Flight attendants are experienced warriors in the fight against jet lag. Now they’re sharing their secrets. (Photo: iStock)
Flight attendants are more than experts in airline safety, crowd control, and stuffing bags into cramped overhead compartments; they’re also amateur sleep experts. These sky warriors bounce between multiple time zones, often before you’ve had breakfast. And they’re constantly fighting the scourge of jet lag and insomnia so they can get enough sleep to manage the comfort and safety of a few hundred people.
“I do spend a good chunk of my life on a plane and running on the time-zone hamster wheel,” flight attendant Betty Thesky, author of Betty in the Sky With a Suitcase: Hilarious Stories of Air Travel by the World’s Favorite Flight Attendant, tells Yahoo Travel. Getting sleep in different time zones is something I tackle more than once a week.”
Flight attendants know: When you’re jet-lagged, the world can look out of focus. (Photo: iStock)
It’s a fight in which flight attendants often struggle. “East Coast a.m. trips are the devil!” says flight attendant Emily Witkop, who lives in California. After a recent overnight stay on the East Coast, Witkop had to wake up at 4 a.m. Eastern time (or 1 a.m. her time) for the flight back out west. “I spent most of the morning on autopilot,” she remembers. “One poor guy asked me for a black coffee on two separate occasions. I went to check and see if I had given it to him, and on both occasions there was his coffee happily sitting on his tray table. But for the life of me I couldn’t physically remember putting it there. Thank goodness my autopilot is a good stewardess even when I’m sleep-deprived.”
Fortunately, veteran flight attendants have lots of tips and tricks to fighting jet lag and getting enough sleep to be operational during domestic and international time-zone hops — tips we non-flight attendants can use during our own travels. These tips may or may not be scientifically proven, and they’re sometimes contradictory. But these flight attendant slumber suggestions do have one thing in common: They are battle-tested by a group that knows more about jet lag than just about anyone else (except for maybe airline pilots).
So here are 10 flight attendant tips to beating jet lag and getting some sleep.
To sleep or not to sleep?
Pop quiz: You’ve flown an all-night transatlantic flight to Europe and didn’t get a wink of sleep because a baby was crying or you had a chatty seatmate or you decided to watch a Mike and Molly marathon. When you land in London, It’s 9 a.m. local time but still the middle of the night back home. You’re so extremely exhausted it feels as if you’re watching the world underwater. What do you do?
Flight attendants are almost unanimous on what you shouldn’t do: sleep. “Do not fall asleep for a long period of time after a flight,” warns flight attendant Tyler Herrick. “If you must, nap for a short while. Then get up! You’ll never be able to sleep at night if you’ve slept the day away! Get up and go!”
Flight attendant Heather Poole, author of Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet, agrees with that stay-awake philosophy. “I can’t nap for a few hours and then go about my day and feel normal doing so — and I feel even worse after a nap,” she says. “Do not sit down on the hotel bed; once your behind touches the hotel bed, it’s over. Get out of the room. Go for a walk. Get in the sunlight.”
But some flight attendants have a more relaxed policy. “Listen to your body and sleep when it’s telling you to, even if it’s in the middle of the day,” says flight attendant Michelle Lazzaro.
Pick a time zone
Sleep according to your time zone at home, or the one you’re in? (Illustration: iStock)
When traveling, should you stay on your own time zone or adjust your sleeping hours to fit local time? “It is different for everyone,” says Lazzaro, a New Yorker who opts to stay on East Coast time when she travels. “That sometimes means I’m in bed at 7 p.m. on the West Coast as others are just going out to dinner. But for me, getting a good night’s sleep is more important.”
“I try to keep my watch/clock on my home time zone and use that as a tool to go to bed at a decent hour in a different time zone,” says ex-flight attendant Keith McAndrew.
But Southwest Airlines’ Lauren McLaughlin, who lives in Phoenix, chooses to adapt. “I go by what time zone I am in when I land,” she says. “It used to be hard when I’m on the East Coast trying to go to bed at 9 p.m. when it’s only 6 p.m. at home. So I changed my mindset to, ‘OK, it’s 9 p.m. That’s it.’”
McLaughlin’s Southwest colleague Emily Witkop agrees. “I also try to pretend the time zone I’m in is my time zone,” she says, “to psych out my subconscious.” Adds Betty Thesky, “Go to bed on their clock, and don’t think about ‘your time’ again till you’re heading home.”
