How To Fall Asleep On A Flight — And Stay Asleep — According To Experts
When taking a flight, whether it’s across the country or the world, you may want to take a nap so you’ll be well-rested when you land. However, when it comes to actually trying to do so, it may be more challenging than you planned. There might be plenty of unwanted distractions: people coughing, babies crying, and your seat mates waking you up every time they need to get past you to use the restroom — not to mention that your seat won’t recline like a bed. In trying to figure out the best way to sleep on planes, you may try everything from herbal remedies, like melatonin, to listening to sound frequencies, like binaural beats, or using a device that emits frequencies meant to help you sleep, such as the Philip Stein Sleep Bracelet.
“As someone who’s flown over three million miles, sleeping on planes is not one of the easiest tasks,” John E. DiScala, founder of JohnnyJet.com, tells Bustle. “But there are ways to do so that I’ve picked up over the years. Trying to get sleep on a flight is important because it usually means you will be not only well-rested when you land, but it will also help you get on local time so you won’t be jet lagged.” He adds that sleep-deprived travelers may be more vulnerable to scam artists and thieves, which is another reason to try to be at the top of your well-rested game by the time you land.
Rick Steves, travel teacher, also says that getting some sleep on your flight will be beneficial, especially when it comes to longer flights. “Getting a little sleep on a transcontinental flight is really important,” he tells Bustle. “When I get a couple of good hours of sleep on a flight, I do much better on my first day in Europe.” Below, Johnny Jet, Steves, and other experts share their best tips for how to sleep on flights, whether they’re short or long trips.
1. Get Comfortable
Dr. Roy Raymann, vice president of sleep science and scientific affairs at SleepScore Labs, tells Bustle that it’s important you’re dressed comfortably for your flight. “You should be wearing comfortable clothing — items can include loose clothing, long sleeve pullovers, and sleep socks,” he says.
Steves agrees. To get settled on your flight before you sleep, he says to be sure to use the restroom, and when you return to your seat, tell the person next to you that you’ll be taking a long nap so they don’t feel like they need to wake you up, he says. “Take off your belt and loosen or remove your shoes, if you have a favorite sleeping pill, take it, and stretch out the best you can,” he adds. Making sure you’re warm can help you sleep, too, Steves says, and to prevent a flight attendant from waking you up, keep the seat belt clasped over your blanket.
2. Bring Sleep Accessories
Mel Dohmen, senior brand manager at Orbitz, tells Bustle that part of making sure you’ll sleep on a plane comes down to the accessories you bring that’ll help. “Plan to bring your own pillow, blanket, or neck support gadget,” she says. “It’s becoming rarer and rarer that these comforts are provided by the airline, and you always sleep better with your own gear anyway.”
Travel Channel’s Oneika Raymond, host of Big City, Little Budget and One Bag And You’re Out, flies long-haul pretty often, she tells Bustle. She, too, is a fan of bringing her own sleep-related travel accessories on flights. “Invest in a good neck pillow — I’m a fan of Trtl,” she says. “Also, wear noise-cancelling headphones. The recently-released Sony WH-1000XM3 are my faves.”
Dr. Raymann also thinks that limiting airplane-related noise is important if you want to sleep on your flight. “While some people need white noise to sleep, noise from other passengers, flight crew, and the overall sound of the plane may be too overwhelming,” he says. “So use earplugs or noise cancellation headphones to block out some or all of the noise.”
He also points out that humans achieve the most optimal sleep in a dark setting. “When you are ready to sleep, put on a sleep mask to ensure you have a dark personal space,” he says. “This will also help deter you from checking your phone, playing games, and watching TV.”
He says that another way to become more sleep-ready is by using a blanket, either one provided by the airline or brought from home. SleepScore Labs recommends the Travelrest – Wrap, which is made of premium micro-fleece. “The poncho-style blanket covers shoulders entirely and will not slip down,” he says.
3. Stick To Your Usual Bedtime Rituals (As Much As You Can)
While it may be impossible to do all your bedtime rituals while tens of thousands of feet in the air, doing some of them will help your mind and body get ready for bed. “I’ve found that doing some of the things that you’d normally do before going to sleep helps you fall and stay asleep when flying,” Johnny Jet says. “Doing things like dressing comfortably, taking off your contacts, brushing your teeth, and even washing your face or putting on a moisturizing face mask can help you relax and get in the right mindset.”
Dr. Sujay Kansagra, Mattress Firm’s sleep health expert, also tells Bustle that nighttime routines are an important part of sleep hygiene. “No matter how far you travel, remember that many parts of your nighttime routine are portable, so keep your nighttime routine the same when you travel,” he says. Plus, studies show that routines help everyone sleep — both kids and adults alike, he says.
