Master the art of sleeping on planes

With a some prepping and a little luck, economy can start to feel a little like business class.

Person sleeping on plane with open window
Ah, a window seat. You've been blessed by the plane gods. Now, don't be a jerk—pull that shade down.jopstock via Deposit Photos

Sleeping on planes is hard, but you can make it easier by bringing the right gear, preparing in advance, and knowing how to get comfortable. Nodding off at 30,000 feet is my jam—I’ve gotten to the point where I can sleep (or at least doze) in the middle seat on a short-haul jet.

Even on a red-eye flight, if you’re not flying business, you will have a hard time falling asleep, simply because planes aren’t set up to make it easy. You have to stay sitting up, there’s noise from the engines and other passengers, the cabin crew will wake you up to feed you a miserable meal, and at some point someone will ask you to stand up so they can go to the restroom. And that’s assuming it’s the middle of the night and the blinds are closed. If you’re trying to sleep on a daytime flight, all bets are off.

It takes a lot to overcome all these issues, but it’s not impossible. This is what I’ve learned.

Get the right gear

Person sleeping in plane with cervical neck pillow
Inflatable neck pillows? Yeah, no. Memory foam is the way to go.Syda_Productions via Deposit Photos

If you’re on a long-haul flight, the airline will most likely provide you with a small pillow, a blanket, and, if you’re lucky, an eye mask. The thought is good, but the execution is miserable. To really get comfortable on a plane, you need better gear.

Start with a neck pillow. If you don’t have one before you get to the airport, it may be too late—the ones on sale there are overpriced and mostly mediocre. Instead, you should invest in a good one and bring it with you. By buying in advance, you can also find one with the features you want. Even if you only sleep on one side and want to be able to wear big headphones, there’s a neck pillow that’s right for you.

Similarly, the cheap polyester blankets provided on planes are less than ideal. They’ll work in a pinch, but I recommend you get a sleeping bag liner—think of them like sleeping bags without any insulation. They’re made from either cotton, synthetic fabrics, or silk, and are meant to be used with a sleeping bag as an extra layer when it’s cold, or on their own when it’s too hot for a regular bag. They pack down super-small, so they’re easy to fit in your carry-on luggage. Clamber into yours and you’ll be able to get properly cozy.

What you wear also matters. I’ll leave the exact choices up to you, but aim for a few layers of warm, loose-fitting clothes. I normally go with shorts or track pants, a nice t-shirt, a light top, and a big hoodie. That way, if the AC is on high, I can put on my hoodie—or strip it off and go with the light top, or just the t-shirt, if I get too warm. Don’t forget warm socks, either.

Brushing your teeth is an important part of most people’s nightly routine, so bring your toothbrush and a small tube of travel toothpaste. It’s much easier to fall asleep with a minty fresh taste in your mouth—and it’ll make things a bit more pleasant for your seat neighbor as well.

Personally, I find it much easier to sleep while wearing noise-cancelling headphones (or at least in-ear earbuds) that are playing chill music. Doing so cuts out the worst of the plane sounds and means you won’t be disturbed by people talking nearby. It will also deter them from talking to you unless strictly necessary. If you prefer not to listen to music, it’s a good idea to pick up some basic foam earplugs from a pharmacy.

A sleep mask can also go a long way. This is another case where cheap pharmacy models are actually pretty good. Grab one that will fit snugly against your face and won’t move out of place if you decide to change positions. Always keep it in your carry-on bag.

One thing I’m deliberately leaving off this list is sleeping pills. Relying on prescription medications to go to sleep is a slippery slope. If you feel you need them, talk to your doctor. Also, there’s no clear consensus on whether taking melatonin tablets helps or not, so again, talk to your doctor if you really want to go that route.

Prepare in advance

If you’re planning to sleep on your flight, you’ll need to start preparing before you even get to the airport.

When you book or check in online, choose a seat that’ll let you sleep. For most people, that’s a window seat away from the toilets or galley.

It’s worth getting a bit of exercise in earlier in the day to tire yourself out, if you can. Also, keep your meals light and don’t drink too much caffeine or alcohol—you want to give yourself the best chance to sleep, and that airport coffee or beer while you wait at your gate won’t help much.

Assume the position

Business woman sleep during night flight airplane cabin passengers
If your business class ticket was also paid for by your employer, you'd be smiling in your sleep too.J.M. Guyon via Deposit Photos

It’s a lot easier to sleep when you’re comfortable, but what’s comfortable is different for everyone. A window seat is generally the easiest to sleep in and gives you the most options. The easiest thing you can do is to rest your head against the bulkhead beside you. To stop yourself from shifting, recline your seat just enough so you can rest your forehead on the window lip and the back of your head on your seat. This will keep you wedged in place and let you settle in properly.

In any seat, you can go with the forward lean. Put your tray table down, rest your arms on it, and rest your head on the seat in front of you. If there’s a big in-seat display, use the blanket and pillow provided by the airline to cover it. Drape the blanket over it and make a pocket for the pillow. This is actually my favorite way to sleep, just be careful not to move too much: If you start head-butting the seat, the person in front of you will get annoyed.

If the seat beside you is free (or the person beside you doesn’t recline it) it’s possible to get a DIY bulkhead by reclining your seat and using the side of the one next to you as a headrest. You can also put the free tray table down and use it as a pretty comfortable headrest. One of the best flight sleeps of my life was on a long-haul red-eye from Dubai to Dublin. A random guy and I had the window and aisle of a three-seat row with an empty middle seat. He had his head on the middle tray table—much easier on your back than resting your head on your own tray table—and I used the seat as a head rest. From above, we looked like the yin-yang symbol. Our faces were about a foot from each other—and we slept like babies the entire time.

If you’re lucky (or extremely strategic with your seat selection) you might manage to get poor-man’s business class: an entire row to yourself. As soon as the plane’s in the air, lift up all the armrests and lie straight out. Use any airplane pillows to pad the hard areas where the armrests and seat belt straps poke out.

Whatever way you manage to get comfortable, make sure to have your seatbelt visible and over the top of any sleeping bag cover or blanket you’re using. If you don’t, and the seatbelt light comes on, staff will wake you, and you will hate them. Also, if you don’t want to be woken for meal service, either let staff know before you nod off or write a polite “Do Not Disturb” note and stick it to your side.

Don’t set your expectations too high

You need to be realistic when it comes to sleeping on planes. Even if things go perfectly, you won’t sleep as well as you would at home (and you’ll still have jet lag to deal with). On a long-haul red-eye with a good seat, no caffeine, and everything going my way, I aim to get about five hours of OK sleep over the whole flight. I know I’ll be woken up in patches, that it’ll probably take me longer than I want to drop off, and that plane seats just aren’t that comfortable, so planning on anything more is just setting myself up for disappointment.