Today is my first day in Switzerland! I always seem to forget how difficult the first day of international travel is, until I get back in the thick of it. I consider myself a fairly seasoned traveler. I’ve taken transatlantic trips seven times now and I’m only just now figuring out how to start my travels off on the right foot… but, prior to this trip, I had never figured out how to beat jet lag.
In the past, I had a few … “character flaws”, so to speak. For one, I don’t handle exhaustion well. I find that I get snippy and impatient. On top of that, I get hangry. Finally, when I do finally settle in to take a quick cat nap, I struggle getting out of bed. In the past, that meant that I frittered away my arrival day and usually the next morning. When your vacation days are limited, every day matters. Luckily, I think I’ve figured out how to beat the “arrival day hangover” and get your trip off to a great start.
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1. Drink water.
Seriously. Drink water. Purchase a refillable water bottle and fill that baby up at the airport. I’m particularly fond of these vacuum-sealed water bottles. They hold 17 oz of liquid, are spill-proof, and keep my drinks cold for 12 or more hours But let’s be honest, you’re not drinking enough water if you need it to stay cool that long!
I try and drink one of these in my ride to the airport. This hydrates me and gives me an empty water bottle for security. Then I get through security and stop somewhere to fill it up again.
Once you’re on the plane, you should plan to finish off the water bottle at least twice for a transatlantic flight. Drink this water and any other liquid the flight attendants offer you. I would traditionally recommend that you don’t drink alcohol, but I don’t think one beer or one glass of wine will hurt if it’ll help you sleep. But definitely prioritize the water!
And, of course, finish off the water again once you arrive at your hotel. If you’ve purchased a 17 oz bottle like I have, that means you should have drank 17 oz x 4 + whatever else the flight attendants gave you by time you get to your hotel. This will get your 24 hour consumption up near 100 oz, which is probably a little higher than standard recommendations, but remember: you’re sitting in a dehydrated tube for 8+ hours. Your body and skin are thirsty.
As an added bonus, this will increase your need for bathroom breaks. Sitting in a cramped space for so long is uncomfortable and your legs will appreciate getting the blood flowing and stretching out a bit. You can also get up and walk to the back of the plane to ask for a top-off if you want a break.
Of course, getting up every few hours may be annoying to your seatmate. If you’re traveling with a comrade, encourage them to drink a lot of water, too, so you can take breaks at the same time. If you’re alone, I would recommend an aisle seat. On that note…
2. Consider an aisle seat.
For the longest time, I was a window seat snob. I had this belief that the window gave me more support so I could sleep better. However, I’ve sat in both the window and the aisle seat on long haul and short-haul flights, and the aisle seat has definitely become my favorite.
For one, the window seat leaves you to the mercy of your fellow fliers. If you need a restroom break but one or both of them are napping, you’re stuck. You should never wake-up a napping flier, in my opinion, so you would have to wait until nature called to one or both of them. Aisle seats give you the flexibility to get up at will.
Second, I find window seats unbearably cold. I always end up shivering and needing to layer up.
Third, napping against the window is so uncomfortable. I can fall asleep in that position somewhat easily, but I always wake up with a sore lower back and a tight neck. If you’re concerned about bobbing your head on someone, I recommend this travel pillow. It’s expensive, but if it helps you sleep on even one flight, it’s worth it.
The aisle seat isn’t perfect, of course. You will almost definitely get bumped into by people walking up and down the aisle. You will probably have a later boarding group, so you may miss out on overhead space. And, of course, you may have to get up for your fellow passengers to use the facilities. However, in my experience, I think I prefer aisle seats.
3. Dress for comfort.
Never, ever, ever wear short attire on an international flight. You will freeze. Your legs should be covered and you should have some kind of layer to cover your arms, too.
Also, I prefer to wear closed -toed shoes with socks. A sick passenger aside, I can’t think of anything more disgusting than seeing someone’s bare feet on a plane. Be respectful of your fellow passengers and wear socks if there is any chance you’ll take your shoes off. I see some ladies that pull off cute strappy sandals, but that sounds chilly, so I personally don’t do that.
