If you’ve spent much time on airplanes in recent years, you know that even though travel is exciting and rewarding, sleeping on a plane can be nearly impossible. Actual in-flight experiences can range from reasonably tolerable to downright miserable- and for people who travel often for work, vacations, or, like me, a travel blog, flights can be particularly boring. Despite this, it’s often hard to figure out the hacks that work for us for sleeping on a plane.
Naps can help us avoid jet lag and arrive at our destination bright-eyed and ready to begin exploring as soon as we collect our bags, but for many of us – myself included – sleeping on the plane is really challenging. Since I’ve had the opportunity to develop my skills for sleeping on a plane through many overnight and redeye flights, I thought that I would write this article as an addendum to my guide on how to sleep anywhere.
Why sleeping on a plane is difficult
I’ll answer this one from the perspective of my former career as a mental health therapist- sleep is vulnerable. Falling asleep requires that we have the capacity to surrender our minds and our bodies to sleep. For those of us who might have a bit more hypervigilance than average (often this manifests in general anxiety) sleeping in public can be particularly challenging. Even if you don’t find it difficult to fall asleep at night, sleeping while sitting upright, while being surrounded by other people who are awake, or sleeping on a moving plane may add additional challenges.
Whether it’s general difficulty sleeping or anxiety specific to the experience of flying, sleeping on a plane can be a challenge for many people, and there’s no hack to magically fix it. The people around us who are not sleeping can present a particular challenge for weary travelers trying to get a few hours of sleep during a long flight.
Learning how to sleep on a plane is an acquired skill, rather than a hack, but with practice and perhaps some guidance from a professional sleep therapist or a prescription from a health care provider, anyone can learn to sleep on a plane (though for many of us, the process of learning how may take some experimentation.)
Without further delay, here are my best tips for sleeping on a plane, tips I’ve developed through solo travel around the world in the last eight years:
1. For better sleep on a plane, book the window seat
Travelers will debate for infinity about whether aisle or window seats are better, but when it comes to flights where you need to get some shut-eye, there’s little debate that a window seat is the next best thing if first-class flat-lay seats are out of your budget.
If possible, try to get a window seat during the seat selection phase of booking your flight online. If you don’t manage to snag a window seat during this phase of travel planning, you can also try and check-in with a live agent at the airport. Politely request that if a window seat is available that you are placed in it- often, simply asking can get your seat moved. (Exception: American Airlines, in an apparent effort to punish budget flyers, does not permit any seat changes for base-level economy tickets, even when a flight takes off mostly-empty)
The difference between an aisle and a window seat may not feel like very much during the booking process, but when you’re tired and you want to rest your head to try sleeping on a plane, you’ll be thankful for something to lean against.
Window seats also provide a view and prevent the discomfort of being sandwiched between two other passengers. People sleeping in a window seat on a plane can also sleep better since they are unlikely to be woken up by fellow passengers who need to access the overhead compartment, use the restroom, or stretch their legs.
2. Pack a comfortable pillow or headrest
A comfortable neck pillow can go a long way towards helping you sleep on a plane. While many people think that a good neck pillow is one of the most valuable investments you can make in your comfort for sleeping on a plane, I am of the opinion that you don’t need to spend big bucks on a fancy travel pillow.
My best in-flight sleeping has come while using a DIY inflatable pillow that is super easy to make at home (read my step-by-step guide on how to make your own travel pillow here). When you’re ready to nap on the plane, just inflate your pillow and place it into the gap between the side of the plane and your headrest. The soft pillow helps you rest your neck comfortably and prevents neck injuries from sleeping with your head at an uncomfortable angle.
With a good travel pillow, you can wake up feeling fresh instead of feeling like you need to stretch out a cramped neck.
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Headphones are good for more than just listening to music, audiobooks, or podcasts on your flight. For people who struggle with sleeping on a plane, noise-canceling headsets can help drown out some of the background noise of the plane engines, other passengers, and flight attendants. You can listen to your favorite songs, soothing music made for sleep, or simple white noise (I like to listen to a fan on an airplane, go figure).
TIP: avoid using wireless earbuds to sleep on a flight- if one falls you’ll while you’re napping, you’ll have a challenging task to recover it!
