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Expert Secrets To Getting the Best Sleep on a Flight

Wellness Airports + Flying
by Karen Tietjen Jun 27, 2019

It’s no secret that sleeping on planes is uncomfortable — that is, unless you’re willing to drop some dough on a luxury first-class seat. But for the rest of us, catching some shut-eye in a plane seat isn’t exactly ideal. Aside from close proximity to strangers and possible pre-vacation nerves, there’s another reason why it can be difficult to doze off, even on a red-eye flight.

“Sleeping on a plane is difficult mostly because of gravity,” explained John Breese, sleep science coach and CEO and founder of Happy Sleepy Head, a site focused on sleep issues and products. “See, when you lie horizontally in your bed, you can relax completely, and gravity doesn’t work against you. But when you are in an upright position in your plane seat, your body can’t relax completely because it needs to maintain balance in order to not fall into an aisle or onto your neighbor (due to gravity).”

So when it comes to getting some rest on a plane, the goal is to create an environment for yourself that is conducive to sleeping. This often means blocking out noise and light, and positioning yourself so you can relax as best as possible. It’s always recommended to bring the standard eye mask and noise-canceling headphones in your carry-on, but according to the pros, there are a few other things you can do to get comfortable.

Read on for expert-approved tips and tricks on how to get the best sleep on a plane. From what to wear to how to prepare, this advice will help you drift off next time you hit the skies, especially if you’re in for a long flight.

1. Be mindful when choosing your seat.

While budget limits seat choice to some extent, there are a few things you can control. Of course, the earlier you’re able to reserve a seat, the more options you’ll likely have. “If it’s possible, book the seat near the window so that you can also lean on the wall to relax your neck and spine,” Breese suggested. “If you can’t get a window seat, you can still lean on the back of your seat by turning your body to the side. You might appear sitting face-to-face to the passenger next to you, but you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable because of that…I’ve seen people do really weird things to get comfortable on a plane.”

Ruth Petralifi, a personal travel planner at Not Just Travel, gave a few more insider tips. “Avoid seats right at the back, as many don’t recline and can be close to the toilets,” she advised. “If you’re traveling on Virgin, look out for seats in ‘the bubble.’ These are economy seats next to premium economy and are more spacious. Many people don’t know about it, and it has less than 20 seats.” She also recommended checking out SeatGuru, where you can look up seat plans by airline and flight number, before booking your ticket.

2. Wear comfortable clothing.

No, you don’t have to wear your plaid flannels to the airport in order to catch some sleep on your red-eye. You can certainly pack them in your carry-on, or consider other options that are as comfortable as they are stylish.

“Anything constricting, itchy or uncomfortable in any way should be left at home,” said Charish Badzinski, writer and founder of Rollerbag Goddess Global Communications. “This doesn’t mean you have to wear sweatpants or athleisure wear. There are loads of comfortable clothing options that also look great. I try to avoid anything with a tight waistband, in particular, as it can cut in after 10 hours on a plane.”

Some ideas to consider: joggers, stretchy jeggings, drawstring palazzo pants, maxi skirts, flowy tops, and soft sweaters.

3. Bring layers.

Frequent travelers know that planes can get chilly, and there’s nothing worse than trying to catch some zzz’s while you’re shivering. “Bring socks and a sweater or sweatshirt [on a flight],” Badzinski recommended. “Overnight flights almost always get cold for me. Just being able to keep my toes warm, or pull a hoodie up over my head, makes all the difference in my ability to sleep.” You can also bring along an oversized blanket scarf, that — you guessed it — can double as a blanket.

4. Practice your nightly “bedtime” routine.

“If you’re on a night flight, take your toothbrush and [face cleaning] wipes so you can prepare for bed,” said Petralifi. “Sometimes going through these bedtime routines helps the body prepare for sleep.” You may also want to bring face cream and hand lotion, too. Not only will you be sticking to your pre-sleep ritual, but it will also help you arrive feeling fresh at your destination.

5. Load up your electronics.

Aside from providing in-flight entertainment, if you usually listen to movies, music, podcasts, or meditations before bed, doing so may help you doze off mid-flight. “To me, there’s nothing better than falling asleep to a movie,” added Breese.

On the flip side, if you normally avoid blue light before hitting the hay, you may do better drifting off to soothing sounds from noise-canceling headphones, or flipping through a book or magazine before closing your eyes.

6. Choose your beverages wisely.

“Avoid caffeine, including that found in soft drinks and chocolate, on the day of your flight and the day before,” Breese recommended. As far as alcohol goes, there are mixed reviews; Breese advised against it. “It might help you fall asleep as soon as you’re onboard, but will probably cause you to wake up an hour or two later with no desire to sleep anymore,” he said.

However, other travelers say that a drink or two pre-flight helps them relax enough to take a snooze. Again, it depends on your preferences, and moderation is key.

As always with flying, it’s important to drink plenty of water before and during your flight. This will help keep you comfortable, which assists with sleep. “Hydrate in the days and hours leading up to your flight, but cut yourself off an hour before boarding,” Badzinsk recommended. “This eliminates your need to get up and go to the restroom while in the air.”

7. Use natural remedies to help you feel drowsy.

“A melatonin supplement may be helpful to use short-term while traveling for improving sleep quality as well as in reducing and overcoming jet lag,” said Tania Mather, a certified master wellness coach, master coach leader with the International Association of Wellness Professionals, and wellness retreat designer.

She added that inhaling essential oils can also be relaxing. “If I’m flying and want to sleep on the plane, I’ll spray some [essential oils] on a scarf or wrap that I can wrap around me and smell in flight. I love lavender and bergamot. Both are high in linalool and linalyl acetate and are well known for their relaxing properties. My favorite is doTerra’s Serenity blend.” You can also bring a travel-sized bottle of skin-safe essential oils to dab onto pressure points. Just be sure to layer the scents on lightly, as nearby passengers may be sensitive to smells.

8. And if all else fails…

If you have a long or overnight flight and you’re really worried about getting some shut-eye, you can take some drowse-inducing allergy or over-the-counter pain medication to help your eyes get heavy. As always, consult with your doctor before taking any new medications or supplements; they may also prescribe a light sedative if need be.

A travel must-have checklist, according to the experts:

  • Comfortable neck pillow (an inflatable one will take up the least amount of space)
  • Light-blocking eye mask
  • Noise-canceling headphones or earplugs
  • Electronic device loaded with movies, TV shows, music, podcasts, and/or guided meditations
  • Books and magazines
  • Warm layers such as a sweatshirt, soft socks, and blanket scarf
  • Supplements and/or essential oils to help make you drowsy
  • Water
  • Travel-sized “nighttime routine” products such as a toothbrush, toothpaste, face cleansing wipes, creams, and lotions

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