One of the best ways to adjust to a new time zone is to get good sleep before you arrive. That’s easier said than done on a long-haul flight, though.
Between the stiflingly narrow seats, the deafening roar of the engines, the lack of leg room, and your fellow passengers climbing over you to get to the bathroom, trying to sleep on a plane can be a nightmare. Are you doomed to start your long-awaited vacation in a state of exhaustion?
Not necessarily. Sleeping on planes can be a struggle, but flight attendants, pilots, and other travel pros do it all the time. Here are their secrets to snoozing in the sky.
What to know before you board your flight
- Fly direct for long-haul flights, when possible, to give yourself the best shot at uninterrupted sleep.
- Choose a window seat to lean against.
- Limit what you stow under the seat in front of you, so you can have more space to stretch your legs.
- Avoid drinking too much or eating unfamiliar foods, to minimize bathroom visits.
Choose the best seat for sleep
If you’re able to book first class, opt for a plane with lay-flat seats designed for sleep. They’re at the front of the plane, where it’s often quieter and smoother. If you’re not, your next best bet after flying first class is choosing a seat as close to the front as possible.
If you have to choose between aisle, middle, or window, opt for the window, so you have something to lean against, and no risk of passengers climbing over you.
Being next to the window also allows you to control the amount of natural light coming into your row, and keeps you away from the lights in the aisle, says Saúl Reza-Arcelus, who has been an airline pilot and flight instructor for 11 years.
Bonus points if you can score a window seat with an empty middle or full row; a fully empty middle section is also a win.
“A little hack for getting the best number of empty seats is to wait to board until your name is called, and you can sit anywhere that has two or three empty seats to spread out, as no other passenger is likely to come,” says Alex Beck, a former flight attendant and founder of Clara. “The flight attendants never check this if you’re in economy.”
Window seat not an option? Opt for an aisle seat instead. When dinner service ends and lights are out, you might be able to stretch your legs into the aisle.
If you’re confined to the middle seat, don’t despair. Instead, place your arms on the armrests as soon as you board to claim your territory, stash as much of your stuff in the overhead bins as you can to preserve your limited space, and make friends with your seatmates. Once you’re in the air, look around and see if there’s an empty seat in a more desirable location that you could move to.
Pack an onboard sleep kit
As you’re packing your suitcase and carry-on bags, consider building a sleep kit to keep at your seat on the flight, too, the same way you’d pack a toiletry bag.
“We pilots always carry our flight kit, and passengers should, too,” says Reza-Arcelus.
At the bare minimum, the flight kit should include a sleep mask and compression socks “to avoid experiencing swelling and discomfort,” he says.
Reach for your travel pillow for neck support and an eye mask to keep the overbearing overhead lights from waking you up. Tinger Hseih, a Los Angeles-based travel and food blogger at Dash of Ting, who takes 10 to 20 flights per year loves travel pillows made of memory foam and eye masks that allow for space between the eyes.
"Soft memory foam pillow that is hung around the neck provides extra support while sleeping upright, [and] eye masks that allow for space between the eyes put less pressure on my eyes," she explains.
A large scarf or shawl can also come in handy, adds Yvonne Westover, who has spent 26 years as a flight attendant. You can use it as a blanket on a chilly flight or roll it up into a pillow for extra neck or lumbar support.
If you rely on any sleep medications, stash those in your travel kit, as well. In addition to over-the-counter and prescription meds, natural sleep aids like magnesium and valerian may help improve sleep quality. Plus, research shows that melatonin supplements can be “remarkably effective in preventing or reducing jetlag.” (But talk with your doctor before adding any sleep meds — natural or otherwise — to your regimen.)
Finally, invest in a set of noise-cancelling headphones, or at the very least, a few pairs of high-quality earplugs. Some plane cabins can be more than 85 decibels — louder than a vacuum. Dampening the racket can lead to better shut eye.
