How to Sleep on a Plane

Struggling to sleep on a plane? After finishing this article, you can rest assured that you are well-prepared and more likely to return from your travels in minty fresh shape.

When traveling, particularly for the first time, there are a couple of things you need to think over to ensure a good time without any unpleasant surprises along the way. Whether you are going by bus, train, or plane, sitting in a small space for a prolonged amount of time can easily get uncomfortable. The beautiful scenery passing by, and the lovely people you will meet may be all you are thinking about while anticipating the adventure, but the trip itself can be very tricky if not planned for correctly.

If you’ve traveled even once, you know not to leave the house without some essentials, and a few adjustable, extra items on the side. These can vary depending on how you travel and for how long, but besides the passport, include things like your favorite book, an insulated water bottle, a layer of clothing in addition to what you are wearing, etc. However, experienced travelers know that some preparation time before the trip goes a long way, and is just as important as the journey in terms of maintaining good health, and staying on top of things over the entire period you spend away. 

How Difficult Can It Be?

Is it really that hard to sleep on a plane? Well, more than just remembering to bring your ticket and finding your seat. Not to scare you out of it, but there’s plenty that can go wrong at virtually every point of the journey you make. Not surprising, since there are so many necessary steps to take, leaving that much room for mistakes. First, remembering to make a reservation in time to avoid the expensive last-minute deals. Then, doing all the administration correctly, making sure you have your travel permit if necessary, checking the expiration date of your passport, and following the procedure to get your ticket. Moving onto your luggage: checking if you have everything you need, buying whatever’s missing, then weighing the bags and suitcases to fit into the requirements. Picking out a comfortable outfit and preparing some pastime activities to do on the road. But we’re missing something. You!

A common trap many people fall into is obsessing about the vacation stuff they need to bring with them, such as bathing suits or new sunglasses, and forgetting to evaluate how they will feel inside and out during the entire journey from the moment they’re out the door. Wanting to look stylish is great, but is it really worth the discomfort to spend eight hours in tight over-the-knee boots? Are you considering the health aspects of traveling, and possible issues, such as jet lag? Did you do all the homework or are you just assuming you will be able to sleep five hours straight despite the noises like people talking or the roaring engine? Don’t worry. You’ve come to the right place. After finishing this article, you can rest assured that you are well-prepared and exponentially more likely to return from your travels in minty fresh shape.

Sleep Quality: Plane vs. Ground

Generally, while traveling, it’s sensible to expect your body to have some issues. As you get out of your home city, the one your body is used to and considers its comfort zone, you will encounter microbes and substances you haven’t come into contact with before. As your immune system didn’t get the chance to learn about them and overcome their potentially harmful effects, it’s ill-equipped to protect you from sickness. Sleep is one of the most significant factors in keeping such situations manageable. However, it’s also one of the first things that get inhibited when we go on a trip due to quite a few reasons: excitement, falling out of healthy routines, eating high-fat food and lots of it in the evening, often combined with alcohol, the immune system falling short of keeping us safe and sound, cramped or uncomfortable space in the plane or train, excessive noise around you, etc. Some of these are the reasons why sleeping may be particularly troublesome on a plain.

You may have had trouble falling asleep in-flight before, or felt it goes harder than it should. You’re not wrong. According to this study, not only does it take longer to onset sleep during the flight, but its quality is also impaired. In the flight crew partaking this study, sleep stages switched differently when they rested in the air than in a hotel. They spent more time in NREM stages of sleep, a change that occurs when you have a cold, or some other display of weakened immunity. Further, they had more WASO (Wakefulness After Sleep Onset) episodes than they usually would, and the overall duration of their naps was shorter.

Although this study is quite limited when it comes to diversity and their small subject numbers, it gives a neat picture of sleep’s complexity and proves many people’s doubts regarding snoozing on the plane. It also goes to show you need to be extra prepared to ensure you don’t end up completely sleep deprived during your travels. Though your rest in the air will never be as good as on the ground, it’s still a preferable option to not sleeping at all. You don’t want to land on your destination excessively sleepy, and grumpy because of the bad flight. There are ways to manage this, but we’ll get to them a bit later.

