The Intentional Expat

Living Your Best Life Abroad

Jet Lag. The Ugly Side of Traveling Abroad


I would say that I’m a good traveler in a lot of ways. I can be flexible, see the bright side when things don’t go my way, I’ll try new foods, use gross bathrooms and chat it up with strangers. I even seek out ways to enjoy flying despite the fact that deep down I really hate it. But there’s one part about traveling halfway around the world that I just can’t stand, and that’s jet lag.

Truth be told, I’ve never actually been forced to deal with jet lag properly. With the exception of one 5 day trip back to the states for a wedding a couple of years ago, all of my cross-Atlantic travels have been for trips lasting one month or more. This means that there’s usually ample time planned in for acclimating to the time change. Which is good news because the times when I’ve attempted to face jet lag head on by soaking up sunlight, getting physical activity, and staying as far away from a bed as possible, have always ended in ugly situations. Me falling asleep in public squares, me turning into a person resembling a cranky 2 year old, me staying up all day long only to find I still couldn’t sleep at night. Yep, jet lag is one factor of the travel equation that I have yet to solve.

What I do know is that flying West to East is always where it strikes for me and that if I take a flight scheduled to land in Europe in the late afternoon or evening, it’s always better because I can go to bed as soon as I arrive. This was the case when I arrived last Thursday, but what I hadn’t taken into account was the fact that I’d have a screaming toddler behind me on the Seattle-London leg of my trip and a large group of Spanish teenagers who spent the flight shrieking at any signs of turbulence on the flight into Madrid. While my first night back in Madrid I managed to stay up past midnight, the next day I couldn’t resist giving in to the temptation of sleeping for almost four hours.

Now that it’s Monday, and I’ve taken a few more epic siestas, I think that I’m almost back to Spain time. Even though I haven’t mastered fighting jet lag, I have been researching some tips on the best ways to deal with it so that in some near future I may be able to say that jet lag no longer gets me down.

First of all, a little bit more about jet lag. Did you know that it can take up to one day for each time zone crossed to fully recover? If that’s true, I won’t actually be functioning at 100% until next Saturday. However, this is only the case if you’re traveling from West to East (i.e. Seattle to Madrid). If you’re traveling in the opposite direction, you’ll only need half the number of days to recover. Jet lag occurs because international travel disrupts our circadian rhythms, our internal 24 hour biological clocks that help us know when to eat, sleep, etc. Cues that help us know when it’s time to sleep, like exposure to sunlight, physical activity, social activities, etc. are disrupted when we travel. And it turns out that air travel includes other factors that can further mess with our circadian rhythms. According to WebMD, there was a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007 (I have to admit that I didn’t have any success locating the original article)  that found that pressurized airplane cabins lower oxygen in our blood, which makes us feel more dehydrated and less comfortable. Not to mention the fact that when you’re in an airplane cabin, you get much less physical activity than you normally would.

So, jet lag really does seem to be inevitable. But there are some preventative steps you can take before your flight AND once you hit the ground to make sure jet lag doesn’t ruin your first few days in a new country.

  • Change your bedtime in the days leading up to your trip. If traveling east to west, go to bed later, if traveling west to east, go to bed earlier.
  • Wear yourself out before you get on the plane. Go to the gym, go for a walk, do some yoga in the airport waiting area. Whatever you need to do to get some sleep on the plane. Some people swear by sleeping very little the night before an international flight, but this just takes me longer to recover from jet lag because I’m so exhausted.
  • Change your watch while on the plane to reflect the new time zone. Is it 3am in Paris, the city you’re headed to? Get some sleep!
  • If possible, try to schedule in some extra days to adjust (this is my favorite method!)
  • Stay hydrated. I’ve read this tip on several websites. Hydration during flight and once you arrive is absolutely essential. Resist the temptation to immediately start enjoying the alcoholic or caffeinated beverages that the place your visiting is famous for. Also keep in mind that alcohol and caffeine can interrupt sleep so make sure to avoid them a few hours before you go to bed.
  • Get up and move around during flight and once you land try to go out for a walk. Travel expert Rick Steves always says that “sunlight is jet lag’s worst enemy.”
  • Bring earplugs and a face mask just in case they aren’t offered on your flight. They’ll also come in handy at your destination in case your hostel or hotel is noisy or lacking black out blinds.
  • There are people who swear by taking melatonin or “No-Jet-Lag” pills, but there really isn’t any definitive research to back up their use
  • Other frequent fliers swear by the “jet lag diet,” but that also is lacking research. I personally think that eating a balanced and nutritious diet in the days leading up to your flight and after you land is the best way to ensure that your body is functioning as close to 100% as possible and ready to fight jet lag
  • Turns out there are some apps available for cell phones and tablets that can help you to fight jet lag! Check out iTunes or the Google play store to see what’s people are saying about the different ones available.

