Amid all the annoyances of modern air travel — shrinking seats, rising baggage fees, long lines — it can be easy to forget how remarkable travel can be. Our trailblazing ancestors couldn’t comprehend crossing the country in six months, let alone six hours.
With great power, however, comes great headaches. While our bodies weren’t designed to travel across time zones at high speeds, we can and we do. But it comes at a cost, and that cost is fatigue, drowsiness, nausea, anxiety, insomnia, headaches, and confusion. In other words, jet lag.
According to the American Sleep Association, jet lag affects about 93 percent of travelers and can last up to several days. The body needs one day of recovery for each time zone shifted to fully adjust, which is enough to ruin an entire trip. While the symptoms can’t be entirely avoided, its effects can be managed with some clever tips and tricks.
We asked nine of our frequent flying friends for their go-to jet lag cures. Take note and use them to downgrade the hurt.
1. Exercise at Your End Destination
Traveler: Jayne Appel, center for the WNBA’s San Antonio Silver Stars
Frequency of Travel: “During the season, I travel almost every three days — it all depends on my game schedule. It’s brutal trying to fit my six-foot-four frame into those sardine cans in the air.
Top tip: “Force yourself to workout when you land —it will help your body adjust to the correct time zone.”
Why it works: According to some studies, physical activity helps people adjust to new schedules because it strengthens the circadian rhythm, helping you fall asleep or stay awake according to your new location.
2. Consider the Clock
Traveler: Jeremy Jauncey, founder of Beautiful Destinations
Frequency of Travel: At least once a week
Top tip: Jeremy sets all his clocks to the time zone of his destination. This way, when he checks his computer or phone mid-flight he is already mentally adjusting for a new schedule.
Why it works: Psyching out your subconscious can help your mind regulate when it “should” perform certain behaviors — waking, eating, sleeping, and so on. A similar tactic that works for more ambitious travelers? In the days leading up to a big trip, they’ll slowly change their clocks and bedtime so their sleep schedules are aligned to that of their final destination.
3. Chug Water
Traveler: Erin Carney, global internal auditor
Frequency of Travel: Twice a week for business meetings and operational reviews
Top tip: “I hydrate like a mad woman. As a rule of thumb, for every three hours of flying time I drink a minimum of one liter of water. For more than six hours, I buy two-liter bottles of still, one of sparking and fill my huge Nalgene prior to boarding.”
Why it works: Proper hydration before, during, and after is critical to staying in good health while traveling, as flying dehydrates the body, draining it of energy and amplifying existing jet lag symptoms.
4. Eat Like a Local
Traveler: Merit Webster, private equity business development
Frequency of Travel: Once a week
Top Tip: “Eat as if you’re already at your end destination. For example, if you’re taking a red-eye from New York to London, eat a big meal (“dinner”) around 3 p.m. EST, and then try not to eat much else the rest of the trip. When you arrive in London, have breakfast at a normal time even if you’re not hungry as it will encourage your body to acclimate more quickly to the local dining schedule.”
Why It Works: Recent studies suggest food influences the internal body clock more than previously thought. Since mealtime has a huge impact on circadian patterns, travelers can speed up adjustment by eating on the same schedule.
5. Ban the Booze
Traveler: Andrea Taylor, MBA student
Frequency of Travel: Twice a month
Top Tip: “Those mini-airplane bottles may seem harmless, but they slow your body down, making it harder to get up and go on your trip. Don’t even drink carbonated sodas — only water. I always ask for a cup without ice so I can drink it quickly, and grab a refill before the flight attendant has even finished serving my row.”
Why It Works: Alcohol reduces the body’s ability to fall and stay asleep. However, it’s worth noting that, in a Skyscanner study, 42 percent of travelers credited temperance with beating jet lag. Meanwhile, 41 percent said consuming it actually helped.
6. Pick your Provider
Traveler: Kit Garton, corporate communications director
Travel time: Once or twice a month
Top Tip: “Pick one airline early and stay loyal. Frequent flyer programs are no joke, especially when it comes to upgrades, which I truly believe are the key to beating jet lag. Nothing beats a lay-flat seat, complimentary eye cover, and free red wine to help knock me out.”
Why It Works: With airplane perks harder to land than a Harvard acceptance letter, loyalty pays off with unexpected upgrades and better seat choices. Garton also recommends knowing your planes. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is one of the quietest aircrafts in the sky, and Finnair’s A350 features cabin lights that change according to flight time and time zones.
7. Seek out the Sweet Seats
Traveler: Rachel Romer, co-founder, Guild Education
Frequency of Travel: Usually once a week
Top Tip: “When on long flights with my husband or colleagues, I always try to book a window and aisle seat in the same row. More often than not, the middle seat stays free and we get the extra space to spread out, sleep and stay sane.”
Why It Works: While funds usually dictate where you sit (and therefore how comfortable you are), selecting more ideal seats in your section can help you suffer less both during and after a long flight. Use an app like SeatGuru to figure out seat options on different airline aircrafts to ensure your seat reclines or isn’t near a high-traffic area like a bathroom or attendant galley.
8. Shut Off the Screens
Traveler: Kate Roydhouse, ad agency account director
Frequency of Travel: Twice a month
Top Tip: “I turn off all my devices and don’t use any screens at least an hour before I want to nap. I think shutting off screens prepares my mind and eyes for a more restful sleep.”
Why It Works: Research shows that digital screen use before bedtime can delay sleep as the light from screens can suspends the body’s nighttime release of melatonin, a key hormone in the circadian system. The bright lights can also reduce REM sleep, impacting alertness the following morning.
9. Mellow out with Melatonin
Traveler: Yentl Garcia, medical device representative
Frequency of Travel: Every other week
Top Tip: “I take three mg of melatonin 20 minutes before I need to sleep, paired with a great eye mask. It will change your world.”
Why It Works: While it shouldn’t be used regularly, melatonin is an excellent alternative to more intense sleeping pills. Small studies show that taking just one mg or less can reduce jet lag symptoms and help travelers recover more quickly.