Written by: Juliann Scholl
Updated March 12, 2021
Cramped spaces, clamoring passengers, bright screens, and buzzing electronics — the inside of an aircraft is not what most would consider a restful environment. This is even more true of economy class, where most travel. Lack of legroom, sunlight from open windows, conversations among passengers and flight crew, and sounds from the plane’s roaring engine can make it difficult for airline fliers to sleep.
Nevertheless, when flight times coincide with sleeping hours, many still try their best to get needed shut-eye despite the circumstances. What happens if you can’t sleep? Sleep lost over your flight may cause acute sleep deprivation, resulting in issues with concentration, mood, and attention (1). If you’re crossing multiple time zones, this can also contribute to jet lag, a syndrome characterized by insomnia and excessive daytime sleepiness as your body struggles to adjust to a different day and night cycle.
Many people struggle to sleep while flying. Planning ahead for the right flight time, seat selection, carry-on accessories, and pre-flight routine might help you make the most of your in-air time.
Choose the Right Flight Time
One way you can plan for a more peaceful airline experience is by flying at a less crowded time. If you’ve ever been assigned seating near a chatty passenger, inattentive parent, or infamous seat-kicker, avoiding others might be a priority on your flying checklist.
Flying during non-peak (less-crowded) times can give you an advantage here. Opinions on the best travel times vary depending on who you ask, so you might search for peak and non-peak times at the specific airport you’re planning to depart from.
If you’re taking a long-haul flight, you might opt for a red-eye (overnight) flight. On red-eye flights, in-flight lights and sounds are lowered to a minimum, and you can expect other passengers to be sleeping as well.
Choose the Right Seat
Next on your pre-flight checklist should be seat selection. It may come as no surprise that economy seats weren’t exactly built for bedtime. Not being able to recline and lie flat (2) while traveling negatively impacts both the quality and quantity of sleep you can get.
There are still ways to make sleeping on a plane work. Some passengers go for exit row or bulkhead seating for the coveted legroom. But if you’re looking to get some snoozing in, a window seat may offer the most benefits. Window seats provide a surface to lean against, give you control over the window shade, and keep you from being disturbed by other passengers on your row getting up to stretch or use the bathroom.
You might wonder where in the cabin to sit. Seats further back tend to be less crowded and more spacious, although engine noise may be louder. That said, seats in the very back, or near lavatories, may place you amongst unpleasant odors and unwanted foot traffic.
Pack the Right Accessories
Prepare yourself for sleep-conducive comfort by dressing (and packing) the part. Wear comfy clothes and dress in loose layers — you never know what the temperature inside a plane will be.
Add an eye mask, light blanket, and travel pillow with good neck support to your carry-on. If you haven’t already, consider investing in some noise-canceling headphones to escape sounds of booming engines and crying babies.
Prepare Your Body for Sleep
Think of what you do at home to get ready for bed. You might be able to adopt aspects of your evening routine to your preflight routine, getting your body in the mood for sleep. Use the restroom before takeoff, so you’re not kept awake by a full bladder. Wear comfy socks and slip-on shoes that can be easily removed once you’re seated.
Put on relaxing music, and reach for a book rather than your phone or tablet. Blue light emitted by electronic devices can delay sleep onset (3) by disrupting your circadian rhythm. When you're exposed shortly before bedtime, blue light increases alertness while decreasing melatonin levels (4), a hormone that helps the body fall asleep.
If you have time, try to work out before your flight. Exercise improves sleep quality (5) and might help minimize pre-travel stress by allowing you to expend some energy.
Eat and Drink Right
It’s wise to keep some snacks and water on hand during your flight. Hydration is especially important considering how dry planes are (6). But be mindful what you consume (and how much) if you’re trying to nap. Too much liquid might have you getting up to use the restroom often.
Some foods, like those high in saturated fat and sugar (7), can reduce sleep quality. Caffeine (8) from coffee and sodas can keep you alert and awake for hours. Alcohol, on the other hand, has a sedative effect, but don’t be fooled. Although it may help you feel relaxed, alcohol leads to sleep disruptions (9) and overall poorer sleep quality. So when the beverage cart comes around, opt for water, tea, or juice instead.
Use a Sleep Aid
If you have a long flight ahead and are worried about losing sleep, bring an over-the-counter sleep aid like melatonin. Melatonin can combat jet lag (10) when taken close to the target bedtime of your destination, helping your body adjust to a new time zone.
You can also get a head start on adapting to a new time zone a few days before your flight by gradually shifting your sleep/wake times to match those of your destination. When you arrive, adjust more quickly by controlling your exposure to bright light and melatonin (11). If you travel west, seek bright light in the evening. If you travel east, seek bright light in the morning. Take melatonin in the morning to shift your circadian clock later, or in the evening to shift your circadian clock earlier.
If you’ve regularly experienced in-flight insomnia or suffer from jet lag on your travels and over-the-counter sleep aids haven’t been effective, talk to your doctor to find out if a prescription sleep aid is right for you. While travel does present a number of barriers to sleeping easy, there are tools and strategies at your disposal, as well as medications when needed.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24081353/ Accessed on March 9, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29889574/ Accessed on March 9, 2021.
- https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/jbio.201900102 Accessed on March 9, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30311830/ Accessed on March 9, 2021.
- https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/pa-health/index.htm Accessed on March 9, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15768727/ Accessed on March 9, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26156950/ Accessed on March 9, 2021.
- https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/spilling-beans-how-much-caffeine-too-much Accessed on March 9, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26634095/ Accessed on March 9, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12076414/ Accessed on March 9, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30112298/ Accessed on March 9, 2021.