Long flight, little time-zone change

by Eszter Hargittai on July 27, 2006

I’m preparing for a short trip to Buenos Aires and am seeking advice on how to approach the trip for least amount of fatigue. CT folks seem to have a wealth of experience in the travel domain so I thought I’d ask if anyone had ideas for me. I am only going for a few days so when I get there at 9am I want to be ready to start exploring town instead of spending hours in bed. But is that realistic after a ten hour flight? I have a three hour layover in DC, which may add to my fatigue. I’m usually not so good at sleeping on planes (except in business class) so I don’t know if I can count on that much.

I have lots of experience with cross-continental travel and long flights so that’s not the issue. (The longest trip was probably when we moved to Honolulu from Budapest for a few months.) I have been taking such flights ever since I was nine, but it has always involved significant time-zone changes. Is it the long trip, the time-zone change or a combination of the two that causes one to be completely useless after a trip from the U.S. to Europe? I’m hoping most of it has to do with the time change so I can avoid it this time around.

For entertainment, I am bringing the manual of my new digital camera and a small English-Spanish dictionary and phrasebook, both of which I was happy to find in my favorite dictionary brand today at the local store. (I wouldn’t bother with a dictionary for a few days, but I figured it was worth getting one given my move to California in a month. I hadn’t planned to get a phrasebook, but I am a sucker for those little Langenscheidt books.)

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Crooked Timber » » Without pain on a plane
08.03.06 at 7:48 am



rjh 07.27.06 at 5:23 pm

At least part of the fatigue is due to dehydration from dry air (bring water), and part is noise induced fatigue. I find that having enough water and noise cancelling headphones make a small (but noticable) difference on 2+ hour flights, moderate difference on 5 hour flights, without the added effect of time zone shifts. Earplugs are as good as headphones if you find them more comfortable.

Simple headsets do not help. Masking the noise with louder music does not eliminate the fatiguing effect of continuous loud noise.

If you have trouble sleeping, I find that listening to boring lectures (like some of the scientific or technical podcasts) puts me to sleep quite effectively. It’s one of those skills you learn in college, forget that you have, and rediscover.


Lance Knobel 07.27.06 at 5:47 pm

The lack of a significant time zone change certainly helps a lot. I used to fly London to South Africa every now and then and it wasn’t too bad.

The greatest advance in coping with long flights is the development of noise-cancelling headphones. Even if you don’t have an iPod to attach them to, they make such an extraordinary difference in cutting the noise of the aircraft that I couldn’t recommend them highly enough.


Eszter 07.27.06 at 5:59 pm

Thanks. Funny, RJH, I was going to mention that I planned to bring some research interviews as well. The point isn’t that they are boring, actually, they can be quite interesting. But there’s something about listening to people talking that may be conducive to sleep for me. (I guess I shouldn’t be getting books on tape for any of my upcoming road trips.)

Regarding noise-cancelling headphones, I’ve contemplated them, they do seem very appealing. I’ve gotten them when flying business class, maybe that’s partly why I was able to sleep (although I suspect the reclining large seats helped, too:).


harry b 07.27.06 at 6:03 pm

Take lots of sparkling water with you even if you don’t like it, and drink it like there’s no tomorrow (one nice advantage of this is it forece you to get up and walk the aisles frequently). Don’t eat any more than you absoltuely have to (esp not the high-salt snacks). Eat and rest for an hour at most when you get there. Then, act like it is a regular day, when you get there, go to bed at the normal time (exhausted if you’ve followed this advice and — and this is key — get up early the following morning regardless of how well you’ve slept, and resisting the temptation to sleep anohter minute or twwo.

I also, when possible, try to get 45 minutes of running in on the day that I leave, but sometimes that isn’t possible…

so sorry to be missing you the following week, H


Brett Bellmore 07.27.06 at 6:17 pm

Get up several times during the flight, and walk around. In my experience, there’s nothing that exausts in quite the same way as enforced inactivity. And airline seating, especially coach, immobilizes you much more than normal furniture.


robert the red 07.27.06 at 6:35 pm

Benadryl (diphenhydramine) will help you doze on the plane. I use it for long flights, and it helps a lot.


Kevin Drum 07.27.06 at 6:46 pm

I’ve found that lack of sleep is the real issue. If you can get 5-6 hours of sleep on the plane, you’re probably OK.

I’ve had very little success getting people to take this advice, but the answer is: sleeping pills. Good ones, not the junk from the store. Get a prescription for Ambien or something like that (I happen to use Temazepam, a cheap generic that’s very effective). They work great, they aren’t addictive, and they completely changed my life. I suffer from virtually no jet lag anymore, regardless of whether or not there’s a time zone shift.

