8 Tips for Falling Asleep on an Airplane
Whether you're in the air for one hour or 10, catching some decent shut-eye doesn't require a first class ticket.
Score an A+ seat
The key to sleeping well on an airplane is all about location, location, location, according to Michael Breus, PhD, sleep specialist and author of The Power of When. “Obviously, first class is the best, if you can get there,” he says. But even if you can’t fork over the extra dough, you can still score a prime seat for sleeping with a few easy tips. For one, you’ll sleep best near the most stable part of the airplane: where the wings are attached. “A seat on or over a wing is going to have the least amount of turbulence, so you’re going to have less shaking,” Dr. Breus says. You’ll also want to avoid the exit row; the padding on those seats is usually more worn down than others, whose padding is replaced more often. If you’re over six feet tall, an aisle seat will give you extra room to stretch out your legs, but if you’re under that height, a window seat provides an ideal nook to rest your head while you sleep. Plus, a spot by the window will allow you to control the amount of light that shines in. Still can’t decide on the right seat? If you enter your flight number on SeatGuru.com, the site will rate every seat on your flight and select the best one available. (This is the best place to sit in the rare event of a plane crash.)
Pack a “sleep kit”
Once you board the flight, the easiest way to catch some decent Zzz’s is to make yourself feel at home—even in cramped quarters. Bring along products like eye masks, noise-canceling earphones, and a neck pillow. Wrap your neck pillow underneath your chin instead of around the back of your head, which will prevent your head from falling forward and bobbing. If your brain is too wired to nod off, you can also listen to meditation and relaxation exercises to soothe you to sleep, or try any of these other daily habits that guarantee a great night’s sleep.
Say no to the booze
When it comes to mixing alcohol and airplanes, Dr. Breus has one rule of thumb: “one drink in the air is worth two on the ground.” Oxygen levels are lower in an airplane, which can reduce your usual tolerance for boozy beverages. Although it might make you feel sleepy at first, alcohol interrupts your REM sleep and robs you of much needed Zzz’s. The same goes for carbonated drinks, particularly those with caffeine in them. Daniel Barone, MD, assistant professor of neurology at Weill Cornell Medical College, recommends avoiding stimulants like caffeine and nicotine at least a few hours before flying. Learn about more secrets to snoozing that only sleep doctors know.
Eat foods that help you snooze
Eating too much before your flight can make you feel uncomfortable and bloated. “You don’t want to be starving, but you also don’t want to have a tremendous meal in your stomach” when you board the plane, Dr. Barone says. It’s also good practice to stick with familiar foods before flying. “The problem with the airport is there are so many different, interesting choices,” Dr. Breus says. “You need to stick with things that you know are not going to have a potential conflict with your stomach.” Simply put, nix the sushi and opt for the safer choice of a turkey sandwich, or try any of these other foods that can help you sleep.
Jettison your jet lag
It’s important to plan ahead for a long flight, but few people factor sleep into those plans. If you have a big trip ahead, “the best thing to do is to train your system before you leave,” according to Dr. Barone. Flying can be hard on the body, and even makes crying more likely. To adjust your circadian rhythm, most sleep experts recommend going to bed an hour earlier a few days before your departure and waking up an hour earlier, too. “That way, when you do get there, your body’s clock is a little shifted, and jet lag can be minimized,” Dr. Barone says. Plus, a number of jet lag apps like Entrain can calculate the swiftest way to adjust to your new time zone. Your body (and your travel companions!) will thank you.
Dress for sleep success
“To sleep in any position for too long, especially in an airplane seat, can be very, very uncomfortable,” Dr. Barone says. Although an airplane might seem like the last place to catch a cozy nap, falling asleep at 40,000 feet in the air and surrounded by strangers is all about making yourself feel as comfy as possible. Wear loose-fitting clothing and take off your shoes, raising your feet above the ground with your briefcase or personal bag. “That will pull the strain off of your lower back,” Dr. Breus says. And whether or not you recline is totally up to you—though be mindful of the person behind you, as their personal space is substantially reduced when you lean back. Don’t forget to practice these etiquette rules when flying on an airplane.
If you need them, take the right meds
Not all sleep aids are created equal, according to experts. “If you’ve never taken something before, don’t let the airplane be the first time you take it,” Dr. Barone advises. Most over-the-counter sleep medications contain antihistamines, which typically stay in your system for quite a while and may leave you feeling groggy. If you really need help getting some shut-eye on the plane, Dr. Barone and other sleep experts recommend opting for a small dose of melatonin, as several studies have shown that melatonin might be useful in shifting your circadian rhythm.
Need to write one more email before shutting your eyes? Think again. Blue light rays emitted from your iPhone, iPad, or laptop can halt your brain’s production of melatonin, the hormone that signals your brain to fall and stay asleep. Most sleep experts recommend putting away your devices at least 30 to 60 minutes before you want to nod off to give your brain a healthy breather. Plus, a number of products can actually counteract the side effects of blue light rays; Dr. Breus recommends using blue light-blocking glasses or a sleep shield, which attaches to your device’s screen.