Get The Best Sleep On An Airplane

If you’re a regular air traveler and dread long haul flights especially, getting to sleep on a cramped, stuffy airplane can be a complete nightmare. There are lots of distractions, people in close proximity, and though you might be able to drop an Ambien to take you away from your pain and make you sleep, some travelers don’t like to rely on pharmaceuticals. The truth is, there are tricks of the trade and tips and pointers by aviation types that can get you the shuteye you need and want.

We’ve created a compendium of advice from the experts- flight attendants on how to get quality sleep on an aircraft. A lot of the bullet points are common sense, but you need to start planning long before your flight when selecting seats, etc. First rule of thumb, pay a few dollars more to be able to choose your seat assignment because a lot of variables that influence sleep are woven into that seat selection. 

If you like white noise, you may want to sit behind the wing or near the rear of the airplane where the muffled roar of the engines can help you get to sleep quickly. If you like to hear the background noise of physical activity like silverware or clinking glasses and kitchen-esque ASMR like sounds, sit in first class if you can swing it, or choose a seat in the from section of economy class, away from the engine white noise.

If you struggle to sleep each time you take to the air, you’re not alone. But choosing the right seat, bringing the right gear, and making some subtle changes in your flying habits could help you sleep better on your next flight. So:

1. Choose Your Seat Wisely

Like we said, your seat location could be one of the most important factors in how well you can pull off sleep on a plane, whether a short flight designed for a cat nap, or a long haul flight, where you need to reconfigure your time zone. Get a window seat if at all possible; it will give you something to lean against and get you some clearance from other people in your row, and you won’t have to deal with people climbing on top of you every time they have to hit the lavatory. You’ll have the dominant alpha-passenger position over control of the window shade.

If you want to sit in the rear, though, keep one row forward of the rear bulkhead. Think twice about exit row seats, too. Sure, the extra legroom is great, but some exit row seats don’t recline, the same with  bulkhead seats that also often have armrests that can’t be raised. Trying to fall asleep in one of these seats is like being confined in a small cage. Also, bulkhead seating is often reserved or recommended for families with small children, so keep a few rows forward, to avoid trying to fall asleep while you are surrounded by screaming babies, especially during takeoff and well ahead of landings, as pressure changes begin to affect their ears.

That last row is awfully close to the lavatory too, so beware of odors and constant door slamming that won’t remind you of your favorite ASMR videos, either. Use SeatGuru.Com for reviews of seating on different kinds of aircraft, too, where you can get comparisons on size, ratings by flyers, and even narrow down configurations by airlines.

2. Slim Down On Carry-Ons And Unnecessary Stuff

Pretty much common sense kind of stuff. Rule of thumb, check your bag. Use the technique where you roll your carryon to the gate and they put it on board at no charge. That way, you won’t be worried about other people hovering above you trying to cram their own bags next to yours, or have to deal with trying to wedge your overhead gear in between jackets, back packs, an other stuff. Having to shove a carry on under the seat in front of you will also cramp your foot room, too. Our advice for carry-on:  bring a back pack, and fill it with several essentials like a soft memory foam neck pillow, some protein and a piece of fruit, bottled water, a novel, some magazines, and any medications you might need during the flight.

3. Skip The Caffeine

Not just during those red eye flights but especially on a daytime flight, where even the view from a window seat  can be a distraction. It’ll be much harder to nod off and get to sleep if you have caffeine coursing through your veins. Stay away from the Starbucks before boarding, and stick to water or juice when the drink cart comes around, avoiding caffeine laden beverages.

4. Try A Natural Sleep Aid For Longer Flights

Over-the-counter options include Dramamine and NyQuil, or even Z-Quil contain substances that will make you drowsy, but they also make you sluggish and non-functional for hours, even days, after your flight. Melatonin is a natural hormone found in our bodies and will work pretty well, especially if taken 30 minutes prior to the time you’d like to nod off. Take 10mg for the best effect, but avoid higher dosages.

Good advice: Do a test-drive any pills you’ve never taken at least a few nights prior to your flight since sleep related substances often have the opposite effect for some people.

If you absolutely know you can’t fall asleep during a longer flight, ask your doctor for a prescription sleep aid like Zolpiden (Ambien)  Be warned, though, that drugs like Ambien have side effects that include memory loss, hallucinations, “sleep-driving,” “sleep-eating,” and other adverse reactions — something to think about before you pop one at 30,000 feet. You don’t want to be escorted off of the aircraft at your destination because you came out of the lavatory in the nude.

5. BYOP: Bring Your Own Pillow And Blanket, Or Loose Fitting Outerwear

There never seem to be enough blankets and pillows to go around. Board early and stake your claim. If there isn’t a set in your seat, immediately ask the flight attendant for one as you board, or better yet, bring your own gear, which you can stuff into your backpack or footwell bag.

