7 Expert Tips for Taking a Red-eye Flight

Here's how to make your next overnight flight bearable.

A plane flies over the New York City skyline at sunset


Love them or hate them, red-eye flights are a reality for many travelers flying long distances. Red-eyes depart from their origin at night and arrive at their destination in the morning — and they're named for the groggy look most passengers have upon deplaning. Most red-eye flights occur when you're flying east — say, from Los Angeles to New York or New York to London. But they can also happen when you're flying north or south over great distances, like between North and South America or Europe and Africa.

The benefit of a red-eye flight is that it maximizes your time both at home and at your destination — you're flying through the night rather than losing a day to travel. That often saves you the cost of an extra night in a hotel. Red-eyes are often cheaper than day flights, too, helping travelers save money.  And in some cases, you might not even have a choice between a day flight and a night flight, as all journeys from your origin to destination will be red-eyes.

Airplane cabin with in flight entertainment screens lit up

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Every traveler will have their own preferences when it comes to coping with a red-eye flight, especially when factoring in variables such as whether they're in business class or a middle seat in economy, the time difference between their origin and destination, and the length of their flight. But here are a few tips that can help all travelers maximize their red-eye flight.

Start adjusting to your destination's time zone before your trip.

Since many red-eye flights are to destinations in different time zones, you can help beat jet lag by adjusting your sleep schedule prior to your flight. "If you’re traveling somewhere for more than a few days, try adjusting your sleep and wake times a week or two before you leave to slowly get yourself closer to the destination time," Dr. Shelby Harris, director of sleep health at Sleepopolis, tells Travel + Leisure. "This can really help adjust your circadian rhythm to the new time difference."

That time difference will also help dictate whether or not you should even attempt to sleep on a red-eye — in some cases, if you shift your schedule enough before your trip, your red-eye might actually turn into a day flight. Of course, you might not be able to adjust your sleep habits that far in advance, given obligations like work or school. But even adjusting a few hours can help.

Book the red-eye that most closely suits your sleep habits.

Many routes that are flown as a red-eye offer multiple flights per day. If possible, try to match your flight with your sleep habits. For example, if you like to go to bed on the earlier side, take the 9 p.m. flight from New York to London instead of the midnight option. But if you don't plan on sleeping at all, go ahead and book that 6 p.m. departure that will have you land around midnight East Coast time (early morning in London). That way, you can get a decent "night's" sleep in a hotel bed after landing. All that said, if you're planning to adjust your sleep schedule to better match your destination's time zone, you might need to factor that timing into your booking.

Pick the right seat.

Generally speaking, window seats are best for sleeping on red-eye flights because you'll deal with the fewest disruptions. If you're in the aisle, you not only have to contend with getting up for your seatmates, but also run the risk of getting bumped by other passengers walking around. The only downside of the window seat is that you'll have to ask your seatmates to get up if you want to use the lavatory. Pro tip: Those extra-leg room exit row seats near the lavatory aren't always great for sleeping, either, as passengers tend to congregate there while waiting their turn. Plus, you'll have to contend with extra light in this area, though you can negate that with an eye mask. And if reclining is important to you, note that some exit row seats may have limited range, as does the last row of the plane. 

Pack gear that will help you sleep at night.

Businessman sleeping on airplane

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If you do plan to sleep on a red-eye flight, make sure to pack anything and everything that might help you slumber peacefully. "Sleeping on a plane can be difficult for many, but try using a sleep mask to block out unwanted light, noise-canceling headphones or earplugs to drown out disrupting noises and distractions, as well as a travel pillow or anything to make you feel more comfortable on the plane," says Harris. You might also want to consider packing a blanket or thick sweater to account for potentially cold cabins.

On short red-eye flights, skip meal service.

To maximize your sleep time on a short red-eye, forget about dinner and/or breakfast on your flight — you can eat at the airport before departure or upon arrival. Some travelers go as far as attaching a "do not disturb" note to their shirt or eye mask to let flight attendants know they'd like to skip a meal.

Don't drink alcohol.

Person holding up cocktail on airplane

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Some travelers swear by a glass of wine (or two or three) to help lull them to sleep, but while alcohol can make you fall asleep faster, it also frequently leads to low-quality sleep. Plus, because airplane cabins have low humidity, you'll likely feel a bit dried out on a flight, and drinking alcohol can exacerbate that dryness.

Freshen up in the morning.

Take a moment to freshen up after a red-eye flight to help you feel more prepared to tackle the day, despite the time difference and low-quality sleep. Pack a toothbrush, toothpaste, and face wash to create some semblance of a normal morning routine. If you don't want to spend too much time in the lavatory, you can also do this in the airport bathroom upon landing.

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