Take the pill 9 hours before landing. I usually have no trouble staying awake for a couple of hours after that, then dozing for 6 hours or so (an inflatable neck pillow helps too), then waking up for breakfast, ready for the day.

I’m not a pill fan and was initially reluctant to try this. But they’re harmless and work perfectly. Highly recommended in addition to all the other advice.


Slocum 07.27.06 at 6:52 pm

But is that realistic after a ten hour flight?

If our experience is any guide, yes — as long as you get at least a bit of sleep during that 10 hours. When we fly from the U.S. to Europe, the flights are always overnight arriving about that time. We get a couple hours of sleep, do a full day the next day, and our body clocks are reset in one shot. Coming back is much more of a problem though — even if we make ourselves stay up through the entire extended-length day. I’m not sure if the difference is the direction or the beginning vs end of the trip.


nihil obstet 07.27.06 at 6:54 pm

As Harry B suggests, physical exercise improves your odds of being able to sleep on the plane. Spend as much time as you can during the three hours in Washington being active, even just obsessively walking the airport.


Ich 07.27.06 at 6:54 pm

Buy some noise blocking headphones like the Etymotic Research 6i’s. You can listen to or watch whatever you want. They do not solve getting kicked in the back constantly, but they will make long flights more humane and you can sleep in between the kicks.


Tom Parmenter 07.27.06 at 7:14 pm

The Langenscheidt Lilliput dictionaries are about 1 x 1.5 inches. They’re $3.75 apiece (one is English- Spanish, the other is guess what). People in Spain loved them as thank-you presents or tips.


Neil 07.27.06 at 7:38 pm

I have no sympathy. Try to pursue an academic career in Australia and you learn to laugh at 10 hour flights. I’m always pleased when a conference is in the US, rather than Europe, because it’s ‘only’ 14 hours to LA. Only solution I know for the genuinely long flights is: schedule in at least one extra day recovery time.


luci 07.27.06 at 7:50 pm

Anxiety from flying always leaves me frazzled, so I don’t fight the urge and immediately take a nap of a couple hours upon arrival. Sometimes it’s better to take a quick nap than to be tired all day long. Wake up with coffee, and you’re reset.


Sam Hutcheson 07.27.06 at 8:33 pm

In addition to the pills and noise cancelling headphones, don’t sleep the night before your flight. That way you’re exhausted when you hit the seat.


mlhm5 07.27.06 at 10:05 pm

You might want to try the Sennheiser HD 280 Pro noise redcution headphones


CR 07.27.06 at 10:35 pm

When I flew to BA from NYC, I found the overnight flight MUCH easier to deal with than NYC – London/Europe. No jet lag, plus it’s long enough to sleep or at least rest quite a bit vs. the sun-down/sun-up thing going to Europe.

Have fun in BA – it’s a really wonderful place. If you have an extra day, take the boat over to Colonia in Uruguay.


Kathryn from Sunnyvale 07.27.06 at 10:41 pm

Kevin is right- the modern prescription sleeping meds work very well. I’ve used Ambien for 10 hour flights (to get 6 hours of sleep) and Trazadone for 14 hour flights (to get 8 hours of sleep).

Do not skip too much sleep the night before: sleep loss is cumulative.

Don’t use over-the-counter pills unless you know they work really, really well for you. I’ve tried them and just ended up groggy for a flight: too tired to read, too awake to sleep.


Neil 07.28.06 at 12:01 am

Question for those advocating pills: what about DVT? I’m worried that if I sleep in those tiny seats I raise my risk too significantly.


Kevin Drum 07.28.06 at 1:00 am

Neil: This is just my experience, but even with a sleeping pill I doze more than really sleep. I seem to sleep in three or four chunks of an hour or 90 minutes each, and wiggle around a bit each time I wake up. So my guess is that DVT isn’t an issue. But the brief awakenings don’t really affect the quality of the sleep much. It still adds up to 5-6 hours, which is enough to let me get through the next day pretty well.

(This is just a guess, though. Obviously you should ask a doctor if it’s a real worry.)


Neil 07.28.06 at 1:25 am

Thanks Kevin. Part of the reason why it might be more of a worry for me than you is that the overseas flight I do most often (Melbourne-London) is around 24 hours all up (counting an hour or so in transit).


Mike Otsuka 07.28.06 at 1:28 am

I once took a 13 hour overnight flight from London to Buenos Aires, didn’t sleep much on the flight, but didn’t have any problem adjusting. I was a bit sleepy my first day in Buenos Aires but didn’t have a problem falling asleep at the normal time that night, as the time difference between London and Buenos Aires isn’t that great.

