How to Sleep Well When You’re Traveling Across Time Zones

Get the rest you need even when you’re on the other side of the world.

Person sleeping in the airport chairs, feeling the impact of jet lag
Alina Rosanova/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Whether you’re planning a round-the-world sojourn for fun, or your job demands cross-country (or -continent) canvassing, you might be hopping time zones soon. If not managed, jet lag can be a real bummer and cause hiccups for your sleep health and trip itinerary.

What if we told you that you don’t have to make that sacrifice?

Thankfully, for short day-long work trips, Jeff Rodgers, a sleep professional and dental sleep medicine practitioner, says traveling across time zones will not interfere with your internal clock. And jet lag — also known as desynchronization, the temporary sleep disorder caused by rapid travel across multiple time zones — can be prevented.

What causes jet lag?

Traveling can disrupt your circadian rhythm due to environmental changes, such as time zones, hours of daylight, and temperature. “People seem to tolerate jet lag better when traveling west or setting the clock backward, rather than traveling east and setting the clock forward,” says Rodgers. Research shows that traveling east, like from Los Angeles to New York, instead of west requires significantly more recovery time.

“Think of this like daylight saving time,” says Rodgers. “Most people are sleep deprived, so when you travel in a direction that sets the clock back, you actually have an opportunity to catch up on sleep. When traveling east, you are further depriving your sleep-deprived body.”

Regardless of which direction you’re heading, skip shocking your body clock and minimize jet lag through proper planning and scheduling by following these tips below.

1. Be smart about your flight and travel times

The time that your flight lands matters for your body clock, as does how packed your first day is. Unless you’re literally booking your trip for tomorrow, here are some filter considerations to set:

Leave at night for long-haul flights. Research shows that when traveling from the United Kingdom to Australia, those who left at night got more sleep when they landed than those who left in the morning.

Aim for afternoon arrivals. A review of jet lag disorders and shift work found that bright light in the afternoon, along with the habits you’ll read about below, helped align circadian rhythm.

“For eastward travel, jet lag is usually reduced with afternoon arrivals compared to early morning,” says Holly Schiff, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist, who treats sleep disorders through psychotherapy.

2. Adjust your bedtime to match your destination

Before your journey, the Mayo Clinic suggests gradually adjusting your bedtime by one to two hours, depending on the direction of flight. The process can start as early as three days before departure and can happen in smaller 15 to 30 minutes increments — so long as you’re matching your destination’s time zone by your day of departure. The reverse scenario follows a similar rule.

“If you are traveling from east to west with a three-hour time difference, a few days before you leave, stay up a little later than usual and sleep a bit longer,” says Schiff. “For example, falling asleep around midnight and waking up at 8 a.m. on East Coast time is equivalent to falling asleep at 9 p.m. and waking up at 5 a.m. on West Coast time.”

Going west to east and it’s still bright out? Use eye masks to help shut out light and circadian LED lights to help wake you up. “Your body’s natural clock and the systems involved in sleep are normally triggered by light and dark,” Rodgers explains.

3. Get quality sleep before you fly

Traveling couple in an airport, waiting for their flight. One of them is sleeping on their partner, with their head on their shoulder
Iza Habur/Getty Images

For 16-hour long flights that departed at night, former flight attendant Bryce Rankin says, “I would try to acclimate to my next flight the day before, placing my bedtime halfway between my usual bedtime and what was coming next.”

4. Match your current mealtime to your destination

If adjusting your bedtime is not a possibility, or you want to add another habit to help with the time zone transition, eating meals according to your destination’s local schedule can help.

Researchers from University of Surrey found that adjusting mealtimes can help your body adapt to clock changes. This also works for reversing vacation time at home and readjusting to your regular schedule.

5. Decide early if you are sleeping or not while traveling

“If you can sleep on the flight and it fits into the destination time zone appropriately, then do so,” says Rodgers. If not, resist the urge to sleep.

For good sleep on a plane, build a mini plane sleep kit with:

  • Ear plugs: Specially designed plugs like EarPlanes provide relief during take-off and landing by slowing the shift of air pressure that enters your ear, therefore exerting less stress on the eardrum and reducing discomfort.  
  • Eye mask: Whether it is a plain silk cloth or a version with adjustable eye cups, this accessory is essential for blocking ambient light and getting a good night’s rest.  
  • Travel pillow: Nothing ruins a trip like bad neck support. Get a U-shaped pillow, like this Tempur-pedic option, made of memory foam to keep your noggin upright. 