Jet Lag

Jet lag is characterized by feeling constant fatigue and the inability to synchronize with your new surroundings relatively shortly after arriving. It is prompted by the fast switching of time zones as often happens when you fly out, and it’s actually classified as a sleep disorder. Jet lag in its essence is just your body’s temporary inability to adjust to the changed day-night timing compared to the zone you live in. The one to blame is your circadian rhythm working the way it was tuned before you completely changed the scenery and messed up its job.

See, your circadian rhythm is a system that regulates other processes in your body so as to schedule specific times for each of them when it’s deemed appropriate in regards to the external light-dark cycle. It estimates when you need to eat or sleep based on the light levels detected by your photoreceptors, synchronizing your bedtime with the night, and alertness with the morning.

The problem arises when the setting changes and your internal clock doesn’t match the external one anymore – your circadian rhythm is expecting nightfall and inducing sleep, but in your current reality, it’s still daytime and nowhere near time for rest. Because you moved across the time zones so quickly, your body didn’t have the time to adjust. The symptoms of this disorder include the inability to fall asleep at the desired time, fatigue, decreased cognitive performance and focus, feeling out of place, moodiness, GI issues, daytime sleepiness, etc. They can last a couple of days, even weeks in bad cases. It seems to be more challenging to switch zones eastwards than it is westwards, as in the east you need to wake up earlier, and many people would rather take staying up some hours later than they’re used to instead. However, this also depends on what kind of sleeper you are in general; if you like waking up early, traveling to the east may be more suitable for your sleep cycle.

What You Can Do: Preparations

Let’s get right into solving the potential problems. The most significant thing you can do for your journey to go well usually starts about a few weeks earlier. Here’s what we mean:

To make jet lag less of a problem later, start adapting to your destination’s time as soon as you can before getting on the plane. You can move your schedule by a bit every day; go to bed and wake up earlier each morning at least a week in advance, ideally even more. To boost your strategy, you can use blue lights as assistance, as these lights raise your alertness levels and postpone sleep onset. Don’t worry; you don’t need a special device for this. Your phone screen will do just fine. You have to time it smartly and combine it with daylight exposure avoiding: if you’re headed to the west, your sleep needs to be postponed to match the destination.

You can do this by using bright lights in the evening, to delay sleep onset by tricking your circadian rhythm into thinking it’s daytime. You also need to avoid sunlight exposure too early in the morning, before it’s your destination’s morning time, so shut the drapes and wait a few hours to leave the house after you wake up. If you’re going eastwards, the same strategy applies, but at different times of day: as daylight comes sooner to the east, you will have to wake up earlier, with the help of artificial lights and a cup of coffee, perhaps. However, you also have to end the exposure to sunlight before it sets, so get home in time and light-proof the house, including lamps and screens inside your bedroom. Finally, if you can’t fall asleep sooner, it is possible to get some milder melatonin supplements prescribed by your doctor or even over the counter, but we strongly advise you don’t do that unless absolutely necessary and with professional assistance.

Exercise. It doesn’t sound like it has much to do with sleep and your journey unless you’re trying to get a slim figure for your vacation. But exercising is known to boost your health, and not by a little. Both your sleep and immune system need help to stay wired in the next period, with the changing time zones and encountering new environments and their microbes. To do this, you don’t have to exhaust yourself, just do what you find enjoyable in other times. If you usually lead a sedentary lifestyle, it’s ok, start anywhere: running, checking out your local gym, doing bodyweight exercises at home – it doesn’t matter. Start small, don’t be ashamed if you’re not in shape, and see where it gets you. A few times a week is a good start and a big help for your organism. Eventually, when your journey starts, do your best to stay active. Most people already do this naturally as they go swimming in the ocean or hike, but don’t forget about it even if you’re just on a business trip in the city center.

Prepare and pack for the time abroad, but also for the trip. Sleeping on the plane may get very awkward and annoying if you forget to bring some essentials. Bright lights, children crying, neck pain, the inability to stretch your legs? Common issues, but often manageable. Here’s what you’ll do: pack a travel pillow, earplugs, and a mask for your eyes. If possible, bring a blanket or even a sleeping bag; it may sound ridiculous at first, but it has saved lives in flights over eight hours long. You will need all the help you can get to make your seat feel cozier for napping. If you don’t want earplugs, you may use noise cancellation headphones. Lastly, don’t forget to pick out a loose, comfortable outfit ahead of time – sleeping in tight jeans would probably be difficult even in your bed.