I found the flights to and from Buenos Aires much less disruptive than the 11 hour flights I regularly take between London and Los Angeles, which involve the crossing of twice as many time zones.


fjm 07.28.06 at 2:21 am

I have problems with the US/Europe direction. Low bloodpressure is one factor.

Try the following:

two dramamine (or other travel sickness tablets)
three sachets of dioralyhte (or other rehydrating salts) in two seperate bottles of water. One about an hour before you get on the flight, one during it, and one after you land.

Also, have a shower as soon as you can after landing.


bad Jim 07.28.06 at 2:48 am

Traveling west, whether Europe to U.S. or U.S. to Japan, is no particular problem. For most of us it’s easy to fit an extra ten hours in a day, especially when the sun keeps shining.

Going east is a bit harder; it helps to go to sleep earlier than one would ordinarily. I’ve used small amounts of alcohol with meals to trick myself into drowsing, with limited success. Sleeping in economy is a trick I’ve yet to master consistently.

By all means get out and about when you arrive, walk around while the sun shines, observe the sunset and adopt the local schedule immediately. I’d bet that Buenos Aires observes Spanish customs (like Brazilians): late openings, a long lunch and dinner at 9. You may want to pass on the dancing until dawn.


JR 07.28.06 at 5:47 am

The first secret to sleeping on planes is to elevate your feet. The second is to get a window seat. Since you’re on the shorter side, you can put a piece of luggage under the seat in front of you, put a pillow on that, kick off your shoes, put your seat back, put on your eyemask and your earphones, put another pillow against the bulkhead, and zone out.


duaneg 07.28.06 at 6:03 am

Excellent advice here, one other thing to add (maybe too obvious to mention): get an aisle seat.

Also I’d like to reiterate what cr said. If you can spare a day definitely take the ferry across to Colonia. It is quick, cheap and easy to get across and the old town and beaches are beautiful.


duaneg 07.28.06 at 6:05 am

Hmm, OK. Opinions differ on the best seat :)

I prefer an aisle seat, as you can get up at any time. That helps me a lot, especially for long flights. OTOH I can see jr’s point too, although I’ve never managed to get very comfortable in an economy seat, by the window or otherwise.


nick s 07.28.06 at 9:02 am

Is it the long trip, the time-zone change or a combination of the two that causes one to be completely useless after a trip from the U.S. to Europe?

As bad jim says, the eastbound pond-hop is always more draining than the westbound: in part because of the necessary scheduling to take off and land during airport opening hours, and in part because of your body clock. And, frankly, hitting Gatwick at 6am after an overnight flight is going to make anyone miserable.

I’ve learned to cope with both, though my early attempts to use melatonin on eastbound hops produced mixed results. Noise-cancelling headphones, on the other hand (or simply monitor-style ones like the Etymotic or Shure earplugs) are definitely recommended, though. And if you have an iPod, stick some binaural beat stuff on it.

I’d also suggest trying to find a place for a warm shower in DC, but I don’t know whether it’s as amenable as, say, Schiphol, which is a great overnighting airport.


CKR 07.28.06 at 9:11 am

I advise going right to sleep as soon as the long-haul flight lifts off the ground. Use earplugs, noise-canceling headphones, whatever you have, inflatable neck pillow, and an eye mask. Don’t eat the food, but have water handy for when you wake up, which you probably will more than once. I usually wake up every hour to two hours.

The food is lousy (sometimes tolerable in Business Class), and it keeps me awake, not to mention the two hours possible sleep lost while the serving is going on.

A window seat is better for this strategy because you won’t be bumped by the cabin crew.


Andrew Leigh 07.28.06 at 9:31 am

Go for a run the day you’re due to fly out. On the plane, drink lots of water, don’t drink as much alcohol as you’re tempted to, and sleep as much as you can. When you get there, take a tablet or two of melatonin at 10pm local time (it helps reset the body clock).

I do about 4 trips a year from Australia to the northern hemisphere (24 hours each way, with connections), so I spend about 2% of my time sitting on or near a 747. This strategy seems to work pretty well.


A-ro 07.28.06 at 9:48 am

If you can’t sleep, meditation is the next best thing for feeling mentally refreshed. One easy method: as you breathe, focus on counting to 10 over and over, one count per breath; or just repeat your social security number or something. If you haven’t slept on the flight, meditate for a half hour before landing.


Slocum 07.28.06 at 9:49 am

As bad jim says, the eastbound pond-hop is always more draining than the westbound: in part because of the necessary scheduling to take off and land during airport opening hours, and in part because of your body clock. And, frankly, hitting Gatwick at 6am after an overnight flight is going to make anyone miserable.

