Best Tactics For Getting Sleep On Long-Distance Flights

Best Tactics For Getting Sleep On Long-Distance Flights

When it comes to sleeping on a plane, everyone has an opinion. Here’s Road Worrier’s take on how to maximise sleep on a long-distance trip.

Picture by markjtaylor

When we ran a post last week on how ignoring food can help you sleep better on planes, we got quite a response from commenters. One issue with that take is that it was based on the American aviation experience, which rarely involves flying for the same length of time as Australians, especially for overseas flights. (To be honest, as often than not it doesn’t involve free meals either, but that’s another issue.)

Working out your on-plane sleeping strategy generally requires a bit of trial and error: I know some people who happily pop a pill as soon as they take off, and others who relish the chance to work for hours on end without interruption. Assuming you’re not keen to get medicinal and you do plan to rest at some point, here’s the strategies I use to sleep on my oh-so-regular international trips. The first one is (I’d argue) essential; the rest can be adjusted based on personal experience.

Plan your sleep schedule based on your destination

Spending a bit of time planning time zones won’t always help you sleep better on planes, but it will absolutely help you avoid jetlag at the other end and sleep better when you do hit a proper bed at your destination. The key principle? You need to sleep on the plane at the same time you’d be asleep at your destination. If your flight arrives first thing in the morning at your destination, you need to sleep up until you land (or as near as you can manage). If it arrives in the evening, you should dodge sleeping at all. And once you arrive, you need to resist falling to sleep before the appropriate local time.

Sometimes, this can be challenging. For instance, I regularly take a Sydney-London flight which departs Sydney mid-afternoon, lands in Singapore in the evening after 7 hours or so, departs for London and flies for another 13 odd-hours, and arrives first thing in the morning.

To match the UK timing, I need to sleep in the second leg. That’s pretty easy on one level — I can fit in a solid eight hours even if I eat both meals offered on that leg. But I also have to stay awake on the first leg where possible, and that’s more challenging, since it can be approaching midnight (as far as my body’s original time zone is concerned) before I land. At the other end, it often means staying awake for a full day — difficult, but better than a week of waking at 2am and then passing out during the day.

Sometimes the reverse problem occurs. Flights to the US often leave in the early afternoon and arrive the next morning, which means it’s difficult to get to sleep so early. In this situation, I often short-change myself on sleep the night before, so I’m tired when I get on board.

On 8-hour+ flights, eat some of the food

If you’ve adopted the first principle and you’re on a lengthy flight, then it stands to reason that you’ll almost certainly end up eating some of the food, even if only to have something to do on the journey. On a longer flight (such as a trek to Europe), you’ll need to eat for health reasons anyway — skipping food for 24 hours won’t do you any good.

On most flights running over seven hours on full-service carriers, you’ll quite likely get offered two meals, at opposite ends of the flight. In this context, it can make sense to skip one of them. In the Singapore scenario discussed above, for instance, you could easily skip the supper offered after take-off, especially if you eat during the stopover.

Choose the right seat

There’s almost nothing more annoying to me on a plane than just settling into a proper deep sleep, and then getting woken by the person next to me seeking an urgent bathroom trip. So I always aim for a window seat or one of the two middle seats in a block of four, since these don’t require anyone else to climb over you when nature calls. The trade-off? As a courtesy, you should try and time your own bathroom trips for when your seatmates are awake. (My personal solution to this is often to dodge the on-plane toilet altogether, but not too many people fancy doing that on a 13-hour flight.)

Don’t have too much luggage under the seat

This is more of an issue if (like me) you’re reasonably tall, but few economy seats are so generous that you can afford to sacrifice the extra space underneath the seat in front for stretching out. I normally have just the absolute essentials (reading material, wallet) in a cloth bag, with everything else stowed overhead. (And despite my addiction to compact packing, on overseas trips I invariably check a bag, so the overhead bag is often little more than my PC and my camera.)

Can’t sleep? Keep your eyes shut

Sometimes, sleep just doesn’t want to come, but that’s no reason to give in and watch some terrible movie. Even if you can’t sleep, you can rest — leave your eyes shut and lay back. As often as not, you’ll get at least some sleep. Even if you don’t, you’ll be more rested than if you remained fully alert.

