How to Sleep on a Plane: 21 Tips to Help you Sleep while Flying

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Unless you’re lucky enough to travel first-class, there’s nothing luxurious about a long-haul flight. In no other situation are you forced to sit in a confined space with strangers, eat something pre-cooked, reheated and plastic-wrapped, and conduct bowel movements in a germ-infested cupboard. If you’re unable to sleep, the experience becomes an ordeal. It's no surprise then that the art of nodding off on a flight is something many travelers are obsessed with, so we’ve created a definitive guide to how to sleep on a plane. If you’re wondering what the best sleep aid for flying is or pondering over whether to sink the free booze, read on.

Why can't you sleep on a plane?

The key reason why sleeping on an airplane is so difficult is the fact that you’re sitting upright, when your body would much prefer to be lying down. The blue light from your own and everyone else’s electronic devices (plus all the lights in the cabin) doesn’t help either — it interferes with the body’s production of melatonin, a hormone which helps you sleep. Then there’s the engine noise – which is louder than you think — and the fact that you’re sharing a space with hundreds of other people, all of which make nodding off a real challenge.

Man trying to sleep on a plane
Stiff posture, bright lights and engine noises prevent one from getting good sleep on a plane.

What happens if you don't sleep on a flight?

Jet lag is no joke. Many a perfect vacation have been ruined by it. Flight attendants have such a hard time dealing with the effects of flying there's even something called 'Flight Attendant Fatigue.' Even more reason to try to at least nap on a flight so you don’t miss the first few days of your trip because you can't keep your eyes open.

Before the flight

These 9 tips for sleeping on a plane are all things you can do before you get to the airport.

1. INVEST IN HEADPHONES
In the cabin, noise levels can reach 75-80db — as loud as a vacuum cleaner. Luckily, when it comes to blocking out sound, there’s been a technology revolution. Noise cancelling headphones are made of dense foam that blocks environmental noise. Some models even produce artificial sound waves that disrupt the unwanted sounds. While they are pricier than in-ear headphones (costing anything between USD 150 - USD 400), if sleeping on an airplane is a priority for you, they’re a wise investment. Bose, Sony and Sennheiser are some of the brands to look out for.

2. BRING AN EYE MASK
Even when the cabin is in darkness, it isn't really dark. Your neighbour is watching a movie. The guy opposite is checking his phone. Someone else is fiddling with the window blind. A good sleep mask can shut out all the chaos and increase your chances of sleeping on a plane. Purchase one based on how well it blocks out the light rather than how it looks — a cheap satin version isn’t going to cut it.

3. GIVE YOURSELF SPACE
Try to take as little with you into the cabin as possible. Extra bags and stuff will get in the way, especially if there’s no space in the overhead bins. In an already cramped environment, you want to give yourself the most space possible to relax. Read more about how to pack your carry-on bag here.

4. AIRPLANE DESIGN MATTERS
Ever contemplated aircraft design before? Nope, me neither. The surprising truth is that the design of the plane can make a real difference to your comfort (and therefore, how likely you are to nod-off). A crucial factor is the seat width. On an aircraft with ten seats in a row, each one will be at least an inch narrower than on an airplane with eight seats in a row. And a wider seat means more space, which can make all the difference. To check the width of the seats on your next flight, go to SeatGuru.

5. DITCH CAFFEINE
According to many scientific studies, regular caffeine consumption plays havoc with your sleep cycle. To avoid a restless journey, slowly reduce your caffeine intake over several days (or better still, weeks), before you fly, and don't forget to cut out sources other than coffee such as chocolate and tea. A good tip for caffeine detoxing is to mix your usual cup of coffee with decaf, gradually increasing the amount over time.

6. BRING A PILLOW
It's a good idea to bring a neck pillow with you but take heed. Some function better than others – and some don't work at all. Look at the design carefully; what you don't want is something that looks like the inflatable pillow you used to take on camping trips. Avoid the u-shape variety too. Instead, choose one that encloses your neck or wraps around like a scarf. Two of the most popular on travel gear websites are the Infinity and the Trtl, both of which have the added benefit of being light.

Sleeping on a plane with a pillow
Don't forget to bring a pillow on a flight. Neck pillows work best.

7. EAT LIGHTLY
There’s plenty of research into the science of eating and sleeping, and the consensus is that eating a heavy meal before going to bed is a bad idea. In one 2011 study, the participants slept less, had disrupted sleep patterns and woke up more often after eating a large meal. A few good reasons to avoid the McDonalds in the departure hall and ditch the sub-par airplane food as well.

8. RESERVE YOUR SEAT
One of the most popular tips for sleeping on an airplane is to book your seat in advance. This means you can avoid the back row where the seats don't recline (and where people queue to go to the loo). If you’re in luck and the plane is quiet, you might even get a row to yourself this way. Many airlines allow you to select your seat for free including KLM, Lufthansa, Emirates, American Airlines and Air France. Budget airlines, including Easy Jet, Norwegian and Ryanair, make you pay for the privilege.

9. WEAR A COMFORTABLE OUTFIT
We’ve all sniggered at the celebrities who rock up at the airport wearing pyjamas, but they may have a point. Wearing restrictive clothing on a flight will reduce your chances of falling asleep. As it's either hot and sweaty or as cold as a refrigerator in the cabin, dress in layers, (such as a vest top with a cardigan). Leave heavy jewellery and belts at home – they will dig into your skin. Wearing something cosy will help you feel at home and might trigger sleep – think bed socks or a hoodie.

