Whether you’re flying for business, pleasure or obligation, chances are you wouldn’t mind a little extra sleep. Travelling takes you out of your usual environment and schedule, and often means extra-early mornings or late nights.
If you’re taking a red eye, it’s going to run havoc with your sleep schedule. Given that even a short sleep session can help you be more focused, alert and rested, we reached out to experts in the sleep and travel industries for tips on sleeping on a plane. Here are our favourites.
Lean forward, not back
Most people think the seat recline is the best position, but according to Bobby Laurie — a former flight attendant of 10 years — that’s only the case if it’s a lie-flat seat. Instead, lean forward onto the tray table, especially if you’re in the middle seat. Of course, you’re going to want to wipe down that tray table or at least cover it with a sweater, because they’re not cleaned very often.
“Lean forward and sleep on it like you did in elementary school at nap time,” Laurie says. “You’ll be a lot more comfortable and fall asleep faster.”
Get your temperature right
Some aeroplanes are air conditioned so much they could double as a meat locker. Others seem to have no airflow at all and get really hot, really quickly. Technically you can control that tiny air vent above your chair, but that might not do very much. Instead, Alan Hutto, a frequent traveller and co-founder of the luxury travel blog RitzRoséRepeat.com recommends dressing in layers and bringing your own travel blanket because — you guessed it — the ones on the plane aren’t washed frequently.
Deal with the noise
Whether you opt for noise-cancelling headphones, ear plugs or even the earbuds that come with your phone, having something to drown out the aeroplane noise can help. Gassner recommends playing soft, meditative sounds that bring your brain away from your current environment and to a calm space when you close your eyes. Other white noise, like waves or even the sound of a fan can also be quite helpful.
As it turns out, the commonly used trick of taking some melatonin on a long flight to help reset your body’s clock is a little controversial. (Note: In Australia, melatonin is an under-the-counter drug sold as 'Circadin' that requires a prescription.)
Some, like Laurie, recommend taking melatonin (specifically, he suggests the gummies) on a flight so you get some sleep but without that “medicine head” feeling when you wake up. Others advise against any sort of sleep aid. Like most things, it comes down to trial and error and knowing what works best for you.
Bring a familiar object
It can be hard to make your tiny aeroplane seat feel like a bedroom, but Bino Chua, who runs the travel site I Wander says that surrounding yourself with familiar objects from your bedroom — like a small pillow or stuffed animal — can help you fall asleep. Of course, this means you’ll have to bring more stuff with you, but if it means more shut-eye, it may be worth it.
Avoid caffeine before your flight
It can be tempting to grab a cup of coffee before your board, especially on an early-morning flight, MetroNaps CEO and sleep expert, Christopher Lindholst advises against it. In fact, he says we should avoid caffeine three to four hours before a flight if we’re looking to squeeze in a nap. Hydrating is a good idea, but stick with water or herbal teas.
Find something to clutch
Part of the reason it’s so hard to get comfortable on an aeroplane is that we tend to contort ourselves into human origami creations so as not to encroach on the space of the person next to us. (Or at least halfway decent people this and don’t just spread out without consideration for others. But that’s another article.) It’s hard to know what to do with your arms, in particular.
If you’re in the middle seat and have access to both armrests, you’re probably only working with one. And if you’re on the aisle, you’re going to want to keep that elbow off the armrest when you’re sleeping so you don’t get hit by a drink cart. The solution to this, according to Lindholst is to bring something with you to clutch, like a small pillow. Even balling up a sweater or jacket could work, too.
Sure, knocking back some of those tiny bottles of wine might put you out, but Laurie says to avoid it. “Alcohol hits you faster at 10,668.00m, and for some that means the party starts sooner,” he explains. “You’ll be wanting more, quicker, rather than a slow progression with that moment of drowsiness.”
Train your brain to work with a sleep soundtrack
We’ve already talked about coming up with a productivity playlist so your brain knows it’s time to work, but you can apply the same logic to sleeping. Tim Leffel, the author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations, has trained his brain to go to sleep on a plane by always playing one of two specific albums in his earbuds or headphones after having a meal or a drink. After doing this for years on end on planes and buses, he says that his brain seems to always get the message that “this music means it’s time to sleep” and rarely makes it past the halfway point.
Wear comfortable clothes
No, we are not advocating travelling in pajamas, but there is a difference between wearing a pair of stiff jeans on a flight, and a pair of cotton pants with a little more give. John Breese, a certified sleep science coach says to wear clothing with a loose fit and that come as close to pajamas as possible. He also recommends making sure your outfit is warm enough, and bringing a hoodie or jacket for an extra layer.
Book a window seat
This is another case of everyone having a personal preference, but strictly considering your ability to fall asleep on a flight, the window seat is your best bet for a few reasons. First, as Breese points out, it allows you to control the light in your row by adjusting the window shade. You can also lean against the wall of the plane, which many find more comfortable than sleeping sitting up and dealing with the dreaded head-bob.
There’s also the major advantage of not having to get up if someone else in your row has to go to the bathroom. People sitting in middle or aisle seats always run the risk of being tapped on the shoulder mid-nap to allow their fellow passengers to get up.
