Unless you’re blessed with that rare ability to sleep in any place at any time, the chances are you’ll have a little difficulty sleeping well on a plane.
If you have the means and desire to pay for a lie-flat seat, you’ll have a much better chance of sleeping of course. But if you’re anything like me, it can be a real struggle to stay comfortable enough for hours on end to get some decent sleep – especially in economy class.
As a frequent flyer, and a particularly tall one, I’ve picked up many tricks for improving my chances of getting some shut eye. And as a writer about sleep in general, I thought I’d combine my knowledge of both flying and sleep in this article.
So whether you’re in economy or business class, hopefully you’ll find some useful tips here that help you arrive at your destination feeling as rested as possible.
1. Choose the best window seat
Where you sit makes a huge difference when sleeping on a plane. Here are some useful tactics for choosing the best seat:
- Book a window seat, which often have a little extra room. It also means you can lean against your pillow, you can control the light from the window, and you won’t be disturbed by someone needing to get past you.
- If you sleep on your right side at home, book a window seat on the right hand side of the plane. And if you sleep on your left, head to the left side of the plane.
- Book long in advance so there are more seats available.
- Use the excellent website SeatGuru.com to find a seat with extra legroom if needed, and to work out which is the best window seat.
- Choose a seat away from the toilets, so the light and people queuing don’t disturb you.
Another top tip for getting your preferred seat is to fly with the same airline as much as possible to build up status. That can eventually lead to perks such as priority seat choice.
2. The extra legroom Vs. reclining decision for tall people
I’m 6 foot 4 (193 cm), which means it’s virtually impossible for me to sleep in most standard economy seats. So I usually pay a little extra for a seat with extra leg room on long night flights. If it’s not an option, I get to the airport early and ask nicely for a good seat at check-in.
However, there’s an important decision to be made here. Seats in the emergency exit aisle often have great leg room, but they don’t usually recline, meaning sleeping in the upright position.
So I use SeatGuru.com to find the best extra legroom seats for my plane. Ideally I want the following points, though in reality it’s not always possible to get this perfect combination:
- Extra legroom.
- Not in an emergency exit row, so the seat does recline.
- Not right in front of the toilet.
- Nearer the back to avoid seats recommended for parents with babies.
3. Bring a decent travel pillow
The little pillow most airlines give you is probably best used as a lumbar support to keep your back comfortable. And the travel pillows sold in airport gift shops aren’t always the best.
Here are some practical travel pillow tips:
- Do some research and bring a quality travel pillow that’s right for your neck size and sleeping style.
- Unless saving space is essential, go for micro-fiber or memory foam rather than inflatable.
- If it has a U shape, try wearing it in reverse to stop your head dropping forwards if you’re sitting upright.
- A window seat will allow you to lean into the pillow better.
- For suggestions of good pillows, have a read of my travel pillow reviews.
4. Block out light, noise and disturbance
The last time I flew from Buenos Aires to London, I had a seat with so much extra legroom that it became a social hub for people stretching and queuing for the toilet. Every time the door opened, the light disturbed me, as did the people talking and laughing.
To avoid that kind of disturbance, no matter where you’re sitting, there are some simple things you can do:
- Bring along a good sleep mask – also useful when the lights go on for breakfast.
- Wear a baseball cap or other hat you can tip down to block light.
- If you’re sensitive to noise, you could use some quality sleep earplugs.
- Listen to music on some noise-cancelling headphones.
And if you’re not interested in the in-flight meals, you can quietly ask a flight attendant not to disturb you, even at meal times. And if you use a blanket, put the seat belt over the top so the attendants don’t disturb you to check it.
5. Stay warm and comfortable
Some overnight flights can be surprisingly chilly, so it doesn’t always make sense to wear your beach clothes. Instead, bring comfortable clothes and an extra layer or two just in case it does end up being an unusually cold flight.
Personally, if I board with shorts and a thin top because the country of departure is boiling hot, I make sure I have trousers and a warmer top easily accessible in my hand luggage.
Try not to wear clothes that are too tight either – think loose and comfortable Sunday morning clothes rather than your Saturday night outfit. The exception is compression socks or stockings if you’re concerned about deep vein thrombosis (DVT) when flying.
6. Avoid alcohol and caffeiene
In some ways, the same healthy sleep habits for daily life also apply to sleeping on a plane.
Drinking alcohol can help you fall asleep faster. However, it can reduce your overall quality of sleep, lead to you waking early and not falling asleep again, and also needing to get up to use the bathroom.
As for caffeine, it’s best to avoid it completely in the several hours leading up to your journey. Not only can it keep you awake long after your last drink, it can lead to more toilet trips and an upset stomach.
7. Eat wisely
Again, the same applies to sleeping on airplanes as it does back home; try not to eat a heavy, rich or fatty meal before you plan on getting some sleep.
It’s better to have a light meal a couple of hours before takeoff, but not so much that you have indigestion or gas when the pressure changes on the plane.
Bring some light, healthy snacks with you for the journey too, especially if like most people you’re not a fan of the airplane food.
8. Stay hydrated
It’s a good idea to buy a large bottle of water once you pass through the airport security and bring it with you. Then take regular sips on the journey to stay hydrated, helping you avoid the sodas, caffeine and alcohol on the plane.
9. Avoid screens
The light from devices like laptops, tablets and smart phones can trick the brain into thinking it’s still daytime. So avoid using these screens before trying to sleep. If you have to use a device, use a blue light filter if it has one or dim the brightness.
10. Avoid sleeping pills
There are no specific sleeping pills for flights, so if you do feel the need to pop a pill, it will be one you’d use back home. And the problem with those can be the length of time they stay in your system, and potential grogginess on arrival.
Perhaps the best option, if you really feel the need would be melatonin which has been shown to be helpful with jet lag. However, it’s important to understand how it works and get the timing right.
My personal view is that it’s best to avoid any pills when flying so you don’t arrive feeling disorientated.
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If you’re concerned about jet lag, it is possible to reduce the effects with some careful planning in the days before you fly. To find out more, have a read of these tips for beating jet lag.
Your tips for sleeping on planes
Do you have any suggestions that I haven’t covered? If you have any tips or ideas you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.