7 Tips to Minimize Jet Lag

Jason Borne or Ethan Hunt and his Impossible Missions Force can jet halfway around the globe then roll off the plane and immediately start kickin’ butt. However, for many reasons, most of us in the real world can’t. And one of those reasons is that annoying international travel companion jet lag.

“Our bodies work on a 24-hour cycle called circadian rhythms.These rhythms are measured by the distinct rise and fall of body temperature, plasma levels of certain hormones and other biological conditions.”  National Sleep Foundation

Distilled to its essence: quickly crossing multiple time zones messes with your body clock.

Despite what happens in the movies, the reality is there’s no beating jet lag. It’s a natural, physiological reaction, and the effects can only be lessened or made worse … burritos and bourbon come to mind.

But after almost four decades of international travel, I’ve discovered a few things that help me trick my body clock so it adjusts as quickly as possible to my new destination time:

1. Start your trip well-rested.

The night before the trip, get a good night’s sleep. Forget the bon voyage party and go to bed early. In addition to confusing your body clock, international travel is stressful and physically demanding, and you’ll need all the extra energy you can muster.

2. Take it easy in transit and start the mental adjustment.

While you travel, don’t overdo. Drink lots of water and don’t overeat or drink too much alcohol. In the airport and on the plane, get up and move around often, and take time to stretch a bit. And to start the mental transition, set your watch to the destination time.

3. Take Melatonin.

Melatonin, a hormone produced naturally by the human body, can help reset your circadian clock when taken for a few days while traveling. It isn’t a sleeping pill, but experts say that as melatonin levels rise in the evening it puts you into a state of quiet wakefulness that helps promote sleep. Take one pill on the plane an hour before you want to sleep, and take a pill one hour before bedtime for 4 additional days. Opinions vary on melatonin. We swear by it, but others say it’s a waste of time. Your call.

4. Get a bit of rest on arrival.

When you arrive, get a couple of hours of sleep … but only a couple. Set an alarm clock (or two) and force yourself to get up after a couple of hours. Sleeping as long as your body wants to will only prolong the adjustment. Don’t get me wrong, getting your sleepy-head out of bed takes some willpower, but a short nap will recharge your batteries and make the rest of the first day much easier.

5. Get out of the hotel and do something active.

Natural light suppresses the production of melatonin, so it helps to get out into the sunshine for some light exercise. You’ve spent big bucks to experience this new place, so do yourself a favor and start checking it out. Taking a leisurely walk, seeing some sights, and having a light meal will also help force your body to adjust to the local time. Inevitably you’ll have a couple of sinking spells, but try to stay active and moving around. A travel buddy helps with this step because it’s unlikely that you’ll both crash at the same time. 

6. Ignore the bed’s siren call.

Even though you’re really knackered, delay dinner and returning to the hotel until late in the day. At this point, the bed is a temptress, and is not your friend. If you give in to sleep you’ll be awake for hours in the middle of the night which only prolongs the adjustment.

When you return to your room, take your melatonin, and if possible, stay awake for a while. Watch some goofy, foreign language TV, read an exciting book; do whatever it takes to stay awake. It’s all about tricking the body clock. I usually don’t make it past 8-9 pm, but when my head finally hits the pillow, I immediately drop into a blissful coma.

london new york tokyo and moscow clocks

7. Stay on the local schedule.

Forget about what time your body thinks it is at home and stay on the local schedule. At this point, it’s mind over matter.

No matter where I travel and how many time zones I cross, my objective is to get over jet lag as quickly as possible. And this routine accomplishes that. Do you have a time-tested tip or routine that works? We’d love to hear.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

Photo Credits: 2.  twinsfisch   3.  Dmytro.Tchystiak  via Wikimedia Commons
Pixabay on Pexels.com 

Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

40 thoughts

  1. Staying on the local time is a big deal. Especially if the country is ahead by 12 hours or so from the time zone that you live in.

