Ahh, the endless pain of sleeping on flights, particularly those of the long haul variety, a suffering I’m very well acquainted with.
The freezing cold of the cabin, the tiny amount of space, having to sleep in a sitting position! And the big guy next to you who just has to take up the armrest and 6 inches of your personal seating space.
Oh yea, and that guy will want to use the toilet and have to wake you up right as you’ve just nodded off. Typical.
You’d have to say that (long haul) flights are one of the most challenging environments to get some good sleep in, but also one of the worst times where you can’t sleep.
The last thing you want on a business trip or on vacation is to start off tired, fatigued and just wanting to spend a day in your hotel room.
So I’ve compiled everything that’s helped me over the years, and believe me I’ve had some bad ones. The 30-hour trip from San Fran to Bangkok with a 6-hour layover in some city in China being a particularly brutal example, the key to defeating that little test is waiting for you in #10.
And make no mistake, there’s are going to be thorough and battle-tested. This website is aimed at light sleepers and those who have trouble falling asleep easily, so if this sounds like you, you’re in the right place. You can probably get some value from these words however you sleep.
Now, without further ado…
1. Keep Warm
The cabin of an airplane is cold, the reason for this is to reduce the chance of passengers fainting which is a common problem at high altitudes but is mitigated by a cooler environment.
What that means for you is that your 9-hour cross country flyover is going to feel like a freezer.
These days, most airlines have the good foresight to provide small amounts of furnishings with every seat on an airplane. In most cases, you’ll get a small pillow and a thin blanket.
Useful, but not nearly enough to keep you warm if you’ve decided that a string vest and hotpants are what you’re wearing that day.
And if you’re cold and shivering, sleep is going to be harder to come by.
I’d recommend wearing full-length trousers on every flight, shoes that cover your feet and have a sweater or jacket to put on in case you need it. You might need a little more if you’re one of those super sensitive to the cold type folks.
2. Bring a Neck Pillow
Look at this bad boy, my very own neck pillow that gets worn proudly on practically every flight I take.
That’s skin in the game right there. And let me tell you, these things work.
If you’ve never used one before, the idea is that you slot it around your head and then you can fall asleep at any angle, whichever way your neck wants to turn.
It even works even if your neck droops and goes a different way, so you’re not constantly waking up because you can’t find a comfortable position.
If I get a window seat (check out #3) then I’ll not bother with this and just rest it against the window and sleep on that, still very comfortable. You can also just plop it on the fold-out tray and sleep there too.
It’s a world of difference compared to using the crappy, thin pillow that the airlines provide you with.
Personally, I like the ones that are made of memory foam. They’re thick enough to hold their position so your head doesn’t drop, but also feel soft and comfortable. These are usually among the more expensive but it’s still hardly anything, I think I paid about $20-30 for mine and I’ve easily got my money’s worth.
3. Get a Window Seat
I used to rock up to flights on the day, getting there pretty early (I like to be on time), before most people I assume (2.5-3 hours before), and I would be baffled as to how I was given a middle seat rather than the sweet comfort of the window or aisle seat.
It came as a great revelation to me that if checked in online, a lot of the time you could choose your own seat.
(By the way, if you already knew this and think it’s obvious, please excuse my ignorance!)
So my advice is, learn when the check-in online opens and set an alarm on your phone then get on it right away. For sleeping, the best seat is the window seat.
You will never get disturbed by passengers wanting to go to the toilet and you get a wall (well, side of the airplane) to rest your head against.
The only caveat I would say is that you’re annoying two people usually to use the toilet yourself, I would recommend not drinking that much.
If you’re tall, you probably want an aisle seat in which case fair enough…
4. Wear earplugs
There’s a lot of noise on planes, the drone of the metal machinery screeching through the sky is loud enough, then you add in the chatting, the flight attendants, the ‘ding’ when someone wants something (can’t you just wait for them to walk past…?) and oh god the baby that is intent on ruining everyone’s day.
So let me introduce you to the number one product that has revolutionized my sleeping since I discovered them, these earplugs.
Click on the link for more details. To put it simply, they slot into your ear very snugly and if fitted properly go quite far down the ear canal. And they block tons of noise!
The official ‘Noise Reduction Rating’ is 32 which means it lowers the volume you hear by 32 decibels. That amounts to a lot.
I would forever be annoyed by those sounds that are just loud enough to get your attention, and when you’re trying to sleep for some reason your brain decides to make them that much louder (like what is with that?).
Well, these earplugs dampen those sounds so you barely notice them.
I should point out they’re not perfect and really loud sounds will still get through and ruin your sleep. So if you’re sat next to that baby that’s crying, well, you’ve got problems. (See #8 on how to avoid that in future.)
5. Take a drink with your meal
A gin and tonic, a couple of cans of beer, sometimes even a small bottle of a smooth red (thanks British Airways!), alcohol is a nice little benefit of flying, and it helps send you to sleep.
I know this one’s controversial, for reasons I’ll explain below, but the truth is that one or two drinks will help in falling asleep, and the act of falling asleep is often what troubles people on planes.
Drinking too much is a recipe for disaster, however. Alcohol in large quantities disrupts sleep for a variety of reasons, you need the toilet more, once the alcohol has been processed by your body the drowsy effect wears off, it inhibits you getting into deep REM sleep.
Don’t brush off that toilet one, if you’ve got the window seat that’s two people you’re going to annoy by waking up every hour or two.
