible out and then focus on sleep. This is true for economy or business. Flying West is never an issue unless you need to stay up late at your destination.

  14. I fly to Asia several times a year. My secret for handling jet lag: Start before I get on the plane. My flight normally leaves early morning (I’m in the eastern US). So, I stay awake all night long for the night BEFORE the flight. I get to the airport dead tired, and am easily asleep before the doors close. When I land (usually Osaka or Beijing), in the late afternoon, I’ve been awake for several hours already. Dinner, then to bed at the normal time. Easy, peasy.

  15. I especially love the advice about flying overnight to Europe: get off, take a shower, clean up ready for the day.
    Except many hotels basically lock you out until THEIR check-in times. The nerve! But it happens all too often. The only decent advice for that overnight misery flight to Europe is to fly from the West Coast. Counter-intuitive, perhaps, but the longer the flight, the more decent rest before arriving. The two or three times in my life I have managed a daylight flight East Coast to Europe were much, much better.
    My other advice — not easily arranged — but it works, is to always fly east to west — with the time zones — when possible. I used to live in Asia and needed to go to the East Coast US. A rtw ticket with stop-overs made life much better.
    I have completely failed at the recommendation to not get older.

  16. Exactly, tommyleo- adjusting from west to east not that big a deal. Ajusting from the return east to west just KMA for at least 4 or 5 days.

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