After doing a little research and reading about other traveler’s tried and true methods for fighting jet lag, it turns out that I may not be doing such a bad job at fighting jet lag after all. I went on a walk the morning of my flight, drank a lot of water before, during and after my flight, tried to sleep as much as possible, ate relatively healthy and exposed myself to some sunlight and physical activity during the days following my arrival. And I learned that I am not the only world traveler who enjoys taking naps! It really comes down to the fact that each person is different and the way they adjust to jet lag is going to be different. I guess I’ll stick by my tried and true method of scheduling in a few days to adjust to the timezone whenever possible.

Are you a frequent international travelers? Share with us your own favorite tips for fighting jet lag in the comments section! 


If Munich is your first stop on an international trip, resist the temptation to try too much German beer on your first night there! It can lead to dehydration and affect your sleep, both which will only make jet lag worse!



Author: Melissa

Born in the rainy, green Northwestern corner of the United States, Melissa relocated to the almost-always-sunny city of Madrid, Spain five years ago. After getting her master's degree, traveling to places her friends at home drooled about, falling in love with a Spaniard, and having her heart broken by said Spaniard, it's safe to say that she's learned firsthand about the less than glamorous side of living abroad. Thankfully, she gets to use this experience, along with her professional expertise, in her work as a mental health therapist in Madrid where she helps other expats learn to deal with the inevitable ups and downs of living abroad. This blog is designed to be informative and is in no way intended to serve as a substitute for therapy.

6 thoughts on “Jet Lag. The Ugly Side of Traveling Abroad

  1. Hi! I’m moving to Spain to take the TtMadrid TEFL course in January and love reading your blog! I was wondering — do you have any recommendations for how to find cheap flights? Best airlines to use, airlines to avoid, etc.? Any tips you have would be welcome!


    • Hi Beth! I´m glad to hear you´ve enjoyed reading! Can you use STA Travel? They have good discounts if you are under a certain age. I´m too old to qualify though! I usually use Kayak and Skyscanner to find cheap flights and Travelocity often surprises me with cheap flights. I think that British Airways is one of the best airlines, but they can be pretty pricey. I think that if you can find a good deal on Delta they´re on of the best airlines for international flights (at least my personal favorite!). I had a connection with Iberia this year and they put my luggage on the wrong flight! So maybe avoid them! You also might check out the auxiliares in Madrid facebook group (look at the resources section of my blog) because there are tons of English teachers there and almost every topic under the sun has been discussed!


      • Thanks so much for your feedback! I’ve found tons of cheap flights on skyscanner and kayak during my research, but I’ve also heard from a lot of people that it’s a nightmare to book through 3rd party sites like those. Have you had any problems with them? A one way ticket with British Airways was like $600 on kayak and then $3000 on the British Airways site so I don’t understand why it’s so much cheaper! Obviously I want to take advantage of it but I’m also a little suspicious!


      • I know people who have booked through them and haven’t had problems, but I’ve always used them to track down cheap flights and then try to go to expedia or travelocity if possible! Are you looking for one way flights? Sometimes it’s cheaper to buy a round trip and not use the return. I’ve never actually done that though! Good luck shopping for a flight! That can be pretty stressful. Can I ask you to vote for my blog too? I’m in a contest and I’m #32 but need to get to #25 by tomorrow to go on to the next round. Thanks in advance 🙂 and let me know if you have more questions!!


  2. I voted! 🙂 Thanks again for your feedback!


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