Today’s Travel Spot represents a somewhat new direction for the Coffee Spot. Traditionally, I’ve written about coffee/coffee shops in my main posts, or about my specific travels in the Travel Spot posts. Today represents the first time that I’ve written about a general travel subject: jet lag.
Normally when I write about my flying, I stick to the actual experience. However, criss-crossing the globe has its downsides, one of which is the crushing tiredness that is jet lag. I’ve never been as tired as when I’m suffering from jet lag (caveat: I’ve never had children, so cannot compare my experiences to having a new-born in the house).
I’ve been suffering from jet lag on my current trip to Shanghai, which is what prompted me to write this piece. Like all my Travel Spots, it’s about my subjective experiences: the times when I’ve had jet lag, what causes it and what I do (sometimes not very successfully) to avoid it. If this one is well received, then I might write more occasional posts like this.
You can read more of my thoughts after the gallery.
The worst jet lag I have ever experienced was also my first experience of jet lag. I flew to America for the first time in 1998 and the flight over wasn’t too bad. At the end of my trip, I flew back from Boston, catching the day-time flight (which, I’m pleased to say, has made a comeback in the last year or so). This left Boston early in the morning and arrived in the UK late in the evening. Given a rough seven-hour flight time, plus a five-hour time difference, if you leave at eight in the morning, you’ll arrive at eight in the evening.
I thought, at the time, that it would be better than flying overnight, since it meant that I would be getting up early in Boston, spending a relatively normal time awake, and then going to bed at a sensible time in the UK. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, I had the theory right, I just messed up the execution. I got home fine and went to bed about midnight. Foolishly, I failed to set an alarm and woke up at three o’clock the following afternoon, a mere 15 hours later! The following night, I managed about two hours sleep and that was the pattern for the next two weeks as I slowly managed to get myself back to normal. On alternate nights I’d sleep okay, but wake up really tired, then the following night I’d struggle to get any sleep at all.
I learnt an important lesson though, which is to always set an alarm and, no matter how tired you are, to get up in the following morning after what would be a normal amount of sleep for you. This strategy served me well for the next 10 years of transatlantic flying and I avoided any significant jet lag until 2008, when I took my first trip to Hong Kong.
This was my first long-haul flight to Asia and my longest to date (before that, the longest flight I’d taken had been to San Francisco, a mere 11 hours). The flight to Hong Kong takes around 12 hours, leaving in the evening, UK time, and arriving mid-afternoon Hong Kong time. Back then, I was flying economy and wasn’t particularly looking forward to the flight, especially since I can’t sleep sitting down due to blood clotting issues (well, I can sleep sitting down, it’s just not a very good idea!).
So I spent the entire 12 hours of the fight awake and, by the time I got to my hotel, I was ridiculously tired. However, I stuck to my plan and forced myself to stay awake until bedtime, at which point I’d been awake for something approaching 24 hours (the longest I’ve been without sleep was 30 hours when I flew to Japan for the first time).
I got a reasonable night’s sleep, woke up at a sensible hour the following day and, I felt, had done quite a good job at avoiding jet lag. I spent that day exploring the city, then went to bed as normal that night. The problems came the following morning when I woke up with a sore throat and raging headache, having caught one of the worst colds of my life on the flight over. I went down to breakfast, but I felt so rough that afterwards I decided to go back to my room and have a short lie down before going out to explore.
The next thing I knew it was three o’clock in the afternoon, and the hotel staff were knocking on my door, wondering if I wanted my room to be made up that day. And that was it. My sleep was ruined for the rest of the trip. Each night, I’d get to about 10 o’clock and be exhausted, so I’d go to sleep. Then, come two or three on the morning, I’d be wide awake again. If I was lucky, I might drift off after three or four sleepless hours, only to have to wake up the following morning a couple of hours later.
Things slowly got better, night-by-night, until, after a week, I managed to sleep the whole night through. Naturally it was my last night there. The following morning, I was off to the airport for my flight home.
You can read about more of my experiences, including how I (usually) avoid jet lag, after the gallery.
Other than the two experiences outlined above, in 20 years of flying, I’ve managed to avoid bad bouts of jet lag. For me, the trick is to force myself onto local time as soon as I arrive and then ensure that I get up at a sensible hour the following day.
Until I started my current job, most of my flying was between the UK and the USA and always in economy. I rarely had any problems flying out to America and, generally speaking, flying from east to west is far easier than flying west to east. Leaving the UK mid-afternoon (my preferred departure time) means getting up at a sensible hour, then staying up a few hours longer when I arrive, before going to bed somewhere between 10 o’clock and midnight, depending on whether I’m heading to the east coast (later bedtime) or west coast (earlier). Then I get up the following day and am fine. The worst I’ve had is feeling a little tired for a day or two.
