How to Actually Get Restful Sleep on a Plane
Perhaps no traveler's quest is as quixotic as the one for a full night's sleep in economy on a long-haul flight.
There are countless products geared towards helping people sleep while they're basically upright — but between other passengers, turbulence, and uncomfortable seating, it can like there's no way to fall into deep, restorative sleep in transit.
Good sleep on a plane may be elusive, but it's not impossible. With a bit of preparation, travelers can bring the comfort of their beds with them on the road. Here are our tips for helping travelers get restful sleep on long-haul, international flights.
Pick the right seat.
Not every seat presents an equal opportunity for sleeping. The best option for most normal sleepers tends to be the window seats. Not only will this eliminate any interruptions from other passengers, the walls of the plane are also great to lean against, providing neck stabilization.
People who are restless sleepers (or those who often make trips to the bathroom in the middle of the night) should consider getting an aisle seat for easy access in and out.
Light sleepers should avoid booking seats in the front of economy class. Airlines tend to book families (especially those with infants) around this part of the plane, so it's not unlikely that you'll be woken up by a child making lots of noise.
And seats near the exit rows tend to be colder as air can leak in. While some travelers may prefer to sleep in a cold environment, getting stuck in one of these seats without a blanket can make for a fitful few hours.
Pack a sleeping kit.
Having familiar smells and feels around may help travelers fall asleep and stay asleep more quickly.
Whether travelers pack a pair of noise-canceling headphones or just some earbuds, one sleep specialist said that once it's time to sleep, it's time to unplug. "I don't like my patients listening to music all night long," Dr. Robert Oexman, director of the Sleep to Live Institute, told Travel + Leisure. "The change in noise levels can interrupt sleep."
A 90-minute playlist of white noise, or even just earplugs, should provide enough noise cancelation to help travelers stay asleep through their flights.
Oexman said that he travels with a small vial of a signature sleep scent. When at home he'll only use this scent in his bedroom. While on the plane, he'll put a few drops of this scent on his travel pillow. The familiar scent lets the body know that it's time to wind down for sleep. A familiar blanket brought from home may also provide the body with sensory, comforting cues.
Oexman also recommends always packing an eye mask in case, for any reason, lights turn on in the middle of a flight.
Don’t knock yourself out.
While alcohol may help travelers fall asleep faster, it often limits the quality of sleep later in the night. Alcohol can mess with the brain's functions and block REM sleep, meaning that the sleep alcohol-fueled passengers do get is not restorative. And those who have been through it can attest that there is absolutely nothing worse than waking up with a hangover on a plane.
As for taking sleeping pills on a plane, Oexman does not advise it. With pills like Ambien, people may find themselves sleepwalking or acting erratically with no knowledge.
However, melatonin pills — especially for travelers crossing multiple time zones — could be a helpful aid. "One milligram is all you need," Oexman told T+L. "Take it about 30 minutes to one hour before you want to fall asleep on the plane." But there's more to it.
"When you land, stay awake all day. Do not take a nap," he said. "And then take melatonin again before bed." Oexman recommends continuing with melatonin for two to three days after landing to adjust to the local time zone.