Red-eye flights take a toll on your body and your mind, but there are ways to cope. If you really can’t avoid a red-eye flight, here’s your best way to survive it…
Ah, the dreaded overnight flight – aka red-eye flights. Red-eye flights are often hated, but at the same time, they’re still popular with travelers for a couple of reasons.
For one thing, flying overnight is usually cheaper than flying at other times of day.
Plus, if you’re traveling for vacation or for business, taking a red-eye flight allows you to maximize your time on the ground at your destination. You arrive at the beginning of a new day, so you get a ‘bonus day’ to get work done or see the sights – in theory anyway.
But are late night flights bad for you? Should you avoid red-eye flights?
And, if you do end up on an overnight flight, what are some steps you can take to minimize the stress on your body and your mind to help you to recover faster?
First off, what is a red-eye flight?
The term red-eye flight refers to an overnight flight or a late night flight. It’s an old-fashioned phrase that has somehow survived for decades and is still in use. ‘Red-eye flight’ is a term that actually dates back to the very earliest days of commercial aviation.
Back when plane travel was much slower, traveling salesmen and other business types demanded overnight flights that could get them to early meetings in another part of the country or another part of the world, and the airlines responded.
In the U.S., overnight red-eye flights on planes that were a quarter-full or even less were pretty common back in the early heyday of commercial flying.
These days, however, don’t expect to have a row to yourself if you book a red-eye flight. Today there are hundreds of wildly popular routes and destinations that are served by red-eye flights.
Why is it called a red-eye flight anyway?
The name ‘red-eye flight’ came about as kind of a sad little joke. The definition of red-eye flight is that when a passenger emerges on the other end after an overnight flight, he or she is going to have red eyes from traveling all night and sleeping badly, or not at all.
Imagine packs of Mad Men-era 1960s businessmen stumbling out of one of those old-fashioned propeller passenger planes following a long red-eye flight, unshaven, heading off to their important meetings looking all bleary and rumpled, and you’ll get the idea of why is it called a red-eye flight.
What places do red-eye flights go?
Especially for routes that travel from west to east, there are tons of red-eye flights to choose from. They’re almost always going to be on longer routes, however, so you won’t find too many overnight flights that take less than 6 hours or so.
If you’re traveling in the U.S. from west to east, there are still a number of regular overnight flight routes that will you from LAX to New York in time for a morning breakfast meeting. And if you’re flying from the U.S. to European destinations, there are lots of options for red-eye flights.
So are red-eye flights bad for you? If so, why?
Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple yes or no answer as to whether red-eye flights are bad for you. The question of whether or not overnight flights are detrimental to your health – and how bad it is for you – depends on the individual.
But there are a few genuine health concerns on red-eye flights.
Flying on overnight flights exposes you to long hours of recycled, germ-laden air which can make you sick. Longer flights also mean more bad food on board and waiting in airports, which can mess with your digestive tract.
Much worse, however, is that prolonged hours of sitting can be catastrophic. If you’ve never heard of deep vein thrombosis, do yourself a favor and read about it before you sit still for double-digit hours on another long, red-eye flight.
But the health impact from a red-eye flight that most people are likely to face is that your sleep cycle gets all out of whack. According to experts, a lack of proper sleep can affect your memory, your looks, your weight, and even your sex life.
Even bad sleep on a red-eye flight = bad.
And don’t think that just because you manage to grab a few hours of sleep on your red eye flight you’re out of the woods.
It’s true, overnight flights and the sleep disruption they can cause has a much worse effect on those of us who find the noise, activity and sitting more or less upright on a red eye flight to be too big of a sleep challenge to overcome.
But even if you do manage to sleep, red-eye flights can still jack you up.
That’s because even if you’re someone who can easily go to sleep on a plane, the change in your usual bedtime routine and sleeping habits means that taking a red-eye flight may still affect your quality of sleep.
Let’s face it: coming off an overnight flight, nobody is likely to be as sharp as you would be if you had slept in your own bed. Even if you do manage to sleep most of the flight, you’re still likely to face a day of fuzziness at best, zombie-like exhaustion at worst.
So is the extra day after a red-eye flight worth it?
Many people think taking red-eye flights is an attractive option because you get where you’re going not only for a cheaper price, but also with an entire day in front of you. However, the lack of sleep on an overnight flight can often mean that that “bonus day” is largely ruined anyway.
When you come off of a red-eye flight and you didn’t sleep well, your body is flailing. You don’t know whether you want a cocktail or a cup of coffee. You’re not sure whether you feel like going clubbing or going straight to bed, even though it’s like 9:00 a.m.
Lots of experts suggest you just power through to a bedtime that corresponds with the new time zone you’re in, and hope that by going to sleep at night in your new locale, you’ll wake up at an hour that’s in tune with that new place as well.
Avoid red-eye flights if you can
The truth is, your best bet is to stay away from overnight flights if you can.
But if you can’t, make sure you get as much sleep as possible while on board.
Here then are some ideas to hopefully mitigate the worst effects of the red-eye flight, and get you on to your new schedule as quickly as possible.
While on board the red-eye flight:
• Stick to your routine: The idea here is that you try to trick your body and mind into thinking it’s just another regular old day even though you’re on an overnight flight hurtling through the sky at 600 miles per hour surrounded by strangers.
Eat dinner, brush your teeth, get yourself settled in your seat as best you can with a blanket and pillow near your regular bedtime. Read or do whatever you do before bed like you do at home, and hopefully you’ll fall asleep as usual.
• Avoid blue light: It’s tempting when on a red-eye flight to treat it like you’re at a grown-up slumber party with 180 of your closest friends.
But staying awake later than usual and binging on a series or watching movie after movie exposes you to blue light from the LCD screen, which has a detrimental effect on sleep.
Put away your phone and turn off your seat-back screen if you want to get some much needed sleep.
• Avoid alcohol and caffeine: Unfortunately, two of our favorite substances also happen to be the ones that mess with your sleep patterns the most. Avoid both of these as best you can, not only on the red eye flight but on the day leading up to it.
• Think about a window seat: If you’re really serious about going to sleep on a red-eye flight, having people trying to get past you in your row to go to the toilet or bashing into you as they walk past in the aisle ain’t gonna help.
Take a leak after you eat so you won’t have to worry about crawling over people to get to the toilet later, then curl up by the window and crash.
• Get a sleep mask and ear plugs: These two simple things can be a lifesaver on a long red-eye flight if you’re trying to make sure you get your zzz’s. Consider getting some noise-canceling headphones if you really want to sleep like a baby. Also think about a neck pillow.
One final tip for after you land: sleep experts recommend you get yourself into the sun and particularly get some sun on your face right away.
The sunlight tells your brain to stop making melatonin, the sleep hormone, and tells your body it’s time to get up and enjoy the day!
Stay tuned for more health and fitness advice from Blitz’d!