The Expert-Approved Guide to Sleeping on a Plane
Good news: You’ve just booked a dream vacation. Bad news: You’ll suffer through epically long flights, cramped seats, and loud passengers to get there.
While a few lucky folks can pass out easily upon takeoff, for most of us, quality in-flight sleep is a struggle. And that can lead to exhaustion and several nights of playing catch-up when you arrive at your final destination.
Beyond the tips you likely already know—invest in earplugs, an eyemask, and a pillow; wear comfy clothing; and book a first class ticket with a lie-flat seat (#lifegoals)—here are more ways you can rest en route.
10 Secrets for In-Flight Sleep
1. Score a window seat.
If you can reserve a window seat, lean against and rest your head on the side of the plane. (It’s a lot easier than trying to fall asleep on a neck pillow while basically sitting upright.) Bonus: You can also control your light exposure.
The best way to guarantee you can pick your seat? Build status with an airline. “I tend to fly one airline group as much as possible so I have status,” says Damian McCabe, CEO of McCabe World Travel, who has logged more than 100,000 miles in the air this year alone. McCabe says perks can include a better seat and priority boarding. (Plus there’ll be more space for your carry-on.)
Also, make sure you can stretch out your feet, says Alyx Brown, a sports chiropractor at Arvada Sport and Spine Group. It’s more than just a comfort issue—it’s also better for your cirulation (more on that below). McCabe recommends using the airline’s website or sites like SeatGuru to pick the best seat possible and get additional details (like legroom inches and proximity to bathrooms) that aren’t always available when booking online.
2. Bring some comfort items.
Remember your favorite teddy bear as a kid? Think of this as the adult version. “I take a shawl and a good pair of socks, and I always have music because it helps to relax,” McCabe says.
So now’s the time to put that broken-in sweater, super-soft faded t-shirt, and chill playlist to good use. Falling asleep when you’re in the midst of 200 people and 38,000 feet up in the air is all about making yourself feel as at-home as possible.
3. Uncross your legs.
When you cross your legs, you clamp down on one side, which could restrict blood flow (and increase your chances of a blood clot if your flight is more than four hours). “You could also torque your low back,” says Karena Wu, P.T., the clinical director for ActiveCare Physical Therapy. Because your lower half is slightly twisted either to the right or left (depending on which leg you crossed), and your upper body is still facing straight ahead, you add a small amount of additional stress to your lumbar. If you fall asleep that way, you’ll likely wake up at some point and immediately cross your legs the other way because you’re subconsciously trying to even out that twist.
A better way to sit: “Keep your legs straight, with a slight bend to your knees,” Brown says. “You want to avoid any blood pooling in the lower part of your body.” If you’re petite, Wu also suggests shifting your entire body to the side, and leaning your shoulder into your seat.
4. Lean back.
Reclining your chair will help ease some of the pressure on your lower (lumbar) spine. With less pressure on your back, it’ll be easier to fall asleep.
The second best position is sitting up straight. But if your abdominal muscles aren’t strong, you won’t have any lumbar support—and that can lead to lower back pain. The fix: a lumbar pillow, which helps to keep that curve in your low back, Brown says. “You can use a travel pillow or even a rolled-up jacket.”
The worst thing you can do? Fall asleep leaning forward without any back support. “In that position, you’re putting the most pressure on the [spinal] discs,” Brown says.
And use those armrests: One study found that they helped alleviate back pressure. Rather than try to squeeze between them, rest your forearms on top to gently support your upper body and relieve your spine from doing all of the work.
5. Power down.
We all know that light exposure is a bad idea if you’re trying to sleep. The same holds true for the light produced by seatback TV screens, mobile phones, tablets, or laptops. Electronic screens are similar to sunlight, explains Haley Byers, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in sleep. ”So when you’re looking at that right before bed, you’re suppressing melatonin release.”
6. Avoid sleep aids, except melatonin.
“If you’re traveling alone, be very careful about using any sleep medicine unless you know how it affects you,” says Max Hirshkowitz, Ph.D, chairman of the National Sleep Foundation.
He adds that most over-the-counter sleep aids contain antihistamines, which are typically longer-acting and may leave you feeling groggy.
If you really want some help, try melatonin. Though it’s not regulated or approved by the FDA, several studies have shown it might be useful in shifting your circadian rhythm. One paper suggests if your flight departs in the early evening (typical of eastward travel), you should take the melatonin before boarding.