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How to sleep on a plane (yes, it can be done)

How to sleep on a plane (yes, it can be done)
Posted at 9:11 AM, Feb 23, 2024

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Getting sleep on a flight is notoriously difficult. You’re upright, high in the sky, and sharing tight quarters with fellow passengers. But sleeping during a flight can be particularly important if you’re switching time zones and traveling internationally. So how do you sleep on a plane?

There are a few tips, tricks and products that can help. Last year, I took 58 flights, including several international legs that had overnight components plus a handful of red-eye flights and a dozen early morning departures that required getting up between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. to head to the airport.

With nearly a decade of travel-writing experience, I’ve come up with a few strategies to sleep on a plane, but I also tapped a sleep expert and some frequent travelers for their best tips and recommendations, too.

1. Pick a Good Seat

People sleep on airplane

Before you book a flight, take a look at the seat map and choose your seat assignment.

Some airlines upcharge for this, but it might be worth paying the extra money to not sit in an aisle seat near the lavatory where people often congregate. Aisle seats, in general, make it tough to fall (and stay asleep) when the meal or snack service carts wheel down the aisle. Plus, you might get nudged by people walking to the restrooms. I’ve found that I have the best shot at getting sleep while in a window seat because you also get to control the window shade.

Airline loyalty status comes with perks like free seat selection and automatic upgrades to the more spacious Economy Plus seats, and sometimes you’ll even end up on a first-class upgrade list.

MORE: Go ahead and book your next flight

2. Pack a Travel Pillow

first class airplane seat

Travel pillows are among the most important accessories for sleeping on a plane, according to the experts I interviewed, including Julia Forbes, a certified sleep coach and sleep product expert at Sleep Advisor.

When you’re shopping for neck pillows, Forbes recommends looking for options that have a U-shape design to support your neck, and she favors pillows that can be adjusted for comfort since everyone sleeps a little differently.

“Neck support is particularly important when sleeping in a sitting position during a flight, as the natural movements of the plane can put pressure on the neck,” says Forbes.

Just like when you’re shopping for pillows for your bed, Forbes also says you should consider what type of firmness you prefer — do you like a softer pillow that feels like you’re sinking into it or a firmer pillow with added support?

Yes, Forbes does have favorites. Here’s what she recommends:

Cabeau Evolution S3 Travel Pillow

Cabeau Evolution S3 Travel Neck Pillow

$40 at Amazon

This Cabeau travel pillow is comfy and provides good neck support thanks to its horseshoe shape and raised side cushions, Forbes says.

“The chunky design ensures 360-degree head support, preventing any leaning to the side,” she says. “The headrest straps allow attachment to the seat’s headrest, preventing it from slipping while you’re asleep.”

BCozzy Neck Pillow

BCozzy Neck Pillow

$44 at Amazon

Forbes likes this BCOZZY Neck Pillow because you can modify it based on where you’re sitting on the plane. For example, if you’re in a window seat, you can adjust the pillow to provide a supportive cushion nudged up against the window. The design also keeps your head from falling forward.

The trtl Pillow

trtl neck pillow

$64 at Amazon

This trtl travel pillow is another that provides reliable head support. Plus, it’s lightweight and easy to fold, Forbes says. It’s made with a cozy soft fleece.

3. Put on a Sleep Mask

woman with eye mask sleeping on plane

With cabin lights turning on and off and bright screens from neighboring seats, having something that blocks out the light helps me fall asleep faster.

One travel essential I always keep in my carry-on is the Casaluna sleep mask. It’s soft and silky and gives spa vibes, plus the elastic band in the back is covered in fabric so my hair doesn’t get tangled in elastic.

Casaluna Solid Silk Eye Mask

$15 at Target

4. Avoid Drinking Alcohol and Caffeine

Airplane passenger holds glass of wine

When the beverage cart comes around, I typically stick to water if I’m focused on getting some sleep on the plane. The same golden rules of sleep we abide by at home (limiting caffeine and alcohol) apply in the sky. Caffeine blocks a sleep-inducing chemical called adenosine, according to the National Sleep Foundation, and while a glass of wine might make you feel more relaxed, alcohol interrupts sleep cycles.

5. Stay Hydrated

A man drinks from a water bottle in an airport.

Drinking enough water is also important for sleep. When you’re dehydrated, you can get muscle cramps and headaches that make it hard to sleep. Because the cups of water they give out on planes are tiny, I rely on my own water bottle, which I fill up before boarding. Yes, you can bring an empty water bottle to the airport with you!

