No jet lag

May 17 2008

An unusual thing has happened this week since my return from Europe on Tuesday night.  I've had basically no jet lag, four nights running.  Bedtime has been slightly on the early side (9-10 PM), as has wakeup (5-6 AM), but otherwise, it's been smooth sailing.

Customers and blog readers often ask about approaches to jet lag, and everyone has a different one.  For me, the main management components are melatonin, caffeine, and the sleep cycle.  

This was my third trip to Europe so far in 2008, with two more coming during the month of June.  Most flights from the US to Europe are overnight, and from Chicago, the duration is between seven and nine hours.  That's not really enough for a "good night's sleep" considering all factors, and for some of the earlier departures (3 PM out of Chicago, 6 AM into Germany), the body won't be ready to sleep anyway.  

Generally speaking, I start the flight with light reading or one movie during the meal service, take melatonin at the conclusion of the meal, and try to sleep four or five hours.  Sometimes I wake in time for breakfast, but no matter what class of service, airplane breakfast isn't really that interesting.  If I miss the in-flight second meal, I'll grab-and-go something takeaway at the arrival airport or connection.  Either way, I'll allow myself one shot of caffeine with the morning meal.  After a medical diagnosis a few weeks ago, I've been trying to cut back or eliminate liquid caffiene (coffee, Diet Coke, etc.), so just one "dose" is now more than enough to set all systems to high alert.  Then, the last step depends on timing and the destination.  If I've been fortunate enough to fly an airline/alliance where I have some status, I might seek out an "arrivals lounge" for a quick shower.  If not, it's time for the adrenaline to kick in.

Usually, the first day overseas is pretty easy to manage, because my schedule will be busy enough to not stop and think about jet lag.  I used to think it was important to go in a "day early" and get adjusted, but I've come to find that the second day is the hardest -- so that wasn't helpful.   On the first day, I'll try to take a walk before dinner, and if possible, make dinner a simple room service or nearby takeaway prospect.  In Istanbul, I met up with a colleague and we took the metro to Taksim Square, so it wasn't simple or quiet, but it wasn't the "on" pressure of a customer dinner, either.

While in Europe, I tend to stay awake later than I do when I am home.  Sometimes this is for conference calls with the US, sometimes this is because my schedule is packed, and sometimes it is just to be up long enough to call my daughter when she gets home from school.  Any which way, I certainly sleep less when I'm traveling, and somehow (with some adrenaline and caffeine) it works.

Jet lag is usually much harder for me to manage on the return to the US.  The end of the journey means no adrenaline boosts.  Most flights from Europe leave for Chicago before 2 PM, so if you are trying to mentally re-adjust to the home time zone, you're forced to get up and to the airport well before "normal" waking time.  Then there's the issue that the flight will land in the Chicago late in the afternoon or early in the evening, and by the time I get home, it will be close to "bed time" anyway.  Thus, I view the flight back to the US as an "awake" journey as much as possible.  Flying back this week, I only slept about 90 minutes out of a nine hour flight.  I worked, watched a movie, ate, and read a magazine.  The length of the flight never bothers me -- after ten years of this kind of travel, I've simply set the mental picture to expect a long flight and deal with it.  This seems to work regardless of which class of service I'm flying.

In this week's case, I left Athens at 13:55 EET, or roughly 6 AM Chicago time.  We landed on the connection around 8 PM Chicago time, and I was home at 9:15.  That's a pretty long day's travel, coupled with the fact that I had walked the Acropolis in Athens before flying.  Still, with just a few hours' sleep on those flights, I went to bed at 10:30 PM -- and, for a change, didn't take any melatonin on the home segment.  I slept pretty well, and had a great day on Wednesday.  In fact, I've not had to take any melatonin at all any of the four nights I've been back, and I've allowed myself just one can of Diet Coke per day on the caffeine side.

Everybody has their way of approaching international travel.  I've posted mine in the hopes that it helps at least one reader get past a fear of "long" flights and enjoy the opportunity to see the world.  For me, maybe the smart answer is to start planning to retire to Europe, where you can see some of the most incredible places by train or within flight lengths of just two or three hours.

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