I traveled 24 hours to get to Cape Town; here’s how I beat jet lag
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It’s becoming easier and easier to fly around the world nonstop.
Planes like the 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350 are expected to open up hundreds of new routes in the next decade that were not technically possible or economically feasible with previous generations of aircraft.
TPG’s senior aviation editor Ben Mutzabaugh recently took part in a Qantas test, flying nonstop from New York to Sydney for more than 19 hours.
That’s more time than most of us stay awake each day.
With all this nonstop globetrotting comes a problem that steamship travelers never had: jet lag.
It accompanied the advent of the jet age in 1958. We started hopping across time zones so fast that our bodies often can’t keep up.
It would take another eight years for this body-clock problem to get a name. On Feb. 13, 1966 the term “jet lag” was first used — in the Los Angeles Times, according to Air & Space magazine.
This month, I was lucky enough to join other TPG staffers in traveling to Cape Town, South Africa, as part of our continuing support for an amazing charity called PeaceJam. (You can read more about that trip here.)
To get from New York to Cape Town, I traveled for more than 24 hours. The trip home was 29 hours.
There’s only a six-hour time-zone shift between the cities, nothing like travel to Asia, but it’s enough to throw off anybody’s internal clock.
Every time I suffer from bad jet lag, I think back to the 1988 movie “Die Hard,” featuring Bruce Willis.
A businessman on a flight gives Willis’ character some advice: “Take off your shoes and your socks, then you walk around on the rug barefoot and make fists with your toes.”
The businessman swears by it.
“I know, it sounds crazy. Trust me, I’ve been doing it for nine years,” he tells Willis. “Yessir, better than a shower and a hot cup of coffee.”
This was probably a plotline designed to get the action hero barefoot, but it shows that we all have our own, unique routines. Here is mine:
Adjust time zones in advance
If you can shift your sleep a little bit each day leading up to a trip, it will help you immensely on the ground. If I’m heading to Europe or, for this trip, to South Africa, I try to wake up a bit earlier each day. I even go for an early-morning run and start resetting my body to the new destination.
It’s usually harder on the way home, but I’m writing this story from the flight home. It’s after midnight in Cape Town. I’ve been traveling for 12 hours already and want to go to sleep. But it’s only 6 p.m. back in New York and my flight doesn’t land for another 11 or 12 hours.
If I can force myself to stay up a bit longer, it will help prevent me from collapsing at the dinner table during my first day home.
A hot shower just helps me feel like myself.
When you are on the go for really long stretches of time, it’s nice to clean up and feel human again.
I’ll sometimes shower right before a long flight or right after it. Or both.
Ten minutes of hot water and a change of clothes can reset your frame of mind.
It isn’t always possible, I know, but after reading our guide to the best credit cards for lounge access, you will realize that it’s pretty easy to gain entry to a club with a nice shower.
I’ll also shower when arriving at my hotel. A few minutes in a nice fluffy robe and slippers doesn’t hurt too.
It’s not the carpet trick from “Die Hard,” but it does the job.
Hydrate and skip the wine
Airplanes are kept dry, in part, so the airframe won’t corrode. That doesn’t help our bodies.
Grab an aisle seat and drink water. Lots of it.
Water isn’t going to solve jet lag by itself, but dehydration will add to your fatigue.
At TPG we are all about reviewing the wine and champagne selections in business and first class. And by no means am I suggesting that you avoid drinking on planes. But don’t overdo it. The alcohol isn’t going to help keep you hydrated.
What’s worse than a really bad hangover? A really bad hangover paired with jet lag.
Fight the nap and get fresh air
If you arrive in the morning, try to get some breakfast and coffee and reset your clock.
Avoid napping. It might feel nice, but you will only pay for it the next day.
Next, get some natural light. Open the windows and shades. Go for a run.
On my Cape Town trip, I woke up and took my laptop to the pool. I had work to do but didn’t want to feel like I was, once again, typing away in some cookie-cutter hotel room. Sitting by the pool helped keep my body engaged.
The next day, my co-workers and I went for an early-morning hike at Table Mountain.
Our blood was flowing and we got plenty of sunlight and air. We felt excited to be somewhere new. It also helped us fall asleep that night.
Even if it is cold or rainy, venture out somewhere. Just keeping active will help your body adjust.
Ambien, melatonin and other sleep aids
I’m not a doctor. Each person should do what is right for their own body.
But I’ve started to use Ambien to help reset my clock faster. The problem usually isn’t falling asleep but staying asleep. That’s where drugs can help me slumber on a long flight or during my first night or two in a dramatically new time zone.
It’s not for everybody. If you take them too late, you end up groggy. You’ll need a little trial and error to find out how fast they kick in and how long the sleep lasts. Talk to your doctor.
Don’t shift for short trips
If I go to California or Europe for a night or two — not long enough but yes, this happens — I try to stay on my home time zone. It’s just easier.
Sure, I am up early (it’s a good excuse to go to the gym) and late dinners are a stretch, but I find that I’m much more productive for the rest of my week.
Plus, when I get home again, I’m able to jump right back into the action.
All photos by the author.
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