This Owala Freesip is my go-to water bottle because it doesn’t leak, keeps my water cold, and has a built-in straw for easy sipping.

owala bottles

$28 at Amazon

MORE: Train vs plan: which is better for travel?

6. Wear Noise-Canceling Headphones

Airplane passenger wears headphones

Putting on headphones can help block out noise and help lull you to sleep. But, earbuds are notorious for falling out and can be difficult to track down once they roll under your seat.

“As a flight attendant that sees all kinds of lost items, I definitely recommend Bluetooth noise-canceling headphones or earbuds with a neckband so that if one earbud falls out while you’re sleeping on the plane, you don’t lose it on the floor somewhere,” says Katie Storck, a flight attendant with Southwest Airlines.

For that reason she likes these under $20 Otium Bluetooth Headphones that have straps.

Otium Bluetooth Headphones

$20 at Amazon

7. Dress in Layers

Woman in terminal at airport

One thing I’ve learned as a frequent flier is that temperatures on planes are unpredictable, and it’s hard to fall asleep when you’re either too hot or you’re shivering because the AC is blowing full blast.

That’s where a comfy sweatshirt for layering comes in handy. There are a couple of things I look for in a travel sweatshirt. While I love a cropped fit for everyday wear, they’re not my favorite on a plane because baggier fits tend to be more roomy and comfortable and stay put when you’re reaching for baggage in an overhead bin. I also prefer a lightweight sweatshirt so I’m not lugging around a bulky piece that takes up too much precious real estate in my carry-on.

Here are a couple of sweatshirts that fit the bill:

The Retroplush Revive Hoodie Sweatshirt

Athleta hoody

$69.99 (was $99) at Athleta

With breathable fabric, this Retroplush Revive Hoodie Sweatshirt from Athleta comes in sizes XS to 3X and has a relaxed fit that hits around the hip.

The Austin Hoodie

Vuori Austin sweatshirt

$120 at Vuori

The French terry hoodie from Vuori comes in sizes XS to XXL and it’s lightweight with a soft interior.

8. Bring a Flight-Friendly Blanket

woman sleeping on plane with blanket

Not only can blankets keep you warm on a cold plane, but cuddling up in one helps you feel like you’re going to sleep.

“It can feel weird to try to sleep without one, almost like you’re exposed,” says Wendy Diep, the co-founder of group travel app Let’s Jetty and a frequent traveler who logged 16 flights last year.

Even if you don’t want to wrap yourself in a blanket, Diep says, you can fold it and put it behind your lower back for extra support.

She recommends the EverSnug Travel Blanket because it’s easy to hook on her suitcase handles so it doesn’t take up space and is readily available when it’s time for a snooze.

“It’s so soft, much softer than the blankets you’re provided by airlines when traveling, but also lightweight so doesn’t feel cumbersome to carry around,” Diep says.

Airplane blanket

$30 (was $34) at Amazon

9. Take Some Melatonin

Airplane passenger uses travel pillow

If you need a little help falling asleep, melatonin can help regulate your sleep-wake cycle. Your body naturally makes melatonin, a sleep hormone, and melatonin supplements might help you fall asleep or stay asleep.

These Olly Muscle Recovery Sleep Gummies have melatonin, as well as tart cherry and Vitamin D, which can also help promote sleep. They also claim to help restore those sore muscles, which is a plus for Diep.

“Because I’m on a plane sleeping, I feel like my muscles get tight, and if I sleep weirdly that’s even more true, so I find these really do work,” she says.

But of course, always check with your physician before trying any supplement.

Olly sleep supplement

$13 at Amazon

10. Use a Footrest

Seatbelt sign on airplane

Comfort is the name of the game when it comes to sleeping on a plane. Frequent traveler Andy Palacios — a vice president with App in the Air, a travel assistant app — says he bought a footrest a few years ago to help make an economy flight more comfortable.

You can strap this Gutupet foot hammock on your tray table and then fold the table back up. It keeps your legs and feet from getting stiff during a long-haul flight. Keeping your legs slightly elevated can also help with blood flow.

Foot hammock

$8 at Amazon

11. Recline Your Chair

Airplane passenger sleeps with blanket

There’s a rather contentious debate over whether or not you should recline your seat in an airplane, especially in economy class when seats go back just an inch or two. If you’re in a position to not be rude to the person behind you, though, consider letting your seat go down as far as possible.

For etiquette’s sake, I think it’s best to wait until meal service is over to recline your seat. Then, do so slowly so you don’t disturb the person behind you, who may have items on their tray table.

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