By Agnes Green, Contributing Writer
It’s that time again: You’re about to catch a flight from one coast to the other after working all day, and before business meetings the next. Or, you are finally off to an adventure on another continent. Whether it’s business or pleasure that’s taking you out of your time zone, you not only want to, you need to sleep.
But how? How can you sleep on an airplane?
You’re dreading crying babies, flight attendants waking you by asking if you want a snack, too little legroom to stretch, chatty passengers, seat mates slurping drinks, the sounds of crinkly plastic wrappers, not being horizontal, and leaving your beloved, well-chosen mattress at home. Indeed, sleeping on an airplane can be quite a feat. Still, there are some tricks that can help even the lightest of sleepers.
How to Sleep on an Airplane
1. If possible, choose a red-eye so you can keep up with your normal sleep rhythm.
2. Sleeping well on an airplane and minimizing jet lag can be the reward you reap from planning well a few nights leading up to travel. If you’re crossing more than two time zones, adjust your sleep by one hour each of the five pre-flight nights to your destination’s time zone.
3. Do not step onto an airplane with sleep debt from the previous night. That’s a mistake too many air travelers make. Plan ahead to get lots of rest the night before.
4. Minimize pre-flight stress. Try to finish packing 24 hours ahead of your trip—locate the necessary documents and figure out a place, be it in a pants pocket, a travel pouch, or a carry-on, where you will always store the documents.
5. If you always have trouble sleeping on the plane, consider taking a dose of melatonin or another sleep aid, after consulting your doctor.
6. Do not turn to alcohol in order to induce slumber. Air travels frequently self-medicate with alcoholic beverages, especially if they come with their ticket, but it can backfire. “Falling asleep faster is the only real benefit of alcohol for sleep,” says Shawn R. Currie, a professor at the University of Calgary who coauthored a study of alcoholics and sleep. “The more prevalent, disruptive effects include more frequent awakenings, worse sleep quality; reduction of deep sleep, and earlier-than-usual waking times, leading people to feel they did not get enough sleep.”
7. Pick a window seat. This way, you won’t be nudged awake by passengers getting up to use the bathroom, you can shut the window blinds, and lean against the window wall. A window seat means less turbulence, too.
8. Avoid sitting near the front, as this is often where parents with children will travel.
9. Travel in loose-fitting clothing. It helps avoid deep-vein thrombosis, or blood clots, first described in 1977 as “the economy class syndrome.” Another study found that frequent flyers are 3.65 times more likely to develop deep-vein thrombosis.
10. When you do wake, take the chance to stand up and exercise. A study of travelers on trips involving more than two time zones and lasting two to four days demonstrated that people who exercise during their trips performed 61 percent better the next day than people who did not.
11. Bring an inflatable pillow with you. Your neck—with no kinks in it—with thank you. And use a blanket or a coat to make sure you stay warm.
12. Get a sleep eye mask, ideally one that does not put pressure on the eye balls and that does not wrap too tightly around your head. Or use an item of clothing instead. Darkness is a promoter of sleep.
13. Recline your seat. It’s good manners to give the passenger behind you a heads-up before you do that.
14. If possible, consider upgrading to either a seat with extra leg room or business or first-class. Stretching your legs will help you sleep better.
15. When you get uncomfortable and want to swich sleeping positions, remember that you have options: you can either sleep upright and straight, lean to either side on a pillow, or use your tray table and pillow to recline forward. If you are lucky and no one is seating next to you, you can use the other seat(s) to stretch out more.
Do you have other tips or tricks for how to sleep on an airplane? Let us know in the comments.
About the Writer: Agnes Green is a researcher for the sleep science hub Tuck Sleep. She holds two graduate degrees in the social sciences from the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. She sleeps most soundly after a kettlebell workout and on a medium-firm mattress in Portland, Oregon.