While many travelers might automatically default to their favorite wireless earbuds, for sleeping on a plane it’s better to use an audio device that is wired or secured to your head. Why? Well, Just imagine waking up after an hour or two nap to discover that one air pod is missing. Recovering it would require disturbing other passengers, at best, and potentially getting the flight crew involved or going without music until the end of your flight when, after everyone deplanes, you can search for the missing earbud.
Resting well means not having to worry about your AirPods or wireless earbuds staying in place, so try using wired earbuds or a Bluetooth soft fleece audio-headband, like SleepPhones, designed for wearing while you’re sleeping.
4. Find earplugs that work for you and use them when sleeping on a plane
Earplugs are sold as one-size-fits-all, but that’s rarely actually the case. We all have different ear anatomy and the soft foam earplugs don’t work equally for every person. That said, if your airline provides individually wrapped single-use earplugs for your flight, and you don’t have your own with you, they’re definitely better than nothing.
Depending on where you sit on a plane, the ambient noise can be really loud. Roaring jet engines, flushing toilets, and food preparation sounds from the galley can be disruptive to people trying to sleep on a plane. Earplugs can muffle some of the sounds (including the crying baby three seats behind you!) but won’t get rid of background noise completely. Earplugs can be purchased from any airport gift shop, but occasionally are available from stewardesses on request.
5. Take a book
Are you the kind of person who occasionally finds themselves falling asleep while reading? If so, use the same method to communicate to your brain that you are safe, bored, and sleepy. Bring a boring book instead of an exciting gripping novel, and let your mind wander as your eyes grow heavy and you flip through the pages of a book. (In this case, a physical book may work better than an e-book, since researchers have found that the blue light of screens can disrupt sleep)
6. Bring your own blanket
A blanket is like a sensory cue to our brains that it’s time to sleep- also, it can help us regulate body temperature on a chilly airline.
Blankets that come with economy seats on international flights are often scratchy and thin, but you can bring your own if you know that getting some sleep on the plane is a priority. Avoid packing a big bulky blanket, however, a Turkish towel – which I have on my universal packing list for every trip – makes a perfect in-flight blanket.
7. Use a foot rest
For many people, the hack for sleeping on a plane seems to be elevating their feet. There’s something about having our feet flat on the ground that signals our body that it’s time to stay alert and ready to move. By elevating your feet just a bit, there’s a good chance you’ll improve your chances of sleeping on a plane.
How to elevate your feet on a plane? There are a number of options ranging from propping your feet up on your own bag (this never works well for me but if you have a small messenger bag and petite build it might), inflatable cushions, and foot hammocks that attach to the seat in front of you. With your feet elevated, you’ll feel more at rest and perhaps more able to convince your body to sleep just as if you are in a recliner at home.
8. Use a sleeping mask
A good sleeping mask is worth its weight in gold. Soft, molded, and light-blocking sleeping masks can help in countless situations – not just traveling on a plane. And eye mask can help you sleep better in an Airbnb that doesn’t have light-blocking curtains or a hotel room with an enormous Eastern-facing window by helping your body believe that it’s dark and thus, time to sleep.
A sleep mask is especially helpful when you’re trying to sleep during the day or on a daytime flight with the lights on and other passengers awake. A sleep mask can also help on darkened overnight flights when a nearby passenger chooses to keep their light on.
9. Talk with your doctor about your challenges sleeping on a plane
Sometimes, not being able to sleep on a plane is just an inconvenience, but other times – like for solo travelers who might be traveling alone through international airports for 24 hours or more- being able to catch a few hours of sleep on a plane is a matter of health and safety.
If your body is unable to relax enough to sleep on planes during flights in which you really need to sleep, that’s when it’s time to talk to a health care provider about potential prescriptions that might help your body be able to drop into a restful, sleeping state
Final thoughts on sleeping on a plane
For some people, sleeping on a plain isn’t a big deal, but for those of us who understand how difficult it can be to rest well while packed so tightly with so many strangers, it’s helpful to have a few hacks for sleeping on a plane.
Artist, digital nomad, and highly sensitive person, Lynli started traveling full time as a digital nomad in 2018. Writer and Illustrator by day, remote-destination explorer by other-days, Lynli is passionate about pushing the boundaries of her own comfort zone, exploring the world as a plus size, one-bag traveler, and journaling it all on WanderBig.com