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How to Avoid Jet Lag and Sleep Easily on Planes

The simplest way to beat jet lag.

Flying is only really fun for the pilots. For the rest of us the novelty of being airborne wears off rapidly. An extended flight becomes an hours-long elbow jousting competition, fighting for territory on the armrest while counting down the hours until you can stretch out your legs without having to dodge food carts. When you arrive, if the distance was far enough, jet lag puts you in a haze for days or weeks at a time.

Feeling dazed and sleepy for a fortnight is annoying on its own, but after being trapped in a middle seat for 14 hours on the way to Hong Kong, I decided that enough was enough. I had to learn to sleep on planes, and I had to figure out a way to overcome jet lag. I tried out plenty of ideas I found online but none were sufficient. I already drink enough water. I know that I should set my alarm to wake up in the morning at my destination. I already get plenty of vitamins. No way in heck am I mixing sleeping pills and alcohol to pass out on the plane.

I experimented a bit and eventually developed my own technique. It’s simple to do and absolutely free. As per most of my travel tips, it seems counter-intuitive at first but the reasoning is sound.

The method? Major sleep deprivation. I refuse to sleep for one or two nights before a flight. This solves both of my problems in one stroke.

For sleeping on planes, being exhausted is absolutely wonderful. Bored? Tired? Uncomfortable? After being awake for 30 or 40 hours straight, all you have to do is put your head down and you’ll sleep for three hours. Wake up, watch a movie, put your head down again and you’re out for three more. This makes a 16 hour flight feel like four.

For fighting jet lag, this method helps to fight the root cause. Jet lag stems from your circadian rhythms, i.e. your body clock, being unable to change rapidly. As your body responds to waking up and going to sleep on a completely new schedule, it is common to feel groggy or numb until the process is completed. My goal pre-arrival is to totally discombobulate my circadian rhythms so that my body is ready to latch onto whatever new sleep schedule I give it. For this, sleep deprivation is surprisingly effective. This week I made a 13-hour time zone change, from the US to South Korea. Since Day 1 in-country I’ve been able to get up at 7 a.m. and get a solid eight hours of sleep without issue. Am I tired during the day? A bit, but hardly enough to even merit a nap. This is a significant improvement on the day-wrecking and sleep-interrupting jet lag I used to experience in the past.

As a final word of note, there are some obvious drawbacks to this method. You will be tired during the days before your flight and your brain will continue to be foggy until you get a full night’s sleep at the destination. Don’t go this route if you have to drive yourself to the airport, for example, or if you don’t have a clear and safe route planned to get to your lodgings upon arrival. A sleep traveler is a very easy one to take advantage of.

Filed under: Air Travel, Travel Tips

About the Author:

Tristan Hicks is a compulsive traveler who believes that travel and “real life” can be one and the same. He has combined working and studying with his long-term travels, living in the seven countries to date and traveling in dozens more. He is currently on the road. has written 18 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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  • Wade | VagabondJourney.com April 27, 2014, 11:22 pm

    Yes, I agree completely. I’ve never had jet lag in all my travels. Not once, ever had I experienced this phenomenon that so many complain about. I just get on the plane and go to sleep, when I arrive I jump into the local schedule. One of the reasons why I’m able to do this that I didn’t previously consider was highlighted in this article. In the days leading up to a big flight I often sleep very little. This was never by design. I don’t really plan my travels, and I rarely even pack until the night before I leave a place. This often leaves me running around with too many things to do in the days before departure, and I sleep very little with the plan of making it all up on the flight. This works.

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    • tristanbul April 28, 2014, 2:55 am

      Exactly. Even if I have other things to accomplish in the days leading up to a flight, I’ll always save the packing for the night before. The first few times someone heads abroad, it’s best to follow a strict packing list and triple-check that you have everything, then experiment with packing styles in advance. But once you’ve gone abroad a few times, packing is no biggie anymore and doing it the night before just seems like the best option. Plus, it keeps you awake so you can fight jet lag more easily.

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