For solo travelers, jet lag is more than a nuisance- it can be a safety issue.
As I have navigated jet lag time and time again as a solo traveler, I’ve picked up a few tricks for thriving despite being plopped into a new time zone with a body accustomed to the sleep/wake cycle of my previous location.
“Jet lag is caused mainly by inappropriate timing of the body clock in the new time zone.”The Lancet Medical Journal
How to Avoid (or Get Over) Jet lag as a Solo Traveler
In this article, I review tips I’ve learned as a solo traveler for managing my time, travel, and sleep in order to minimize jet lag. Through these tips for getting over jet lag during solo travel, I’m able to enjoy more of my trip and stay alert enough to keep myself safe through the many challenges of traveling alone.
Prime your Sleep Schedule before you Leave
Sleeping on the road can be challenging for many of us, and sleeping in a hostel has unique challenges. You can improve your post-jet-lag sleep by beginning a gentle transition to your destination’s time zone before you leave your origin location.
If you have the time and luxury to adjust your sleep schedule forward or backward by about 90 minutes a day until you’re waking and sleeping according to the time in your destination, this is the most effective way to ensure that you arrive at your destination bright-eyed during daylight, and ready to sleep at night.
Start shifting your schedule early by waking up earlier and going to bed earlier (or, if the time zone is a little closer in the other direction, waking up later and going to bed later.)
Even if you aren’t able to totally transition to the new time zone before you leave, a small effort will pay off in big dividends: exploring and enjoying your trip on Day 1 is a great reward for pre-priming your sleep schedule to avoid jet lag.
Never Nap on the First Day of Jet Lag
Some solo travelers suffer from jet lag for days after arriving in a country. Usually, prolonged jet lag is the result of napping.
When you’re so tired it’s hard to function, it’s normal to want to nap. The desire to nap after navigating international travel and a time zone shift is natural, but the fastest way to adapt to a dramatically different time zone is to stay up until dusk in the new time zone. Although this can be difficult, it pays off when you wake up the following morning refreshed and ready for a full day of exploring a new city.
How to stay awake on the first day of travel when you are jet-lagged:
- book a van, bus, or train tour for the first day
- cafe-hop to get a feel for the city.
Hack your Flight for Sleep
Long flights can be miserable- so miserable that I created a survival guide for long flights. One of the best ways to get though a long flight is by blissfully snoozing it away. By booking night flights, you may be able to schedule in a few hours of sleep that will help in the transition to a new time zone. Those precious few hours of sleep can seriously improve your capacity to enjoy the first day of your vacation.
Sleeping on flights can be tricky, and realistically, it’s not possible for every body. To improve your chances of sleeping on a plane, wear comfortable clothing, pack a travel pillow, and invest in an airplane foot hammock.
Travelers who struggle to sleep on planes may want to consult their physician about prescription sleep aids. Although for some they can be too powerful for safe use by some solo travelers, for others (including myself) the help of a prescription sleep aid is just enough to get me a few hours sleep at a critical time. This sleep helps me be a safer solo traveler who is able to be fully alert- and not sleep deprived- when I arrive in my destination.
Adapt Mealtimes to the New Time Zone Immediately
If you boarded a flight from your home country in the evening and flew all night, your body may be hungry for breakfast on arrival. Alternately, if you arrived in your destination country at 2 am local time, you may be craving food from the meal your body expects based on your home country’s time. Hacking your sleep to avoid jet lag can be accomplished, at least partially, through hacking your eating habits.
Immediately upon arrival as a solo traveler, begin eating meals according to the local time and custom. Although sleep can be hard to force when you aren’t tired (or to avoid when you are exhausted), when and what we eat for meals is far more in our control. And, as sleep tends to follow our eating patterns, the sleepiness of jet lag can be minimized through adjusting your meals.
Stay Awake to Beat Jet Lag
By far the most effective (though, arguably, the most unpleasant) way to beat Jet Lag is to simply stay awake. Despite tiredness, or how long we’ve been awake, staying awake until dusk in our destination country is a reliable, consistent way to beat jet lag and wake up on the first full day of our solo trip well-rested, alert, and able to enjoy our travel day.
NOTE: Don’t dissociate from your body to do this. Sleep-deprived brains are brains that make mistakes that can be expensive or even dangerous. Listen to your body’s cues and, as much as you are able, stay in safe, predictable environments for your first day if you are extremely fatigued.
Safe ideas for a travel day of extreme jet lag include relaxing poolside at a hotel or booking a ride on a motor-powered city tour, for a low-key introduction to your destination.
Human bodies are naturally diurnal. Within our brains is a deep, automatic drive to be awake during daylight hours and asleep during the hours of darkness. One of the best ways to stay awake even when we are sleep-deprived isn’t caffeine- it’s sunlight.
Sunlight (and some argue dawn in particular) is a powerful signal to our brain that “it’s time to be awake, and not to sleep.” Whether it’s taking a walk in the sun or enjoying dawn from an airport terminal’s windows, exploding a jet-lagged body to sunlight can reenergize and reset our internal clock.
Final Thoughts on Jet Lag as an Experienced Solo Traveler
With the average length of time it takes to get over jetlag running about 48-72 hours, and the average American’s vacation is under 7 days, jet lag has the potential to seriously cut into time spent exploring and enjoying your vacation. Avoiding jetlag so that you can have fun and be alert to your surroundings (essential to solo travel safety) is important whether you’re on a Solo Trip to Seattle or around the globe.
Lynli Roman’s unique approach to travel is informed by decades of experience on the road with a traveling family and, later, years spent as a solo international traveler. When she’s not writing about Seattle from her Pike Place Market apartment, Lynli writes on-location while conducting hands-on research in each destination she covers. Lynli’s writing has been featured by MSN, ABC Money, Buzzfeed, and Huffington Post. She is passionate about sharing information that makes travel more accessible for all bodies.