6. Stay hydrated — before, during, and after

Dehydration can negatively impact your body’s ability to cope with new time zone adjustments, so make sure you are staying hydrated for the duration of your flight. And, with humidity levels being low on planes, it’s particularly beneficial to drink up during a flight.

The only reason to avoid heavy hydration is if you will be sleeping on a plane.

7. Drink less alcohol and caffeine

Both substances can disrupt sleep patterns and lead to dehydration, and should be avoided the day before your travels, during your flight, and the day after you land.

“In the sleep world, it is very rare that we ever recommend caffeine, as it is very problematic and contributes to a number of sleep disorders,” Rodgers says. There may be one exception, though, according to Rodgers.

“A cup of coffee or tea can help when you have to get going in the mornings at your new destination. All caffeine use should be discontinued by noon in order to minimize the impact it will have on when it is time to go to sleep at night,” he advises.

8. Exercise at the right time

Research shows that exercise can change the body clock, with early exercise advancing your circadian rhythm and later exercise delaying it. Exercise before traveling can also help you feel ready to go to bed after a day of traveling.

Tip for long flights: Walking around can also help reduce swelling and risk of blood clots in the legs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mentions that traveling for more than four hours can increase your risk for blood clots.

You don’t have to walk around to reduce this risk. One effective stretch is to pull your knee up to your chest for a deep 15-second stretch. Do this 10 times for each leg.

9. Plan for relaxation on day one of your vacation

Happy couple in bathrobes, sitting in a fancy hotel, enjoying room service on their vacation
Maskot/Getty Images/Maskot

Once you land, don’t ruin your trip by only thinking about the consequences of jet lag or engaging in a whirlwind of #FOMO and forgoing sleep.

Instead, keep the first few days of travel light. Traveling isn’t a race. “Don’t make any big morning plans if flying eastward... save your adventuring until the third day or so,” says Schiff of week-long vacations. “If flying westward, don’t make any late evening plans the first couple of nights.”

Be strategic with your plans. With east-bound destinations, for example, plan daytime activities for the earlier leg of your trip, and have late-night activities towards the end of your trip so it’s easier to match your sleep schedule once you’re back home.

Planning also means requesting an extra day of PTO so you’re not rushing back to work feeling exhausted the next day.

10. Use naps wisely

Sometimes you aren’t able to get the ideal flight, or traffic gets in the way of your ETA. If you arrive at an awkward time, a power nap can get you back on the right sleep track.

That said, Schiff warns against using naps as a catch-all for daytime sleepiness and recommends avoiding naps too late in the day. “Naps should be kept to less than 30 minutes, and at least eight or more hours before your planned bedtime,” she says.

11. Don't overstress about jet lag

The right balance of exercise, mealtimes, timed light exposure, melatonin, and a consistent sleep hygiene can help you beat jet lag at its own game. But there's more to travel life than avoiding jet lag. Rather than juggling new schedules in different areas of your life, sticking to one change may be more helpful than struggling at all of them.

And in this case, the one change you may want to make is adjusting your bedtime.

With a more predictable schedule, it may be easier to schedule exercise and mealtimes to help your body further adjust and settle.

Symptoms of jet lag vs. travel fatigue

Sleeping, or not sleeping, on a plane can cause dehydration, bloating, and leg swelling, which are symptoms that fall under “travel fatigue.” Travel fatigue can feel similar to jet lag, but it’s much easier to fix. Travel fatigue will go away after a night of good sleep.

Jet lag, however, will persist even after restoration, continuing over days and weeks, even after several nights of good sleep. Schiff shares additional jet lag symptoms that go beyond being awake at the wrong hour.

“Daytime fatigue, disturbed sleep, stomach problems, mood changes, difficulty concentrating, or functioning at your usual level, and a general feeling of being unwell [are all associated with jet lag],” says Schiff.

Not everyone feels the impact of jet lag, though. Research shows people over 60 have a harder time recovering. Other factors like high stress levels and inconsistent sleep schedules can also make a person more susceptible to jet lag symptoms — which might explain why kids bounce back so easily after big vacations.

If you’re struggling to resync your body clock, you may want to speak to a doctor about light therapy. Depending on where you are staying, morning light exposure can help you wake up earlier while nighttime light exposure can help you stay up later. You can also use light therapy to adjust your body clock for where you are heading!

With a little bit of planning, jetlag doesn’t have to overrule your vacation plans or create a mountain of sleep debt for you to recover from.