Dealing with jet lag: Flying to Iceland from North America

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As I get older I’m always discovering more and more things that I can’t do anymore due to my old age. I know, I know – I’m not old! I’m just not as young and limber as I used to be. This list includes but is not limited to: partying like it’s 1999, staying up all night eating popcorn and watching Friends and waking up at a reasonable hour the next day and putting my leg behind my head. This last bit might be reversible with some intense yoga training though.

A new thing to put on that list is traveling without jet lag. In 2008 I flew for 17 hours from London to Bangkok via Abu Dahbi, arriving really early in the morning, and after a short power nap I was out and about exploring. The same year I flew to Montréal  straight after work, went out partying with some locals as soon as I landed and didn’t go to bed until noon the next day or some 36 hours after I had woken up. After a four hour nap I was out rollerblading in the sun. Admittedly I didn’t win any prizes for good form that day but I was there. On 8 wheels.

This year, last week to be more exact, I flew from Vancouver to Reykjavík which is a seven hour flight arriving around 6am at Keflavík Airport. The time difference between Reykjavík and Vancouver is 7 hours and I never really got used to the time difference during our 2 weeks stay out there in the west. I was fine, for the most part, when I landed in Keflavík and once I got home I worked for a few hours answering some of the 770 e-mails that awaited me in my e-mail inbox upon our return. Yes. That’s seven hundred and seventy e-mails. In two weeks.

But then I committed the cardinal sin of eastbound time zone travel: I took a nap. I wasn’t going to sleep long, only an hour or two but of course I didn’t hear the alarm when it went off and then I slept for four hours. Since then, until today, my circadian rhythm has been all out of whack.

We arrived on Tuesday. On Wednesday I did a tour and couldn’t remember any words in English, which is funny since we just got back only speaking English for two weeks, and my mouth couldn’t make all the sounds I needed so I sounded like a intellectually-challenged stroke victim for most of the tour. On Thursday I slept till noon (I NEVER sleep till noon), had some breakfast and the next thing I know I wake up on my bed with saliva all over my face, three hours later, with one leg in my trousers and wearing a top inside out. My guess is that I had gone to the bedroom to get dressed and that’s how that ended.

I’ve been struggling with insomnia, loss of appetite (which isn’t altogether a bad thing after two weeks of beer and American portions) and serious daytime fatigue. And then I got a cold. All in all I’ve had better weeks. And I blame it all on jet lag.

Because that’s just who I am I decided to google jet lag this morning and get some answers to what I could do to fix this only to find out that everything I could have done I should have done during or just before and after the flight. So for future reference, and for all of you heading over to Iceland soon from North-America, here’s what I found out.

My complete list of everything I know about jet lag from a quick google research, my own experience and reading not necessarily scientifically endorsed articles. Read at your own risk.

Apparently it’s much worse to fly east to your destination as that way you lose time instead of gaining it. In our case, for example, we left Vancouver around 4pm and landed in Keflavík at 6am 7 hours later. In Vancover it was only 10pm when we landed so it’s understandable that we weren’t particularly tired.

The best thing you can do is to stay awake until it’s time for bed at your destination. I actually knew this and give this advice out to people all the time so I don’t understand why I thought this didn’t apply to me when I took that nap of doom. The boyfriend had to got to work as soon as we landed and I was on his case like some evil prison warden from the moment he came home, making sure he wouldn’t go to sleep. I’m sure he loved me a little less that afternoon but I also think he is thankful now because he hasn’t been dealing with any of my problems.

I should mention that I think it’s a little bit different coming home than starting your vacation this way because at the beginning of your trip you are all pumped about going out to explore which gives you extra energy, not wanting to waste a minute, whereas you allow yourself to wallow more in your fatigue from the comfort of your own home.

