Coping with transatlantic jetlag: flying between North America and Europe
Tips fashioned mostly from the science of sleep and jetlag. They work for me: I hope they do for you too.
Europe to North America
This direction’s easy. Flights are usually in the daytime, and the time difference stretches time. You force yourself to stay up until a sensible bedtime the evening after you arrive, stay in bed overnight with your eyes shut even if you wake early, and get yourself up at a getting-up time the next morning. You’ll struggle to stay awake that first evening. But that’s all it takes.
Change your watch and mobile phone clock to your destination time zone before your flight leaves, to start getting your head into the new time. Getting some sleep in the early part of your flight, especially the hours that are still night-time in your destination time zone, may help, and you could use melatonin (on which, more below) for that.
North America to Europe
This is tough — and is what this article’s about. Your watch goes forward around eight hours (if West Coast to Western Europe) and your brain doesn’t. You spent the night on the plane, but the darkness is eerily short. And the night after you land you’re tired but you can’t sleep. It can take days to recover — days you want to spend enjoying European things.
But, with a little discipline, you can feel ok from when you step off the plane, sleep restfully, and experience little in the way of jetlag. Here’s how.
Pack the following in your carry-on luggage (i.e. don’t check these things in):
- Melatonin. It works. There’s probably no increase in effectiveness above 5 mg. In North America, versions with no animal products are readily available and cheap. (In the UK melatonin is, oddly, a prescription-only medication.)
- Glasses: if you have those lenses that subtly filter blue light (often sold to people who use screens a lot) or sunglasses, bring them.
- Eye mask. It’s worth getting a good one. I’m a fan of these.
- Neck pillow, if you like them.
- Toothbrush (etc.).
- SAD light (or ‘light box’, for seasonal mood symptoms): I’m not sure I’d suggest buying one especially for this but, if you have a portable one, bring it. Most transatlantic aircraft now have passenger power sockets that take UK, European and North American plugs.
- Dinner: you’re not going to be eating airplane food on this flight. Either plan to buy dinner at the airport or bring it with you. (Remember that you won’t get through security with a container of more than 100 ml of liquid.)
Make a note of the boarding time, flight departure time, and any other important times in the time zone of your destination.
Your task now is to start thinking and behaving as if you’re in your new time zone as soon as you can, and long before you get on the plane. I start as soon as I’m through airport security.
Change your watch and your phone to the destination time zone. (You’ll need to switch off the phone setting that allows it to update its time zone automatically. Later you’ll switch this back on.)
Now pay attention to these new times. Start thinking of the time as being the time in your new time zone. Once it’s dark in your new time zone, wear your blue-filter glasses or sunglasses and keep away from daylight — bright airport windows — as best you can. Look at your watch and tell yourself “Right, it’s 8 pm,” or whatever time it is where you’re going.
You need to be careful not to get confused about times and miss your flight — but you’ve already made a note of the relevant times, so you should be ok. Avoid thinking about the local time if you can.
Eat dinner. Why? Because you want to bring your body’s clock forward as soon as you can, and to get as much sleep as you can — which mean going to sleep as soon as possible after getting on the plane. Waiting for an airplane dinner to be delivered and then cleared away screws this up. I usually allow enough time to have a good, filling meal in an airport restaurant, but you might eat food you’ve brought with you.
Go to an airport bathroom and brush your teeth, so you’re ready to sleep.
Take a melatonin tablet, so long as you don’t have a long wait for departure. If you do, you could take it as you board the plane.
Wait in the darkest spot at the gate, with your sunglasses or blue-filter glasses on, doing something restful, like reading. Do any other night-time rituals that you associate with sleep, either in the airport or as soon as you can after boarding.
On the flight
Your aim is to get to sleep as soon as you can and get as much sleep as you can. Airplane meals and films are the enemy. On this flight, they’re for other people.
I generally stow my luggage, tell the cabin crew that I won’t be eating and don’t want to be disturbed for anything other than a medical emergency, take my shoes off, switch my phone to airplane mode, and then do something restful like listening to music (not playing with my mobile phone) until the seatbelt sign is switched off (which is usually soon after take-off).
You probably won’t be allowed to close your window’s blind while the aircraft taxis and takes off (it’s a safety thing), so wear your sunglasses or blue-filter glasses, or your eye mask.
As soon as the seatbelt sign is switched off, put your seat back as far as it will go, get yourself comfortable with a blanket and pillow (or whatever you like), don your eye mask if it’s not already on, and ignore anything you can hear going on around you.
I don’t fall asleep asleep as easily in this situation as I do at home, and I wake repeatedly. This is ok. Getting bothered about not sleeping stops you from sleeping. The best attitude is to accept whatever happens. If you can’t sleep, no problem: treating it like it’s night helps, I think, even if you don’t get a lot of sleep. Rest with your eyes closed. Research suggests that we spend more time asleep than we think we do. Don’t do things you wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) do in the middle of the night at home: don’t touch your phone. If you open your eyes for a bit, close them again after a few minutes and set yourself up as best you can for sleep. Pay no attention to people around you who are chatting about the airplane dinner they’re eating. Their next few days are going to be harder than yours.
When to stop sleeping (or resting)? When it’s waking-up time in your destination. You could set an alarm but, unless you can sleep anywhere, you probably won’t need it. I’m often woken by the breakfast service. Get yourself up, put your seat back in the upright position, as they say, go to the loo, stretch, perhaps wash your face, have some breakfast if you feel like it, and pay attention to the time at your destination.
If you have a SAD light, switch it on on the plane for a bit, once your destination time is daytime.
And, while your phone’s in airplane mode, you can switch on the feature on your phone that allows it to update its time zone. But, if you have a connecting flight, do that only on the flight that takes you to your final time zone.
At your destination
Your job now is to stick to your new time zone. This may take a bit of determination if, for example, you’re hit by overwhelming tiredness at lunchtime on your first or second day and there’s nothing stopping you from lying down and having a nap. Don’t succumb. If you push through it, and especially if you can distract yourself — go for a walk if you can — it’ll likely pass within an hour or two. It’s worth the effort.
Take a melatonin tablet at night for the first few nights, going to bed and getting up at times that are right for your new time zone.
Use your SAD light in the mornings if you have one. More importantly, get out during daylight as much as you can. Take regular exercise. Eat and drink well, and at sensible times.
With this approach and just a little effort to push through some wrongly-timed sleepy spells, those first few days should be close to normal for you, and you should sleep well. It works! Let me know how you get on.