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How to Sleep Better on a Plane

I am an avid traveler who is always looking for my next favorite travel hack. I wrote this piece to share my anecdotal knowledge.


8 Tips for Sleeping on a Plane

I was once on a flight from Colorado to Minnesota, and the man next to me sat down and fell asleep before everyone was even seated. I am still in awe of this man because I struggle to sleep on flights.

In 2018, I went 24 hours without sleep because I was on my way to Barcelona and just could not sleep. That experience spurred a need in me to know how to sleep better on a plane. These tips will help you never have to experience what I did on that fateful trip.

1. Wear Comfortable Clothing

Long gone are the days of dressing up for a flight, so wear respectable but comfortable clothing, especially for a long-haul flight. It isn't uncommon on overnight flights for people to bring pajamas in their personal item or carry-on and change into them before going to sleep.

Note: The temperature of a flight can change dramatically, so dress in layers to add and remove clothing as needed.

2. Create an Empty Seat

This works best if you are traveling in pairs. When booking your seats, choose a window seat and an aisle seat. If the plane isn't booked, it is less likely someone would choose a middle seat between two strangers, so you will have more room to spread out.

If you get really lucky, you may get booked in an aisle by yourself, which allows you to just sprawl out and sleep.

3. Wear Noise-Canceling Headphones

If you are a light sleeper, any amount of noise on a packed plane will alert your senses. Earplugs work, but noise-canceling headphones are better for two reasons:

  • They have active noise-canceling technology that works better than just plugging your ears.
  • You can play calming music or white noise that is meant to help put you asleep and keep you asleep.

Just be careful because you might not hear important announcements from the flight attendant.

4. Take a Natural Sleep Aid

It's not uncommon for nervous flyers to turn to alcohol to make it through the flight, but alcohol can have the opposite effect on your sleep schedule and prevent you from relaxing. Sleep medication also has its perils, especially when you are sleeping in a cabin full of strangers.

Instead, consider natural sleep aids like lavender or melatonin to gently relax your body and help you sleep. These are all over-the-counter options and shouldn't have any interactions with other drugs, though it is always a good idea to check with your doctor before taking them.

5. Plan Ahead

Falling asleep on a flight may come down to a little preflight prep. First and foremost, if you are on a long flight, try to schedule it during regular sleep hours so you don't mess with your circadian rhythm too much.

Many airports worldwide are starting to install gyms so you can get in a quick workout before your flight. Despite the burst of energy a workout may give you, it will help relax your body at night and help you fall asleep.

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6. Skip Stimulants

Long layovers may make you want to sit down at an airport cafe and enjoy a cup of coffee before your flight, but that will come back to haunt you when you are trying to fall asleep on the plane.

The same goes for any carbonated beverages, which are known to cause bloating on flights, making you too uncomfortable to sleep.

Even water is a doubled edged-sword because it is essential to stay hydrated on flights, especially long ones, but at the same time, you don't want to drink so much water that you have to wake up frequently to use the bathroom.

7. Upgrade Your Seats

This is easier said than done, since some first-class tickets are in the tens of thousands of dollars, but if you can afford it, you will get more legroom and more space to stretch out. In some cases, first-class seats even fold all the way down into beds.

8. Try Sleep Gadgets

Not being able to fall asleep on a plane is not a new problem, so there are plenty of gadgets out there to help. Here are a few of the ones that I have tested and how I feel about them.

Go Sleep Travel System

If it's crazy, but it works, is it really crazy? This all-in-one sleep system is specifically designed for airline travel, and while it may seem a little cheesy, I swear by it.

The Go Sleep Travel System combines a pillow and eye mask to create a sleep system that works no matter what seat you are in. A pillow goes behind your neck, and a strap holds the eye mask and pillow in place so you can sleep sitting straight up in your seat.

It is surprisingly comfortable and prevents you from bobbing or leaning up against a stranger while you sleep. You will love the fact that you can get hours of sleep uninterrupted.

Traditional Neck Pillow

The traditional travel pillow has to work for many people or they wouldn't still make so many of them, but they have never worked for me. I have a closet full of different brands and shapes of travel neck pillows, but I can never get comfortable while wearing one.

I have heard great things about the Ostrich neck pillow, but it is a little expensive to take a risk on.

Leg Hammock

There are a few brands out there, and they all look exactly alike. These leg hammocks hang from the tray or the top of the seat and keep your feet suspended.

I tried to use mine on my last flight, but it was a regional carrier, and the seats were tight, so it didn't do much to help. I also tried hanging it from the tray; it may have yielded better results from the top of the seat.

Not only do they help to keep your feet elevated, so you are more comfortable, but that elevation also helps to prevent edema on long-haul flights.

Sweet Dreams

The nice thing about sleeping on a plane as an adult is that it is like sleeping in the car as a kid. You fall into a deep slumber and wake up when you are practically already there, cutting out the worst part of the trip.

No matter how you choose to sleep, I hope it works for you and you wake up on the descent to your destination well-rested and ready to experience everything the world has to offer.

© 2022 Arthur Thares

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