4. Adjust Your Internal Body Clock
Dr. Kansagra says it’s also important to adjust your internal body clock when flying, especially long distances. “When we fly across multiple time zones, our bodies continue to function based on the time back home instead of the time at the destination, and this mismatch creates jet lag,” he says. “But jet lag can be improved simply by timing your exposure to light since our brains adjust our circadian rhythm based on light exposure.”
When flying West, Dr. Kansagra says it’s best to stay awake until the typical bedtime in your new time zone, coupled with exposure to bright lights at night. “If possible, avoid too much bright light upon awakening,” he says. If traveling East, however, he suggests that you limit light exposure at night, go to sleep as early as you feel tired, and get plenty of light exposure when you wake up. “The caveat is this: If you are traveling across more than three time zones, and you’re trying to wake up at the same time as you do back home, you may want to delay excessive light exposure until later in the morning,” he says.
5. Get A Sleep-Conducive Seat
Oftentimes, a good flight can become a great flight when you have the most ideal seat. “Personally, I think the most important thing is to book a window seat so you don’t have to get up if you don’t want to,” Johnny Jet says. “Bring ear plugs and an eye mask, too, since you don’t want to be disturbed when the lights go on or someone opens the window shade.”
Dohmen agrees about getting a window seat. “Besides getting to rest your head against the cabin wall, you’ll also decrease your chances of being disturbed by your seat mates when they have to get up during the flight,” she says. “Since window and aisle seats tend to fill up the quickest, plan on booking your flight further out so you have better seats to choose from — or skip Basic Economy fares since they don’t allow you to choose a seat in advance.”
Or, you may want to get a seat with more leg room, even if it costs more. “Sometimes, one of the best investments you can make is upgrading your seat so that you will be more comfortable,” Johnny Jet says. “You can do this with some of the best rewards credit cards, as they often come with travel perks.” By doing this, he says he’s more rested by the time the plane lands, especially after an international flight. “Plus, I am able to take advantage of the time I have on the ground instead of feeling jet lagged,” he adds.
Raymond also suggests choosing your seat wisely. “I like to check on SeatGuru.com for the best ones on my flight,” she says. “I typically try to spot the ones with the most leg room and in the quietest areas.”
6. Book Nonstop Flights
Although it may be cheaper to take multiple flights to your final destination, getting one nonstop one will be to your benefit if you want to sleep on the plane. “There’s nothing worse than finally getting comfortable only to be told that ‘seats need to be back in the upright position’ as the flight begins its descent into the destination,” Johnny Jet says.
7. Use Tech To Help You Wind Down
Although screens emit blue light that may prohibit sleep, your tech devices may also help you fall asleep. “If you normally watch a show before you sleep, download an episode but lower the volume and dim the screen,” Johnny Jet says. “Alternatively, listen to a sleep podcast or download a sleep app.” He suggests using this same sleep app even before your trip, in order to condition your brain to relax.
8. Be Mindful Of What You Eat And Drink
What you eat and drink before trying to sleep on your flight can have an impact, too. “Try cutting out caffeine at least four hours before takeoff, and request warm chamomile tea as your complimentary drink on the plane,” Dohmen says.
Dr. Kansagra adds that although you may want to drink alcohol on your flight, it can worsen sleep quality. “If you do plan on having the occasional drink, try to drink as early in the evening as possible so that your blood alcohol level is close to zero before going to sleep,” he says.
Dr. Raymann agrees. “The consumption of alcoholic drinks on flights may help you fall asleep, but will likely make it more difficult to stay asleep,” he says. “Also, when you’re looking for the right meal or food option in preparation of your flight, it’s important to remember to eat lightly: snacks such as nuts are good. But avoid eating fatty or large meals and foods with lots of spices.”
If You Cannot Sleep On Your Flight, It’s OK
Sometimes, however, as much as you may try to sleep on a plane, it just doesn’t happen. And Dohmen says it’s OK to not try it all, depending on your destination, flight time, and if you’re concerned about having jet lag. “Pro travelers who want to acclimate more quickly to their new time zone often search for flights that land later in the day in their destination,” she says. “By staying up throughout the flight and then heading straight to your hotel when you land, you’ll set yourself up for a good night’s rest in your new time zone.”
And, after your flight, if you really need a nap — say you don’t arrive at night in time for bed — Dr. Kansagra says it’s not a bad idea to have a short daytime one. “The best napping duration is 20-30 minutes on the short end, or 90 minutes on the long end — anything in between and you may find yourself feeling even more groggy when you wake up,” he says. “The best time to nap is during the afternoon lull that occurs around 12-2 p.m. — but, remember, this will be 12-2 p.m. in your home’s time zone, not your destination’s until you’ve had time to adjust your body clock.” While sleeping on your flight is very doable, it may take some practice — but will definitely be worth it in the end.