Thursday, October 30, 2014

Toddlers and Time Zones - Europe

One of the questions I get often as a traveling toddler is "How do you deal with the jetlag?" Well, it's not easy, but I do have some great parents to help me adjust to different time zones when we travel long distance.

The challenge with living on the East Coast of the US is that you're almost always going to have inconvenient flight times.

However, when you travel (especially as or with young children), you learn to "deal with it." Here are a few ways we try to adjust as best you can.

Flights to Europe 
These trans-Atlantic flights are often business-traveler oriented, so they're always scheduled to arrive very early Europe time (like 7-9AM) so that people can make their business meetings in the morning or make a connecting flight to another part of Europe. That's great for them, but that means we're departing at 4-6PM and landing at midnight-2AM on New York time. Not ideal for families, or non-senior citizens who don't fall asleep before the show Modern Family comes on.

Plus, the flight from the East Coast is likely only 6-8 hours long, which isn't enough time to really sleep a full night after factoring in taxiing to the gate, dinner service, breakfast service and landing. So you're really only looking at maybe 4-5 hours of actual sleep time. I know this pretty well, because we just did a red-eye flight to Munich this past July.

But I wanted to show you a flight with multiple options, so we'll use the more popular New York-Frankfurt route that has more than 1 flight per day.

Ignore the fact that there seem to be 7 different flight options, because there are actually only 3 (partner airlines like United and Lufthansa often code-share for the same exact flight). You have the following:
  • 5PM departure arriving 5:30AM local time (aka 12:30AM New York time);
  • 7:30PM departure arriving 9AM local time (aka 4AM New York time); and
  • 11PM departure arriving 11:30AM local time (aka 6:30AM New York time)
Your choice will likely be determined by your itinerary the next day. If it were us and we were staying in Germany that trip, then I'd opt for the 11PM flight because it would better align with my normal sleep schedule. But if you're connecting in Frankfurt to catch an morning flight to Rome, then you may have to go with the earlier flight.

For the sake of this blog post, let's just assume you have to take the 5PM flight, so you'd land in Frankfurt just after midnight New York time. We'd do the following:
  • Stay up SUPER late the night before in NYC (like 1-2AM) so that we're more likely to be tired for our flight.
  • Set our watches smart phones to Frankfurt time as soon as we arrive at JFK. Then try to do everything as if we were on German time already. So assuming it was 3PM when we arrived to the airport, we'd pretend it was actually 8PM, so we'd try to have dinner and I'd get into my adorable Hello Kitty Pajamas.
  • Since we already had dinner (or attempted to), we may opt to skip the in-flight meal completely and really try to sleep as early as possible. By the time we take off and reach cruising altitude, it will likely be 6PM New York (11PM Frankfurt). 
If successful, I'd get a good 5 hours of toddler sleep before the cabin lights will come back on at 11PM NY time (4AM Frankfurt) to begin breakfast service.

However, more often, I will not actually fall asleep so early and will only get ~3 hours of sleep and get woken up before I was ready. In either case, I really won't be well rested when we land and get off the plane.

So depending on your plans for the day of your arrival, we try to get to our hotel as soon as possible and beg for an early morning check in. Given most European cities have plenty of active American business travelers, the hotels are pretty used to these requests. I won't lie, it definitely helps if you (a) call in advance to notify them and/or (b) have elite status with their hotel loyalty program.

Then we'd use the blackout shades, go back to sleep for a few hours and wake up to get a late 1PM lunch. We found that it's much better to enjoy your first day in Europe when you're well rested. However, my father NEVER lets us sleep too long, because we still need to be a little bit tired so that we'll go to sleep at a normal (European) time and break from our US time zone.

But now comes the KEY to our success.

During the first day, if I start to doze off, my father will do whatever he has to do to keep me awake. Most parents probably wouldn't be willing (or able) to do this to their adorable tired toddler, but my father's definitely not like most parents. He will tickle me, make me walk, sprinkle me with water, bother me by touching my face as I sleep, and even bribe me with ice cream.  He's pretty strict about me not sleeping off-cycle, because he knows how difficult it will be for all of us if I didn't adjust to the new time zone. After all, having a 3 year old constantly waking up at 2-4AM for our entire trip isn't a recipe for success.

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