On long flights and jet lags

I took my first 20+ hour long flight when I was 16 years old. Since then, I have been on countless long flights, traveling to 6 continents so far. The longest flight I have ever taken was 26 hours from Atlanta to Singapore. Having family in India, I go on the Atlanta – New Delhi route generally once a year. Often times, readers ask me, how I endure with those long flights, how do I kill time, and do I ever get jet lagged?

What to carry aboard?

To prepare for an upcoming long journey, I make sure I have a few basic essentials in my hand bag. A travel pillow, eye mask, Chapstick, hand lotion, mouth wash, and ear plugs are a must. I also carry a water bottle so I don’t have to call for the hostess every time my mouth is dry. To snack, I pack some dried fruits, nuts and granola bars. The high carb diet they serve on most airlines is not ideal for an inactive body, so I try not to eat most of what they serve. Its better to have a good meal before you get on the plane and munch on light snacks during the flight.

For entertainment, I carry a good book or two, fully charged IPad with magazines and books pre loaded on it, fully charged laptop and my IPhone (with my personal travel playlist) with double battery (called mophie) and noise cancellation ear buds. I also make a list of work related things I can do beforehand, such as reading and writing, so that I can be productive for at least as long as I have energy on the plane.

Eat, drink or sleep?

Many travelers tell me they drink lots of wine or pop in a pill so they can fall sleep for majority of the flight. My advice: you are setting yourself up for jet lag! The thin air on the plane makes your body dehydrate very quickly. If you drink alcohol, you will get a headache, probably a hangover, and not a relaxed sleep. Taking a sleeping pill will also make you very groggy after the flight. Most pills recommend you do not take them unless you can get a comfortable 8 hours of sleep. The economy seat is not an ideal place to sleep, and you will get disturbed frequently by babies crying, neighbors talking or your co passenger getting up to use the loo. So try to sleep “naturally” as much as you can.

Drink lots of water during your flight. If you must, have a glass of wine, but refrain from alcohol. I have not flown on any airline that pays particular attention to the dehydrating bodies of its passengers. Keep a bottle of water with you so you can sip on it whenever you are thirstry. I also add Vitamin C to my water to strengthen my immunity.

Skip every other meal served in air. During an 8-hour flight to Europe, the stewards will serve you 2 meals that would generally be bread loaded with cheese or pasta loaded with cheese. If you are flying 20 hours, you have barely moved around and are eating 4 high calorie meals. Many passengers eat on the plane purely out of boredom, that is why I recommend carrying healthy snacks. If you eat less during your journey, you will not feel the tight knots in your stomach once you arrive at your destination.

Is my time flying by?

Most airplanes are now equipped with personal television monitors and access to many music, movie, gaming and television channels. I encourage you to watch a movie or two during your flight, however don’t feel obligated to catch up on all the blockbusters you have missed out on. Just as at home, watching television can be quite addictive. Tell yourself you watch a movie and now it is bedtime.

I like to keep myself entertained by mixing watching movies, reading books, magazines and listening to music. Even if you spend an hour on each of these activities, and sleep for a few others, you will see that the time would fly by.

If you are awake, I recommend you get up once every hour and take a stroll down the isle of the aircraft to get the blood flowing. Go to the alley in the back and stand by for a few minutes, stretching your neck, arms and legs. This will help ease the tiredness and body aches you can get as a result of sitting in coach.

What time is it?

Once you get off your plane and check in to your hotel, your first instinct would be to crash on the bed you suddenly have a deep appreciation for, and doze off till the next sunrise. After you take care of basic hygiene (brushing your teeth, taking a shower, changing clothes), lie down for a nap. Make sure you change your clock and set up an alarm. Give myself no more than 3 hours to nap, if at all you need to and depending on the time zone you have arrived in. If you are at 5pm or later, avoid taking a nap. You must get into the new time zone right away to avoid jet lag. 

Next, go out and breathe fresh air. It is amazing what sun and air can do for you. Even if you are tired and don’t feel adventurous enough to leave your room, take a walk around your hotel, visit a park nearby, and soak in the scenes of the new place.

They say it takes 1 day for your body to adjust for every hour of time change. That means you will feel comfortable with a 12 hour time change after about 12 days. For most people, the vacation may be over by then. The best way to get over jet lag is not thing about your “old time zone.” You are her now, in Hong Kong or New Delhi and this is your new life. Remind yourself to eat your meals on time, sleep in the night and follow your regular routine as soon as you hit the new ground. If you follow my advice, you will never feel jet lagged again in your life!

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Sucheta Rawal

Sucheta is an award winning food and travel writer, who has traveled to over 90 countries across 7 continents. She is also the founder and editor of 'Go Eat Give' and author of 'Beato Goes To' series of children's books on travel.