Coming back is a little trickier. Not long after my first flight to the US, the daytime flight from Boston was cancelled, so I generally flew back overnight, usually from the east coast or Chicago, although my general routine served me well even on the two occasions I flew from the west coast. I’d try to fly relatively late in the day, which meant that I could get up as normal, often getting in a few day-time activities in before heading to the airport. Then I’d fly overnight, staying awake the whole time (at best I might doze for an hour or two) before arriving in the UK the following morning. Then it was simply (easier said than done!) a case of staying awake until bed time. Normally the day of my arrival would be a write-off, but by the following day, I’d be reasonably okay: tired, but functioning.
In the last couple of years, I’ve started flying business class for work, which, after 20 years in the back of the plane, is a pretty nice experience. However, it’s not made much difference when it comes to jet lag, because, for me, jet lag isn’t about missing out on sleep during the flight, it’s all about not adjusting to the local time zone when you get there. Now, that’s not to say I don’t enjoy the perks of flying business class, and being able to sleep on night time flights is far preferable than forcing myself to stay awake in an economy seat. It just hasn’t made that much of a difference to how I cope with jet lag.
Going over to America is much the same whether I fly business or economy simply because I’m flying during the day, so I’m never trying to sleep (although one of my pet peeves is when the cabin crew turn all the lights off and force everyone to close the window blinds when it’s the middle of the afternoon: I hate that!). On the way back, it’s handy being able to get some sleep on the flight, although often the flight isn’t really long enough to make it worthwhile.
Flying out of east coast cities such as Boston or New York, the flight time can be as little as six hours, while on my recent flight from Chicago, we were only in the air for seven hours. However, that was long enough to give me four hours sleep, which, it turned out, was long enough to stave off the worst of the tiredness the following day. Even coming back from Phoenix, which in theory is a 10-hour flight, flight times can be as short as 8½ hours.
However, business class really comes into its own when flying between the UK and the Far East, although even then, there’s no guarantee I’ll avoid jet lag, as you’ll see after the gallery.
Including my current trip, I’ve visited China three times, Japan three times and Vietnam and Thailand once each in the past 2½ years. Most of the time, I’ve flown business class to and from the UK, but I flew to Vietnam in economy, while my first trip to Japan was done in economy there and back. In contrast, my first trip to China was part of a round-the-world trip, flying east-to-west, while last year I visited Tokyo as part of a west-to-east round-the-world-trip. And finally, my current trip is also part of a west-to-east round-the-world-trip, which saw me fly from Manchester (UK) to Manchester (New Hampshire), and then from Boston to Shanghai, where I am now.
The flights from the UK to the Far East are the hardest I’ve done. In particular, flying to Bangkok and to Tokyo involve leaving the UK in the afternoon and arriving early in the morning the following day, leaving a whole day to stay awake, which I found tough, even though I had slept on the plane. Even worse was flying to Vietnam, where I had similar problems, and, since I was flying economy, I didn’t even have the chance to sleep on the plane. And, of course, in each case I was flying from west to east, which, as I’ve explained, is far worse for jet lag.
In contrast, flying back means going from east to west and tends to involve flying through the day, so I don’t need to sleep. That said, when I flew back from Vietnam, I left in the early hours of the morning, which will also be the case when I go home at the end of this trip. The good news is that I haven’t had a problem with jet lag after any of those flights home (all seven of them). The bad news is that I have had quite serious jet lag on three of my flights out, including this one, where I’ve been struggling all week.
Now, you would think that if I was going to have jet lag, it would be on the trips where I flew economy, or when I arrived early in the morning, but that’s not the case. On all my trips, I’ve been flying for work, attending meetings that run from Monday or Tuesday to the end of the week. My general strategy for these is to fly out as a minimum the weekend before, flying on Thursday or Friday, so I arrive on Friday/Saturday morning. Then I have the weekend as a minimum to get myself into the correct time zone before I have to go into the meeting.
However, on three occasions, my second trip to China, my visit to Thailand and this trip, prior commitments have meant that I’ve had to fly just before the meeting, arriving the day before the meeting starts. And guess what? Those are the three trips where I’ve had bad jet lag…
The problem is not with the flights themselves, but with the fact that I’ve not been able to properly adjust to local time. Although my strategy has always been to go to bed at a reasonable hour and then get up the following morning at a sensible time, flying out to the Far East is tough and I invariably don’t sleep well on the first night. Therefore, being able to take it easy on the first couple of days is vital to getting myself on track. In contrast, having to be up and functioning at eight o’clock on the morning after my arrival is really, really tough.
My current trip is an excellent example. I flew from Boston to Shanghai, leaving Boston on Sunday afternoon and arriving in Shanghai on Monday evening. I was flying from east to west, so it shouldn’t have been too bad, plus I got about six hours sleep on the plane. However, it was far from fine. I woke up at four o’clock each morning, failed to get back to sleep, then had to get up at seven o’clock each morning, which left me crushingly tired come evening each day. It’s no coincidence that I’m writing this on Saturday, the first day when I could lie-in until 08:30 and then have a lazy morning, and I feel so much better for it.
So, there you have it. If you want to avoid jet lag, don’t go into meetings the day after you arrive in your destination!
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