How to Sleep Better and More Comfortably on a Plane

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June 26, 2024

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READING TIME, 7 MINUTES

Long flights are a combination of excitement, discomfort, and often, sleeplessness. However, with a little preparation and a few tips, you can learn how to sleep on a plane, whether across the U.S. or around the world.

I remember my first long plane ride. It was only five hours across the U.S., but that was long for a first-timer like me. I was so excited! I stayed awake the whole overnight flight, drinking and eating my way across the country.

Thanks to my behavior on the plane, I was a serious wreck when I arrived in Buffalo, NY, and it took me several days to recover from jet lag.

Now, as a frequent flyer with more than 2 million miles, including several 17+ hour flights, I’ve figured out that sleeping on a long flight is critical to enjoying more of my vacation when I finally land.

Getting sleep on a long-haul flight, however, involves some preparation and an onboard strategy.

Book the Right Flight

Let's say you're flying from Seattle to Miami, a flight of about six hours. If you want better quality sleep, choose a direct flight so you won't have any interruptions.

And choose a flight with the highest probability of you getting some sleep. If there's a nonstop flight that leaves at 1:35 PM and arrives at 10:30 PM and there's an overnight flight that leaves at 9:15 PM and arrives at 6:00 AM, choose the flight that best matches your current sleep schedule.

Expert advice

If you can't find a direct flight and have a long layover, check out Sleeping in Airports. They provide guides to over 1200 airports worldwide to help you figure out where to catch a few ZZZs. 😴

Choose the Best Seat for Better Sleep

Aisle vs. window

Choosing between an aisle and a window seat can significantly impact your ability to sleep on a plane.

Window seats allow you to lean against the wall of the plane and avoid being disturbed by fellow passengers.

Aisle seats let you stretch out a little more and provide easy access to the restroom, although you may be disturbed as your seatmates need to pass by.

Middle seat

If you’re flying coach with a travel partner, you may decide to choose the middle seat. There’s nothing to lean your head against (except your seatmate), and you won't feel like you have much space. So, sleeping in the middle seat may be a little more difficult. The proper pillow can help.

Speaking from personal experience, when Malcolm and I can only find seats in rows of three or more, we find it most comfortable to sit across the aisle from each other. This way, we can both move around easily while still being able to chat and share snacks we've brought along.

Avoid these areas

For more peace and quiet, it's best to steer clear of seats near the galley and bathrooms. Avoid exit rows as well, particularly in economy class.

These areas tend to be noisier due to people congregating in the aisle. Instead, opt for seats in the middle of the cabin or closer to the front, where the noise is usually less.

Also, be mindful of seats in front of the exit row as they may not recline in certain planes.

Book extra legroom

If possible, book a seat with extra legroom. First class and business class usually provide seats that flatten for long flights, but they're expensive.

Premium economy or bulkhead seats offer more space to stretch out than economy seats do, so you can find a more comfortable sleeping position. And they’re much more affordable.

Dress Comfortably 

Choose loose clothing

An older woman dressed comfortably for a long-haul flightTight clothing can restrict movement and inhibit blood flow, both of which can prevent good sleep when you're flying.

Opt for loose, comfortable clothes. Consider pants with some stretch, a nice T-shirt, and a light jacket or warm cardigan. Include comfy undies and athletic or walking shoes. Think cozy for the most comfortable sleep.

And save the cute sandals and flip-flops for later. You want to be able to beat a hasty retreat in case of emergency.

Wear layers

Airplane cabins seem to be either roasting or freezing. So bring an extra shirt, scarf, or other item that you can easily add or remove to stay comfortable.

Wear compression socks

Compression socks improve circulation and reduce the risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) on long flights. They also help prevent your legs and feet from swelling, making it easier to relax.

You can often find compression socks in travel shops, and some shoe stores carry them.

If you have difficulty locating them, check out Wellow. From standard size to wide calf and from plain to snazzy, I’m sure you’ll find something that works for you. Just put an extra pair of non-slip socks or travel slippers over them so you can safely remove your shoes and walk around the airplane.

Bring Essential Sleep Accessories

Travel pillow

A good travel pillow can make a world of difference in helping you get a few hours of sleep in uncomfortable airplane seats. U-shaped pillows support your neck, while inflatable pillows allow you to adjust the firmness. One pillow that you might want to try, especially if you’re in a middle seat, is the Turtl Pillow. It makes sleeping sitting up straight a breeze.

Eye mask

An eye mask can block out ambient light from the cabin, helping you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. And with an eye mask, you can fall off to sleep if it’s time, even while the cabin lights are on.

Look for a mask that fits snugly without being too tight. We like the Manta Sleep Mask because of the little holes for your eyes. Very comfy!

