Air travel seems to get worse every year. The seat spaces are shrinking, airlines want to charge for every bag you take, and the flight delays have become commonplace. And then to top off all of the general travel hassles, your neighbors in the plane are noisy or needs to get up to use the restroom every hour. Sleep comfortably in economy class? Seems impossible.
With all of the distraction and travel anxiety, it becomes difficult to sleep through your flight and wake up rested at the end of the trip. But with a little pre-planning and just a few travel accessories, you can set yourself up to soundly sleep through your flight and wake up ready to jump back into life when you land. Here are our tried and tested tips for restfully sleeping or napping through your next flight.
1. Pack a comfortable travel pillow
Unless you are one of the few people who can naturally keep their neck upright when sleeping in a seat, you are not doing yourself any favors by trying to sleep in a plane without a neck pillow. You may still easily fall asleep, but the unnatural posture of a bending your neck without support puts stress on your spine and you’ll wake up feeling achy and tired instead of well-rested.
Use a neck pillow to support your neck if you fall asleep on your flight. A neck pillow will keep your neck straight and aligned with your spine, and you’ll wake up from your nap or sleep time feeling like you slept on your bed at home.
Pick a neck pillow that supports your neck in the direction that it falls. You can take note of how you sleep in your bed at home to figure this out. If you sleep on your stomach, use a neck pillow that supports your head falling forward. Side sleepers should support their neck falling to the side and back sleepers can look into flat-backed neck pillows for the best support.
2. Take a cozy travel blanket
If you are on a flight that offers blankets to all the passengers and plan on getting some serious sleep on your long flight, claim your in-flight blanket as soon as you get on the plane or take your own travel blanket.
Regulating your body temperature is an important part of getting uninterrupted sleep. Airplanes are commonly set to colder temperatures and if your seat neighbor has the overhead fan running, it may feel even colder. The ideal temperature for sleep is about 60 – 67F (15 -19C) which is just below body temperature. It is much easier to fall asleep if your surroundings are a little chilly but you have a blanket to keep yourself lightly insulated. If you feel too cold or too warm, you’ll keep waking up after you fall asleep. A blanket will help keep you maintain steady body temperature and stay asleep for longer. If you find the airplane too warm for a blanket, you can turn on the overhead fan and then use a blanket to create a cozy environment to sleep comfortably in economy class.
Airlines also do not always wash blankets in between different flights, so if you’re worried about cleanliness, it is better to take your own travel blanket. Many travel blankets are easy to pack when not in use and very lightweight so that they can easily fit in your carryon or under your arm.
3. Avoid light with an eye mask
Long-distance flights are usually good about turning off all lights to create a dark and sleep-friendly environment for the passengers. But it does not take much to disrupt this time. Your seat neighbor can turn on the overhead light to read or the flight attendants might turn some lights on to pass out drinks and snacks.
Total darkness is another crucial factor for getting uninterrupted sleep. Exposure to light stimulates a nerve pathway between your eyes and brain that prevents you from relaxing into sleep and staying asleep. You may have noticed that it is much more difficult to get sleep in your bedroom at home if there are street lights or computer lights that turn on and off.
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If you know that you are particularly light-sensitive, a well-fitting eye mask is going to be an important travel accessory for your next long flight. Make sure it fits your nose bridge really well otherwise, you’ll have some light leak. Airports will also have eye masks for purchase but as everything is in an airport, it will be marked up and maybe not a perfect fit. So try out several masks and invest in a good eye mask before your trip to sleep comfortably in economy class.
4. Try a sleep aid before boarding
Alright, so a travel neck pillow, a blanket, and an eye mask are all excellent travel sleep tools. But are you here and wondering how to even fall asleep because you find traveling stressful and sleep seems to be a faraway goal in all that anxiety? You might need to try a sleep aid to fall asleep so that all of your other travel tools can help you stay asleep.
A very low dosage melatonin supplement can help you fall asleep even when it feels like the furthest thing that can happen. Our bodies naturally produce melatonin in the evening after sundown and that melatonin presence helps you feel sleepy and realize that it is bedtime. Several studies have shown that a low dosage melatonin supplement can help you fall asleep in loud and disruptive places. One study showed that subjects who had to stay overnight at a hospital got restful sleep if they took a very low dosage (less than 1mg) of melatonin. Hospitals, like airplanes, can be noisy and uncomfortable places to sleep.
Packing low dosage melatonin that you chew 20 minutes before you sleep is the perfect cheat method to quickly falling asleep. We really like 300 mcg chewable tablets (3 of them = 1mg) because you can take 2 or 3 if you’re feeling particularly anxious and just 1 if you just need mild help falling asleep.