When I travel I always make the same mistakes. I leave packing till the last minute and then scramble last minutel late at night the evening before the flight so when it’s finally time to take off I’m already exhausted. So to prevent jet lag you should try to rest well before the flight if you can. Apparently it also helps to sleep on the plane if you are arriving early in the morning at your destination, even though you’re not tired, so you should probably do that. I can’t sleep on planes and I would probably need some sort of sleeping aid to do that but sleeping pills scare me to death so I’m not a big fan of that. If you are more comfortable with sleeping pills (I hear you can also buy melatonin pills that can help) maybe that’s something to look into. If you flying when it’s day time where you are headed, like when you are going back home from Iceland, you should try not to sleep as that can mess with you going that direction.

I also read somewhere that making sure you are hydrated throughout the flight is also good (I probably should have saved the links where I read these things so I could share them with you. Don’t judge, I’m sleep deprived and I have a cold!)

They also say that it helps to be exposed to daylight at your destination to remind your body that it’s indeed daytime and not nighttime. You can even start training your body with one of those daylight lamps at home before you leave but that to me sounds a little excessive. Just try to stay awake as long as you can and instead of going straight to your hotel and close the blinds you should go out and explore. Maybe you could do my walking tour for example,  the timing of it was designed for those coming in with the early morning transatlantic flights, but almost every morning I have people on my tour specifically trying to beat the jet lag.

I sometimes recommend that you do the Blue Lagoon on your way from the airport, both because it’s on the way and also because it’s a way to kill time. However I know for me personally that I would be extra tired after a soak in the lagoon so it makes more sense to do the Blue Lagoon on your last day on the way to the airport. But everyone is different.

So to summarize: try to rest before your flight, stay hydrated, try to sleep on the plane and no matter how difficult it is – try to stay awake until it’s night time in Iceland.  Seriously, you’ll thank me later if you do.

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11 thoughts on “Dealing with jet lag: Flying to Iceland from North America”

  1. Tom says:

    Those of us who live in the southern hemisphere are connoisseurs of jetlag. If you think a 7 hour flight from BC to Reykjavík is bad, try a 25 or 34 hour eastbound flight from Reykjavík to Sydney, via London or the US. I offer the following, FWIW:
    1. Eastbound vs westbound — yes, eastbound does seem worse, but it depends a lot on the actual time changes, rather than whether you ‘lose’ a day or some hours. Example: when we antipodeans head to Europe, we can get a late afternoon flight via Dubai, the sun goes down a few hours after takeoff, and it’s night for the whole 21 hours or so before arriving in (eg) London at daybreak. You basically travel all night almost all the way. I spend the new day normally and resist any temptation to have a sleep before evening. The jetlag is quite minimal and you recover well. Same for leaving in the early morning, it’s day most of the way but you arrive in the evening and you can go to bed. The return trip is a shocker. The flights are mostly in the evening, and when you finally arrive home it’s early morning but your body is telling you it’s late at night. Worse, when I came back from Iceland in August I did Reykjavík – Heathrow – Bangkok – Sydney, with 8 hours in Bangkok. I didn’t follow my usual rule 2 below, and it took me 2 weeks to fully recover.
    2. My two golden rules of jetlag for eastbound flying: first, I completely agree with Auður, resist the temptation to sleep at your destination if it’s not sleep time. Second, and this may be controversial, set your watch to your ultimate destination as soon as you take off, and try to get your body into that rhythm. It’s not perfect, but it helps keep the damage to a minimum.

  2. Erin says:

    We visited Iceland from Boston in July, and we actually found it quite easy to stay on EST and avoid jet lag all together. Between late evening sun and hotel blackout curtains, we had no trouble staying up and sleeping in. Most of the hotel breakfast buffets served food until 10 a.m. Likewise, most restaurants were still open at 9 or 10 p.m. Eating and sightseeing at off times also helped us avoid the crowds and savor our experience. Not to mention, it was easier on our 2 year old. Keeping her on the schedule she is used to really saved us traveling in both directions. Anyway, if it was an option that worked like a dream for us!

    Hope you feel better soon!! We were sad to miss you on our tour when we were there, but we had a great time with The Boyfriend!

  3. Wendy says:

    You are so right! Good advice…especially; stay hydrated and stay awake. Ignore the siren song of the bed and just keep moving????

