Jets are great. They allow eager travelers and hard-charging business people to travel thousands of miles in a matter of hours. Some of them get used to the stresses of “transmeridian travel” (a fancy name for travel across multiple time zones). But with summer around the corner and flights to Europe filling fast, a lot of novice travelers are about to experience the peculiar effect of being physically located in one part of the world while their bodies and minds are left many hours behind.
I fly a couple of hundred thousand miles each year, so I have experienced firsthand all the ills of long-haul flights: jet lag, lousy food, cramped muscles, disorientation — you name it. A while back, I decided to do something about it. Now, after three years of academic research ranging from work with the World Bank to the U.S. Army, I have designed a method for adapting to the ills of travel fatigue. By using a set of simple behavioral strategies, travelers can travel better, safer and more productively.
The problem of transmeridian travel is simple: Our bodies are not designed to cross multiple time zones in mere hours. For everyday living, the body is set to a natural sleep/wake cycle, which takes its cues from the passage of the sun. Under normal conditions, the body is set to be alert during daylight hours and to sleep when it’s dark. Any disruption in this cycle throws off the body’s “circadian clock,” its internal timekeeper, causing fatigue.
Before modern jet travel, it took travelers weeks or months to cover any significant geography. For example, the average trans-Atlantic ocean liner crossing took four weeks. Leisurely travel like this gives the body’s circadian clock time to reset naturally, following a gradual change in the day/night cycle. Jet travel over more than three or four times zones, on the other hand, almost always results in travel fatigue.
Travel fatigue is known to affect memory, performance and digestive function; it can cause irritability, stress and sleep deprivation. Cumulative travel fatigue, resulting from frequent or consecutive trips, can result in such physiological and psychological conditions as anxiety, obesity, depression, cardiac disease, reduced performance, job burnout and interpersonal difficulties. In fact, the World Bank concluded from one study that travelers taking five or more trips a year experience a 66 percent increase in family-related psychological disorders.
Consider a typical trans-Atlantic itinerary. You leave Chicago at 5 p.m., fly for nine hours and arrive in Paris at 9 in the morning. You should be ready for a full day of meetings or sightseeing, but your body thinks it’s still in Chicago, where it is 2 in the morning and you are fast asleep. You may drink a double espresso and do a hundred jumping jacks, but without strategic intervention, your body is going to win. Your business deal will be blown, and that afternoon tour of Notre Dame will be nothing but a blur.
The bad news is that travel fatigue is inevitable. The good news is that with a little effort, you can train your body and mind to better adapt to the rigors of travel.
Here are a few tips to keep you going.
Train like an athlete. During the regular season, a professional baseball player flies from city to city and plays 180 games under constant pressure to perform. Although your trips might not mean the difference between a World Series championship and a long off-season, your million-dollar deal or valuable vacation time is just as important. So, train like an athlete.
Lighten your load. If possible, leave the computer at home and carry a USB key or some sort of flash memory device. Since most major hotels and office complexes have computers available for use, I like to carry a USB key loaded with a software program called Pass2Go, which allows me to safely store my passwords on a USB key and securely log in to online accounts from any computer anywhere in the world. A big advantage of this little key is that you don’t have to screen your computer through security.
Carry the right bags. Travelpro has a nice line of luggage that is ergonomically designed to relieve physical fatigue with cleverly designed handles and rollers that adjust to the way you carry your bags. The Travelpro Platinum 4SE bag features a “weigh less, stress less” handle that greatly reduces the chore of lugging around carry-on baggage.
Reduce ambient noise. A pair of noise-canceling headphones can eliminate the loud drone of the airplane. My personal preferences is for “Solitude” headphones from ProTravelGear.com. I have found them to be comfortable and I enjoy their superior sound quality. Cue up your favorite music or listen to a sleep-promoting program such as Barb Badolati’s “Resting on Cloud 9.”
Stay healthy. An airplane is a great place to pick up dirt, germs and other nasties. TravelKleen has a nifty reusable headrest protector that puts some distance between you and any germs or head lice that previous passengers may have left behind on your seat.
Develop an overall travel fatigue strategy. Serious travelers need a serious program. Look for a comprehensive book on managing stress and fatigue at your bookstore. Better yet, check out my e-book “The Art of Transmeridian Travel” on TransmeridianTraveler.com.
To overcome travel fatigue, you need to call on the body’s unique powers of physiology, psychology, sleep and stress reduction. By properly managing these functions, you can attain optimal performance while traveling.
Joel Widzer is an expert on loyalty and frequent flier programs. He is the author of "The Penny Pincher's Passport to Luxury Travel," a guidebook on traveling in high style at budget-friendly prices. or . Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting .