I wouldn’t call myself a seasoned traveler, but since moving to Australia I’ve done my fair share trans-Pacific flights. There are a few things I now have down pat: Filling out custom forms is a breeze. I fly through security. I’m a master of packing a carry on.
But one aspect of flying still defeats me: Jet lag.
For some reason I always think it won’t be that bad. I’m reasonably young, and jet lag only really affects old people, right? Wrong. I’ve spent too much time desperately fighting to stay awake at noon and indulging in 2am candy binges to still believe my body is capable of miracles.
So I finally decided to do something about it. My primary motivation is my job. I run the social media presence for a sleep apnea device support center, and recently started writing content for their website. I’m constantly reading and sharing tips for getting a better night’s sleep, yet find myself ignoring so much of the advice I repeat. This is bad practice. Followers should be able to trust what I post, in part because I’m not afraid to follow my own advice. But I’m also just plain tired sometimes, and I know exactly which bad habits sabotaged my slumber. (Usually it’s taking my iPad to bed.)
My and Ben’s trip to the US for Christmas and New Year’s seemed like the perfect opportunity to put some of my research into practice. I’ve never had a jet lag strategy beyond trying to sleep as much as possible on the plane and hoping for the best. This time I decided to actually make a plan.
Step 1: Know when to sleep and wake up pre-trip
First step was to adjust my sleep-wake cycle before leaving. I plugged our departure and arrival times into Jet Lag Rooster to get my new bedtime schedule:
I was a little wary about my ability to go to bed and get up so early. I’m a natural night owl, despite Ben’s best attempts to change this. There are mornings when I’m wide awake at 6am and asleep on the couch by 8pm, but they’re rare. The real challenge would be syncing my new routine with Ben’s. He likes to go to bed with the TV on, a bad habit I’ve been unable to break him of.
How I did
In a word, horrible. Our flight was on a Tuesday. Monday night I remembered I was supposed to be going to bed earlier, when in fact I’d managed to stay up later than normal the previous three nights. Oops.
On the trip back I didn’t bother (read: forgot) creating a sleep plan. The flight back to Sydney was a red-eye, so my not-so-scientific plan was to stay up all day and then crash on the plane.
Step 2: Don’t leave everything to the last minute
Ben is a big supporter of packing right before leaving for the airport. Since we had to be there so early this time, he was forced to pack the night before. This is fine for him, but not for me. I’m a big worrier at the best of times, and the thought of discovering I’d forgotten to pack an essential keeps me up before most trips. He of course made fun of me for wanting to pack a full week in advance. Hey, don’t tell me my business, man!
I extended this step to also include tying up all loose ends at work the Friday before we left, even though I would be in the following Monday. Stress can make jet lag worse, so all my prep was backed up by science.
How I did
Excellent. I resisted packing until the Sunday before, but compromised by slowly gathering items I didn’t want to forgot (gifts, reading material, passport, etc.) on the kitchen table so I’d be reminded to pack them several time a day. It also saved me running around the house when I did start packing. Of course, I still got to the US without a hair brush, but that’s not the worst thing to forget.
Finishing up work on Friday was also a smart step. I was bored as hell Monday, but that was much better than frantically trying to finish tasks.
Step 3: Stay hydrated
I never drink enough water during flights. Sometimes my bladder feels like it’s the size of a pea, so rather than getting up and down all flight, I drink way less than I regularly would at home. This apparently worsens jet lag, but also throws my body completely out of whack. My mouth feels dry for days, and my eyes don’t tolerate contacts as well.
Even worse, I often opt for soda before and during flights. I rarely drink soft drink at home, but I’m a big supporter of the “treat yo’ self” philosophy when it comes to travel. I always thought a Coke with my airport McDonald’s (I know, I know.) or in-flight meal was no biggie. I was aware that the caffeine wouldn’t help me sleep, but I didn’t stop to think about caffeine’s ability to dehydrate the body.
How I did
Great. Our flight to LAX was mid-morning, so I wasn’t in the mood for soda anyway. Instead I treated myself to an orange juice with breakfast (Airport McDonald’s, naturally.), and chose either water or juice on the plane. I also increased my water intake, meaning a couple more trips to the bathroom, but not as many as I thought there’d be.
Step 4: Get comfortable
I know some people long for the days when people got dressed up for flights. It looks suave on Mad Men, I’ll admit, but let’s get real: it’s a pain when you’re stuck in a flying sardine can for more than eight hours. Again, this is something I’ve always done right. Comfortable pants, check. Slip on shoes, check. Extra sweater, check.
How I did
Very fashionable, no? I don’t usually dress this well when flying, but I’d gone outlet shopping in California and really wanted to wear some new clothes. Gap makes very comfortable khakis!
Step 4: Sleep on the plane
This is easier said than done, even for 5’0″ me. My main strategy was to limit screen time and my exposure to blue light. The light emitted by electronics (TVs, smartphones, computers, tablets) messes with the body’s circadian rhythms, delaying sleep.
How I did
Pretty good. I managed to sleep a solid five hours on the flight out, in part because I mostly ignored my TV screen. I did read on my iPad rather than the book I packed in my carry on. (The book I’d downloaded ended up being more engaging than I’d thought it would be.)
The trip back was even better. I slept about seven hours, thanks to the eye mask provided by Virgin. It’s amazing how easy it is to sleep when every bit of light is completely blocked out. Seat choice also played a big part. Ben and I were able to snag a two-seat row on the flight back, so I didn’t have to worry about a third person needing to get up mid-flight.
Step 5: Soak up the sun
My Jet Lag Rooster plan recommended I avoid light for an hour after landing, and then seek it out for three hours. Light plays a big part in the body’s circadian rhythms, regulating melatonin levels that signal when it’s time to sleep.
How I did
OK. We arrived in Denver around 7pm, but because it was the dead of winter there was no sunlight. I was doused in artificial light in the airport and after arriving at Ben’s mom’s house, which helped. However, there was the hour or so drive from the airport that was very dark. I could feel myself nodding off at times in the car.
The flight back was much easier. We arrived in Sydney in the morning. Summer sun greeted us, and we even took a walk up to the shops after unpacking. We were still sleepy by 8pm, but easily slipped back into our home time zone.
So, was my jet lag plan successful?
Obviously, I could have done better in some areas, but I did feel a big difference between this trip and previous ones. It took some time to adjust going out– Ben and I slept in much later than normal for the first two weeks– but coming home was much easier than expected. My routine fell back to normal within a week, with only occasional late night waking and tossing and turning.
The factors that made the biggest impact, in my opinion, were staying hydrated and limiting screen time on the plane. Opting for water or juice over dehydrating beverages kept my body in somewhat of a routine. My skin and eyes felt better after the flight, my face was noticeably less dry and my eyes easily adjusted to wearing contacts the next morning. The limited screen time meant more sleeping. It was easier than I expected to go to sleep and stay asleep when I turned off all my screens.
Overall I felt healthier and better rested than usual upon landing. My body wasn’t as fatigued, and I was actually excited for the short 2k walk to the shops and back when we got home! It even felt easier to get back to my normal diet after weeks of indulging on Christmas desserts and American fast food.
I definitely recommend following at least some of these steps before a trip. My jet lag symptoms were much more manageable this trip compared to my other trans-Pacific flights. I interested to see how adjusting my sleep schedule works before my next trip. We’re planning a trip to Europe in the near future, so I’ll be putting all my knowledge to good use before that flight!