There’s nothing weirder to me than leaping forward and back in time on long-haul flights, gaining and losing the handfuls of hours otherwise taken for granted. As though I am inviolably entitled to the clock’s predictable progress, the meals and sleep and shifts in light that it normally affords.
If it were possible always to travel from east to west I think I’d be even happier than I am staying put. I love being the first one off to bed, and I love even more the feeling of entitlement being the first one awake gives me, the only one to witness a rosy dawn; I love, too, the early morning hours when I’m the only one on the street or in the grocery store, alert and careful and ready for a new place.
The dread of a red eye home to London, however, begins to weigh on me even before I leave on the first leg. Yes, there are wise people who advocate the during-the-day flight here, but let’s face it: I am never ready to book a ticket far enough in advance to make my way onto one of those.
When it comes to the time loss type of jet lag, I’ve found there to be two possible antidotes to related suffering:
- Sleep as much as possible on the plane, and when you disembark, pretend nothing happened. Maybe fall asleep early that night, and give yourself plenty of time to react to your alarm the next day.
- Forgo any expectation that you’ll sleep, and commit to an all-nighter. Drink the free wines, watch 5 movies, read your whole book. Plan to sleep for most of the 24 hours following your flight. Again, the next morning will probably be rough.
These are equally unpleasant/amusing options, I know. I apologize for refusing to allow any middle ground.
Option #2 is largely unavailable to me at this point, and I imagine its implementation is fairly self-explanatory and personal, so I’ll focus for now on option #1.
To me, the key to succeeding with this plan lies in willing myself to relax...with the combined help of advance planning and a few last minute airport purchases. I pack these essentials into a smaller bag that tucks into my carry on, zips or folds shut - and with the exception of the water bottles, fits in a quarter of the space beneath the seat in front of me (hello, feet!):
- super firm neck pillow (I always mean to buy in advance, but have to pick one up at the airport 50% of the time - worth the expense, IMHO)
- eye mask (often available free on the plane; bringing a nice one from home is much lovelier)
- compression socks (thank goodness they sell them at the airport, because I am good at forgetting these)
- slippers (trust us, you'll love having your slippers while you're away)
- 3 giant bottles of water (I bring a Klean Kanteen, but I've got to buy at least 2 more bottles at the airport - or else I'd probably die of dehydration; I keep one at a time in the pocket in front of me with the books and let the remaining ones roll around under my feet)
- facial mist (mini bottles available at Heathrow's Boots)
- saline solution for the nasal passages
- eye drops and EYE DROPS (if you've forgotten to bring yours along you'll be very glad to have bought more before you board)
- moisturizer for your face - preferably with your favorite wintertime goop
- 2 or 4 energy or granola bars (definitely buy before, unless you're cool with spending $15 on Eat Natural bars)
- cotton wool - to use on your face in the “morning” with your water spray (take the little packages provided by your hotel, or stuff a baggie with 10 big balls when you leave home)
- a difficult book*, and another book that’s easy but uninspiring** (difficult books must be purchased in advance)
Coincidentally, if you replace the books with enormous maxi pads, these same items have also been recommended to me for a labour bag I’m in the process of packing.
I suggest that you sleep well the night before if it’s possible. And don’t wake up too early. Put this little extra in the sleep bank if you can. Even if it doesn’t help I doubt you’ll regret it. Exercise, in the sun if it’s available, with an emphasis on hydrating and stretching.
On the plane, rather than suggesting more immediately pleasing options, I recommend:
- not working on anything you care too much about
- eating the hot meal, even if that means choking down just the littlest bite
- watching one or possibly two movies that don’t really interest you
- doing your airplane stretches (like flexing your feet and rolling your shoulders, whatever the magazine says)
- not drinking multiple free little wines, no matter how awful it feels to say no to that kind European flight attendant
After the "meal” (gag) is cleared begin your ablutions. I recommend watching Lisa Eldridge’s Long Haul Flights routine for inspiration. Frankly, I’m not on Lisa's level. But I do wipe my face, braid my hair, and moisturize my skin and nose and eyeballs.
The point, for me, is to mimic my normal bedtime routine - and to keep myself from thinking very hard about whether I’ll be able to get myself to sleep. Anyway having all of this time without the possibility of interruption is, in Lisa’s words, simply “a good excuse to treat yourself!”
So, if it’s not clear already, my point is either to trick yourself into sleeping, or just not to desiccate completely on the plane. Conversely, it’s not to stress, and to be as comfortable as possible. This will make recovery from the horrendous “night” all the more pleasant. If you’re awake drink all the water, watch all the movies, and do what you might not want to: just close your eyes.
When you arrive, the most important thing in the entire world is making sure your clocks are set to your new time zone. Do not look back, do not under any circumstance suggest to yourself it’s really 3 o’clock in the morning. Never in the history of the world has this helped anyone, and it never will.
But while I’m fanatical on this point I also submit that you shouldn’t expect to feel great. Instead:
Expect not to feel like a human being the next day; expect your body and mind to feel padded in fuzz. Expect crankiness from yourself, especially to safeguard against it. Expect to be more hungry than usual. You know what? Just eat. I advocate treating yourself to brunch within walking distance of your home - or wherever you find yourself.
Also I’m sorry, but you will make mistakes. Don’t do anything you can’t undo or explain your way out of. Try not to write anything down. Try very very hard to stay awake, especially if this means taking a walk to buy milk and eggs for the next day.
This is a good time to watch five Netflix movies or a marathon of Dinner Date.
* I failed to read a single page of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men on my most recent flight from Philadelphia to London. Congratulations to me, but I'd suggest you choose something shorter.
** Lydia recommends J.K. Rowling’s recent crime novel, and better still, the horrible noir detective novels set in 1940s Berlin, Berlin Noir. She has successfully ignored entire transatlantic flights while reading the latter.