On the Airplane

Here are 12 things you can do during the flight to increase your chances of nodding off.

1.  TELL THE AIRPLANE STAFF
A tried and tested tip; buckle your seatbelt so it’s showing, and the flight attendant won’t need to wake you up if there’s turbulence. You can also tell them in advance if you’re skipping the in-flight meal, so you won’t be disturbed when the food comes around.

2. RECLINE YOUR SEAT
The best way to sleep on a plane is lying flat. Not only does this trick your brain into thinking you are in bed, but it distributes your weight over a larger surface area and puts less stress on your spine, meaning you'll feel much more comfortable. Whether to recline your seat or not is a thorny issue, but if you are struggling to doze off, you shouldn’t think twice. Check to see if your headrest is adjustable too.

Reclining seats to sleep better on a plane
Reclining your seat will distribute the body weight over a larger area and puts less stress on the spine.

3. BAN THE TELEVISION
It might be tempting to watch The Thomas Crown Affair for the sixteenth time, but a great way to increase your chance of sleeping on a plane is to ban the in-flight entertainment entirely. Not only is it all too easy to end up engrossed in some dreadful comedy, but it's also more light in your environment that will wreak havoc with your body clock.

4. TAKE A SLEEP AID
People often recommend melatonin as the best sleep aid for long flights, but the medical profession is undecided – plus, it’s difficult to get hold of outside of the US. Other ways to legally drug yourself include taking herbal aids containing valerian root or CBD (Cannabidiol) products. Be wary of products containing antihistamines. Although they will make you tired, they have side effects. If at all in doubt, consult your doctor.

5. LISTEN TO THE RAIN
Countless apps promote relaxation, but one of the most popular is the Calm app, which has been downloaded 45 million times. You can listen to specially recorded sleep stories and hours of soothing sounds such as waves and waterfalls – perfect for blocking the sound of that wailing child.

6. DRINK HERBAL TEA
Many people swear by a cup of herbal tea before bed. As well as teas made of chamomile or valerian root, there are teabags containing particular mixtures of herbs designed to make you drowsy. Bringing a handful onto the flight is straightforward – and then all you need to do is ask the airline staff for some hot water.

7. SWITCH OFF YOUR PHONE
This one is a no-brainer; unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ll be aware of the countless studies on the harmful effects of electronic devices on our minds and bodies. Switching off your phone means you can't succumb to compulsive email-checking or Facebook-scrolling. It will also shut out the white and blue light that suppresses melatonin, the hormone that regulates your sleep cycle.

8. MOVE SEATS
If you’re fortunate enough to find yourself on an empty airplane, there’s a chance you might be able to move to an empty row. It's not guaranteed, because when passengers move seats, it affects the aircraft’s weight and balance. Plus, you won't be allowed to move to a more expensive part of the airplane. It's worth asking though because finding an empty row to lie down on is probably the best way to sleep on a plane if you don’t have the luxury of a flatbed.

9. BE FIRM WITH YOUR NEIGHBOUR
There’s nothing worse than finding yourself sitting next to someone insistent on telling you their life story when all you want is to get some sleep. Mitigate this situation by wearing your headphones and closing your eyes. If that doesn’t work, concoct a story about how you’ve already traveled across several time zones.

10. HAVE A GLASS OF WINE
Of all the tips for sleeping on an airplane, this might be the most contentious, but science says alcohol genuinely does allow you to go to sleep faster. In a 2015 study, participants who drank alcohol before sleep achieved it sooner and had longer initial sleep cycles. However, there was a catch. Later in the night, they were more likely to wake up and feel restless. If you want to get your head down for a few hours though, a glass of wine might be just the ticket.

Relaxing on a plane with a glass of wine
Having a glass of wine can help get some sleep for a few hours.

11. USE ESSENTIAL OILS
Aromatherapy oils have been used for thousands of years to help with relaxation–although the jury is still out on their efficacy. However, in a 2017 study of stressed-out working women, a blend of essential oils proved better at triggering sleep than a massage. Try lavender, chamomile and rose, either in a roll-on for your pulse points or in a pillow spray – just make sure it’s under 100 ml.

12. READ
If you’re still desperate to get to sleep, consider opening a book. One study conducted by the University of Sussex in the UK found that six minutes of reading before bed reduced stress by 68 per cent. So, dive into that airport novel, and you'll be nodding off in no time.

So, you’re finally off to sleep, and before you know it, it’s time to wake up again. There’s a travel hack for waking up on an airplane too. Set your alarm to sound thirty minutes before the flight is due to land. This gives you enough time to get a cup of coffee and go to the loo before it’s time to buckle-up again, and you’ll arrive feeling fully awake and organised.

Hopefully, these tips for how to sleep on a plane will help ensure your next long-distance journey gets off to the right start. And it’s not all bad – while flying itself might not be great for your body, traveling can actually improve your health and happiness.

And if the thought of your next flight is still filling you with horror, put on your best outfit, smile sweetly at the check-in desk, and you never know – you just might nail that upgrade.

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