Use an eye mask
Planes are usually pretty bright. Even when they dim the lights for overnight flights, there is often a blue hue illuminating the flooring and bathroom — not to mention all the individual screens people are watching. According to Denise Gassner, Ph.D., a sleep educator, this can make it difficult for your brain to get the molecular signal that it’s time to sleep, by way of a spike in that sleepy-time hormone, melatonin. The best way to cut the wake-promoting wavelengths is to put on an eye mask and simulate darkness. The darkness then cues the brain to release melatonin, and signal that sleep time is to follow, she explains.
If meditation is your thing and helps you relax or fall asleep, definitely try it on your next flight. According to Gassner, guided meditations can help your body get into the relaxed state necessary to allow you to drift into dreamland. Many are designed to work in any space you are—public or not. Find a few you like and download them ahead of time for easy access whenever you need.
Pay attention to the clock
The in-flight environment is not conducive to sleeping: it’s loud, bright and you’re sitting upright. Gassner explains that trying to coax yourself to sleep when your body is not naturally primed to do so is likely to be a losing battle. Check your watch or phone and figure out what time it is at home, she advises. If you’re nearing or past your regular bedtime, then start cueing yourself for sleep. If not, try a relaxing activity like reading instead.
Book later in the day for overnight flights
If you’re flying overnight, try and book your flight as late as possible. This way your body is already preparing for sleep, and it’ll be easier to conk out on the plane than it would be in the morning or afternoon.
Brush your teeth
Since most of us brush our teeth before going to bed, doing so on a plane can help send a signal to our body that it’s bedtime. Patti Reddi, a frequent traveller, always brings a toothbrush and toothpaste in her carry-on bag and brushes her teeth after dinner, noting that the association with brushing her teeth before bed makes it easier to fall asleep.
Eat a carb-rich meal
Eating on a plane is another one of those personal-preference things. Some people find they have better luck when they avoid heavy foods, but others, like Christine Hansen, the founder of Sleep Like A Boss recommends choosing a meal rich in carbs that will quickly release sugar creating an insulin spike and then a crash.
Bring a pillow
If you’re someone who sleeps better with one of those neck pillows you see at all the airport gift shops, then get one and use it. Better yet, you may want to opt for an inflatable neck pillow, frequent traveller and blogger Charish Badzinski says. Unlike the stuffed pillows, it takes up minimal space. You can underfill it before takeoff so that the pillow has more give. According to Badzinski, she rarely, if ever uses her neck pillow around the back of her neck. Instead, if she’s in a middle or aisle seat, she uses it under her chin to prevent head bobbing. If she has a window seat, she uses it like a regular pillow. For an even better sleep, bring a large, deluxe pillow from your own bedroom - but prepare to be mercilessly mocked.
So here's a travel tip I picked up while travelling overseas recently — if you're planning to take your own pillow aboard an aeroplane, be prepared to cop an inordinate amount of abuse from complete strangers. Especially if it's a big'un.
Hydrate before your flight
Yes, we know that we’re supposed to drink as much water as possible during a flight. That’s great if you have an aisle seat and don’t care about sleeping, but if a nap is your goal, you may not want to chug water mid-air. Instead, Badzinski suggests hydrating well starting a few days before your flight, then cutting yourself off an hour before takeoff.
It can be tempting to break out the iPad as soon as you’re allowed to, or spending the whole flight scrolling through movie options, if your plane has those handy back-of-the-seat screens. But Badzinski recommends going analogue instead, opting to read a book or listen to music if the goal is falling asleep. If blue light from screens isn’t great for us before bed, the same goes for trying to sleep during a flight.
Or watch movies if they help you fall asleep
If you’re someone who gets caught up in the plot of movies or other in-flight entertainment to the point where you’re not able to sleep, by all means, skip the screens. But if you’re the type of person who falls asleep the minute the opening credits of a movie come on, then popping one on during a flight might do the trick.
Avoid sleeping pills
We’ve already discussed melatonin — a natural sleep aid — above, but what about something a bit stronger? According to Captain Tom Bunn, president of Soar, Inc., definitely avoid these. “You don’t want to sleep for more than a couple of hours because four hours of immobility with legs lower than the body doubles the risk of deep vein thrombosis,” he explains. Also, these pills are designed to knock you out for a while and may leave you feeling groggy or out of it when you reach your destination. Attempting to navigate a bus system in a new city with a NyQuil hangover is not ideal.
Put the buckle over your blanket
If you are lucky enough to fall asleep on a plane, the last thing you want (aside from the plane crashing) is for someone to wake you up. So if you’re using a blanket or jacket to stay warm, make sure you put the seatbelt on the outside, Mary Helen Rogers, vice president of marketing and communications for the Better Sleep Council advises. This way, when the flight attendant checks to see if everyone’s buckled up during turbulence or before the plane lands, you can just keep snoozing.
Don’t pressure yourself to fall all-the-way-asleep
Being totally zonked out for the duration of a flight would be great, but is not realistic for a lot of people. Instead of putting pressure on yourself to fully fall asleep, travel writer Theresa Christine suggests allowing yourself to just relax and close your eyes without the expectation of sleep. If it happens, that’s great. If it doesn’t, at least you’ve gotten some form of rest and aren’t stressed about trying to fall asleep.