How to sleep comfortably on a plane, from short to long-haul flights

17 March 2023

Today is World Sleep Day, so we thought it would be a great time to look at how to sleep on a plane.

Maybe you’re one of those people who falls asleep instantly when a plane takes off. Then, by the time you wake, the plane is landing, and it feels like you have reached your destination in no time.

Or, you might be among the less fortunate travelers who find it nearly impossible to sleep on a plane — even on long-haul international flights. Instead, you stay up for the entirety of the flight, twiddling your thumbs and trying to pass the time.

If you have trouble sleeping on a plane, you’re not alone. Read on for our top tips at the end of the article:

Why you may have a hard time sleeping on a plane

There are many reasons why sleeping on a plane can be so difficult, according to Albert Boquet, a professor of human factors and systems at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

“Flying and, especially commercial flying, today has become increasingly stressful,” Bouquet said.

One of the reasons why you may not be able to sleep on a plane is because “you’re in a strange place,” Bouquet said.

“It’s not a place where you normally sleep,” Bouquet said. “There’s a lot of distractions. There’s noise; there’s the discomfort in the seat; you can’t really put the seat back unless you’re in first class. But even there, some people struggle.”

Additionally, sitting in the same position in a restricted area can make it difficult to fall asleep, especially as legroom on planes has shrunk considerably over the years. In the 1960s, the average seat pitch — the distance between rows — was 35 inches. Now, seat pitch hovers between 30 to 33 inches for most U.S. airlines.

The average width of a seat has also whittled down from 18.5 inches to 17 inches.

However, sitting in a spacious first- or business-class seat may not solve the problem. A roomier seat won’t be the solution if you already have issues sleeping when you’re not on a plane.

“The reality is for some people, they don’t sleep very well even in first class,” Bouquet said. “If you’re a person who has to have absolute darkness and quiet when you sleep, you’re gonna struggle even in first class.”

Where you sit on a plane can also play a role. Sitting by the window may allow some people to sleep because they can lean against the wall. On the other hand, the window seat may feel too cramped for taller people.

“Part of it is kind of knowing what you need to be comfortable,” Bouquet said.

To top it all off, planes are filled with noise. Passengers are walking up and down the aisle, children are crying, and the pilot or cabin crew are making announcements on the intercom.

Related: Airline seat size draws thousands of complaints, but experts warn major action unlikely

How to improve your odds of falling asleep on planes

Falling asleep comfortably on a plane is no easy task. However, despite the distractions and bevy of other factors that may affect your sleep, it’s not completely impossible.

So what can you do to ensure you get some rest while flying?

Bouquet recommended various strategies for sleeping on a plane, such as taking melatonin before departure, wearing comfortable clothes, bringing a pair of noise-canceling headphones and reducing exposure to electronics before closing your eyes (since bright screens can suppress our natural levels of melatonin). Making yourself as physically comfortable as possible is perhaps the most important when getting some shut-eye.

“There’s a lot of things out there now just for creature comforts,” Bouquet said.

Even if you are on a long economy flight, choose a seat where you know you’ll be comfortable. For example, if you prefer sitting by the window, it could be worth paying extra to select a window seat rather than leaving it up to chance.

Economy seats in the back tend to be quieter since there’s less traffic, according to Bouquet, so you may have an easier time falling asleep if you choose one of these seats.

Many of us at TPG are constantly traveling, so we also have a few tricks for catching some Zs on a plane.

TPG travel news reporter Tarah Chieffi recommends this travel pillow from Trtl, which isn’t as inflated as a typical travel pillow and can wrap around your neck.

Meanwhile, TPG points and miles reporter Kyle Olsen suggests following a routine that closely mimics your typical nighttime routine. For Kyle, this means arriving at the airport wearing his day-of clothes, then changing into pajamas and brushing his teeth in an airport lounge or bathroom before boarding a long flight.

Additionally, Kyle skips meals before boarding, making it easier to fall asleep once the plane takes off so he can get at least eight hours of sleep. Before landing, Kyle brushes his teeth and changes out of his pajamas, which helps him feel like he had a normal night of sleep despite flying overnight.

Related: Tips on how to avoid jet lag for your next trip

Our top tips for sleeping on a plane

Bring your own pillow and/or blanket.
Wear comfortable clothes.
Use a sleep mask.
Follow your usual bedtime routine as close as possible when you’re on the plane.
Invest in a pair of noise-canceling headphones or earplugs.
Limit your screen time: Being on your phone, laptop or tablet can make it more difficult to fall asleep.
If you can, choose a seat you’re most comfortable in, whether it’s window or aisle.
For longer overseas flights, try taking melatonin.
Reduce your stress as much as possible: Get to the airport early enough so you’re not the last one to board.
If you plan on taking a connecting flight to your destination, give yourself enough time to walk around and stretch your legs, so you’re not rushing between flights.

Bottom line

While there are many strategies and tips for sleeping on a plane, what works for you may not be the same as what works for others. At the end of the day, it’s all about finding your customized routine through trial and error.

“It’s really thinking about sleep hygiene in general and working backward,” Bouquet said. “What interferes with that?”

By eliminating as many disruptions to your typical sleep routine as possible and finding creative ways to address any changes, you’ll increase your chances of getting a restful night’s sleep — even while 36,000 feet up in the air.

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