So that’s my take — nothing complicated (and I don’t travel with a pillow), but it works for me. What tricks do you use to stay rested when flying and when you land? We’re all ears in the comments.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman is going to be testing these principles quite a bit in the next fortnight. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


  • I learned to sleep with ear plugs and an eye mask. These make a big difference to how well you can sleep in a noisy aircraft with lots of distractions. It can be a little uncomfortable with the ear plugs at first, so try for a few nights, gradually lengthening the duration that you keep the ear plugs in.

  • i’m lucky in that i can sleep through just about anything, but would recommend a pair of foam ear plugs to block out as much of the noise as possible – you won’t be woken up by the sound of someone’s hyena laughing or baby crying.
    for those that like to listen to music, get a pair of canalphones rather than standard earbuds – they block out the ambient noise which intrudes meaning you can also listen at a lower volume. if you get a comfortable enough pair, you can also sleep in them. they also don’t require batteries and a re smaller than noise cancelling headsets from the likes of bose etc.

  • Agree with foam ear plugs. A must for sleeping. And agree with staying up for the first leg of a European trip. I also shun alcohol in the way somewhere, so I can hit the ground running, but invariably have a glass of red or two with a meal coming home, this does help with sleep – so too does a hot chocolate with a tot of rum 🙂

    Happy travels.

  • i prefer to have an isle seat because the aircraft wall vibrates. I also sleep with a beanie because it can pull it over the eyes, and aircrafts are usually quite cold. oh, and +1 to the ear bud idea. Just get a 10 pack of foam ear buds, from experience the “moulded” ones are more comfortable.

  • the thing that keeps me from sleeping most of the time, or even enjoying the flight, is the dry air. My nose and throat get very dry and painful after just a couple of hours. 🙁

    • I travel quite a bit, and I use
      – FESS nasal spray (the frequent flyer one)
      – “airplane ears” which are like rubber (not foam) ear plugs that have a little ceramic ball in them that is meant to help with the air pressure on the ears.
      – Bose quiet comfort headphones (these are awesome)
      – Priority Pass card for when I am in transit for 3+ hours (can usually have a shower/eat some ok food/get slaughtered on free booze)

      I have been thinking of getting one of those little “U” pillows and/or using drugs. Will probably do it soon.

  • I fashioned myself a balaclava out of the blanket (shemagh style), which kept my head warm and humidified/warmed the air I was breathing.

    I suppose it does have the potential of making you look like a terrorist though…

  • For my journey to the UK a few weeks ago I found that a muscle relaxant (i.e. low strength Valium), a pair of in-ear headphones,an eye mask kept me completely out for around 8 hours for the Brisbane/Singapore leg, then a hot shower for 8.50 Singapore dollars in Terminal 3 and a change of smalls and t-shirt and I was ready for the next leg to Heathrow. Again, a muscle relaxant helped 😉 You can also enquire whether the airline takes a small fee for seats in the emergency aisles (Singapore Airlines charge $50 and I got emergency aisle seats for both the return Heathrow legs of my flight)

    Note: I don’t condone drug use, however find long haul economy flights to be a pain if you have business at either end soon after you get there.

  • I know the article is about avoiding drugs. For me the only thing that has been able to get me asleep on a long flight is Stilnox. Its like jumping ahead 8 hours in time, you wake up without any grogginess that some of the other sleeping tablets leave you with.

  • I recommend that you train for your flights by spending a few weeks sleeping upright in a rigid chair that reclines to an angle that is achingly close to comfortable but doesn’t quite get there. Preferably, you don’t want to do this somewhere too quiet like your living room or bedroom. Choose a low traffic public area. I find the foyer of my apartment is quite suitable.

    For best results, you should also run a hairdryer on low speed somewhere within 3 to 4 foot radius of your head.

