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Real Talk From 4 Airline Pilots On How To Beat Jet Lag

Because there's nothing fun about sleeping through your dream vacation.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome from the flight deck. Our nonstop service from Los Angeles to London’s Heathrow Airport has a flight time of 10 hours and 35 minutes. So sit back, relax, and accept our sincere apologies in advance for the debilitating case of jet lag during your stay in London, including falling asleep mid-conversation with the executive you needed to impress, and wandering, bleary-eyed, through a vacant Piccadilly Circus at 5:15 a.m. Looks like we’re first in line for departure, so enjoy the flight ― because jet lag’s coming for you, and it’s not going to be pretty. My co-pilot and I will be just fine, though.”

OK, so you’re unlikely to hear this kind of real talk from a pilot. But doesn’t it feel like the captain and her crew ― who seem to hop the International Date Line weekly without complaint ― know something you don’t when it comes to beating jet lag?

In partnership with United Polaris, we checked in with four long-haul commercial pilots to finally clue passengers in on the secrets of the flight deck, sharing their top tips for combating the grogginess and fatigue of traveling to another side of the world. With this guide, you’ll be crossing time zones like a pro before you know it.

Switch Up Your Sleep Schedule Beforehand

If you wake up one to two hours earlier a few days before a flight to Europe, your body will thank you later.
If you wake up one to two hours earlier a few days before a flight to Europe, your body will thank you later.

Overcoming jet lag starts before you step into the taxi to the airport. Begin adjusting your sleep routine three days before your flight, says Captain Lisa Mrozek, a commercial pilot for a major domestic carrier who’s logged 18 years of flying to far-flung locales. If you’re departing an American city for Europe, Mrozek recommends waking an hour or two earlier than usual. Conversely, try to stay up one to two hours later if Asian travel is on the itinerary.

Yet even in spite of all the proper prep, you may still nod off into a glass of chardonnay at your Parisian hotel’s bar. Flying east, Mrozek says, is just more of a challenge. “If you’re flying against the sun, it’s a lot harder on your body,” she explains. “If you’re going west, it just seems to be easier. That’s the general gist I get from most airline people.”

An All-Nighter Before Flying Can Only Lead To Sadness

Exhausting yourself the night before a long flight can be a recipe for jet lag disaster<i>.</i>
Exhausting yourself the night before a long flight can be a recipe for jet lag disaster.

For once, your penchant for procrastination will serve you well! Or so you might think. If you’re up all night barreling through last-minute laundry loads, you’ll be knocked out for the duration of the 14-hour flight from D.C. to Tokyo, thus arriving in the Japanese city feeling fresh as a sakura blossom. Right?

Not a smart move, Mrozek says. “You don’t want to start out your trip tired,” she cautions. “Make sure you’re well-rested before you depart and that you have some sort of a base to start with.” Trying to catch a few Zs on a plane when you’re already exhausted isn’t a sure bet, and the quality of sleep you have may leave you feeling sluggish even when you’re on the ground. If you’re overtired, you might also have to skip that power nap after your 2 p.m. hotel check-in, lest you accidentally snooze until 10 p.m. ― and then stay up all night ― as your body tries to make up the deficit.

Your New In-Flight Cocktail: Water And Electrolyte Powder

Tempting, but just say no.
Tempting, but just say no.

All of the pilots we talked to agreed: Hydration is key in stemming jet lag, especially as you while away hours in a plane’s pressurized cabin. So think of the beverage cart as more water fountain than booze barge ― avoid the dehydrating influence of alcohol or salty drinks like tomato juice and instead simply opt for H20. Captain Suzanne Skeeters, a long-haul commercial pilot with decades of experience ferrying passengers to cities like Mumbai, Bangkok and Frankfurt, recommends boosting the benefits of your water even further by mixing in powdered electrolytes, essential minerals that keep your body in an optimal balance.

Step Away From The In-Flight Entertainment

We know the 14th viewing of &ldquo;Frozen&rdquo; is even more special than the first 13, but substituting sleep for binge-wat
We know the 14th viewing of “Frozen” is even more special than the first 13, but substituting sleep for binge-watching on the plane means having a better chance of beating jet lag after you land.

