How to Sleep on an Airplane (Even in a Middle Seat)
Have a couple of drinks. Wait—on second thought, avoid alcohol. Eat until you're full. No, fast a few hours. Pop a pill. Scratch that, no pharmaceuticals!
Does anyone really know the best way to sleep on a plane? Even the most experienced travelers have yet to master the art of restful slumber in flight. Airplane design doesn't help; seats keep shrinking, leg room is a distant memory, and recirculated air leaves you feeling mummified by the time you land.
Airlines and plane manufacturers are finally responding with jet-lag-fighting designs that improve lighting, reduce cabin noise, and regulate temperature. No less an authority than the National Sleep Foundation recently praised Air France, JetBlue, and VirginAtlantic for sleep-friendly updates—in premium cabins anyway. Travelers in the back remain uncomfortably squashed until their final destination.
So how to sleep on a plane, perchance to dream? For tips, we turned to some of the most active travelers we know: executives in public relations and marketing for the travel industry. A typical jaunt might find them flying from the office in New York to a client hotel in Sydney to a family trip in the Andes and back, sometimes in the space of a week.
We've already tested a few of these helpful hints, and we can tell you that they work. Some, like staying hydrated and carrying a neck pillow, are tried and true. Others, like abstaining from food for the duration of the flight, are new to us.
How to sleep better on a plane: tips from travel pros
President, Laura Davidson Public Relations, New York
- If you tell yourself you can't sleep on planes then you won't. Put yourself mentally in the time zone you are traveling to. On a long flight like the one to Sydney, that means you need to 'time-manage' yourself—for example, two movies, sleep, wake for breakfast.
- Spend a little more to book Premium Economy on a long-haul overnight flight. It's worth it.
- I take melatonin. It's an herbal sleep supplement that helps you adjust and beat jet lag.
- Book a window seat if you want to sleep so nobody wakes you to get up.
- Drink only water—no caffeine and no wine, since that disrupts your sleeping patterns.
- Make sure you tell the flight attendant if you don't want to wake for breakfast and just sleep.
- Check the seating plans for your flight and make sure you are not sitting by the restrooms or it will be too noisy.
- Wear comfortable, loose clothes that don't wrinkle.
Founder, NJFPR and partner, MMGY Global
I take Tylenol Simply Sleep or Dramamine, wear eye shades, and use noise-canceling earphones. I also wear comfy clothing.
For longer flights when you are in economy or premium economy, I say pack your own first class. Carry on an amenity bag with toothbrush, toothpaste, comfortable eye mask, lip balm, ear plugs, and moisturizer. I use one from Tumi. You'll feel clean, refreshed, and ready for bed. Also an inflatable around-the-neck pillow. And noise cancellation headphones. If you can tolerate this medication, pop an Ambien. Don't watch movies or look at your screen within a half hour of when you want to sleep—too much stimulation. Read a little to help you get sleepy.
Principal, Meg Connolly Communications, New York
Getting a solid night's sleep on planes—or at least some sleep so you can function properly the next day—is a persistent challenge. I heard that flight attendants never eat on a plane, and I've noticed a marked difference in how I feel when I don't eat. The standard rules also apply: drink tons of water and no wine. A business-class seat is a game changer; when in steerage, book a window seat and carry one of those hideous neck pillows.
Partner, J Public Relations, NYC/LA/London
- Don't drink or eat anything but water. Salt, sugar and alcohol will actually limit sleep and cause more jet lag.
- Put lavender oil on your pulse points before taking off.
- A comfortable eye mask, blanket, and travel pillow are key.
- Use a face mist for hydration. I love Beautycounter Rosewater Mist
- If you take anything, take melatonin to calm you
President, Quinn, New York/Miami/LA
Lying down is the only way to sleep well. The airlines know this, which is why they are making the entire flat-bed experience—from check-in to in-flight to arrival—so lovely. And expensive! Once you have experienced the flat-bed way, it's hard to return to the back of the plane.
Whether I travel flat-bed or economy I always bring a pashmina, a toothbrush, slippers, a stainless-steel water bottle (no plastic), carrots, nuts, headphones, moisturizer, and a book, all in a huge LL Bean tote. The ritual of bringing the things that I like from home helps me relax and, hopefully, fall asleep. It's my version of a child's stuffed animal.
Since the reality is that sleeping on planes will never be the same as sleeping in a bed, brushing my teeth helps me refresh from the ordeal.
Founder, DQMPR, New York
I'm boring; I just take Ambien. I also don't drink too much, and if my flight is early—let's say Europe, departing 5 or 6 pm—I get up super early that day so that I am dead tired by the time I need to get on the plane.
Founder, MuchPR, New York
For me, it's all about the perfect travel pillow and sleeping mask. I've probably tested about ten masks. In the end, I am an evangelist for the Lewis N. Clark sleep mask.
On flights longer than a few hours, I also travel with a small sleep pillow. I've tested several of these as well, and my winner is the Lug pillow. I love this one because it can be used as is, but if the plane is cold, as often happens, it is stuffed with a blanket and then has an inflatable pillow in a side pocket that you can put into the sleeve instead, so now you've got a blanket and a pillow.
As soon as I'm ready to sleep, the mask goes on, the pillow comes out, and it's a signal to people not to bother me, which is really all I need to get some good sleep on a plane.
Executive Vice President, Reynolds & Associates, Los Angeles
A couple of thoughts. On a recent long-haul flight, I was upgraded to first class, with a wonderful reclining seat, but found that being close to the galley and restroom was a distraction. A seat slightly further back would have helped my sleep intentions.
Also, reading a hard copy book the old fashioned way puts me to sleep after a while vs. the “enlightening" effects of a digital version.
Finally, traveling with good friends or family wraps you in a sense of comfort that lulls you to sleep.