After you fly overnight across the Atlantic, here’s what you should do…

As a somewhat frequent transatlantic flyer, most recently earlier this week, I’ve developed a survival routine. Flying at all, let alone across the ocean overnight, is brutal to mind and body and there’s no way around that. But you can take the edge off.

  • Drink water. Lots of water. You cannot drink enough water. Really. Drink more. Flying in an airplane for 6 or 7 hours is like putting your body inside a food dehydrator. How do you know if you’re not drinking enough water? You don’t, until it’s too late. But if you find yourself not having to pee a regular amount that’s a good signal.
  • If traveling as a family, or group, establish clear ground rules that permit and accept irrational behaviour. Travel is stressful. Normally happy people will snap and fly off the handle and sink into fits of despair. This is okay. You need these rules even more if you’re a new couple or a unfamiliar group of people: travel together is the acid test for a new relationship, and if there are breakup fissures already in the air, transatlantic air travel is the best way to crack them open. So talk about this, in advance.
  • Face it, you’re not going to get any sleep. There are exceptions to this rule: my dentist has a drug-induced sleep plan that seems to work for him, for example, and there’s always the chance that you’ll luck into some magic across-three-seats sleeping position that will work out for your body. But probably not. Don’t worry about it. The best you can do is try to squeak out some REM sleep here and there.
  • Your mind will not be working for the first 24 hours after arrival. You will forget things. You won’t remember what day it is. You will tell border guards completely made up stories because you believe them to be true (note to authorities: I have never done this). Relax into this, don’t fight it: treat it like an expensive drug you’ve taken that confers temporary dullardness.
  • Upon arrival, eat breakfast. Don’t worry about what it costs. Try and find a sit-down place, especially if you have some time to kill in a transfer airport in Europe. Have coffee, fresh fruit, whatever. So what if you spend 30 EUR on a 5 EUR breakfast: it’s a one-time investment in your physical and mental sanity.
  • Take a taxi from the airport. Public transit is great, but there’s nothing like trying to negotiate a new transit system when your mind is working at 30% capacity. Write the address of your destination on a piece of paper and hand it to the driver and then just relax. Your mind will try and convince you, in its paranoid sleepness state, that the crazy taxi driver is taking you to the wrong side of town, but this is unlikely.
  • Arrival day is a write-off. Remember, your mind is not working. Relax, eat, drink, be merry. Don’t schedule anything important. Ice cream is good. You’re going to have a sleepless night anyway, so don’t pay any attention to people who claim to have a foolproof system for beating jet lag.
  • Expect pooping irregularities for a while. Your body and mind are confused (“why did he feed us at 4:00 a.m.?!”).
  • It’s possible that your mind will convince you, during the first 24 hours, that you’ve made a horrible mistake leaving Mayberry for the Left Bank. Your mind is just complaining to you and will get over it. After 24 hours you will wonder why you didn’t kick Mayberry years ago.

As I write this I’m starting out on day three – we landed in Berlin 19 hours ago after leaving Halifax the night before – and the fog is just beginning to clear. We all went to bed last night at 9:00 p.m. and we all woke up at 1:30 a.m. thinking it was time to start the day and we were all groggy when we actually did start the day at 8:00 a.m. There is, I can attest, light at the end of the transatlantic tunnel.


Ken's picture
Ken on July 13, 2011 - 12:29 Permalink

One important note: flying eastward is much harder than flying west in terms of jet lag!

James Ramsay's picture
James Ramsay on July 13, 2011 - 15:55 Permalink

C’mon Peter… The evening in Berlin/Kreuzberg STARTSat 1:30 AM… You woke up right on schedule, lag-free…