Odd — my experience (and my wife’s) is exactly the opposite. We get a couple of hours of sleep on the flight over and that seems to be enough to trick our bodies into counting it as a night. We have little trouble staying up until a normal European bed-time and we’re good to go with normal wake / sleep patterns. But returning, even if we manage to stay up for the whole extended-length travel day, it still takes several days to a week to stop waking up a 3 or 4 in the morning.


jakeb 07.28.06 at 10:02 am

One thing I’ve recently found useful in dealing with the dry air (along with bringing at least a quart or two of water on board with me) is a nasal spray. I find that by the end of a cross-US flight, my nose gets a little sore otherwise. Spraying it every couple of hours reduces that irritation.


Eszter 07.28.06 at 11:07 am

Thanks everyone for some great advice. I’ve gone and bought noise canceling headphones. I’ve been meaning to anyway so this was helpful encouragement. I also remembered to add eyemask, earplugs (depending on my preference at the moment:) and nasal spray to my bag. I have my mp3 player (not the diePod, of course. I also have some snacks and water. So I think I’m set.

I’m always conflicted about whether window or aisle seat works better. I wish I had checked the plane layout more carefully before getting a seat. If it’s just two seats then window may be okay. Otherwise, it starts to feel claustrophobic to have to bother two people to get up. So I usually opt for an aisle seat. But yes, it is really annoying to be bumped all the time.

United Premier members (which I am) get free upgrades to economy plus seats, which tend to have considerably more legroom. I consider this a must. That way, if the person in front of you leans back, you still have some room.

JR mentioned “Since you’re on the shorter side”. Is this supposed to pertain to me? I don’t consider my over 5’10 height to be on the shorter side especially since most of that is attributable to long legs (as opposed to a long torso). So no, I rarely have enough legroom. That’s partly why Economy Plus is so important. Not having luggage underneat the seat in front of mine will allow me to stretch my legs, which can be helpful.

Thanks all, some great advice here!


Doug K 07.28.06 at 11:30 am

second Kevin’s suggestion, a bit of sleep is paramount. I’ve used Ambien quite successfully. Also Nyquil capsules will knock me out for the requisite 5-6 hours, with minimal aftereffects, but try this at home first.

I fly Denver-Germany for work, Denver-Greece or South Africa or Perth (Oz) annually for family, so have practised this a lot..

With a bit of sleep and the minimal timezone change, you should be fine. I’ve always wanted to visit Buenos Aires..


Eszter 07.28.06 at 11:45 am

Oh, as for pills, anything that requires a prescription is probably going to be more trouble than its worth in my book. As for over-the-counter options, I think Doug K is right that I would want to try something at home first. But I appreciate knowing that these solutions work well for some people.


Kathryn from Sunnyvale 07.28.06 at 4:07 pm

One thing about filling a prescription for a modern sleeping pill: simply having them can help with insomnia. The “what if I can’t fall asleep?” worry can make falling asleep harder. Being able to answer “I’ll just use the Ambien” stops that line of worrying without even having to take the Ambien, I’ve found.


dipnut 07.28.06 at 5:37 pm

I don’t know from personal experience, but they say a cigarette in the morning will reset one’s body clock and defeat jet lag.

It only works, they say, if you’re not already a tobacco addict.

No, I don’t remember who they are.


JR 07.29.06 at 7:44 am

Eszter, my apologies. I’ve looked at your flickr site and seen one or two other pics of you and had formed the idea that you were perhaps 5’5″ or so. Or perhaps ill-formed stereotypes about Eastern Europeans were overwhelming actual sensory impressions. In any event, 5’10” is tall enough to make sleeping on a plane difficult. Try to get the legs up if you can. Poor circulation to the lower legs will keep you from sleeping.


nick s 07.29.06 at 9:26 am

slocum: that’s interesting, because I don’t know of many people who are suffer more from westbound flights. That might be the power of anecdote, but when you gain five hours on an eight-hour flight that leaves in the morning or early afternoon, the general effect is just that you have a ‘long night’ and hit the next day running. Do you fly from the east coast or further west?

I’ve never needed nasal sprays, but I do have a little spray bottle of rosewater nabbed from a biz-class goodiebag that I use to spritz my face during the flight, especially before landing.


JohnLopresti 07.29.06 at 9:19 pm

If you are enroute already, you might look for this book about Argentina’s renaissance of flamenco guitar music (“folkloric guitar”). The link there is a precis about ten pages length by the principal author, who has a retail store in CA’s Silicon Valley. Next best thing to performing etudes on the plane. Also on CD, see link on page.

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