  4. Jan says:

    I seem to suffer from jet lag so much more than my husband. It has ruined the first few days of my holiday a couple of times – it makes me physically sick, headachey and giddy. So on a recent trip to Hong Kong and Japan I did my homework and bought some melatonin and began to readjust my body clock a few days before I flew. I went to bed in the UK progressively earlier by an hour for 4 days.like, Tom, I also readjusted my watch as soon as I boarded the flight and slept at the appropriate times for my destination. A miracle – It seemed to work! For the first time on a trip East I wasn’t feeling like death on arrival and it meant I could actually make the most of those couple of days.

  5. Danielle says:

    i got pretty seasoned at fly from Uk to the US and didnt really get any jet lag, i’d change my watch as soon as i got on the plane and try to forget the Uk time and just hit the ground running. I only drink water on flights, no alcohol or sodas any more.

    As you say, coming back East is far worse and it would usually take me a week to get back into the swing of things. I think its worse because the flights always seemed to come in in the morning so you had to do the rest of the day to deal with.

    I find it impossible to sleep on the plane so i never factor in getting any sleep into my plane of what to do. I get super tired and i might drop off, but then even if ive only slept for 10mins if something wakes me up, thats it, im not tired anymore. im not a big nap person, i feel crap after a nap, jet lag or not! i only nap if i have a super bad headache and if i stay awake its going to go very very bad…

    the worst jet lag i had was when i came back from NZ – never experienced anything like it, for days afterwards i was just up at 3am, and in the evenings i was like a zombie and felt like i was on another planet…. im not sure i could have combatted that!

  6. Yes, always wait for bedtime in the city you’re in to go to sleep. Even if you fly in early in the morning! Naps make jetlag so much worse.

  7. Claire says:

    Excellent advice!!

    Your article reminded me of a question about my upcoming trip. We are coming from New York and arriving to KEF airport at around 4:00am Icelandic time. We were planning on renting a car upon our arrival and driving straight to the Blue Lagoon and hanging out there for a few hours before checking into our hostel. But I noticed that the Blue Lagoon doesn’t open until 9:00am. Do you know of any places we can maybe stop by for breakfast or even just coffee on the way there?

    1. mm Auður says:

      The only things I remember being open at that hour is Subway close to the airport that is open 24h. You could stop for breakfast at the Icelandair hotel in Keflavík which starts at 5am. You don’t need to be a guest to eat there but last time I checked it cost just over 2000 ISK per person. Their breakfast buffet is pretty good, you know, for a hotel buffet.

  8. Greg says:

    Not taking a nap when you arrive is the key to travelling east across time zones. My wife and I made that mistake when we went to England a few years ago. I won a 3 day trip to England for a rock festival and we arrived mid day, decided to take a nap at the hotel and ended up sleeping for 6 hours. We woke up around 3am local time and were really messed up for the rest of the trip.

    2 years later we went to France and forced ourselves to get onto their time when we boarded the plane and it helped immensely. I also read that eating on the plane as if you were on the new time zone helps get your body to switch over to the new time faster.

    Ive also found that taking some gravol (anti-motion sickness pills) helps make me groggy enough to sleep on the plane. Slap on a sleeping mask and some noise cancellation ear buds, some light music and you’re set.

    Hoping to use this strategy when we fly to Iceland at the beginning on November!

  9. Sean Farrow says:

    What jet lag? lol

    I’m from Australia… now that timezone difference will mess you up for weeks!

  10. Daniel O.. says:

    I fly overseas often and never get jetlag. I have flown from San Jose CA to Bangkok via Los Angeles and Beijing and return without jetlag. I am here in France and when I flew San Francisco to Paris I slept for 6 hours of the 9.5 hour flight and stayed up until 11 PM. On the return I arrive home by 2 PM and treat it like a normal day.

    When I was 13 I remember coming home from Europe and fell.asleep riggt away and got up at midnight and could not sleep.

    Now I take Melatonin 7 days before Eastbound flight and 3 days before Westbound flight and it works.For the first two nights upon arrival I take it too
    I love 2 week Eastbound Trans Atlantic cruises as then you don’t get jetlag and the Westbound flight is easy.

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