    1. Twelve hours of jet lag is the absolute toughest to adjust to, because you’re exactly 180° out of phase. As a aspiring doctor you may find this interesting. I read that for most people, the body adjusts by 2 hours per day, that is, 12 hours of jet lag takes 6 days to adjust. I’ve found that I adjust a bit quicker than that. How about you? ~James

      1. I’m able to adjust quickly. When I’m on the plane I’m either awake or asleep depending on if it’s nighttime or daytime. It helps a lot!

    1. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. Traveling from the US to SE Asia is always the biggest problem for me. In recent years anytime we have a long, transoceanic flight we try, as much as possible, to break it into smaller hops. And even if we don’t stop for a visit, we get an overnight hotel at the airport hotel. It takes a bit of time and money, but it makes such a big difference when we arrive. ~James

  2. Jetlag is awful, it usually ruins at least a couple of days of getting back on track. All your tips are great and my favourite is number 3. I find that Melatonin really helps me 😄

    1. Gilda, I suspect that everyone’s reaction to jet lag is slightly different, but for me I’m happy to try anything that works. And melatonin is an easy aid. There’s nothing worse than not being able to stay awake when you have to. ~James

  3. Good advice, jet lag can really put a damper on the fun of a journey abroad and zing you again when you return. I don’t get jet lag, probably because I haven’t had a regular sleep schedule in 15+ years so my body just goes with whatever sleep it can get whenever it can get it. For my travel companions though, it’s a real problem, and it can steal precious time from our trip. I like the melatonin idea but haven’t tried that one. Is melatonin easily available or is that something you have to try to carry with you past customs?

    1. Sorry about the problems sleeping, but the good news is that you don’t get jet lag. I’m sure some sleep scientist would love to have a conversation with you. I suspect there are lots of folks out there, whether out of necessity or happenstance, have unpredictable sleep routines, and the human body adjusts. We haven’t really looked for melatonin while traveling because it’s easily available at home and we always take it with us so we don’t have to worry about finding it when we travel. In the US it’s usually with the natural vitamin supplements in most pharmacies. ~James

  4. All great tips. We often just try to stay up when we arrive somewhere, even if it means a bit of an earlier bedtime. Although that first day can be a long one, adjusting to the local time is key!

    1. Lynn, my personal technique is, on the first day, keep active until near exhaustion. So when I finally do give in to sleep my body has no choice but to submit. I joke with Terri that when we sit on a bench to take a break it has to be hard and uncomfortable so I don’t nod off. ~James

  5. #7 is my only technique. I refuse to acknowledge even the idea of jetlag! When my kids were little, we told them there was no such thing, and we kept them up until the new-normal bedtime and switched to the correct meals ASAP. Mind over matter works pretty well for us, especially on the way there when there is so much new stuff to do and see. Coming home (no matter which direction) always seems a little worse because it’s easier to baby oneself at home!

    1. Lexie, thanks for checking in on this post. I’m always interested in hearing how seasoned travelers deal with jet lag. As much as possible, I try to carry on as normal. I just have to be careful not to put myself in a situation where sleep overcomes me – like a show or concert in a large, dark hall. That’s lights out for me. BTW, what do your adult children have to say about those forced marches? Does Mom and Dad take a bit of grief? 🙂 ~James

      1. In fact, I recently mumbled the word “jetlag” and caught all kinds of grief from the (adult) kids as they are all now programmed to believe it really and truly doesn’t exist! They are all travel troopers – probably better than I am at this point.

    1. I agree Leslie, but as I say in the post, I have to limit the nap to 2 hrs. Another thing that makes a huge difference for me is a hot shower. But after a nap, shower and change of clothes, I’m good to go. ~James

  6. All great tips! I think folks who have never used melatonin should try it at home first. Some people have an allergic reaction to it. I find it makes me too dopey but I take it along just in case. It usually only takes me a day to adjust anyway. I am always so excited about seeing new things that I forget about being tired. The 2-hour nap when you arrive works well for me. And I am lucky, I can easily sleep on a plane!

