Sleeping on the plane: This is guaranteed to work
There’s nothing more annoying than watching your seatmate effortlessly napping next to you while you’re watching another movie and struggling to sleep on a long-haul, time-shifted flight. Of course, it’s not possible for everyone to get a good night’s sleep on a plane — especially anxious flyers or those with insomnia — but the key to starting your vacation off right is getting at least a few extra hours of sleep, even if it is is not all night.
“In order to feel optimal on the journey and at the new destination, it is best to travel with as little sleep deficit as possible,” says Jeff Kahn, sleep expert and CEO of a sleep tracker app: “The less sleep deficit you have, the greater your chance of surviving the lack of sleep on the plane and adapting quickly to the new time zone.”
While a good night’s sleep in Economy Class may seem like a contradiction in terms for those of us who’ve spent many night flights trying to get into a comfortable position, it’s not impossible to get a few hours of sleep when you’re ready is to prepare a little. Below, we tapped into our network of sleep experts and frequent flyers to find out how to get a good rest at 30,000 feet, whether you’re sitting in first class or with limited legroom in economy class. Because figuring out how to sleep on a plane isn’t all that complicated!
Consider the time zone you are flying to
The first question that arises is: Should you be sleeping at all? “If you haven’t adjusted your schedule to your destination time zone before you fly, you can start doing it on the plane,” says Kahn. When boarding, set your watch to the time in your destination time zone and try to sleep accordingly ( or not), to eat and to use the sunlight. “You should avoid eating on the plane if it’s nighttime in your new time zone,” says Kahn. A 2017 study found that eating in-flight can speed up adjustment to the new time zone. If you land at night or are awake during the night, don’t eat at the new location before breakfast time. Further research shows that what you eat can also have an impact: Studies suggest that eating a high-calorie diet can prevent you from adjusting to your new time zone.
Put together a sleep kit
In business class you often get a set with the most important sleeping aids as a gift, but you can easily make your seat more comfortable yourself in economy class: “The first things I would recommend to travelers are earplugs or headphones with noise canceling and an eye mask,” says certified sleep scientist Alex Savy. “I happily choose EarPlanes earplugs, which help regulate cabin pressure and reduce the risk of earaches. With noise-cancelling headphones, you’ll be transported to a relaxing world, whether you’re listening to the sound of the sea or soothing music.” Pack a small bottle of lavender essential oil to rub on your temples before bed to promote a feeling of relaxation and serenity. Melatonin can also be of great help on night flights, but you should make sure your body can tolerate it before trying it on a flight for the first time. “Short-term intake of melatonin can help switch circadian rhythms prior to travel, making it easier to fall asleep on the plane and possibly adjust to the time zone at the destination,” says Kahn. “But getting the timing and dosage right can be tricky, so I recommend checking with your doctor before you travel. While it may be easy to turn to over-the-counter sleep aids to help you get to sleep, they have side effects and long-term health risks, and they don’t change the rhythm of your daily routine.”
Watch what you drink
It can be tempting to hit caffeine or alcohol to kill time in the air — but resisting the temptation will keep you hydrated and make it much easier to fall asleep when it’s time to turn off the lights. It’s best to drink herbal tea for a calming effect and sleep better on the plane – you can also take your own bags in your carry-on to be safe. “Dehydration can make you tired, affect your mood, and cause headaches. It can even make it harder to get enough sleep. When traveling, dehydration can worsen symptoms of jet lag, and long flights themselves are particularly dehydrating,” says Kahn. “Drink plenty of water during the flight, and once you’ve arrived make sure you’re hydrated there too. It should also reduce dehydration-related fatigue and help you stay awake during the day while you adjust.” So that you don’t have to wait for the flight attendants to bring the drinks trolley over, it’s also worthwhile always having your own water bottle with you to fill up.
Don’t be afraid to make yourself comfortable
Dressing comfortably is important on long flights – and you shouldn’t be afraid to make yourself comfortable during the flight, as long as you don’t disturb your seat neighbors and you observe the usual rules of courtesy (no bare feet, please!). After the start you can put on warm compression socks or travel slippers. This takes the pressure off your feet and trickes your body into thinking you’re relaxing at home rather than on a flight full of strangers. Taking the time to “ready for bed” by changing into comfortable clothes and following a simple skincare routine (or just brushing your teeth) can also mentally prepare you for lying down to sleep. Optimize your sleeping environment so that it is cool, dark and quiet – the three most important prerequisites for a good night’s sleep. The expert recommends dressing in layers so you can more easily adjust your temperature depending on whether you’re too hot or too cold.
Choose your seat in advance
“Choosing the right seat plays a big part in sleeping on an airplane. If possible, I recommend a window seat because you can lean back while you sleep,” says Savy, “however, this seat is not ideal for people who go to the bathroom frequently and don’t want to disturb their neighbors.” Most airlines let you choose your seat when you check in online. If you really want a window or aisle seat, consider paying a small fee to select your seat in advance. This way, you don’t run the risk of getting a seat you don’t feel comfortable in knowing it will make it even harder to fall asleep. And consider the potential downsides of your choice, such as a back-row seat that doesn’t recline but offers more legroom.
Don’t forget your neck pillow
We know neck pillows can be a little inconvenient (and bulky) when traveling, but the right pillows make a world of difference to the quality of your sleep and ensure your neck and back aren’t uncomfortable upon arrival. There are also many newer, more discreet models that can be stowed in carry-on luggage when not in use.
This article comes from our fellow Condé Nast Travelers.