I recently discovered that maxi dresses are wonderful to travel in. You look stylish, everything is covered, and you don’t have to sit like a lady for 8 or more hours. However, I think stylish or trendy active-wear is always a good option, too. Just be sure not to look like a slob, and verify that there aren’t any apparel guidelines for your carrier.
Jeans are ok. I really only wear jeans if I need to save weight or space in my luggage. But if you don’t like lounging around in jeans, I wouldn’t recommend them for a flight.
4. Pack (customs & border control approved) snacks.
There is nothing worse than being hungry, tired, and in an unfamiliar city where you may or may not speak the language. I remember landing in Prague a few years ago at an awkward time (2 or 3 pm) smack dab in the middle of their shoulder season. What this meant was very few establishments were open when I arrived. I was tired and hangry, didn’t know the language, and had to hunt for an open establishment that also served food that sounded good and quick. Not a great combination.
I distinctly remember feeling grumpy and annoyed that day. Traveling isn’t always going to be sunshine and rainbows, but I don’t want to start my trip off being annoyed, and I assume you don’t either. From that experience, I learned to start packing approved snacks.
This certainly isn’t all-inclusive, but meat, dairy products, and produce (especially produce) may or may not be allowed through border control. I like to pack something that can be thrown in a bag and is satisfying and filling. For my trip today, I packed granola bars, breakfast cookies, peanut butter crackers, trail mix, and a couple bricks of cheap ramen. The on-the-go snacks were great for my layover time and on the train. The ramen, however, was a game changer.
I usually pack a reusable mug in addition to my water bottle. In Europe, at least, they consume much less coffee and I don’t usually find one little espresso shot satisfying. I often end up making my own Americano at complimentary breakfast spreads. It’s also nice at the airport to have a more travel-friendly (read: spill proof) coffee solution for when you’re exhausted between flights.
BUT! This travel mug has a second, equally amazing purpose that I piloted today: cooking ramen.
Upon arriving at my hotel, I searched for a coffee maker and discovered an electric tea kettle. I almost always find at least one of these, so it’s a safe bet. I warmed up some water and broke up the brick in my little mug. Once the water was done, I poured it over the noodles, secured the lid, and proceeded with unpacking and cleaning up a bit. After five or so minutes had passed, the noodles were tender and it gave me a hot, salty, satisfying meal with almost no effort and almost no cost.
With the hunger monster defeated, I could settle into my room.
5. Take a smart nap.
My prior failures with travel was that I let my body decide my naptime. That’s a surefire way to take a 5 hour mega nap and wake up at a weird time of day and totally send your entire sleep schedule out of whack.
However, I do think a nap is important. I discovered this nice little app called “Power Nap” that pays attention to how active you are during a nap to wake you up during an optimal time. The theory is that waking you up during a period of restlessness will more naturally and gently lift you out of sleep, thereby skipping that dreaded “nap hangover.”
There are a couple of settings, but I set mine to “1 sleep cycle”. This allows me to sleep up to two hours and complete a full sleep cycle – REM included – to wake up feeling more refreshed. I’ve never had a nap hangover when I’ve used this app and it certainly didn’t disappoint today.
6. Be active, and be in the sun.
Part of jet lag is getting your circadian rhythm synced with a different time zone. Studies show that sunlight can help quickly train your brain into adapting into an appropriate new rhythm. Exercise also has similar effects.
This is why I think it’s important to go for a walk in the sun the day you arrive. When I woke up from my nap, I took a walk around Lake Geneva. Montreux is hillier than I expected, so I ended up winded when I headed towards the town center. However, I think the combination of getting my heart going and strolling in the sun woke me up.
As I write this, it’s 8 pm local time and I’ve had maybe 3 hours of sleep in the last 24 hours. I’m a little bit tired, but all together doing very well… I think I was able to beat jet lag!
Jet lag won’t be your only first-day problem! You have to survive your long flight, too. Read my tips for surviving long flights here.