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.