I'm an airplane person. Getting to and being in an airport stresses me out to a gut-wrenching extent, but I don't particularly have a fear of flying. It gets me to where I need to be in a timely fashion — usually — and requires little to no adjustments while in-transit. That's why, whenever I travel, I prefer to take a plane.
But, I recently rode VIA Rail's The Canadian — an old-school yet partially-renovated sleeper train — across Canada on the company's Great Western Way route. I traveled across the country from east to west, boarding the train in Toronto and arriving four days later in Vancouver.
On the trip, I experienced a total of four different time zones, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the journey, these time zone changes were way more disorienting than I could have ever expected.
The effects left me feeling confused and frustrated quite often, and knowing what I know now, I'd definitely prepare for the trip differently next time.
Some Canadian trains, like The Rocky Mountaineer, only move during the day. But The Canadian travels through the night, which means sometimes we crossed time zones while we were sleeping, and other times we crossed them in the middle of the day. I didn't know when the time changes were coming, and it was jarring every time they did.
Meals were served in the dining car on-board the train. Breakfast was from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., brunch from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., and dinner seatings happened as early as 5:30 p.m. and as late as 7:30 p.m. All schedules were according to local time, so if we crossed a time zone at 4 p.m., and I didn't adjust my watch, I would be an hour off when it came to figuring out dinner time.
Also, I wear a wristwatch, so I make the manual adjustment when traveling. Regardless of my watch, though, my iPhone will typically automatically adjust to display the accurate time for wherever I am — ah, technology.
But what I didn't realize was that my iPhone requires a cellular connection in order to adjust its timing automatically — the train had no WiFi, and we had little to no cell service along the rural route. That meant my phone — which was set to automatically adjust to time zones — changed inconsistently. My computer didn't adjust at all because it wasn't set up to work offline with cellular data.
By the middle of the trip, I had absolutely no idea what time it was, and I felt like I was in this weird time warp with no bearings to grab hold of. It was hard to even use the sun as a guide because it was extremely cloudy.
Unlike at a hotel, passengers on The Canadian couldn't request a wake-up call via concierge, so I was in charge of setting my own alarm. That typically wouldn't be an issue, but accounting for a mid-sleep time zone change and a non-adjusting phone clock caused a huge mess of math calculations and incorrect alarms. I was permanently disoriented and frustrated by the inconsistency.
I've crossed multiple time zones in one trip before, but all while on a plane. That means time was kind of irrelevant as I passed through — flying from New York to California takes around six hours on a plane and spans four time zones, but I'd only change my watch upon landing. Even though I'm flying over multiple zones, I only have to adjust to one of them.
On the train, though, I had to adjust every day — sometimes in the morning and sometimes in the middle of the day — and that really threw me off.
There were nights when I thought I was going to sleep at 1 a.m. but it was actually only 10 p.m., and mornings when I set an alarm for 6 a.m. but it actually went off at 4 a.m. It didn't ruin my experience on the train, but it did add to an already exhausting trip.
Jet lag is something casual travelers joke about and try to conquer using tips and tricks that are about as helpful as the ones suggested for getting rid of hiccups — sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. But adjusting properly to time zones is actually really important for our health.
Insider reporter Jacob Shamsian broke down research showing that jet lag can actually trigger already-existing mental illness in travelers because of the way it messes with our circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythm refers to the way our bodies and minds behave as they follow a daily schedule, according to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.
While the direction of travel has different effects on our internal clocks and traveling east to west is more adjustment-friendly since we theoretically gain time, any change in time zone can affect travelers.
It's so important to prep for time changes that even Qantas is testing out ways to combat jet lag on its new flights from New York to Sydney, Australia.
By navigating to Settings, then General, then Date & Time, you wind up at this screen where you can customize your clock. Rachel Askinasi/Insider
A fellow traveler showed me how to take my phone off of the automatic setting — he walked me through setting up my clock manually for each time zone. But the issue there was that when we didn't have any cellular connection, I wasn't able to search for and connect to the local time zone. It seemed like a fix, but it didn't really work.
Knowing what I do now about how disorienting and confusing this part of the train experience was for me and other travelers I spoke with, I would definitely recommend planning ahead.
If you're looking into an on-the-ground trip that crosses time zones, I would suggest you map out all of the time borders along the way. This way, you'll know exactly when and where to expect the change. I think it would be helpful to bring along a manual wristwatch, and I'd caution you to stay adamant about changing it every time you enter a new zone.
You'll have to do a little research to find the time change points, but it will be worth the effort. Rachel Askinasi/Insider
Looking back on my own trip, I wish I had printed out a map ahead of time and set up my phone to not make any adjustments at all — this way I would have known that my device was always on Toronto time and I could just do the math if needed. I'd suggest this for anyone making the cross-country train journey.
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