Ear plugs or noise-canceling headphones

Noise is one of the biggest problems when you're trying to get some good sleep on a plane. Earplugs can drown out background noise while noise-canceling headphones can eliminate the drone of the engines.

Download some calming music, gentle sounds from apps like Sleep Sounds, or white noise from apps like TMSOFT to create a peaceful environment. Just be sure the volume is such that you can still hear any important announcements.

Expert advice

Airlines are cracking down on what you can bring onboard, and many are counting a travel pillow as one of the items. So consider leaving your U-shaped pillow at home. Instead, pack an inflatable pillow or a Turtl pillow in your carry-on bag, and it won’t count as an extra item.

.Do This Before You Board to Fall Asleep Easier

There are some things you can do to help you fall asleep more easily once you get on the plane.

Stay hydrated

Three reusable water bottles in different colors.Dehydration can make you feel more irritable. Drink plenty of water before and during your flight. Bring a reusable water bottle and fill it up after you've passed security The cabin crew will usually refill it for you onboard.

Avoid caffeine. It can dehydrate you and disrupt your sleep cycle. Alcohol does the same thing, so even though it may seem to help you relax, it can come back and bite you later when you’re trying to get some shut-eye.

Eat lightly

Heavy meals can cause indigestion and discomfort. Before your flight, opt for lighter meals and snacks, such as salads, fruits, and lean proteins.

Avoid electronics

The blue light from your cell phone and tablet screens can interfere with your body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep. Try to avoid screens at least an hour before you plan to sleep.

Decide the Best Time to Sleep on Your Flight

Jet lag messes with your body's circadian rhythm, so it’s important to sleep at the right time.

Your best bet is to start adjusting your sleeping and eating times to those of your destination a few days before your trip. I've found this to be a huge help in getting some sleep on the plane and reducing jet lag.

As soon as you board, set your watch to your final destination's time zone, then eat and sleep at that destination’s time.

This can be a bit challenging if you’re flying to a time zone 8 or 12 hours different than where you’re departing from, but do your best, and don’t stress!

Even if you’re just closing your eyes, resting, and nodding off from time to time rather than getting deep sleep, you’re sending signals to your body that will help you adjust better when you land.

Create a Sleep-Inducing Environment

Adjust your seat

Recline your seat as much as possible. This can help take pressure off your lower back and make it easier to fall asleep.

Please give some notice to the person behind you so they're prepared and their tray table doesn't suddenly come smashing into their lap.

Blanket and comfort items

If you’re flying coach, bring a travel blanket or a large scarf that can double as a blanket. Having something familiar and cozy can help you relax. Blankets are usually provided in premium classes.

Sleep aid

If you have trouble sleeping on planes, try a mild sleep aid like melatonin or herbal supplements such as valerian root or chamomile. Sleep experts recommend these rather than an over-the-counter or prescription aid you're not used to taking.

Consult with your doctor before using any sleep aids, especially if you are on other medications. And be sure to try any sleep aid out before you leave to be sure that you don’t have any adverse reaction – sleepwalking anyone?

 In-Flight Strategies to Help You Sleep Well

Practice relaxation techniques

Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and meditation can help calm your mind and prepare your body for sleep.

Several apps, like Headspace and Calm, offer guided relaxation exercises specifically to help you drift off to sleep.

Limit alcohol and caffeine

For the same reasons you want to avoid caffeine and alcohol before you fly, you want to avoid them on the plane as well so they don't disrupt your sleep.

Instead, take some relaxing herbal tea bags to help with sleep so you’ll have what you want on the flight.

Eat lightly

A small salad to make a light meal for the plane.Your digestive system needs to resettle to its new time zone. The best way to help it do that is to eat lightly on the plane at the time you would be eating at your new destination.

Ask the flight attendant to hold your meals until you're ready. Or, skip the airplane food altogether and bring some light snacks from home. Your digestion will thank you!

Stretch and move

Get up to stretch and walk around the cabin every so often when the seatbelt sign is off. This can prevent stiffness and improve circulation, making it easier to get comfortable when you return to your seat.

Minimize disruptions

Fasten your seat belt on the outside of your blanket so the flight attendant doesn’t have to disturb you to check if you have it on.

If you’re in an aisle seat, check to see if your seatmates may need to get out before you begin your nap.

Final Thoughts

Sleeping on a plane can be a challenge, especially on long-haul flights. But with the right preparation and strategies, you can improve your chances of getting some much-needed rest, not to mention reducing jet lag.

From choosing the right seat to bringing essential sleep accessories, every little effort counts. To make your journey as restful as possible, remember to stay hydrated, dress comfortably, and create a sleep-inducing environment.

By following these tips on your next trip, you can turn your in-flight experience from a sleepless struggle to a rejuvenating rest.

Happy travels and sweet dreams! ✈️💤

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