Even if you are offered a blanket, many airlines reuse them without washing them between flights. We advise packing a travel blanket. You’ll feel toasty you’ll be able to rest comfortably. If the aircraft is overheated, roll it up and use it as lumbar support, pillows, or even a footrest.

6. Bring A Neck Pillow

Many travelers swear by their supportive neck pillows. The reality is though, few neck pillows really work the way they’re designed. They are typically too thick in the back, causing your head to tilt forward while at the same time offering no chin support to assist in elevating your head. The trick: spin them around, and you’ll get the support you need and you’ll be able to easily fall asleep.

Travel pillows have come a long way even in the last couple of years. We’ve even found a few options that break the mold for neck pillows, and will allow you to totally customize your experience and help get you to sleep fairly fast. These options are from companies that have researched and developed neck and gaming pillows that not only support your head and neck, but allow you to relax and fall asleep, waking up without lingering pain or cramps.

7. Free Your Feet

This is a delicate subject. Some people do the Del Griffith move and remove their shoes immediately, as soon as they get on a plane; others wouldn’t dare draw the rage of their fellow passengers. Believe it or not, there’s the issue of keeping your circulation moving as well; going barefoot causes your feet to swell, pooling blood and possibly contributing to deep vein thrombosis.

Here’s our advice. Wear socks, please. Wear easily removable slip on shoes that you can discreetly remove your feet from while on board, even if it’s just for a few moments. You don’t want to draw a crowd as you are undoing straps or shoelaces. On long overseas flights, consider wearing compression socks to encourage circulation.

8. Use Headphones With Discretion

We suggest totally passing on earbuds or headphones within 30 minutes of a nap or extended sleep time on long haul flights. TV and movies can keep you up the entire flight.

Choose your content carefully. Avoid anxiety inducing film that ramp up your body’s fight or flight mechanism, keeping you from falling asleep. Try listening to more laid back material that can lull you into a peaceful sleep. For best results, try Bose’s popular noise-canceling headphones; they’re pricey, but they’re the absolute best product on the market for frequent flyers looking to escape engine noise and other in-flight distractions. Ear buds are a less effective but much cheaper alternative, and we recommend a great site for both headphones and ear buds.

9. Make Sure You Won’t Be Disturbed

Many flight attendants will offer good advice about this sure fire way of getting uninterrupted sleep on an aircraft. They recommend notifying your flight attendant that you want to sleep that way he or she will know not to disturb you when the drink or snack cart comes around. If you’re under a blanket, be sure your seat belt is buckled over the top of it so the belt is visible at all times.

10. Dress For Success But Comfortably

Will your flight be hot or cold? It’s impossible to predict, so wear layers you can quickly remove. Don’t wear anything tight,as that can restrict your circulation (which is already at risk in a tight airplane seat). Jeans and tight slacks will torment you on a long haul flight. If you’re on a red eye or flight longer than 5 hours, consider wearing anything that feels like pajamas but looks like something you might wear to the gym or lounging around your house in, anything other than a suit, unless you are headed directly to a meeting.

11. Recline Your Seat, But Be Kind

On a night flight, expecting someone not to sleep is like asking them to shut their window shade during a flight over the Grand Canyon or Mount Everest. Ideally, everyone has the same idea and seats will tip backward soon into your flight.

However, you should always look behind you to make sure the coast is clear before pushing the button to put your seat back. It gives the person behind you a little warning if they have coffee in front of them or have their head down on the tray table.

12. Stay Away From Blue Light

The animated flash of movie screens, reading lights, cabin lights, sunlight bursting in on an eastbound flight — all can disturb your slumber. Get yourself an eye mask. Some airlines provide them, but it’s best to keep one in your traveling kit just to be safe.

13. Set Your Alarm For 45 Minutes Prior To Landing

The worst part of sleeping is waking up, I always say. It’s even worse on a plane, when you’re waking up to fluorescent lights, luggage carousels, and sunshine so bright you can practically hear it.

If it’s a long flight, consider setting a watch or cell phone alarm for 45 minutes before you have to land. That gives you time to go to the restroom, gather your gear, tie your shoes, watch the approach to your destination, drink a cup of coffee, and walk off the plane fully awake.

Reaching your destination fully rested, whether you indulge in a short and sweet nap or a full rack en route, always beats lurching around an airport tired and crabby. Grab your 40 winks (and then some) in flight, and you’ll be a happier traveler.

After dozens of long-haul flight, I’ve come to realize that the difference between a good trip and a bad one is the amount of sleep I get.