There is no end to the complaints about air travel. Delayed and canceled flights, cramped planes, extra fees, long security lines. There’s plenty to be grumpy about.
But nothing makes me more out of sorts than landing in a foreign country at dawn after an overnight flight in which sleeping sitting up was the only option for shut-eye. My internal clock says bedtime, please, but it’s time for the workday to start in Rome, Paris, London and Athens. If you’re flying even farther, say Asia or the South Pacific, you'll really be out of whack.
So over the years, I’ve figured out the best way to handle jet lag â the medical term is desynchronosis â is to keep moving. Oh, and to get over being grumpy since travel is one of the coolest activities on the planet.
Before I land, I already have a plan to get to my hotel, be it by taxi, bus or train. If I don’t have local currency, I stop at an airport exchange kiosk to get a few euros, or whatever, to pay for the transportation. (More and more taxis take credit cards, but I don’t like to chance that.) Lately, I’ve been keeping some foreign currency so that I have a little stash for next time.
Since it’s too early to get into my room, which is just as well because the bed will be mighty tempting, I check in and leave my suitcase with the front desk. Most hotels will tag the bags and store them in a locked room. I’ve never had any problems.
Next, I have a conversation with the concierge or someone at guest services. I am looking for a map and some ideas about local museums and transportation. I have guidebooks and have studied maps, but it’s helpful to get advice from a local. For instance, in Amsterdam last fall, the concierge helped me figure out the tram system and suggested that if the line to get into the newly reopened and very popular Rijksmuseum was short that we should get in it.
“If the line is long, go to the Van Gogh Museum first,” he said.
No line at the Rijksmuseum, so we took in our fill of Vermeer paintings and more for a couple of hours, then went to the Van Gogh. I made the crucial mistake of sitting down to watch a short film of the artist’s life. It was dark and warm, and before long I got an elbow in the ribs from my husband.“You’re snoring,” he said. Time to get moving.
My formula on the first day: fresh air, coffee, a museum or two and a meal somewhere along the way. The goal is to stay awake until at least dark, hopefully later, then crash and be refreshed for the next day. I don’t want to waste any time.
When I am traveling by myself, I'll take a half-day city bus tour the first day to get the lay of the land. These tours give me an idea of places I want to return to. For instance, in London I was good with my brief glimpse of Royal Albert Hall but knew I should spend more time at Westminster Abbey.
In Paris, a walk through the Tuileries Garden is a lovely way to get acclimated to the main tourist attractions of the city. The famed Louvre museum is at one end, the Champs-Elysess at the other, and the arty Left Bank is on one side, the chic Right Bank on the other.
Florence, Italy, is a wonderful walking city, and if the eye-popping and whimsical architecture of Antoni Gaudi doesn’t wake you up in Barcelona, not much will.
When I hit the bed that first night, I really am a zombie, but I am happy knowing I’ve not wasted one moment.
I asked some other travel writers their tricks on fighting jet lag. Here are their tips.
John DiScala, editor in chief of JohnnyJet.com, a travel information website:
“The best way to combat jet lag is to get on the local schedule as soon as possible. As much as we all want to check into our hotel room and take a nap, it’s probably the worst thing you can do. I start the day before I fly by going to bed early, and the moment I get on the plane I set my clocks to local time. I then try to sleep and eat as they would at my destination.
“When I arrive at the destination and my room isn’t available, I leave my belongings with the bellman – I make sure they lock my computer bag in a closet. I will ask if there’s a day room to take a shower and then I go out.
“The trick to beating jet lag is to get as much natural light as possible. I also will try to take a quick nap, like 10 minutes on a public bench outside when it’s warm. If it’s cold and rainy then it’s difficult. Or if I am in my room, I don’t get under the covers for a nap – I do it on top of the sheets and set an alarm. Otherwise I would sleep all day and then I would be ruined for the week.”
Janet Fullwood, California travel writer and contributor to Travel Stories From Around the Globe (Bay Area Travel Writers, 2012):
“If you can afford it, reserve the hotel room for the night before your arrival and let the hotel know you won’t be there until morning. A hot shower and soft bed will be waiting.
“Request an early check-in at the time of booking, and follow up the day before departure with a reminder email. Ask for a day room if your reserved room won’t be ready until later. You'll be pleasantly surprised at how often this works!
“If you’re the workout type, head for the hotel gym (or spa), get your blood flowing and rejuvenate with a hot shower before heading out. If your destination hotel is a resort with a beach or pool, you’re in luck. Take a wakeup dip, grab a lounge chair in the shade and catch some z’s.
“Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Overnight flights are not just exhausting, they’re dehydrating. Whatever your destination, your body will adjust and your energy will build faster if you drink lots of water upon arrival.”
Sandi McKenna, co-host of the Internet travel show Midlife Road Trip (midliferoadtrip.tv), based in Tampa:
“I drink a lot of water. That is my cure for everything. Then, I keep moving. I don’t sleep well on planes so I am usually tired, and if I sit down, I will most likely fall asleep.
“On a recent trip to Barcelona, we had six or seven hours between the time we landed and when our room was ready. We dropped our bags at the hotel, walked around town, did some shopping, ate some lunch.
“My favorite thing to do above all else is walk around town. See what’s going on. Depending where I am, I enjoy riding the double decker on-off sightseeing bus. It gives you a great vantage point and much needed fresh air on a nice day.
“I usually plan for an early dinner on the first night in a different time zone and then turn in early to wake up refreshed and ready to roll the next day.
“The best tip I can give anyone about jet lag is to ignore it. Don’t give in to it or you will sleep your holiday away.”
Christopher Elliott, travel ombudsman for Conde Nast Traveler and syndicated columnist:
“The early arrival is not an ideal situation. I try to find a non-strenuous activity, like a museum, to visit to kill time. It’s really difficult with kids because they just want to sleep. The only workaround is an early check-in, which many hotels do offer.”
Wendy Lyn, Paris food guide and editor of thepariskitchen.com:
“Before I leave, I prebook a fantastic spa within a mile walking distance (of the hotel), and make sure to have a fresh change of clothing in my carry-on in case my luggage is delayed. So when I land and can’t check in, I give my bags to the hotel and then walk for some fresh air to the spa.
“Not only do the facial and massage work wonders on my skin and tired muscles but a brief (not extended) nap keeps me going. Afterward, I shower with their fabulous products (I didn’t have to pack in 3-ounce bottles for the carry-on), put on clean clothes and head out to a local lunch spot with an outdoor terrace for more fresh air and people-watching.”