Much like pilots, flight attendants find themselves in a career that can take them across multiple time zones each week—sometimes multiple times a day. Couple that with long hours and irregular sleep patterns, and you’ll wonder: How do these travel professionals appear to handle jet lag, while passengers feel fatigue and insomnia almost instantly?
First, we need to understand just what “jet lag” actually is. Jet lag occurs when the body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythm, is disrupted by crossing multiple time zones rapidly. The body struggles to realign its internal schedule (or your regular routine) with its new local time. There’s not one right or wrong way to adjust to your new time zone. Everyone’s body is different. It might take some trial and error to find out what works best for you.
Stay awake before your flight
As a former flight attendant myself, I’ll say that personally dealing with jet lag was easy. I was often tired, but that helped. On an average day, I operated one to three flights, one of which was a long-haul flight across the country. My schedule had me on duty for close to ten hours daily. By the time I landed in another time zone, I was ready to sleep. That nap after arrival, or overnight rest in some cases, instantly reset my internal clock.
Now, as a business and leisure traveller, I have the luxury of sleeping (and not working the flight), so I arrive at my destination rested, but that jet lag still lurks just a few hours behind me. Try to stay awake on your flight; this will help you feel tired upon arrival and you can head straight to bed once you get to your accommodations. If you arrive earlier in the day, set an alarm and take a nap. Wake up, enjoy the rest of your day, and you should still be tired enough to sleep that evening, therefore fully adjusting your body clock to the current time zone.
Get some coffee and bananas
I asked a group of flight attendants about their jet lag remedies and a resounding response was simply, “Coffee!” The caffeine gives them a boost of energy and jolts them awake to either keep working or to get outside in their new time zone. For Angelo Bedford, a flight attendant based in Honolulu, almost every work trip takes him through various time zones because of his location. When he has time off at home in Hawaii, Bedford says the beach relaxes and rejuvenates him. But when it comes to a quick layover, he relies on “lots of water, sleep, and then coffee!”
For those who don’t drink coffee, Phil Rodriguez, a former flight attendant turned corporate airline employee, says, “Eat a banana instead of [drinking] coffee. It’s packed with vitamins and natural sugars that will give you a wake-up boost within minutes. It’ll last hours, and it won’t have you crash hard as coffee and caffeine will.”
Get outside and do some physical activity
California-based flight attendant Michella Marquez says she adjusts by “getting outside and walking.” She says exercise is one way to keep your body active while adapting to your new daylight hours while also tiring yourself to sleep. “But for flight attendants, sometimes we don’t have the time to do all of that. Our layovers can be short. Sometimes, we just suffer through it.”
Stick to one time zone
To maintain a sense of consistency, many crew members play “make-believe” with their time zones. Seattle-based flight attendant Tamford Westeel says, “[You’re] basically making a conscious decision to either live by the new time zone, or the one you departed from. But there’s no in-between.”
She’s not alone. Some flight attendants don’t even try to adjust to the new time zone at all because their layover is so short—anywhere from 12 to 24 hours. They simply eat, rest, and return to the plane for their flight home. To remember what the local time is in their base city, many crew members don’t even change the time on their wristwatches.
If nothing else, find strong moral support
A good support system and encouragement can also help battle the effects of crossing time zones. Flight crews may have only just met each other for the first time prior to boarding, but they’re all in the same boat, well… plane. They work together and therefore travel together; their time in a destination is the same; and they have to make the same sacrifices and adjustments to complete the job and remain healthy. Crews make plans with each other for meals and excursions at the destination so they can encourage each other to stick to a schedule and adapt.
For regular travellers, try creating an itinerary that would let you and your travel companions adjust to the new time zone at a pace that works for you. And be sure to stick to it. Friends don’t let friends sleep in when they’re fending off jet lag!
When all else fails, just weather the temporal transition as best you can. The effects of jet lag will eventually fade and your body will adjust. It usually happens just in time for your return flight home—where you get to do it all again.