Drinking water and exercising can help you get over jet lag. (Photo: iStock)
Taking care of your body enables it to withstand the rigors of time-zone hopping. “Working out and eating right sounds so cliché to say, but it really does help with keeping your body in sync with sleeping well,” says Michelle Lazzaro.
Heather Poole backs up the importance of working out on the road (it also keeps you from falling asleep right after you land). Plus, she offers another tip. “What works best for me is drinking tons of water,” she says. “Being dehydrated makes you tired, and there’s nothing more dehydrating than flying overseas.”
Practice good “bed-iquette”
If this woman wants to get some sleep, she might wanna put down the tablet. (Photo: iStock)
Experienced flight attendants have their own rituals for making conditions ideal for sleep; Morgan Reed likes to take a warm shower and drink tea. “Basically, doing your nightly routine like back home helps tremendously,” she says.
“I am the master of creating the perfect cave for sleep,” says flight attendant Angela Crandall. “I have this amazing traveling noise machine, earplugs, and an eye mask.”
Another tip: Turn off those phones and computers. “No electronics in bed,” flight attendant “Lindsay” tells Yahoo Travel. “Instead, I’ve found reading a book helps me relax.”
Become a darkness fanatic
Here is a good start, but this hotel room still might not be quite dark enough. (Photo: iStock)
When it’s time to sleep, virtually all the flight attendants we talked to are obsessed with keeping their hotel rooms as dark as possible. “I personally love a dark room — especially when it’s still daylight outside,” says Witkop. Like other flight attendants, she MacGyvers the hotel room curtains. “My favorite tip is to take the pants hanger from the closet and use it to clip the sections of curtain together that try to let in the last crack of daylight.”
Lauren McLaughlin also uses a hanger, but Betty Thesky has another approach to curtain clipping: “I carry a clothespin to keep a gap in the curtains shut.”
Drugs: Tread lightly
Use sleeping pills sparingly. (Photo: iStock)
“My personal method is to use sleep-aid medicine only as a last resort,” says Tyler Herrick.
Emily Witkop takes an even harder line. “I am not a fan of sleeping pills, especially Ambien,” she says. “More than one person I know personally have had scary situations arise after taking Ambien. I have one friend who was wandering around the courtyard of a very nice California hotel in the middle of the night in his boxer shorts. Luckily for this amazing guy, he was flying with his girlfriend, so she was able to get him back in the room before shenanigans or something dangerous occurred. Scary stuff. No, thank you.”
Some flight attendants swear by melatonin. (Photo: iStock)
Some flight attendants are less freaked out by the supplement melatonin. “The only way I have found to get a somewhat normal sleep pattern is by taking melatonin,” says “Lindsay.” “It’s natural and doesn’t have groggy side effects like over-the-counter medicines.”
Once you’re asleep, don’t let yourself get distracted
Don’t let anything distract you from your mission. (Photo: iStock)
“Falling asleep is usually not really a problem, because you hardly slept the night before,” Betty Thesky says about sleeping in a different time zone that first night. She adds, “But staying asleep is another story. If you get up for anything, even if you have to go to the bathroom, you may be up the rest of the night.”
If you should wake up midslumber anyway, be extra careful. “Don’t even think of looking at the clock, or thinking about anything, for that matter,” Thesky says. “Your body is confused and doesn’t know why it’s sleeping at 6 p.m., so any distraction could wake you up for good. Two days ago, I was asleep in Brussels and heard some people screaming and running in the street. I was tempted to get up and look out the window to see what was going on. But I had to scold myself: “No! Don’t get up, don’t look out the window, and, for goodness sake, don’t look at the clock!’”
Look to a higher power…
Meditating can help you get some shuteye. (Photo: iStock)
You can be Zen about the whole sleep thing. Says ex-flight attendant “Hannah”: “I typically just try progressive relaxation meditations and pray for a good night.”
…or just have a drink
“Hannah” has another suggestion for a jet lag sleeping aid. “A beer can help,” she says, adding that you should only partake if you’re well outside the alcohol-free period required before any crew member works on a flight.
Now, whether one should use alcohol to beat jet lag is open for debate. But at least drinking and jet lag have one interesting thing in common: They’re both predicated on the reality that it’s 5 o’clock somewhere.
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