Travelling to Europe is always a great adventure. But getting there can be a bit of a puzzle. You get on the plane around dinner time, eat a meal, and just as you start thinking about going to sleep, they announce you’re arriving in Munich and it’s 7 a.m. Your night’s sleep is gone, and in a few hours you’re going to feel that tired, sinking feeling they call jet lag. It happens to all of us — but is there a way to fight jet lag?
It’s a problem that plagues most travellers, but it hits home most keenly with baby boomers. According to the experts, the older we get, the more difficult it is to shake off the effects of jet lag. That’s especially true for boomers who already have health problems. And it can take a while to fully recover: the rule of thumb is one day for each time zone you cross. So a trip from New York or Toronto to Paris can give you a case of jet lag that lasts up to six days.
The bad news is that there is no sure-fire way to fight jet lag. The good new is that there are some things you can do to help ease the effects a little, or even a lot. So as I take off for my trip to Europe and Viking river cruise on the Danube, I’ve drawn together a few of the most practical suggestions from my own experience and from experts like Rick Steves, Frommers and the U.S. National Sleep Foundation. Here they are:
A lot of experts advise starting your fight against jet lag long before you get on the plane. The theory is that since it takes several days to adjust your internal clock, you can give yourself a head start by going to sleep earlier each night for a couple of days before your trip. (The opposite is true when you’re flying back.) That might work, as long as you can get some kind of a night’s sleep on the plane: otherwise you have that long, long day at the start of the trip, and who knows how much good your efforts will do?
Even if that doesn’t work, however, European travel expert Rick Steves says it’s a good idea just to make sure you get a good night’s sleep in the days before your flight. That way, your body will be better rested and more capable of withstanding the stress of jet lag and the sudden change in environment. He used to catch cold as soon as he landed in Europe, he says. Resting up beforehand has helped make that a thing of the past.
Once you’re on the plane, there are a few things you can do, too.
Reset your watch
It seems like a small thing, but most experts recommend setting your watch to European time as soon as you get on the plane. That’s a good way to avoid the situation I described above: if you know what time it is in your destination, you can plan your flight a little better – when to eat, when to sleep. That way, you won’t be bedding down just when the crew starts getting ready for landing.
Sleep on the plane
Speaking of sleeping, it’s always a good idea to get some sleep on the plane, if you can (see above). It’s tempting to get absorbed in the entertainment system and spend the flight watching that movie you wanted to see. But once dinner’s over, it’s probably time for bed. Personally, I can’t really sleep on planes unless I can actually lie down. But even dozing off for a couple of hours can help you arrive feeling as if it’s a new day, not the end of an interminable one.
Flying overseas is one of the few times you actually get some free food on an airplane these days, but don’t get excited and stuff yourself. That puts stress on your body. The experts also warn against drinking coffee or alcohol, which can make it harder to get to sleep – though frankly, I find a glass of wine can help make me drowsy even at home.
What you do want to drink on the plane is water, and lots of it. That’s standard advice when you’re flying, but it can also be a good way to fight jet lag. Getting dehydrated from the dry air in the plane puts your body under even more stress, which can make your jet lag worse.
Now the flight is over, your night’s sleep is ended — if it ever started — and your first day in Europe has begun, whether you’re ready or not. You know the jet lag is coming. What to do? The experts have some suggestions:
Even though you may feel tired on your first day, trying to catch up on your night’s sleep immediately can make it hard to get to sleep that night, and the next … Better to stay up, according to the experts. The National Sleep Foundation advises getting out in the sunlight; that helps your internal clock (called your circadian rhythms) adjust. The stimulation of interacting with people can help the process, too, so get out and mingle.
If you just can’t stay awake, most experts say it’s OK to take a nap, but keep it short: a half-hour or so seems to be the consensus. I often do this to help me get through the first day. Then I stay up till my normal bedtime (according to the European clock) and just carry on from there.
Have a snack
Flying to European time zones sometimes means you’re ready for dinner when it’s nowhere near local dinner time. Having a snack can kill the hunger pangs until it’s really time for dinner, and help keep your engine running if your energy is starting to fade. But don’t have a big meal in the middle of the afternoon, unless it’s the custom in the country you‘re visiting. The idea is to get into sync with local dining hours, and that can do the opposite.
Stick to your daily schedule
As much as possible, try to get into a regular routine that’s much like the one you have at home: eat at the same times, go to bed and get up at the same times. This will help you adjust better to the new time zone, and keep you on an even keel. Your body is used to a certain routine, and you’ll feel better once you’ve re-established it.
Some people have trouble sleeping when nighttime comes in their destination – after all, it’s not bedtime at home. I find that missing sleep on the way to Europe usually has me ready for some shut-eye by the time I hit the sack. But if you do have trouble, it makes sense to come equipped with whatever sleep aids you’re used to. The National Sleep Foundation has a few recommendations, too.
Having something familiar in the room, like a family photo or a favourite pillow, can help you relax in your new surroundings, it says. As well, if your hotel offers voice mail services, have it handle any calls in order to avoid interruptions. Then, address any possible sleep disruptors in the room, like an open curtain that can let in the early-morning sunlight. And leave two wake-up calls if you’re a heavy sleeper who might sleep through the first one.
Do what works for you
There’s been a lot of study on jet lag and how your body’s circadian rhythms are affected by travel. But the conclusions of all that study may not apply to everyone in the same way. For example, the research says the effects of jet lag are worse when you’re travelling from west to east. But I’ve found I suffer more when I fly east to west, on the way home. And while night owls are supposed to suffer more when travelling to Europe, I’m not among the most affected, despite my usual late bedtime.
If you’ve travelled a lot, you probably know what tricks do the job for you, so follow what your body tells you. If you haven’t, try the recommended strategies, but be prepared to change them if they’re not working. Everyone’s system is different, and as a baby boomer, your system may have changed since you were younger: for example, getting to sleep or staying asleep may be harder. So experiment a little, and stick with what works.
While there is no guaranteed way to fight jet lag, some people do use medications like Ambien and melatonin to help them cope. I don’t recommend using drugs; in most cases, just following the advice above can help you deal with jet lag’s worst effects. As well, these drugs may interfere with medications you’re already taking. If you are tempted to use drugs for jet lag, consult your doctor first.
Those are some of the most commonly recommended ways to fight jet lag. I hope they help the next time you take off for the Old World. I’ll be using a few when I take off today, and with any luck, I’ll hit the ground running. Hate to miss any of the amazing sights that await …