Lag Time

Tuesday, January 17, 2012
Travel Writer

A frenzy of chatter greeted the recent announcement that Virgin Galactic would begin offering commercial flights into space for $200,000. Those wishing to see Planet Earth from afar may have to wait until later this year, when space flights are expected to take off from New Mexico.

That didn’t stop a lot of my colleagues in the travel media from touting “space” as the hot new destination for 2012. These tended to be the same folks who, grasping at edginess, put such relaxing spots as Iraq and Libya on last year’s list. Anyone who took the Libya advice was in for an exciting trip indeed.

My dad once said, years before anyone thought this was a realistic possibility, that he’d enthusiastically sign up for a trip to outer space — even if it were just one-way. Virgin Galactic not being an option then, my mom just rolled her eyes.

I’ll be honest: I don’t get the appeal of vacationing in a capsule, with no decent restaurants around. You won’t see first-hand reporting on Virgin Galactic in this column — and not just because The Jewish Week travel budget is a bit shy of $200,000.

But frankly, the first thing that popped into my mind about space travel was: Can you imagine the jet lag? (Space lag?)

I’m not even sure a spaceship is a jet. What I do know is that jet lag, for me and many other people, is the single biggest downside of air travel. And if it’s bad between New York and L.A., can you imagine New Mexico and the Moon?

When I was a kid, our family’s travel was limited to the LaGuardia-Fort Lauderdale shuttle. It seemed nothing short of magic that you could escape from slushy chill to palm-fringed paradise in less than three hours.

Decades later, I still adore airports — flourescent-lit crossroads of the world, where every gate hints at adventure, and every boarding pass is an untold story. But the magic evaporates when I board my own flight and 9,000 miles later, I’m six time zones away. “Good morning, and welcome to Zurich,” the pilot intones, while I’m rubbing my eyes and thinking: Morning? This is morning? Isn’t it about time for Letterman?

Traveling east, I emerge from an “overnight” flight with eyelids drooping, schlepping a heavy bag through unfamiliar subway corridors in a sea of bright-eyed local commuters.

Traveling west, I’m nodding into my soup at dinnertime and padding around the dark house at 5 a.m., waiting impatiently for the Times delivery.

Among the myriad hassles of travel, jet lag is uniquely problematic. You can Amex your way out of lines, cramped seats, heavy luggage. But the pesky Circadian rhythm is not so easily bought off.

Still, after 20 years of overseas travel, I have a solid routine. Traveling east, I swallow my resistance to pharmaceuticals along with an Ambien (“May cause drowsiness” warns the label, ironically), generally as soon as I board the plane. Taking it before the meal service is key: on a full stomach, sedatives take much longer to kick in, and you’ll be halfway to Paris before you nod off.

On a standard trans-Atlantic flight, I get four to five hours of sleep in between meals and the brightly lit jostle of takeoff and landing. That’s hardly a good night. But those four hours make all the difference the following day — allowing me to function rather than hallucinate standing up.

Some lucky people sleep on cue once they land in London or Jerusalem. Me, I’ll lie awake until dawn, so I keep taking Ambien for a few nights until my body adjusts. I used to be terrified of ending up like Marilyn Monroe, but in 10 years of this routine I’ve never had problems.

Traveling west is slightly trickier: the tendency is to wake up irritatingly early, unable to fall back asleep. My strategy is to insist on a very early bedtime — 7 p.m. in California if I’m coming from Europe — and submit to very early mornings until I gradually shift forward.

Ambien is the not-so-secret weapon of many of frequent flier, but others swear by melatonin pills, the herb Valerian root, or an old-fashioned favorite — copious amounts of alcohol. For those folks at the airport bar at 7 a.m., it sure doesn’t feel like morning.

Some people will go to amazing lengths to avoid jet lag. Friends of my parents, who live in San Diego, recently cruised across the Atlantic — from Fort Lauderdale to Genoa, one time zone a day — just to avoid the nine-zone jet lag. This strategy only works if you have a lot of time and Dramamine.

My favorite long-haul flight is New York to Buenos Aires. In 13 hours, you only cross one time zone — you’re essentially heading straight south — so you get a full night’s sleep on the plane, and wake up in the natural morning.

Some travelers change personalities as they cross time zones. That happened to my sister, who lives in California and is extremely nocturnal, regularly staying up all night and sleeping past noon.

But after 20 disorienting hours of travel, she landed in Barcelona, fell asleep after dinner and woke up every day of her Spanish vacation at 8 a.m., taking café con leche with the locals. The rest of us, groggy over croissants, wondered who this chipper morning person was — and what she had done with my sister.

It makes me wonder what would happen if we sent her into space.

Virgin Galactic’s announcement about its space trips got our frequent flier thinking about time and travel.

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