In terms of what tipple will best send you to sleep, I recommend avoiding sugars or carbs, and caffeine. These energy boosts are not what you need come night time, so avoid that rum and coke which is loaded with sugar and caffeine, and go for a nice dry red wine or a whiskey and soda.
6. Secure any free seats
Most airplanes are booked or nearly fully booked, in fact, airlines have a policy of overbooking flights due to cancellations or people missing their flight, which is why you sometimes get a bump to first class or a hotel paid for.
On the other hand, there are those flights that are underbooked, with free seats littered around.
Grabbing a pair or even the holy grail of three seats in a row can be the ticket to a horizontal, bed-like sleep on your flight.
The trick to getting these spare seats is to scout around early. As you’re taking off, you want to be looking for the nearest available spots you can nab.
You won’t be able to do anything until the airplane is safely in the air and the seatbelts sign comes off and you hear that ‘ding’. When you do, it’s game on! You have to move fast – without looking like you’re trying too hard – but it is winner takes all.
7. Have a short night’s sleep the night before
Here’s a little trick I use regularly to good effect. If you know you have a long haul flight coming up the next day and it’s important that you get some shuteye on it, make sure you don’t sleep much the night before.
Maybe you stay up late playing video games or maybe you get up early for a workout. Either way, reduce your sleep by 2-3 hours less than you would usually have.
You should be aiming to still get enough sleep that you won’t have a terrible day, but when it comes time to get on that plane, you’ll be feeling pretty ready for some sleep time.
8. Get a seat near the back
I’m gonna assume you’ve read number #3 and properly absorbed its wisdom – good job you learned scholar, you – and now you are online-checking-in with the best of them. Well, a little tip is to choose your seat near the back of the plane.
You may have noticed that when babies take flights they are nearly always situated on the front row.
This is, I assume, because the parents need the space for a crib or other general baby duties (I think we can rule out the baby choosing those seats themselves!)
So when you pick your seat on one of the back rows of the plane you are miles and miles away from the most dreaded source of noise on a flight – infant children who feel it is appropriate to scream for a couple of hours.
Now babies don’t exactly dial it in when they make noise, there’s no denying that they go hell for leather with it so even at the back you’re likely to encounter a fair dose of soundwaves heading your way…
But luckily you are a smart cookie who’s read number #4 and got yourself some earplugs that will dampen the noise sufficiently so you can lie there in bliss.
9. Wear a sleeping mask (eye mask)
Us being apes who learned to walk on two legs and use tools and stuff, we are still attuned to certain things from our biology which was created (designed? evolved?) over many millennia on the wild of the African Savannah.
The most pertinent example is that we sleep when it’s dark and we don’t sleep when it’s light.
Therefore, when you are flying through the sky in a piece of metal at 500 miles an hour (quite some progress us apes have made, hey!) then we are still bothered by little bits of light.
Tv screens, phones, and iPads, reading lights, those lights near the toilets, all these things will prevent us from sleeping as well as we would if they weren’t there.
Luckily, we’ve invented more than just great planes that can cross continents at amazing speeds.
One of the other things we’ve invented is the eye mask, which blocks out light and helps you sleep. For me, it is an essential piece of my travel kit and I wear one practically every time I step on an airplane. You can check out a review of my favorite here.
10. Take Something
I must preface this by saying that taking a sleeping aid, any kind of drug, should be a last resort and is a really, really dangerous thing to get in the habit of doing. Also, speak to your medical professional before you take anything too.
Now, if you are just absolutely the worst sleeper ever (like I am) then you know there will be times where you could be taking an 11-hour sleep over the dead of night and still manage not to sleep one wink.
And believe me, I understand how painful that is. This is why it is always useful to carry around a failsafe for these types of eventualities.
One of the safer things you can take is melatonin. This is what your body naturally produces to get to sleep and you can take it in pill form and it is an over the counter medication, no prescription needed.
Personally, I’ve not been that impressed with its effects but I’ve heard enough good reports to write a little about it here.
Some of the stronger stuff includes drugs/painkillers like Ambien, Xanax or diazepam. These all need to be prescribed by your physician and you should be consulting with them first before taking any of these.
In my experience, diazepam does an excellent job of sending me to sleep when nothing else seems to work.
11. Don’t Eat
Food is your body’s energy source and in particular, carbohydrates give a big boost to energy and spike your blood sugar. What this means is, after a big carb-heavy meal, you are going to be full of energy and find it more difficult to sleep.
I know it’s hard to turn away the tray of treats that are provided on an airplane, and the food is getting better and better it seems, but eating too much can be a real impediment to sleeping well the rest of the journey.
If you absolutely can’t turn it down, try to avoid sugary things like the dessert they always provide.
One little strategy I like to use is to get the window seat and try to get to sleep as soon as I get on the plane. I put my eye mask and earplugs on and snuggle into my neck pillow.
This usually puts them off asking you about food. This lets me go to sleep straight away rather than wait an hour and a half for the food to be served and then collected.
12. Fly business/first class
Yea, I know this isn’t really an amazing piece of advice, I’m basically suggesting that you be rich, but it is effective.
Those business class seats give you so much room, you’re not sat next to anyone else and most of the time they fold back into a small bed-like space.
If you’re flying through work, do your best to get a business class allowance. If you’re not, try being a millionaire. I’ve heard it’s fun!