How to Sleep On A Plane: 10 Tips

Sleeping on a plane can be quite a challenge especially when screaming kids are present on board or the person next to you is a bit noisy. Even if it’s a complete silence, some people find it hard to fall asleep. Take into account the uncomfortable seats, the bright lights and the flight attendants who constantly ask if you need a snack or a beverage a guaranteed nightmare.

There is a significant difference between sleeping and taking a nap on an aircraft. According to Shelby Harris, director of behavioral sleep medicine at Montefiore Medical Center, in order to feel refreshed you need only 20 to 30 minutes of sleep, which sounds achievable on most short-haul flights. When it comes to longer flights, an eye mask or a neck pillow is simply not enough to make you doze off. You might have to try new tricks to fool yourself that the seat is indeed your comfy bed at home. In this article, we have prepared the Top 10 Tips on How to Sleep When Flying.

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1. Pick your flight and your seat wisely

When you have the opportunity to choose your flight, there are two main factors to keep in mind: the duration of the flight and the local time of arrival. It is scientifically proven that 5 hours of sleep is the minimum amount adults need. If your flight is shorter than this, it is probably safer to take a power nap of 20 to 30 minutes and keep yourself awake for the rest of the flight with food and beverages containing sugar.

If you have to catch an overnight flight, also known as a ‘red eye’ flight, we suggest you start preparing your body a week before. When flying east, go to bed and try to wake up a few hours earlier than usual. When flying west - go to bed and try to wake up a few hours later. This way it would be easier to adjust your body to the new time zone and save yourself from the annoying jet lag.

Choosing your seat is of significant importance, spend that extra money for more legroom as it will definitely pay off with a good quality sleep. Additionally, you might want to pick a seat next to the window - this way you can rest your head against the wall and won’t be disturbed by people wanting to go to the toilet. You can also try asking politely the person sitting behind you if you can recline your seat.

 man holding a small boarding pass

2. Wear comfy clothes

Would you go to sleep in your beautiful dress or expensive suit? Don't wear tight clothes that will restrict your movements. You have to consider whether you are travelling between different seasons, the country of departure and the one of arrival. Check the weather forecast and prepare in advance. Bear in mind that in most aircrafts it’s either too hot or too cold. You might want to take a coat, cardigan or a pullover to wear over a t-shirt in case the temperature disrupts your sleep.

A scarf is always a good idea since the AC on the plane can give you neck pain or even a cold. You can also use the scarf as a pillow in case you didn’t bring one.

Choose comfortable shoes as leg, foot or ankle swelling happens often during air travel. Wear sneakers during cold weather and loafers/sandals during warm seasons. You can even buy compression socks for flights which will help with the swelling.

3. Less carry-on luggage

Taking too many bags on board means that you will have less space around you which could affect your sleep negatively. Imagine having to get up and open a rolling suitcase from the cabin every time you need something - you will definitely prevent yourself and the people next to you from getting enough sleep.

The best option is to use a small toiletry bag, containing everything you need for the flight - an eye mask, headphones, toothbrush, etc. which you can put either in the suitcase or in a backpack under the seat in front of you. If you pick the second option make sure the carry-on luggage is compact and gives you enough space to spread your legs. Crossbody bags work as well for both women and men since they occupy less space. Avoid hard-sided bags on board (they’re good only for the cargo hold of the plane) and replace them with soft materials such as cotton, nylon, polyester and other similar fabrics, which could be easily stored or folded underneath the seat.

4. Always bring a travel pillow

Since it’s not allowed to bring your own pillow from home on board, you can take a travel one. We suggest you invest in a good quality pillow made of soft fabric, gentle to the skin. It will make you fall asleep even faster. One tip is to spray the pillow with lavender, which is known for its calming effect or with the perfume of your beloved one, if you are flying solo.

There are adjustable travel pillows with strengthened inner rib that fits every neck, pillows with memory foam for better relaxation and even ones with ventilation so you don’t wake up all sweaty.

The good thing about investing in a travel pillow for a flight is that you can also use it with other modes of transportation.

5. Sleep apps are a must

We are sure that your headphones are already packed in your baggage. Do you know how to use them the best way possible? Just listening to music or watching your favourite movies might help you enjoy the flight, but in order to make yourself sleepy, you need a sleeping app on your phone. The most popular ones require a subscription, but you can take advantage of the free trial for the first 30 days. The wide variety of sleeping stories and relaxing noises such as the sound of a floating river or birds singing in nature, will put you to sleep in a very short time.

You can always invest in noise-cancelling headphones, which will isolate you from the surrounding sounds.

Listening to audiobooks is trendy and a great option to make yourself sleepy.

iPhone 12 home screen

6. Sometimes medicine has to step up

Over-the-counter sleeping pills are a good option for people having a hard time falling asleep while travelling. Usually these pills are made of herbs and their effect is not that strong, so you don’t have to worry about not being able to wake up or feeling too dizzy after the flight. You should always read the labels and if necessary consult with the pharmacists.

We suggest you try the pills a few days before the flight. This way you will have an idea how your organism reacts to them what to expect while you are onboard the airplane.

Speaking on the subject, alternative medicine is also an option. Acupuncture, yoga and deep massages before flying are supposed to put your body in a calm state, relax muscle tension and even take the pressure of your mind.

7. Be careful with sugar and alcohol

Probably the most useful advice a lot of people forget to follow is being careful what you put in your body before and during the flight. Food containing sugar like chocolate and sweets will keep you awake and the same goes for drinking caffeine, alcohol and juices.

One trick is to consume more refined carbs like white bread and pasta, high-fat meats and whole dairy products. Even though this is not the healthiest option, it will make you feel sleepy. You can also count on bananas for supplying your body with magnesium and potassium - essential minerals that will help you to have a better sleep. Nuts and especially almonds on the other hand stimulate the production of melatonin - the hormone responsible for falling asleep. Hydration is essential when flying. Drinking calming teas works in your favor - go for chamomile, lavender and lemon balm. The herbs in combination with the warmth of the drink will relax your nerve system and help you get better rest on the plane.

a glass of beer on a table in an airport lounge

8. Take on board your night time routine

Having a routine before going to bed every night - taking a bath, reading a book or using specific beauty products - gives your brain signals that is time to sleep. If you can take your routing with you on the airplane, it will definitely ease falling asleep.

Since there are restrictions for the volumes of the products you can bring on board, try finding samples of them or put them in smaller packages. Travel sets specially designed for airplanes are a good option.

Prepare your clothes and bedding sheets in advance as familiar smells and textures are a smart way to fool your brain into thinking that it’s bedtime. 

Reading is proven to make you sleepy, yet don’t pick too scary or intense books that will wake both you and your imagination.

9. Set an alarm clock

Let’s imagine you applied all our tips and have fallen asleep successfully- what’s next? Waking up on a plane is equally stressful. Instead of waiting for the flight attendants to do so or for other passengers to scare you with loud speaking, prepare yourself by setting an alarm clock.

Depending on the length of the flight set the alarm to go off at least 30 minutes before landing. When you have a couple hours of sleep, you need time to go back to your normal state. At this moment the best thing you can do is drink plenty of water as it will wake up your brain and give you energy to adjust faster.

10. Just speak to the flight attendant

As you know during every air travel the flight attendants are coming regularly to your seat, asking if you would like to get/buy a drink, a snack or something from the catalogue. In order to keep your sleep uninterrupted, warn them in advance about your plans throughout the flight.

On long-haul flights, airlines provide you with an eye mask, ear plugs and even a blanket. Alternatively, you could always ask the attendants if they have something on board that will help you sleep better.

flight attendant on board

Safe travels!