  • Whilst the temptation to pop a decent sleeping tablet during a long-haul leg can be high, think carefully about your mental state should you be suddenly awakened by an in-flight emergency situation. If you are the kind that gets very groggy side-effects from sleeping tablets then consider another option. You will be no use to yourself, other passengers or cabin crew if there is an emergency and you are in a delirious state. Sixty seconds can make a big difference to your chnaces of survival in an evacuation. Whilst rare, it happens.

    • If I thought that hard about an ‘in-flight emergency situation’, I wouldn’t get on the plane in the first place…

      I also fly by the principle that most mid-air emergency situations are likely to involve dying no matter what my mental state is, so being half-asleep is preferable to being awake-and-panic-stricken.

  • I have been on more international trips then i care to count. From all these i have picked up my ultimate sleeping on the plane tip. Now its a given not everyone can do this. But with some luck you will be catching the z’s in a super comfortable way.

    See that little food trey table?

    Yeaa that little one with the gay flippy knob.

    Put it out. Put your pillow on it and lay down. Instant bliss.

    There is however 3 issues with this.

    1. Your to much of a fatass to rest your head on the table.

    2. Your too tall.

    3. The knob infront of you puts his chair back with some force while your head is on the table. Instantly asploading your neck.

    • omg, I always want to violently hurt the person in front of me who does that. As if your personal space isn’t already so small, then some jerk pushes his seat back into your face? I’m sorry, I hate people who do that.

  • 2 Benadryl pills knocked me out from Israel to just about 45 minutes outside of New York City. It was as if the Atlantic didn’t even exist.

    Usually I’ll pop two chewable Dramamine tablets just as I’m boarding or immediately when I sit down. Sometimes I’m asleep before take-off (which, admittedly, isn’t a good idea if an emergency should occur).

  • I sleep well on airplanes but have found that by combining a mild over the counter sedative with a properly timed dose of melatonin to reset my circadian rhythm (take it at “bedtime” for the time zone you’ll be going to), and by using noise-canceling headphones I can get a pretty good rest and manage to beat most of the jet lag when I get there, too.

  • My system is easy:

    Flights up to eight hours: ignore them and tough it out.

    Flights from eight to fourteen hours: stay awake the whole night before and sleep the whole flight.

    Flights over fourteen hours: stay awake two whole nights before and sleep the whole flight.

    Flying Europe-Australia; I wake up in Sydney like a kangaroo on speed.

  • I’m usually rushing to get ready for international trips so I always end up staying awake the night before, either packing, cleaning the house or trying to finish work. That usually puts me in a good frame of mind for sleeping.

    I always get the window seat, I find forward of the wing is best because there’s less engine noise. If I need to get up for a bathroom break it’s usually when everyone else is asleep and then I climb over the handrests!

    The C-shaped foam bean filled pillow is a must have for me, worn backwards sometimes with a small strip of velcro (velcro cable tie) to hold the ends loosely together.

    Obviously ear plugs, noise cancelling headphones or similar are a must but I find sometimes when I fall asleep before takeoff with my noise isolating earphones in, I get sore ears due to the pressure differential, it seems they seal pretty well.

    I’m pretty good at sleeping, so even when I try to stay awake to watch movies I generally fall asleep – I’ve seen the start of so many movies. My best achievement is sleeping from BNE to LAX with 30 mins of awake time in the middle 🙂 Time on an aircraft is like time-travel to me.

    I don’t worry too much about DVT, if you are young-ish and reasonably healthy I don’t see it as being too much of an issue.

  • DVT is an issue. A colleague got it on a flight back from Japan to Australia.

    He was only about 30 years old, fit and healthy. Took him weeks to recover….

  • I try to get seats not behind the wings as it is quieter. I drink a LOT of water before and during flights to help avoid jet lag. At 35,000 feet the air is so dry that you are not aware of how much fluid you lose. I also like noise cancelling headsets which I listen to an audio book – much more relaxing than watching movies.
    However, I take issue with those objecting to seats ahead being reclined. The seats upright are to facilitate getting on and off. They are designed to recline a bit for comfort (ha!) and if everyone does it everyone is better off. Incidentally, ever wonder why most windows are too low to easily see out of? It is because the current airframes are still based on the Boeing 700 when the seats were further apart and reclined much further (learned from a chief Boeing engineer).

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