    1. Thanks for the info Darlene. Neither Terri nor I have have any issues with melatonin, so that’s new information. But, everyone’s different I guess. When possible, we’ve been breaking our trips up into smaller hops with overnight stops in between, which makes a big difference. Just to be able to get off the plane and get horizontal makes it so much easier. ~James

      1. I´m thinking my next trip back to Canada, I may well do that. A stop in Toronto and then on to Calgary may make a difference. We´ll see. I usually suffer more returning for some reason.

      2. Darlene, we try to get a one-night hotel in the airport if possible, and if not, one really close by that has a shuttle. Getting off the plane, having a good sleep, shower and change of clothes makes such a huge difference. ~James

  7. Good advice. I’ll have to try the melatonin. When possible, especially on really long flights, I try to arrive in the new town in the evening so I can have dinner and sleep on what would be a normal time and try to stick to that schedule.

    Not having a bon voyage party is good advice, but hard to follow!

    1. Jeff, I totally agree about arriving in the evening, especially if you can arrive late on the same day instead of an overnighter. And because we have some flexiblility when we travel, something we’ve started doing is breaking long trips into shorter hops. Even if it just means one night in an airport hotel, it makes the trip not nearly so grueling. I’m tall, and even paying the extra bucks for more legroom, I can never sleep and these long flights and cramped seats are killing me. ~James

      1. If you have the time, then yes, breaking it up is a terrific idea. Flying to Bangkok last year, we had a major delay and they put us up in Japan for a night. We ate dinner, went to bed, ate breakfast, then flew down to Bangkok. It made it nice!

  8. I’m a terrible sleeper at the best of times and travel doesn’t make it easier. I agree about switching to local time right away and melatonin has long been my best friend – although from reading this post I realize that I probably don’t take it at the right time. I will try your trick of an hour before bedtime instead of at bedtime.

    1. I still love travel Joanne, but I must admit that every long plane trip takes a bit more juice out of the battery. We’ve tried a few strategies to shorten flight times by making intermediate stops and tweaked our flight schedules, but the inescapable fact is that travel involves … well … travel. So, anything that I can do to make the trips and transitons a little easier just helps to decrease that battery discharge. But I must say that there’s nothing quite like the feel of putting my jet-lagged head on the pillow when I can finally go to sleep. Ahhh. Bliss. ~James

    1. That’s a good idea Terry. Some of the effects are phsiological and out of our hands, but there has to be a mental tie, and this is when a little trickery helps. The minute our butts hit the plane seats, we change our watches as well. 🙂 ~James

  9. I don’t fly very often, but we do drive through time zones. tI can be an interesting drive day when we go through multiple zones. Here in Alaska, we are 4 hours behind the east coast. I keep an old watch on my desk set to EST so I don’t wake people up when I call them.

    1. Laura, my sister, bless her heart, has awakened me more times than I can count, with the line: “Did I wake you up? What time is it there?” I’m sure your east coast family and friends appreciate the effort. ~James

  10. Excellent tips on recovering from long haul flights. I would add get some significant exercise as soon as possible after arrival. It definitely resets my internal clock to sleep well at the local night time.

    1. You’re right Sue. My strategy is, on the first day, to do what I have to do to be near exhaustion before I go to bed. That way, there’s a better chance that I’ll sleep through until morning. This takes some determination of course, but it works best for me. Also, no matter how sleepy I get on the second day, I don’t nap. Usually, after a couple of days, I’m good to go. ~James

  11. I’ve only experienced jetlag once, when I went from Melbourne to London. My friend forced me to stay awake until 7:30pm… keeping my eyes open until then was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do!
    Loving your blog, by the way. I’ve been rummaging around. 🙂

    1. Hi Frogdancer, It sounds like your friend had the right idea, but I know how hard it can be. On my very first trip abroad the jet lag nearly killed me.
      I’m enjoying your blog, too. We’re big believers in FIRE, but doing it as a single mother with 4 boys takes a very special person. Congrats! Your story is so uplifting.
      All the best, Terri

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