Ask your airline ahead of time what kind of food you will be having (if any) so that you know what to count on, or ask for an adjustment if necessary. If you can afford to, take a first class or business seat. You can also check if it’s possible to pay extra for a regular seat with more space for the legs, essential feature for tall people. Additionally, pick a window seat for extra support when leaning on your side, and to avoid other passengers disturbing or bumping into you on their way to the restroom. If you know you won’t be able to sleep on the plane no matter what, take a flight that will have you arrive in the evening instead, and bring entertainment to keep yourself wide awake during the trip.

On The Plane

Packing well done. Now onto the plane!

Make yourself at home. Slip off your shoes, put on some music, or read a book. Unless your flight will take over five hours, try to limit your sleep time to 20-30 minutes to avoid sinking into deep sleep and being drowsy later on. Also time it appropriately with the destination in mind. If you’re traveling during the destination’s nighttime, go ahead and sleep, but don’t overdo it if it’s midday, except for a short nap if needed.

When you do decide to sleep, you can use all the items you’ve packed to cancel out noises and lights, or get warmer if needed. A good tip is to have your seatbelt visibly buckled so that you don’t get woken up due to mild turbulence. Avoid caffeine and other stimulants if you’re traveling at night. If you’re expected to arrive in the evening, don’t sleep – listen to your music, read a book, watch a movie, or simply chat with the person sitting next to you. You may also indulge in a cup of coffee in this case.

Find a good position for sleep. If you brought a pillow, leaning against the window or sitting upright shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Don’t cross your legs, as this will limit the circulation and make you uncomfortable. Also, don’t put your arms over your head to avoid them becoming numb or painful. If leaning back doesn’t seem to work well enough, try leaning forwards. Use the tray in front of you in combination with your pillow, but remember to keep your spine as straight as possible. You don’t need to wake up stiff and with back pain later, so make sure you’re doing everything in your power to position yourself properly.

If you’re scared of flying, try doing some breathing exercises to calm down. Letting your “neighbor” know about it may also help you calm down a bit. Try to make up tasks for yourself to keep busy and leave less room for panic, and definitely avoid coffee. If there’s anything else you need during the flight that we haven’t covered here, don’t be afraid to ask for it. Your health, physical and mental, comes before everything else.

After You Arrive/Before You Return

The hardest part is done, but you need to make an effort to ensure your health stays good.

  • Be careful when trying out new foods. You may experience adverse effects, especially if you happen to be allergic to something you encounter.
  • Stay active: walk around, see the tourist spots in town, find some nature, swim, dance, whatever is accessible in your destination. Not only will you have a lot of fun, but your health will thank you. However, try not to stay up too late, as you can still mess up your sleep cycle and have issues on your way back home.
  • Do the same thing you did when preparing for your journey there: plan out your sleep and slowly adjust it back to your home’s clock. You don’t have to do this so gradually or way ahead as you did before; you don’t want to ruin your time and miss out on opportunities to see something new or take that one last swim. However, you can try to time it in your advantage, as far as the opportunities allow you.

Travel Pillows

If you don’t have one and plan on traveling a lot more this year, now is the time to invest in a travel pillow. The main considerations you need to mull over are as following:

  • Whether you want an inflatable or non-inflatable pillow
  • How soft it needs to be
  • How long will it be usable
  • What’s the price

Inflatable pillows tend to be cheaper, costing around $10-$20. They get their volume from the oxygen they’re inflated with, but come with a flaw of deflating after a couple of hours of use. They are compact, so that you can pack them easily, and their surface is usually on the colder side, to the joy of hot sleepers.

Non-inflatable pillows aren’t as adjustable as the inflatable ones, but if you know how to pick one that fits you, you won’t need to change the loft later on. Try it in the store to make sure you’re not wasting your money, as these pillows come at a steeper price than their inflatable competition – $40-$50 is not considered too expensive when it comes to non-inflatable travel pillows. As far as materials go, you are most likely to find a memory foam cushion to conform around you and support your neck as much as possible during your travels. However, keep in mind that memory foam tends to trap heat, especially if you’re traveling during summer – bringing a cushion only to wake up sweating over it is the last thing you need.


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