The Simple Trick 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.

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 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.

I don’t want to be woken for breakfast, the second meal on a short overnight isn’t going to be impressive (though I’ll try it if I’m up anyway).

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.

Nothing beats Qantas’ “Sleep Sooner” program for short overnights in Airbus A330 business class from Asia to Australia.

  • They allow recline during taxi, takeoff, and landing.
  • You can request (in the lounge before boarding) to have your seat pre-reclined [not in the Spirit way] with mattress and duvet laid out and pillow on the seat.
  • Your amenity kit and bottle of water will be there as well.

They mute the cabin lights right from the start. Eat in the lounge, board, and start to get comfortable for sleeping immediately.

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 day, for me that means 8am. Otherwise I’ll get up at 6am 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. That doesn’t work everywhere (Tokyo) but it works in most cities.

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 7pm 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. I had a rough time adjusting to Hawaii this week. It took 3 UA flights from DTW and layovers, then a rockslide delayed me at OGG for 3 hours. Getting to the hotel at 2am makes planning pretty difficult.

    But when I go to Europe I always follow that model. It’s not as difficult for me to adjust to that time difference as it is to Hawaii.

    I’m heading home Friday, getting home early Saturday, and I’ll keep these tips in mind. Still, after traveling 20 hours and arriving home at 9am, it’ll be a hell of a challenge!

  2. Some pharmaceutical assistance can help with sleep. Discuss with your GP and get an appropriate prescription. Everyone is different in what it takes to get to sleep.

  3. Gary your advice is sound but unfortunately not likely to prove effective for many travelers, particularly those who – like me – often cross 8-12 hour time zones. Here’s why:
    (1) Many TATL flights depart afternoon from West Coast. Try to sleep at 3pm (or even after meal service at 5-6pm) to adjust to destination 8-9 hours ahead. Not gonna happen even after alcohol (which sleep experts say to avoid).
    (2) As you note, many TATL flights from East Coast are 7 hours. Try sleeping during meal service when lights are on and continuous noise that permeates earplugs, headphones, etc. Not gonna happen. (Also assumes you had time to get an early dinner which is not the case for most biz travelers much less those connecting.) Then 1.5 hour before landing you go thru the whole lights and noise routine again. Unless you’re a heavy sleeper, you will be LUCKY to get 4 hours on these flights. And that’s simply not enough to be very productive the following day.

    So basically item #1 is out for many travelers, excepting perhaps those who are on 10-15 hour flights.

    As for item #2 – guess what? That makes no difference either. Even when I go to be at 10-midnight at my destination, I still wake up in the middle of the night because my body clock says it is time to get up. Or perhaps, I sleep ok the first night (from exhaustion) but then I wake up the rest of the week at 2-4am.

    So basically Item #2 is not likely to help travelers with big time shifts

    One thing I do find helpful is to skip airplane meals as you have suggested. If flight departs later than 10pm, I’ve already eaten dinner so I tell them to save my meal. And that enables me to sleep rather than ingest more calories that I don’t need.

    Sleep science has shown that most people adjust 1 hour per time zone per day, so most people will need at least a week to adjust for TATL or TPAC flights. The only effective alternative is to use sleep medication, which is what I do.

    So in sum I don’t think these are bad tips, just not likely to help too many people.

  4. One comment and one question:

    Comment: I love how when AA collects its noise cancelling headphones an hour or so before landing they say it’s “for customs control issues”. I laugh every time and say “It’s okay, you can tell us that it’s so we don’t steal them, we know.”

    Question: “My next trip to Europe I’m doing one of the daytime flights, which I’ve never done before. I leave Chicago at 9:00 am and land in London at 11:00 pm the same day, so no overnight. Have you done one of these, and if so, what’s the best way to adjust since it won’t be my normal bedtime until about 5 or 6 am London time, so I don’t know if I’ll be tired enough to go to bed when I get there (I am a TERRIBLE sleeper). Any advice?

  5. I agree 100%. I do the same thing and it only takes me 1 night to adjust. I never get jetlag as long as I make sure I go to bed (tired) at a time appropriate for the destination. Luckily, I don’t have the problems that Boraxo mentions. My experience is mainly Europe but I’ve been to HKG, SIN and SYD/MEL with no problems; I just had to control my sleep based on my arrival time, e.g. if arriving at night I make sure I don’t sleep on the plane.

    I will add that I like to lengthen the time of transatlantic flights by connecting through ORD instead of IAD/EWR, even though it is 650 miles in the wrong direction for me. Not only does it earn me more EQM, but it gets me an extra hour of sleep.

  6. When travelling east it’s always better to start adjusting before the travel date. In your case you could start waking up earlier than usual. On the day of departure you could wake at 3-4 at night (that would be 9-10 in the morning in London), stay in as bright environment as possible and resist the urge to sleep on the flight. Eat according to London time, if at all possible. You should be tired as hell when you arrive and ready to fall asleep right away.
    Remember – you can force yourself to stay awake, but you can’t force yourself to sleep. That combined with light and eating at right times is the best you can do.

  7. Probably should have re-thought calling this “simple” when part of the requirement was getting a business class seat.

  8. “You should be tired as hell when you arrive and ready to fall asleep right away.
    Remember – you can force yourself to stay awake, but you can’t force yourself to sleep.”

    This is the best advice in the thread.

    I never have trouble adjusting to time zones because I simply do not sleep on the plane, ever.

  9. Gary,
    The easy answer is always fly West. Ya know, like if you want to go from Austin to Houston

  10. When going to EU from the east coast I take the 9Am (ish) flight getting in 9PM (ish) to LHR. Overnight at a local hotel and then an early morning flight to my final dest (of course if I’m going to London then I just take the Express into town).

    The full night in a hotel gets me up in the morning local time and ready to face the day.

  11. @gary
    On our flights Bos/Cdg we skip all meals on board still (microwaved) no matter how fancy it looks, a simple steak sandwich and a good glass of red is likely better than anything on a flight, take xanax and 2 fingers of Johnny Walker, you’ll get that warm soaking in the bath feeling so it’s easy to sleep on a 7 hour flight 😉

  12. Gary, don’t take this the wrong way, as it’s not meant to be mean spirited, but what the hell is your job that permits you to travel the way you do and accrue countless point in programs you rarely use (e.g. 500K in Aeroplan!)? Is it all pleasure, or work related? If work, what exactly is this ‘work’ that brings you around the globe non-stop?

  13. When I fly from the west coast to Asia, leaving at midnight and arriving in Asia at 6 AM(13 hour flight), I force myself to “sleep” for at least 10-11 hours. Now I’m not actually sleeping the whole time, especially if I am flying economy class, but I have my ear plugs and eye cover on and just sit there with my eyes closed for as long as possible. Even though I might actually sleep for only 3-5 hours, I sit there in sleep mode for at least 10 hours. So by the time I arrive, I can usually last till 9 – 10 PM the first day in Asia. I then sleep/stay in bed for at least 8 hours before getting up. I try not to get up till at least 5 AM. This system has worked for me for decades.

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