Tips & Advice / Travel

How To Actually Get Sleep on a Flight

How to Actually Get Sleep on Flights

I rarely have trouble sleeping on flights. Honestly, I rarely have trouble sleeping anywhere. Give me a semi-comfortable space and I’ll be out in no time at all. Sleeping on a flight is especially easy for me since I’m usually up for hours beforehand packing and stressing and getting everything done — so when it’s time to fly, I can breathe a big sigh of relief and pass out.

Wednesday night I took a red-eye from SFO to Boston. My brother is getting married TOMORROW in Rhode Island (squee!) and an overnight flight was the best option. Sleeping on overnight or long flights is never quite as comfortable or rejuvenating as a night in my own bed, of course. My flight Wednesday left at 11pm Pacific time and landed at 7am Eastern time, so when you factor in the time change, the maximum amount of sleep I could have gotten was about 5 hours. Then add in the extra turbulence we had and the man next to me who was sneezing and sniffling loudly the whole flight…while I did doze for a lot of the flight, I definitely wasn’t Sleeping Beauty.

There are a few things you can do or pack that will make sleeping on a flight so much easier, though. Here’s what to keep in mind:


* When booking your flight, aim for a window seat.

Not only will you have something to lean against, but you won’t have to get up any time one of your neighbors would like to go to the bathroom. Aisle seats are the next best choice and great for folks with longer legs. A middle seat is the devil. Unless you’re traveling with someone who doesn’t mind you using them as a pillow and possibly drooling on them, avoid a middle seat at all costs.

Oh, and don’t book your seat in the last row of the airplane, since they don’t recline.

Can you still catch some zzz’s in a middle seat at the back of the plane? Totally. But in such a tiny space small things will make a big difference, so try to get the pick of seats as early as possible.

* Exercise the day before.

If you’re going to stuff yourself into a little metal tube for hours on end, it’s nice to get a little bit of that energy out before you go. I am not a very good runner, but 30 minutes of running before a big flight really helps me the next day!

* Less than 6 hours before your flight, make sure your drink plenty of water and avoid caffeine. 

Without enough water earlier in the day and all the dry air on the flight, you run the high risk of landing at your destination dehydrated. Pair that with sodas or coffee (which I don’t personally drink anyway) and you’ll end up feeling pretty gross.

As my favorite male model ever once said, “Water is the essence of wetness, and wetness is the essence of beauty.”  So…drink a lot of water. It will make you really, really, ridiculously good-looking.

Airplane aisle

* Wear comfortable clothes.

I mean, duh. I get that people want to look fashionable when flying, but comfort is #1 for me. If that means boarding the plane in pajamas, so be it. Personally that usually means leggings or a stretchy skirt and tights, a jersey top, and a sweater or light jacket.

* Have a good meal (or pack it).

“Good” is not a personal pizza from the sketchy little pizza joint in terminal 3. I tend to stay away from food on flights or at airports, and instead eat beforehand or pack something for myself. Before I left the house on Wednesday I ate a salad made of brussel sprouts, dried fruit, and apples, some tomato soup, and a half of a grilled cheese sandwich. It wasn’t so much food that I boarded the plane overstuffed, but it was enough that my body felt full and I could rest easily.

* Avoid alcohol.

Boo, I know, no fun at all. While one drink isn’t going to completely ruin your night, be wary of consuming more than that. Boozed up sleep is not restful sleep — didn’t you learn that in college?

* Fasten your seatbelt.

Once you’ve gone to the bathroom and you’re all settled in your seat, buckle up. Otherwise, your flight attendant may come around and wake you up when the “Fasten Seatbelt” sign comes on.

I usually fasten my seatbelt and rest my coat over my lap for warmth, but if you really want to ensure you won’t be bothered, fasten it outside of any blanket or coat you might be bundled up under. I’ve never been woken up by a flight attendant wanting to double-check on it, but I could completely understand if it were to happen.

* Relax.

You made it, you’re on your flight, and you’re on your way. Be chill. As you’re trying to nod off, notice if some of your muscles are tense without you even noticing. I hold a lot of stress in my shoulders, and unless I consciously release it and loosen my muscles, I’ll sleep in an uncomfortable, strained position the whole night!

Also, don’t get frustrated if you can’t sleep. If it’s just not happening, then reclining with your eyes closed is still restful for your body. Do your best to clear your mind without any particular goal ahead of you.

Clouds over Boston

Time traveling to Boston…


* A jacket or blanket

Since I tend to be cold all the time every day of my life, I always bring a jacket with me everywhere. On planes, it doubles as a blanket, and I can also bunch it up and use it for extra pillow support, if I’d like. Even if it’s something light, it’s a good idea to bring it with — if you end up not needing it, you can easily stuff it in the overhead bins.

* Slippers

I think that taking off your shoes during a flight is, honestly, really gross. Nothing personal if you do it, but I am just totally not into it. I don’t do it myself, and it skeeves me out when I see other people doing it. Something about it seems unsanitary to me — I think because people who do it also find it okay to just go into the lavatory with socks on, which it totally is not. Also, feet smell. They don’t all necessarily smell bad, but people’s feet have an odor, and by you taking off your shoes you’re forcing everyone around you to deal with your feet stank.

How about a truce? If you’d like to take off your shoes during a flight, you may do so as long as you have slippers to wear. That’s fair isn’t it? That way you get the feet freedom you want without everyone having to deal with your odd-smelling, socked (or even barefoot) feet. Also, there are some really cute slippers out there. I bet you could find some cat ones or something and make friends on your flight.

* Ear plugs

This year at Burning Man I used Macks Silicone Earplugs for the first time and HOLY CRAP my life has changed. I thought that earplugs were a lost cause for me, because the foam ones barely blocked out any noise. These earplugs are now my best friend.

Instead of inserting it into your ear, you flatten the silicone over your ear canal, creating an airtight (and pretty soundproof) barrier. I actually wear these pretty often now, even when I’m just at home and wanting to make sure I sleep well. If you’re especially bothered by sounds when you’re sleeping, this is the answer to your troubles.

* A travel pillow

For the longest time I refused to travel with one of these. For whatever reason, I thought that it wouldn’t make a difference.

Well, I was very wrong.

When I used to sleep without a travel pillow, I’d always wake up with a sore neck. Once I started using one, I found that the little extra bit of support behind my neck improved everything. They’re a bit of a pain in the ass to carry around, but totally worth it.

* An eye mask

This is helpful if you’re sensitive to light. It’s also a pretty obvious indication to your neighbors and the flight attendants that you’re serious about getting some sleep, so hopefully you won’t be bothered!

What do you do to ensure you can get sleep on a flight? Do you bring any must-have items that help with your rest? 

Photo credits:
Sleeping Beauty Castle Walk Through
MR McGill

11 thoughts on “How To Actually Get Sleep on a Flight

  1. I absolutely failed to fall asleep on a very long UK to Hong Kong flight. The guy sat next to me sat down when we boarded and was snoozing for the duration of the flight before we had even set off down the runway. I blame the brilliant film selection for my failings. I think the excercise trick could be a genius one though!

  2. Some good ideas there – if only I could work out a way to reduce the length of my legs by a foot or so when flying and I don’t think I’d have a problem sleeping ever again…

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