5. Pick a seat is sleep-friendly
If you plan on sleeping the entire flight, an aisle seat can be the worst option to take. Not only will you need to get up if your seatmates need to use the restroom, but food and snack carts regularly bump into the aisles and you hear every conversation in front and behind you. Choose a window seat instead. The window seats have a little more space thanks to the curved wall of the airplane which can also double as a headrest because you can lean up against it. You also have full control over the window shade and can close it to create darkness. And no one will have to climb over you or ask you to get up in the middle of the flight or your nap.
Not all window seats are created equal. Remember, that some exit row seats and most last row seats do not recline. Bulkhead seats can seem like the perfect seat on a plane with their extra foot space, but you might have to share them with a family with small children.
And on large planes with multiple cabin areas, the rows nearest the front and back of the cabin can be noisier as flight attendants move in and out of those areas, passengers use restrooms located in between cabins or loiter to stretch out their legs on long haul flights.
6. Reduce your carryon luggage
On full flights, passengers are requested to put their large carryon in the overhead bin and smaller items under their seats. This can limit how much space you have under the seat in front to stretch out your legs. If you can, pack a single carryon that you can put in the overhead bin and keep your foot area clear and sleep comfortably in economy class.
If you have any items in your carryon that you might need in your flight, take it out when you stow away your luggage overhead and put them in the back of the seat in front of you.
7. Skip the coffee so you are not caffeinated
Airports are cold and anxious so it can be tempting to grab a cup of coffee from the numerous coffee shops in every airport before you board as a way to self soothe and warm up. But if you want to sleep during your flight, caffeinating right before will make sure you stay away instead of getting any rest.
So skip the coffee if you want to sleep. Get a noncaffeinated herbal tea if you want something warm to drink instead.
8. Dress comfortably
Unless you have an important meeting immediately after arriving at your destination city and so must show up dressed business casual, there is no reason to dress up for an airplane ride. Dressing as comfortably and not restrictively as possible will set you up for a good nap. In fact, anything that most resembles your pajamas will help your brain feel like you’re at home and get ready to turn down.
It is also important to dress in layers in case you feel hot or cold on your flight. A jacket with buttons or full zip in front over a light shirt is easier to take off than a pullover sweater in a tight seat. If you tend to get cold extremities, pack a pair of socks in your carryon that you can slip on if your toes are cold. And make sure your clothes are not tight. It’s difficult to fall asleep if you’re being forward to sit still in a small area (airplane seat) in restrictive clothing.
If you’re worried about getting to your destination in way too casual clothing, pack a quick change of clothing in your carryon that you can change into during the last 30-40 minutes of your flight or immediately after deplaning at your destination city.
9. Shoes and compression socks (slip-ons)
Nonrestrictive shirts and pants are a must for comfortable sleeping on planes, but if you are prone to swollen ankles on long flights, get a pair of compression socks!
Swollen ankles can be a major health risk because you are a higher risk for blood clots and their associated risks (heart attack or stroke). And you certainly do not want to increase your risk for these types of issues while stuck on a long flight.
Some people end up with swollen ankles when they have to sit in long flights because their blood tends to pool at their feet. If this happens to you, you should invest in a pair of compression socks that can help stimulate your feet and ankles and prevent the blood from collecting and causing swelling. You can also try to take short walks to the restroom or up and down the aisle during a time when food or drinks are not being served (you do not want to get in their way!).
10. Cancel the noise with headphones or earplugs
Between the passengers, the flight announcements, and in-flight entertainment, airplanes can be as noisy as any other public place. Invest in some noise-canceling headphones that can prevent all of these distractions from waking you up during your in-flight sleep time. Personally, I am a huge fan of the new Apple Airpod Pro with its built-in noise-canceling and minimal design. I also like the Bose’s popular noise-canceling headphone that covers your entire ear and are comfortable on your head. Both of these are pricey, but they are the best product for frequent flyers looking to enjoy some peace and quiet in noisy environments (and listen to music with studio-quality sound!).
You can also use these AirPods or Bose headphones to play white or brown noise or a soothing sleep time song to help you relax into sleep. If you want something cheaper, try moldable earplugs that you can mold into your ear shape for a complete fit and complete silence to sleep comfortably in economy class.
11. Wake up prepared
And finally, make sure you give yourself a comfortable window to get ready to get off of your flight after you get some sleep. Set an alarm on your cell phone that goes off 30 to 40 minutes before your flight lands and take that time to properly wake up. Take this time to drink some coffee or water, use the restroom and freshen up, and gather your things, so that you aren’t stumbling around at the airport after being jostled awake by the plane landing.
It certainly is not easy to sleep comfortably in economy class but it is a great opportunity if you can fall asleep and stay asleep. You wake up refreshed and ready to go by the time the plane lands. But it is tough on your body to sleep sitting upright in a small space like economy seating.
With a few tools, like a travel pillow, an eye mask, some earplugs, and by changing just a few travel habits like skipping that preboard coffee and choosing a window seat can help you do the most to set yourself up to get some of that mile-high sleep in an unlikely place.