Updated: October 25, 2019
Tips for How to Get to Sleep and Stay Asleep on a Plane
There are a lot of little things you can to increase your chances of being able to sleep on a plane. Most of these tips cost little to nothing but just require a little planning.
1. Use a Sleep Mask or Scarf
A simple sleep mask or scarf can help you get to sleep and stay asleep. At different stages of a flight, the airplane lights may go on and off, and even if you're sitting in a window seat, you can't control other people from opening their shade on their window.
2. Avoid Light Before Sleep
Looking at any screen before you sleep exposes your brain to blue light, which will suppress melatonin (the sleep hormone) production. Many phones and tablets have a blue-light blocker which will reduce the amount that you're exposed to. You should avoid sunlight and light from screens for at least an hour before you fly.
3. Use Earplugs or Noise-Canceling Headphones
The occasional announcements from the captain and staff over the PA system, as well as noise from other passengers, can be disruptive, and earplugs can block most of that noise. It may be more convenient to use headphones, and if possible noise-canceling headphones, to block out noise. Though some planes will have an audio channel of relaxing music that you can keep at low volume, the announcements can be pretty loud and will probably wake you up.
4. Bring a Neck Pillow
These U-shaped pillows can help support your neck so you don't get too big of a bend in your neck when trying to fall asleep, or you could use it as a pillow to lean against the side of the plane.
5. Window, Middle, or Aisle Seat?
The best seat for sleeping is the window seat. The aisle seat has the most likelihood of being asked to stand up so someone in your row can go to the bathroom, and there's a greater chance of being bumped by someone walking down the aisle. Taking the middle seat means that you may have to get up so the person in the window seat can go to the bathroom. The aisle seat has the added benefit of being able to lean your head against the wall of the plane as well as controlling the window shade.
6. Where to Sit
And if you can pick your seat, choose one further away from the restrooms, which tend to have a constant stream of traffic, and may not always smell good.
Choosing a seat near the wings is often a good choice because you're away from the engine, which can be noisy, and tends to be more stable.
7. What to Eat and Drink
Some people like to drink alcohol in the airport bar, or on the flight to help get to sleep. Research shows that though alcohol may help you get to sleep a little faster, it results in lower quality sleep.
A safer bet is to drink a little bit of water once you get on the plane as the air inside the plane is very dry, and you can become dehydrated after a few hours. If you drink too much water, you're more likely to have to go to the bathroom, which won't help you stay asleep.
Avoid caffeine if you plan on sleeping unless you're not sensitive to it.
As far as food, a lot of airplane snacks have sugar, which won't help you get to sleep. The best way to make sure you're getting higher quality food is to bring your own.
If you eat a regular meal at an airport restaurant, you may want to wait until you go to sleep. Eating a large meal right before sleep will not help you sleep well. One of the best food combinations is a little bit of protein and carbohydrates.
8. What to Wear
Focus more on comfort if you'd like to sleep on the plane, which will include comfortable shoes and clothes. If your shoes aren't comfortable, wear socks and take your shoes off. And dress in layers so you can have some control over your body temperature. If you're flying from a warm location, put a sweatshirt in your carry on in case you're cold. If you're too warm or too cold, it's hard to get and stay asleep, but remember that when you fall asleep every night, your core temperature drops, so being a little cooler is a good idea.
9. Arrive Early
If you leave with just enough time to catch your flight and there's traffic, or a lot of people in line, you may make your flight be get stressed out, which won't help you sleep. A dump of adrenaline will prevent you from falling asleep for several hours.
10. What to Read or Watch
It's a good idea to download books or articles onto your phone or tablet, or movies and shows. If you try to sleep and can't, it's best not to get frustrated and try to force yourself to sleep. Distract yourself for some time, then try again later.
If you read a book or magazine or watch a movie that is stimulating, scary, or makes you think, you may find it harder to fall asleep. Some sleep experts recommend reading fiction or watching something that makes you relaxed before you go to sleep, especially if you have a hard time turning your brain off.
11. Wear Your Seat Belt
If you're asleep and there's turbulence, the stewardess may wake you up to put your seat belt on. You can keep it lose to give you a little room to move. And keep in mind that if you put your seat belt on then put your sweatshirt or blanket on, the stewardess may not be able to see that you have it on. In that case, you can put your blanket or sweatshirt on and then buckle your seat belt over the top so it's visible.
12. Flying West vs. East
There's a big difference between flying east vs. west because of the time change. Flying west will make it much easier to fall asleep at a reasonable time on your first night in the new location. If you leave at 3 pm Eastern Time from Columbus and land 4 hours later in Los Angeles at 4 pm Pacific Time, your day is going to be 3 hours longer. At night if you normally go to bed at 11 pm, by the time it's 11 pm pacific time it will feel more like 2 am because your circadian rhythm is still on the Eastern Time Zone. Seeing sunlight later in the day will help to a small degree, but you should be pretty tired at night.
When you travel back home after a week (enough time to acclimate to the new time zone), you lose 3 hours of your day. If you land at 11 pm, your body feels that it's only 8 pm, so it may take you until 2 am to fall asleep.
So if you're traveling east, it may help to take a little melatonin before you go to bed, and/or a tea that can help you sleep, such as chamomile.
13. Acclimate Early
When you're on the plane, set your watch or phone to time of the new time zone, so you can start acclimating before you arrive at your destination.