International flights have become, for many of us (cough, parents, cough), prime time to catch up on movies. But beware: binge-watching Meg Ryan rom-coms is liable to leave you Sleepless in your destination city. Mrozek remembers a family trip she took to Australia, in which her kids insisted on watching every movie on the plane they could, over her suggestion that they sleep instead. “They didn’t listen,” she recalls. “And we were up at 2 a.m. every night for the next five nights. We had to wait for the local McDonald’s to open up at 5 a.m. because they were starving and there were no restaurants open.” Their fellow patrons at that hour? The sequined, tipsy bar crowd. “It was kind of an eye-opener for them, let’s put it that way,” she laughs.

Test This Pill At Home First Or Face The Sleepwalking Consequences

If you&rsquo;re not used to sleeping pills, taking them could lead to awkward cuddling with your neighbor.
If you’re not used to sleeping pills, taking them could lead to awkward cuddling with your neighbor.

To medicate or not to medicate? So many travelers weigh the question of whether to use sleep aids in-flight to mitigate the effects of jet lag. Of course, pilots aren’t allowed to use sleeping pills, says Kathy McCullough, a retired 747 captain whose 17 years of Tokyo-Singapore-Taipei routes would often take her from home for 13 days at a time. But melatonin, a hormone supplement which helps to reset one’s sleep cycle, is permissible for pilots and proved helpful to McCullough in managing her work-sleep balance. She now recommends it for others. “It kind of just quiets the thoughts in your head long enough so that you can go to sleep,” she says. “But it’s not a sleeping pill, so it won’t knock you out.”

Mrozek is more direct about sleeping pills. Unless you want to star in “The Flying Dead,” your very own mile-high zombie spinoff, she advises against using them on a flight if you’re not already accustomed to taking them. “We’ve had passengers take sleeping pills and then they sleepwalked on the airplane,” she says. “Or they keep sleeping and the flight attendants have trouble waking them up when they land.”

Get In A Workout At The Hotel Gym

Got back-to-back meetings as soon as you land? Squeeze in a quick treadmill session as soon as you hit the hotel and you&rsqu
Got back-to-back meetings as soon as you land? Squeeze in a quick treadmill session as soon as you hit the hotel and you’ll be in better shape to fight off jet lag.

Flights from the West Coast of the U.S. to Europe tend to touch down in the early afternoon, says Chris Cooke, a pilot with 24 years of experience flying commercial. Listen to your body if you’re tired and take a nap ― no more than two to three hours ― but then get active if you’re looking to keep jet lag at bay. “If I’m staying longer than 30 hours, I have to exercise,” Cooke says. “Even if it’s just getting out and walking for a half hour or going to the gym in the middle of the night, that’s what I do.” Regular exercise, especially after a long bout of travel, will keep your body operating at peak conditions, which allows your internal systems to more nimbly adjust to changes in eating, sleeping and other activities.

Shut Out The World In A Room That’s Cool And Dark

Not pictured: Restful slumber.
Not pictured: Restful slumber.

You’ve finally made it. Arrived at your destination well-hydrated, took an afternoon nap, and kept yourself busy and awake with exercise and meetings until the local bedtime. Now all that’s left is to let yourself drift off into a full night of sleep. And with the right hotel arrangements, enjoying a truly restful slumber could be well within reach.

“Go for a really cold room so you can snuggle under the covers and sleep much better,” McCullough advises. A room that fully blocks out light can further ensure you’re maximizing restorative R.E.M. sleep. “They have shoji screens [in Japan] that fit together so tightly, hardly a crack of light comes in the room,” McCullough recalls of her usual base of operations on Asian routes. So go ahead and cocoon yourself in your suite. By the time you emerge, you’ll be more than ready to get the day started ― on local time.


United Polaris is United Airlines’ all-new business class service, featuring a reimagined, built-from-scratch experience that prioritizes sleep and rest with the goal of making jet-lagged business travel a relic of the past.

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