The Christmas holiday season is gearing up with many people choosing to head out of the UK to enjoy the celebrations. 

One aspect of your Christmas holiday that can easily be overlooked, is the time difference and potential jet lag. Depending on the location of your chosen destination you may be left fighting symptoms of jet lag for a day or two. We spoke to Clinical Lead Dr Daniel Atkinson to find out more.

Why do we experience jet lag?

Certain functions that our bodies carry out (such as eating and sleeping) are in part controlled by our natural body clock, also known as the circadian rhythm. When we travel between time zones our body clock is not able to automatically keep up with the changes. Therefore when we land our body clock is out of sync with the new time.

Symptoms of jet lag include:

  • difficulty sleeping at bedtime and difficulty waking in the morning
  • feelings of tiredness and exhaustion
  • a lack of quality sleep
  • problems concentrating or remembering
  • indigestion
  • and a change in bowel movements.

Jet lag symptoms can vary in their severity from mild to intense. Some people react better than others when moving time zones, although this can change with each occasion. It is not possible to say exactly how long you will experience jet lag symptoms for upon arrival at your destination. Suffice to say, the more time zones you have passed through the more likely you are to experience stronger symptoms of jet lag.

Let’s take a look at the top six Christmas holiday destinations and see how they fare when it comes to jet lag.

New York (-5 hours)

The Big Apple is a highly popular Christmas destination for holiday makers. The seasonal city scenes, over the top American festive cheer and shopping galore make it an ideal spot for getting into the festive spirit.

That being said, the long haul flight and five hour time difference can initially leave your body feeling out of sync. Feelings of jet lag might be especially apparent if you only spend a few days in the city before heading back home. If you have booked a short jaunt to New York, and you don’t want to miss out on everything that the city has to offer, you might have to power through any feelings of tiredness.

Lapland (+2 hours)

The home of Saint Nicholas is a popular destination at this time of year for obvious reasons. Children (and parents) get to meet the ‘real’ Father Christmas and enjoy lots of snow-based activities.

The two hour time difference should be fairly easy for most people to adjust to. However, one aspect that you might have overlooked when booking your trip is the number of daylight hours to expect. Lapland falls within the Arctic Circle and daylight hours in December can be limited to 0-3 hours and that could take some getting used to.

Hamburg (+1 hour)

The traditional German Christmas markets in Hamburg are world renowned. The historic markets make for the perfect seasonal backdrop, especially when you have a mug of Glühwein in hand.

The short flight and minimal time difference make this destination ideal for a short break. You are unlikely to suffer any extreme feelings of jet lag or disorientation when travelling to a close-by European country.

Majorca (+1 hour)

The short days and cold weather over Christmas can leave many people pining over long-forgotten summer days. To help ease the pain over this particularly cold time of year, some people will spend their Christmas holidays in the mediterranean.

Sunshine and hot weather are by no means guaranteed on the Spanish island of Majorca in December, but an average temperature of 16°C and no jet lag is good enough to tempt a lot of Brits. The short flight time means that short breaks are not interrupted by the need for jet lag recovery.

Thailand (+7 hours)

Thailand offers an exotic destination with delicious food, beautiful beaches and fascinating culture. In December the average temperature is around 30°C, therefore it’s understandable that some people choose to leave the UK’s average high of 7°C for Thailand instead.

Thailand is a significant seven hours ahead of the UK. The flight over to Thailand is from West to East and this is said to be the more difficult direction to fly in when it comes to jet lag. It is thought that advancing our internal body clock (circadian rhythm) is more difficult than delaying it. A simpler way of thinking about it is that our body finds it more difficult to bring our bedtime forward than delaying it.

Flights are over 11 hours long to Thailand, but most people travelling this distance will be spending longer than a couple of days there. Scheduling a cushion of a couple of quiet days at first should provide sufficient time to recover from the initial shock of jet lag.

Caribbean (-4 or -5 hours)

The Caribbean islands offer year round sunshine and a very warm welcome but, depending on your selected island, you could be travelling for upwards of ten hours. Once you have arrived at your destination your body clock will need to adjust to the four or five hour time difference (this is dependent on whereabouts in the Caribbean you are).

However, travelling from the UK means an East to West direction which should leave you feeling better off than if you had travelled the same distance in the opposite direction around the world.

On paper, out of all the destinations above, Thailand is most likely to cause the worst jet lag symptoms. It may take longer to adjust to your new time zone as you lose seven hours whilst flying in an easterly direction.

If you are planning on spending Christmas in another country, whether it be a nearby or far flung destination, there are some things you can do to make the process of adjusting as easy as possible.

Fighting Christmas holiday jet lag

  1. Give yourself time. Make sure that you are well rested and prepared for your flight. Arrive at the airport with plenty of time to get through security so that you don’t have to rush. Christmas is a busy time for airports so be prepared for them to be full of other eager holiday-goers.
  2. Prepare for any potential delays. Hopefully your holiday will run smoothly and without any hiccups. However, it is always best to take out a good level of travel insurance. This means that if there are significant delays, or circumstances that prevent you from being able to make your holiday, you will be covered for a refund.
  3. Book flights that allow you to arrive in the daytime. Frequent long haul fliers will tell you that arriving at your destination in the daytime gives your body a better chance of adjusting to your new schedule. This way you can try and stay awake until a reasonable bedtime and then start the next day afresh.
  4. Avoid alcohol and caffeinated drinks. Alcohol is a diuretic which makes you pass more urine than the amount of liquid you’re taking in and can therefore leave you dehydrated. This can leave you feeling sluggish and tired. Caffeine can stimulate your body and brain at inappropriate times, leaving you unable to get to sleep when you need to. Instead you should aim to keep your body hydrated with plenty of water.
  5. Set your watch to the time of your destination. Once you are well and truly on your way to your destination, change your watch so that it is in sync with the time at your destination. This will help to prepare your mind for the new time once your land.
  6. Recovery time. It can be wise to give yourself a buffer of time to recover from jet lag when you return to the UK. Especially if you are heading back to work. Jet lag can affect your concentration levels and leave you struggling to get through the day.