I love traveling, walking through airports, seeing people arrive and depart. I’m as excited as a little kid for Christmas every time, and I plan weeks in advance. In my first years of trans-atlantic flying I never had a plan for sleeping on the plane or conquering jet lag. I sure hoped I could sleep for a while, but after waking up and looking at my watch, only 30 minutes had passed and I was wide awake for the rest of the flight.
When you travel to Germany from the United States you arrive in the morning of the next day, and you are six hours ahead of your inner clock. With no sleep on the plane I feel sluggish and have a hard time remaining awake when I see my family and friends for the first time in months, if not a year. Here are a few tips and products that keep me sane and rested when I travel to Germany.
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My 'Sleeping On a Plane' Essentials
In order to get about 3 to 4 hours of sleep on the plane, I use Melatonin to help me fall asleep and Zzzquil to keep me asleep. Melatonin is a natural hormone produced by our body when it gets dark in the evenings. Taking a Melatonin pill signals your body that it is indeed bedtime. Zzzquil contains the antihistamine Diphenhydramine (also found in the allergy medication Benadryl) and helps you relax and sleep better. I take one dose of each with the airplane dinner service, which makes me sleepy 30 to 45 minutes later and I dose off. If you want to try either of these two pills, I highly recommend to try them at home before your flight. Do not take Melatonin or Diphenhydramine for the first time on a long haul flight, not knowing how your body will react to it and talk to your doctor about possible side effects.
On a side note: You can only buy Melatonin in the United States, not in Germany. Germany requires you to be over 55 years old to have a prescription filled for Melatonin (sold as Circadin in Germany).
Melatonin and Diphenhydramine will make you fall asleep and keep you asleep, as long as there are no loud sounds or movement around you. To avoid waking up during my much needed nap time, I use in-ear headphones and play one of my favorite podcasts, audiobooks or calm music on repeat. The in-ear headphones seal off the ears and the podcast or music drown out enough airplane noise for me to relax and sleep. For more money, you can also invest in noise-canceling headphones, which will cancel out monotonous sounds like airplane noise completely. For less money get some foam ear plugs.
Two more items that help me sleep on a plane are a sleep mask and a travel pillow. Both are rather inexpensive and light, making it easy to add to your carry-on luggage. The sleep mask seals off any light from hitting my eyes and the travel pillow keeps my head from falling. Each transatlantic flight does provide you with a pillow (and a blanket), but the pillow is too small for me and does not give my head any stability while I doze off.
Entertainment For Making the Hours Fly By
Make sure to also bring a magazine (or several…) or a book on board with you. Here's a bunch of books Denise and I have read and loved. If reading will not make you tired, it will at least kill some time on the long flight. For more entertainment, have your favorite electronic device handy. Download movies, podcasts or audiobooks before your flight and make sure your device is charged. Twice I’ve had a seat where the in-flight entertainment was broken. It does happen, and when you’re over the Atlantic Ocean there’s not much the flight attendants can do for you except apologize and if you’re lucky a small voucher. I was fortunate to have Denise beside me and we could share her screen, plus I brought my own things to do.
Become a Camel
In order to stay hydrated on the plane, we buy a bottle of water after the security check and stick to water only during dinner service on board. Dehydration is not recommended if you want to avoid a jet lag, and while a glass of wine might send you off to never-never land in no time, it does dehydrate and result in restless sleep. Keep your alcohol and also caffeine intake to a minimum before and during the flight. There is enough great beer and wine in Germany to enjoy during your vacation.
What Goes In...
Don’t be fooled into thinking you can make a 8-9 hour flight without using the airplane’s bathroom facilities. You might be tempted to avoid drinking water as much as possible in order to avoid going. Don’t do it. While on short, 2-3 hour flights across country perhaps only one or two elderly citizens will get up mid-flight to use the bathroom, on an international flight EVERYONE at one point will get up to use the bathroom several times. It’s not a big deal at all. Plus, there’s three times the amount of bathrooms than the typical one or two that’s on flights for a few hours. Drink up, and don’t worry. Everyone has to go sometime...
And my final thought for sleeping on a plane: wear layers of clothes. By wearing layers, you can avoid being too cold or hot. I wear a t-shirt and a zippered sweatshirt over it, a comfortable jeans and my favorite shoes, that I can slip off easily during the flight and put back on quickly if I have to use the restroom. Denise always brings a scarf, which comes in handy as a blanket, pillow or to keep her neck warm. She also packs thick winter socks that she layers over her regular socks.
Your First Day in Germany
Now that you finally landed in Germany, a quick nap looks very enticing. I have taken one-hour naps after a transatlantic flight, but they do not do me any good. Try to live on local time right away, have a quick shower and get some fresh air walking around the town for a bit. Being out in the sunshine helps your body convert to the new time. Both give me a little bit more energy and make me forget how little sleep I got on the airplane last night. Set your watch to the local time, too and do not think about what time it is “back home”. Start living on German time and end your day with a light dinner. No one sleeps well with an aching stomach.
My final tip for adjusting to local time: I do go to bed an hour or two before my usual bedtime on the first day only. After a good night's sleep I awake very rested and go to bed at my usual bedtime the following nights without a problem. A dark room is key here and if your room does not have black-out shades, use your sleep mask from the plane.
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