Arrive early enough to get in a walk
Early and tired: That’s how you should be when you arrive to the airport if you’re hoping to sleep on the plane. Getting there early isn’t just about calming your “will-I-miss-this-flight" anxieties either — it’s time you can put to good use strolling around the airport, at least for half an hour. Research shows that doing 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity can lead to a boost in sleep quality that night.
“If you have an evening flight, make sure your morning exercise routine gets your heart rate up and the endorphins going,” says Brett Manders, an international airline pilot and author of “Behind the Flight Deck Door: Insider Knowledge About Everything You Have Ever Wanted to Ask a Pilot.” “It can also be a good idea to walk around once at the airport as you will be sitting still for some time on the plane.”
Really ambitious travelers could hit up an airport gym before their flight. But you might also want to do whatever it takes to avoid a high-stress rush through security. Nothing kills sleep like cortisol coursing through your veins!
Dress in layers
There are a lot of things that the Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Transportation regulate on planes, but cabin temperature isn’t one of them. That often leaves passengers sweating or freezing — neither of which are within the ideal temperature range for sleep.
“Managing your own climate is best done by having layers available to you to remove or add as the temperature changes,” says Manders.
Take sartorial inspiration from the flight attendants’ uniforms. No, you don’t need to wear heels or a necktie, but jackets, scarves, and other removable garments in comfortable, breathable fabrics can help you adjust to the cabin temperature.
Still cold after tossing on all your layers? Break out your reusable water bottle and ask a flight attendant to fill it with hot water, for a DIY warmer.
“Cozy up with that and you’ll sleep like a baby,” says Westover.
Cabin air on planes is notoriously dry — leading to scratchy throats, eye irritation, and other conditions that don’t help with sleep. Drinking water before and throughout your flight can help avoid those discomforts and potentially lead to better sleep.
But you’ll need to strike a balance between staying hydrated and filling your bladder — otherwise, your frequent bathroom trips will never let you get to sleep, says Manders.
Try going with the Aerospace Medical Association’s recommendation to sip 8 ounces of water for every hour in the air. Adjust up or down accordingly, depending on how you feel.
Skip caffeine and alcohol, if you can
As for other drinks, you might just want to skip ‘em altogether if you’re hoping to sleep on the plane. After-dinner coffee service won’t help your ability to catch some Zzz’s once your tray’s collected.
And while splurging on a celebratory cocktail with your in-flight meal might help you get to sleep initially, it can make you pee more frequently, mess with your REM sleep, dehydrate you, and kickstart your vacation with the something no one needs: a hangover.
Other sleep tips for travel
Beyond choosing a window seat, exercising before your flight, and forgoing alcohol and caffeine, there are some other things you can do that might help you sleep better on your journey—and recover afterward. Try the following:
- Book a red-eye flight. The departure times of overnight flights align with your current sleep schedule, so your mind and body will already be inclined to wind down when you’re wheels up.
- Keep up with sleep hygiene. Reading a book, doing breathing exercises, sipping decaf tea — whatever helps you sleep at home, plan to do it in the air, as well. That also means no screentime before hitting the hay!
- Adjust your bedtime. If your trip is taking you across multiple time zones, start adjusting your sleep times by an hour or two a few days before your flight. That way, you won’t have quite as much jetlag on your trip.
- Set an alarm before touchdown. Waking up on a plane can be disorienting. Set an alarm on your phone or watch 45 minutes to an hour before touchdown, so you’re fully alert when you land.
- Skip the meal service. If you’re trying to get to sleep ASAP, eat at the airport before you board, then give the flight attendant a heads-up that you’re skipping drink service and dinner. That way, they won’t disturb you unless absolutely necessary. (And as a bonus, airplane food is typically pretty salty, which can further dehydrate you on board.)
- Take it easy. Long-haul flights are exhausting, even if you do manage to snooze for a bit. Plan to rest, relax, and recover with some self-care on the first day of your trip, and save the more invigorating activities for later on — when you’ll be well-rested enough from those plush hotel beds to fully enjoy them.
Need sleep tips for when you land? To sleep well away from home, be sure to prioritize your sleep schedule as soon as you check in. Hotel or home, sticking to your bedtime can go a long way with sleep health.