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Tips for late night flights and jetlag

Blond woman sleeping on plane in biz class-featured image-PP

Learning how to best handle the pace of red-eye flights and get over jet lag quickly is a valuable tool to have in your travel pocket, so today I want to share some ideas so you are prepared for your future travels…

Tips for late night flights and jetlag

At this time of year when folks are preparing for their fall travels, or planning their trips for 2023 and beyond, traveling internationally often leads to having to take an overnight flight. I just flew to Ireland last month and am headed to Italy in three weeks, and with my busy travel schedule, I’m constantly looking for every little tweak to my travel system to make a red-eye flight as comfortable as possible. Whether you travel a little or a lot, tips to help you cope are always welcome.

Not only will you lose hours of refreshing sleep on a red eye, but you’ll also have to adjust to the time change at your destination. Before leaving, try to adjust your body clock. When traveling eastbound, wake up earlier and go to bed earlier than you normally would. Do the reverse when heading westbound.

Choose your seat wisely. The seats at the front tend to be the quietest spots on the plane. Try not to get a seat near the restrooms which will have a constant flow of people. If you pick a window seat, you’ll have something to lean against while you’re trying to sleep. Plus, a window seat means you won’t have a seatmate trying to climb over you to get to the restroom. Just be sure to keep your seatbelt fastened and visible (buckle it over the blanket) so the flight attendant doesn’t have to wake you up to make sure you’re safely buckled up.

Alternatively, if you have health issues and need to walk around to keep your circulation moving, or if you tend not to sleep on flight and like to get up more, an aisle seat is better.

Book later flights when possible. For some destinations you will have limited options and you have to go with what’s available. Other times you may have a range of flights to pick from – departing from Atlanta to Amsterdam on Delta, I can leave at 3:20pm, 5:30pm, 8:15pm or 10:40pm. Since I usually fly in a day or two ahead of a tour or a cruise, I’m not on a time schedule to arrive at the destination, so I’ll pick that later flight at 10:40pm. After they serve the meal, it will be around midnight, so I’m more likely to be tired and ready to sleep.

Part of this is a mind game – my rule is that once they close the door, I set my watch (yep, I’m old-fashioned that way – you can reset your cellphone) to the time of my destination and start thinking in those terms. If it’s 8pm in Atlanta, and it’s 2am in my destination, I start thinking how tired I am to be up so late. Since the airline will likely be serving dinner, I just think back to college days when we had late night food runs and imagine I’m just eating a late-night snack and need to get to sleep since it’s already 2am.

Prepare for sleep. Pack your carry-on bag with items that will help you get some shuteye, like earplugs or noise-canceling headphones, a neck pillow and comfortable socks. Even if the cabin lights are turned down, an eye mask can help by blocking out light from a row mate’s video screen. Some airlines provide them, and others don’t, so it’s always a good idea to pack that eye mask. Remember that planes tend to be cold, so bring a jacket. If you have room in your carry-on bag, toss in a small blanket in case you don’t get one on the plane, or to avoid paying for one if the airline charges a fee. I fly Delta usually and they leave a blanket and pillow in the seat, so I’ve started taking an empty tote bag to put them in to keep them clean while storing under the seat in front of me until I’m ready to use them.

Eat and drink wisely. While I’m trying to share various tips, I have to confess there are some I just don’t follow, like the one that says you should avoid alcohol and caffeine before and during the flight – I’m going to be two-fisted with my diet coke and white wine no matter what they say, but maybe it will work for you.

The pressurized airplane cabin can leave you a little dehydrated, so buy a large bottle of water at the gate and try to sip it throughout your flight. Eye drops and lip balm can help your face from drying out. Try to eat a healthy meal before you board. Avoid spicy foods that can cause an upset stomach, or meals that are overly processed and salty that may make you feel bloated or dehydrated during the flight.

My opinion is that airplane breakfasts are the worst, so I tell the stewardess not to wake me up for breakfast so I can get more sleep. I’ll carry a granola bar in my bag to eat if I won’t have a chance to get a good breakfast once I’m off the plane.

Dressing for comfort is important, too. Soft cotton pants and a sweater are a better choice than more structured outfits that are uncomfortable and will look rumpled after hours of sitting during a long flight. I always wear the same thing – my Chico’s traveler outfit that is so comfy and looks good too. Be sure to have a toiletry bag readily at hand with all of the items you use to get ready in the morning, like a toothbrush, mouthwash, deodorant and a hairbrush. You can stop at the rest room in the baggage claim area and brush your teeth and freshen up – you’ll feel better, and it gets you more in the frame of mind of the beginning the day.

Prepare for a good day in your destination. Try to eat a protein-rich breakfast and go light on the carbs and sugar. If possible, take a brisk walk to get the blood flowing and reset your body clock. Depending on your schedule, getting out in the fresh air, whether you are walking around town or riding on the top of a hop-on, hop-off bus, can be a great way to adjust to your new destination and feel ready for the day.

Avoid the nap. Most folks will want to take a nap by the time afternoon comes around but avoid the urge. Find activities to keep you enjoying sunlight and fresh air or find some local sightseeing that is very engaging. Then have an early dinner around 6pm or so, and head to bed around 8:30pm or 9pm. You should have a solid sleep if you avoided the nap, and you can wake up refreshed and adjusted to the new time zone.

Practice these tips on your next trip and let me know if you come up with any new ones to help you get over the jet lag quickly so you can get straight into enjoying your trip.