5 Ways to Sleep Better on an Airplane

Travel can be grueling, particularly when you are tired. If you're faced with a long trip, especially a red-eye overnight flight, you may wonder how to best sleep on an airplane flight. From selecting the perfect seat to bringing along comfortable accessories like pillows and eye masks, it's possible to rejuvenate yourself while flying and arrive feeling a little more rested. Learn how to best sleep on a plane with 5 simple considerations.

Businessman sleeping on airplane

Compassionate Eye Foundation / Steve Smith / Getty Images

Planning Ahead for Your Trip

The first task is to set yourself up for success with a little careful pre-flight planning. Before even stepping foot onto the jetway, there are choices you can make that will ensure you will be able to sleep better on the flight. Most of these depend on the timing of your selected flight.

In general, you will be best able to sleep when your flight occurs during the time of your natural sleep period. This is not the time to worry about jet lag or how to adjust to your new time zone; instead, this will depend on your most recent sleep pattern in the days preceding your trip. Your circadian rhythm will make it easiest to sleep overnight and about 7 to 9 hours after you wake up in the morning (for most people, there is a dip in alertness that occurs in the mid-afternoon that helps make it easier to take a nap).

The other major contributor to your ability to sleep will be how sleepy you have become. If you have gotten up early to get to the airport, you might find that you are a little sleep deprived. The same is true if you stayed up late packing your suitcase. In general, restricting the amount of sleep in the night or two before your flight will help you to sleep better on the plane.

Seat Selection Will Dictate Your Sleep Environment

One of the key determinants of your ability to sleep on the flight will be seat selection. If money is no object, you may wish to enjoy the comforts and amenities available in first class or business class. Especially on international flights, these may be significant luxuries and aid your ability to sleep. Seats may recline more fully, or even flatten out into a bed. As these perks are usually cost-prohibitive, you may be left with a more mundane decision: window or aisle seat?

Whether you choose to sit along the plane’s windows or aisle is actually a key consideration, but it will depend largely on your own personal preference. The window seat may provide you a surface to lean against and the illusion of additional personal space. However, if you are claustrophobic, this may be an anxiety-provoking place. Conversely, sitting along the aisle will give you extra legroom to stretch, but passengers and crew might bump you repeatedly as they traverse the aisle, and you may be disturbed as others in your row need to get from their seats to the restroom or even to walk in the aisle. If you are the one needing to get up more frequently, you may not wish to disturb others who are trying to sleep, so you will have to balance your own needs and preferences in this crucial decision. The emergency exit row may also provide you a little extra legroom, but remember that if you are seated in front of it, you may not be able to recline your seat.

Unless you are flying with a travel partner, your family, or a group, you may not necessarily get to choose with whom you will be sitting (and, in theory, sleeping). This may make the quality of your sleep environment a little uncertain. Small children and babies may cry or be restless. An obese passenger may crowd your seat. These factors are outside of your control, and unless you select a seat in an empty row or even an empty section of the plane, there is not much to be done about it. It is possible to bring a few creature comforts on board to aid your ability to sleep, however.

Sleeping Accessories

If you have ever paged through the in-flight magazine or stopped by a shop in the airport terminal, you may have noticed that there are a lot of accessories available to aid your sleep while flying on an airplane. These may range from the relatively inexpensive (like earplugs) to the pricey (like noise-canceling headphones). What are the different options to aid your sleep?

Most airlines will provide a pillow or blanket, especially if you are on a red-eye flight overnight. You can also bring small pillows on board if you can stuff them in your carry-on luggage. Many people like to use a c-shaped travel pillow that fits around the back of the neck and rests on the shoulders. These may be inflatable, made of memory foam, or may contain microbeads. Most of these are modestly priced and may cost from $10 to $40. There are also larger, wedge-like pillows available that work as a cushion that allows you to lean forward onto them.

Beyond choosing the right pillow, you may want to block out unwanted light. It may be helpful to put down the window shades, especially if you are the one in control of them. By avoiding light from computers, phones, and other screens, you can minimize the effects on the timing of your circadian rhythm. You may also want to wear an eye mask made of dark material to fully reduce the disturbance of light.

The final component of establishing a sleep environment on your flight is to minimize the effects of noise. You may find the hum of the jet engines soothing; if nothing else, it will drown out some of the ambient noise of other people on the plane. For additional control, you can wear earplugs. Noise-canceling headphones may cost several hundred dollars, but they can also significantly reduce the noise around you. If you are able to sleep easily, you may not need to bother with reducing the noise.

Additional Tips

You will be best able to sleep when your flight occurs at a time when you would normally be asleep, or after you've been awake long enough to feel sleepy. Do your best to create a comfortable, relaxing environment that's conducive to sleep. When allowed, slightly recline your seat. Keep your seatbelt on to ensure that you are not awakened by a flight attendant or injured during unexpected turbulence.

If you need to, there are short-acting sleeping pills that might help you to sleep better on your flight. Prescription medications such as Intermezzo and Sonata may be indicated. Alcohol can cause sleepiness, but when it wears off, it actually fragments and disrupts sleep. A low dose of melatonin may aid sleep. Longer-acting prescription sleeping pills may lead to excessive daytime sleepiness if there is not a long enough period of rest after taking them. These should be used with caution, under the guidance of your healthcare provider.

Try to avoid caffeine and excessive water intake. Stimulants like caffeine and nicotine may interfere with your ability to fall or stay asleep, and drinking excessive fluids may lead to frequent trips to the restroom. Before getting settled into sleep, make a quick trip to the lavatory and stretch your legs a little.

Beyond the recommendations described above, it may be helpful to listen to soothing music or a familiar movie. If you're flying a great distance, you may consider your new time zone and how best to adjust your sleep schedule. If you haven’t already started to make adjustments to your sleep pattern, the extended flight may be a time that you can start doing that.

Flying With Sleep Problems

Finally, for people who suffer from sleep disorders, flying on an airplane may introduce its own set of considerations. Snoring may make you self-conscious when sleeping among strangers, for example. If you snore, you might consider using Breathe Right nasal strips on the flight. Although not always effective, they may open up your nose some and reduce the snoring. Fortunately, the noise of the jet engines will likely overwhelm most snores.

If you have sleep apnea, you will likely not have electrical accommodations to use your continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) on the flight. (You should carry it on the plane regardless, however, to prevent its loss.) Sitting upright will decrease the risk and severity of your sleep apnea. Not treating it for the length of a flight is okay, and you are unlikely to suffer any imminent health complications. For those who use an oral appliance to treat apnea, you might be able to put this in to aid your sleep.

People with restless legs syndrome (RLS) may find long flights to be particularly bothersome. There are a number of ways to relieve these symptoms while flying: distracting activities like crossword puzzles may be helpful, and walking around or massaging legs may provide some relief. The occasional use of medications such as opioids or gabapentin may also be helpful.

If you have a sleep disorder, you may want to speak with your healthcare provider about ways to make your flight more comfortable. In some cases, prescription medications may be indicated to provide relief.

With careful planning, effort to create a comfortable sleep environment, and a few carefully selected sleep accessories, it is possible to sleep well on an extended flight. This may help you to transition to your new time zone with greater ease and get your trip off to the right start.

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  • Kryger, MH et al. "Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine." Elsevier, 5th edition.

By Brandon Peters, MD
Brandon Peters, MD, is a board-certified neurologist and sleep medicine specialist.