Sky Jockey: Conquering Jetlag

Busy week. Lotsa time in the air:

Last Monday—Fly SFO to Washington/Dulles
Tuesday—One-day shoot near Dulles airport
Wednesday—Fly Dulles to SFO
ThursdayBreathe, pant
FridayScheme, pack
SaturdayDepart SFO to Paris
SundayArrive Paris
MondayOne-day shoot in Paris
TuesdayFly Paris to SFO
TodayBreathe, pant, blog

Mastering jetlag is the only way I can get through periods like these. It’s an imperfect science at best, but from long experience with many buttburner flights and some bookish research, I am finally prepared to set down:

Uncle Billy’s Rules for Conquering Jetlag

1. Jetlag is caused by the disruption to your sleep cycle from major, swift time zone shifts. From the moment you get on the plane, change your watch to your destination’s time zone and start immediately to acclimate your body to the new time.

  • If you’re leaving late in the day and arriving early the next day, try hard to sleep on the flight. Avoid caffeine and curl up with a good book or movie and try to drop off. Take a pill to help you get sleepy, if that’s your taste, like Melatonin or Ambien. You might drink a glass of wine or two to enhance drowsiness, but be careful here. Don’t get sloshed. Alcoholic beverages are dehydrating.
  • When you arrive the next morning, try hard to stay up until a normal bedtime. Find your hotel, shower, change clothes, head out to walk around and explore your surroundings. Do not go to sleep in the afternoon, as your already confused body will not let you sleep that night.
  • On the other hand, if you’re flying and arriving by daylight hours, stay awake as much as you can. My flight yesterday was scheduled to leave Paris at 1:40 pm and arrive in San Francisco at 3:45 pm the same day. I was tired when we boarded, and I did nap a few times for a few minutes during the 11-hour flight. But I also drank coffee, walked the length of the 747 a few times to keep my joints lubricated, read a bit, took Ibuprofen to combat the pain of the seat in front of me jammed into my knees, went to the back of the plane to stretch and stand, watched 2-1/2 movies on my iPad, ate the two provided meals plus a sandwich I brought aboard, took pictures out the windows while over Hudson’s Bay in northern Canada, listened to my son’s podcasts, and did whatever I could to stay conscious.
  • Nearly everyone else on the flight slept. Air France dimmed the lights and kept the cabin stuffy, which increased drowsification, but it’s in their interests to keep all 300 of us subdued while locked up in their tin can. When the passengers who slept the whole time got to their hotels that evening, they cursed that darned, unavoidable jetlag, began their trips with sleepless nights and sleepy days, and rued the discomforts of travel. I went home, unpacked, drank coffee to last through the evening, put away my gear, dumped the garbage, made some calls, sent some texts, played with the dog, totaled my petty cash, answered some emails, imported and inspected all my photos, scarfed a burrito, watched “City of God,” took an Ambien, and went to bed around midnight. I slept well, awoke around 7:30, and felt fine and energetic all day.

2. Stay hydrated. Airplane air is as dry as the Gobi desert. Increase your fluid intake (except for alcohol). Water is best.

  • Try this test: Press your forefinger into the pad of your thumb so the skin turns white, then remove the finger. Does the thumb pad stay white or does it plump out and turn red quickly? If it takes longer than two seconds to regain color, you have slow CRT (capillary refill time) and are probably dehydrated. I kid you not.
  • Another test: if your pee does not run clear, you could be dehydrated, though there are other factors (like food intake, medication, and vitamin supplements) that can influence urine color. Google “pee runs clear” if you’re dying to read more on this fascinating subtopic.
  • Drink water before your flight, and bring water on board. In most places, airport security won’t let you through with liquids, but you can buy your own bottle in the gate area shops before you board. On some airlines, the flight attendants are attentive about bringing water around at regular intervals, but on other flights, they’ll just leave drinks out in the galley between meals, while they gab in the back of the plane.
  • Continue to drink water after you land, and avoid salty foods, which are dehydrating. If you’re on a trip where you’re flying often, drink constantly. On a long trip a while back, we flew SFO-Auckland-Wellington-Sydney-Tokyo-Taipei-Singapore-Johannesburg-Nairobi-Kampala (Uganda) in a two-week period. After our arrival in Africa, the director, a good friend of mine, started acting uncharacteristically short-tempered and cranky. I knew he generally consumed minuscule amounts of liquids and only peed on Wednesdays. Our client liaison, a registered nurse, suspected dehydration, and shut down our shoot till the director drank a bottle of water. She kept her eye on him the rest of the trip.

