How To Sleep On A Plane: Top Tips And Tricks
No one wants to spend the first 36 hours of their holiday recovering from a flight. At some point in the journey, it is a good idea to try and grab some sleep. While a few lucky folks can pass out easily upon takeoff, for most of us, quality in-flight sleep is a struggle. And that can lead to exhaustion and several nights of playing catch-up when you arrive at your final destination. Beyond the tips for sleeping on a plane you likely already know—invest in earplugs, an eye mask, and a pillow; wear comfy clothing; and book a first class ticket with a lie-flat seat—here are more ways you can rest en route.
Score a window seat
If you can reserve a window seat, lean against and rest your head on the side of the plane. It’s a lot easier than trying to fall asleep on a neck pillow while basically sitting upright. Bonus is that you can also control your light exposure. Also, make sure you can stretch out your feet. It’s more than just a comfort issue—it’s also better for your circulation. That way sleeping on a plane can be more comfy.
Bring some comfort items
Remember your favorite teddy bear as a kid? Think of this as the adult version. So now’s the time to put that broken-in sweater, super-soft faded t-shirt, and chill playlist to good use. Falling asleep when you’re in the midst of 200 people and 38,000 feet up in the air is all about making yourself feel as at-home as possible.
Uncross your legs
When you cross your legs, you clamp down on one side, which could restrict blood flow and increase your chances of a blood clot if your flight is more than four hours. Because your lower half is slightly twisted either to the right or left, depending on which leg you crossed, and your upper body is still facing straight ahead, you add a small amount of additional stress to your lumbar. If you’re sleeping on a plane that way, you’ll likely wake up at some point and immediately cross your legs the other way because you’re subconsciously trying to even out that twist.
A better way to sit is to keep your legs straight, with a slight bend to your knees. If you’re petite, we also suggest shifting your entire body to the side, and leaning your shoulder into your seat.
Reclining your seat will help ease some of the pressure on your lower spine. With less pressure on your back, it’ll be easier to fall asleep. The second best position is sitting up straight. But if your abdominal muscles aren’t strong, you won’t have any lumbar support—and that can lead to lower back pain. The fix would be a lumbar pillow, which helps to keep that curve in your low back
The worst thing you can do? Fall asleep leaning forward without any back support. In that position, you’re putting the most pressure on the spinal discs.
Use those armrests! One study found that they helped alleviate back pressure. Rather than try to squeeze between them, rest your forearms on top to gently support your upper body and relieve your spine from doing all of the work.
We all know that light exposure is a bad idea if you’re trying to sleep. The same holds true for the light produced by seatback TV screens, mobile phones, tablets, or laptops. Electronic screens are similar to sunlight. So when you’re looking at that but trying to sleep after, you’re suppressing melatonin release.
Avoid sleep aids, except melatonin
If you’re traveling alone, be very careful about using any sleep medicine unless you know how it affects you. Most over-the-counter sleep aids contain antihistamines, which are typically longer-acting and may leave you feeling groggy. If you really want some help, try melatonin. Though it’s not regulated or approved by the FDA, several studies have shown it might be useful in shifting your circadian rhythm. One paper suggests if your flight departs in the early evening, you should take the melatonin hormone before boarding. A small dosage of melatonin can clearly make sleeping on a plane easier.
Though it might be tempting, booze won’t help you sleep soundly. Alcohol will initially promote sleep, but it’s usually only in effect for three to four hours, and then you can’t get back to sleep. On top of that, you might wake with a headache and feel thirsty. That could lead to overcompensating with water, and we all know frequent bathroom trips won’t make it easy to fall asleep.
Don't eat too much
Try not to eat a meal within two hours of trying to sleep. And watch what you eat. Overeating or having fatty foods might feel uncomfortable and make it harder to catch sleep. When you eat a big or high-fat meal, your heart needs to work harder to pump more blood to your stomach and intestines. Eating large quantities of fatty foods can also lead to changes that cause blood to clot more easily, something you want to avoid if you’re on a long flight.
Plan ahead to beat jet lag
Whether you’re traveling east or west can make a difference in your pre-flight plan. Heading east? Go to bed 30 to 60 minutes earlier than usual in the days leading up to your trip. Then, try to get up 30 minutes earlier, so you’ve shifted the whole sleeping window a little bit earlier. One study found a combination of shifting sleep cycles and using melatonin allowed subjects to avoid jet lag entirely.
Research also suggests if you’re traveling east on an overnight flight, you should avoid light exposure and try to sleep during the first half of the flight. Going west? Avoid light exposure during the second half of your flight to initiate a delay in your circadian rhythm. The good news is if you’re flying west and you’re a night owl, you have an advantage.
Set your watch to your new time zone
As soon as you leave your starting city, act as if you’re already in the time zone of your destination. For instance, if you feel like you need a cup of joe, only have it if you’d be drinking coffee at that time in your arrival city. If it’s 10 p.m., the answer is no—regardless of how you feel in your current time zone. The sooner you can start acclimating to your new destination, the better off you’ll be once you actually arrive.
Stay up! If you sleep all day, then you’re going to be up all night, prolonging the same issue. If you nap, keep it short: 15 to 30 minutes. And accept that it may take a few days to feel completely back to normal: You can shift your circadian rhythm about one hour per day, several experts confirmed. So if the first day or two you’re groggy, hungry at odd times, or have GI issues, it’s just part of your body adjusting. Give it time, and soon you’ll be back to enjoying your vacation.