3. Make sure your body is as comfortable and your mind as occupied as possible for your flight.

  • Fight for a good seat, especially if you need to sleep on an overnight flight. If you’re a big guy like me, exit rows and bulkheads offer enhanced legroom, essential for long flights. Some airlines have an Economy Plus section with a few inches more legroom. An aisle seat gives you much greater mobility during your flight. Be assertive in trying to get what you want from the airline or travel agent.
  • Most airlines will let you pick or change your seat with an online seat map. In the days leading up to departure, when I’m working at my computer, I’ll often bookmark and check the airline’s seat map every couple of hours to see if I can grab an aisle or exit row seat someone else has canceled. Many cancellations occur in the last 24 hours before departure, so keep checking back.
  • Some airlines cut off access to the seat map a day or two before departure. I had a middle seat scheduled for my return from Paris this week and couldn’t get to the seat map to change it on the last day. But our French production manager called a friend at Air France who was able to switch me to an aisle seat. Serendipitously, the friend had just been promoted, and we caught her on her last day at this job for the airline.
  • On the other hand, if you’re small enough to fit handily into any airline seat and only need to go pee every eight hours or so, PLEASE take a middle seat. We need people like you to fill out the plane.
  • Get one of those silly-looking nerd pillows to support your neck when you doze off, either a soft cushy one or an inflatable, which stores in much less space. Important tip: don’t wear the pillow with the opening in the front. This pushes your head and neck forward and does nothing to support your chin. Turn the pillow around so the opening is at the back, and suddenly you’ll find new comfort in the otherwise-despicable activity of sleeping-while-sitting.
  • If you need to stay awake during the flight, expect to be bored by being sedentary and cooped up for many hours. This is an inevitable part of travel. Why should it be a surprise? Bring reading matter, music, movies, games, cards, and snacks, whatever you need to keep from going crazy or going to sleep. This is especially true if you’re traveling with children. Many airlines now offer individual screens and a wide selection of movies on international flights, great non-stop entertainment.
4. Don’t get cocky and give up too soon after your feet are on the ground. Continue to try to adapt to the destination time zone.
  • It’s not uncommon to have great energy on the first day after a major time shift, but then get that heavy-lidded, oy-I-gotta-take-a-nap-NOW feeling on the second day. I’ll often take another Ambien on the second night home. Despite all my efforts, I still sometimes have a sleepless night several days after arrival.

4 thoughts on “Sky Jockey: Conquering Jetlag”

  1. Susan Zarchy (yes, his wife)

    I LOVE reading your stuff! It’s funny, concrete, unpredictable, literate, and informative. Did I mention that it’s funny? I LOVE reading your stuff!

  2. I LOVE reading your stuff! It’s funny, concrete, unpredictable, literate, and informative. Did I mention that it’s funny? I LOVE reading your stuff! Oh, did I just copy/paste Susan’s comments? Yes I did because I feel the same way. This was a great article and should be published for folks flying internationally for the first time (and second time and third time, etc). Please label some of your pictures as I wasn’t quite sure if Hudson Bay was the picture between #2 and #3. If it was, then what was the picture after #4?

  3. ….I love reading your “stuff” too Bill.You have this knack to make the reader a kind of co-traveller with you and to enjoy what you’re seeing both through your eyes and their own in a nice laid back kind of way…..and your new camera absolutely blows my mind….Love to all of you,and Happy Holidays…Jim

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