How to sleep (really!) on your next long flight

August 16, 2015 , In: Travel tips

I have a theory that the babies are out to get me. Flight after flight, no matter where I choose to sit (away from me, bassinet seats!) or which flight to take (maybe families tend to fly in the evenings? Better try a morning flight), I always seem to be near a tiny human who is unhappy about being squished up in economy class for 10 hours straight and vents their frustration audibly.

I know they can’t help it (and I feel for their poor parents, who are getting much more of an earful than me) – sometimes, long flights make me want to scream too. But I also get very grumpy on less than 8 hours sleep, and since I cannot afford a seat in business class (the magical land of personal space and a real reclining seat) I am already fighting a losing battle thanks to seats that require me to hug my knees. Add in a screaming infant (or overly chatty nearby passenger who fails to pick up the headphones-mean-I-want-to-stop-talking-now cues) and I’m basically resigned to zombie eyes and a bad mood.

Fortunately, I have a scientifically formulated (not really) way to increase the likelihood of sleeping on long-haul flights. Today, I’m sharing them so you can prepare. Any of these steps should help in isolation, but they achieve superpower status when combined.

Does counting sheep seem impossible for you while squashed up in economy class? There are a few tricks to making sure you catch some shut eye while travelling overseas. Here's how to get comfortable (really!) and sleep on your next long flight.

Pick your seats with care

You think a window seat is a good idea until you’re stuck between the armrest-stealer in the seat next to you and the hard wall separating you from the freezing air outside. Since many of the longer international flights continue through the night, you probably won’t have a view of anything but blackness out that window anyway. Rather choose an aisle seat for the few extra centimeters of leg room.

Since people tend to flock to window seats, don’t choose an aisle seat nearest the windows either – go for the central column of seats in the middle of the cabin to increase your chances of an open seat next to you on a plane that isn’t fully booked. If they’re not already taken, try to get an aisle seat in the last row of the cabin – that means you can push your chair back and no one behind you will complain or kick your seat. Bonus!

Another benefit of this seat is that you can also store your belongings and unwanted aircraft paraphernalia (extra pillows, etc.) under your own seat instead of in the space in front of you. More space = higher chance of sleep. Even if you don’t secure a spot in the last row of the cabin, consider just keeping your most valuable items with you in the space under the seat in front of you, and put the rest in the overhead compartment. Then you’ll have more wriggle room and foot space.

What you wear matters

Aim to travel in the closest (publicly acceptable) clothing to pajamas. Think stretch fabrics, elasticated waists and fuzzy socks, and a long sleeve top or light jersey so you aren’t cold (those thin blankets they give you don’t help much).

If you wear contact lenses, take them out (don’t sleep with them in!) and opt for glasses you can easily remove and place in the seat pouch in front of you when you want to go count sheep.

Try to stick to your natural sleep cycle

If you usually pass out at 10pm, don’t stay up until 3am watching in-flight movies. However, if you’re crossing big time zones, try and adjust as soon as possible to avoid jet lag. In that case, consider staying up until it’s an acceptable time for people in your destination country to go to sleep.

The same rules apply as with terrestrial sleep – stay away from sugar, caffeine, lights from gadget screens or series with dramatic plots that will keep your mind whirring. If you want more rest time, consider ordering a special meal when you book your flight (even if you aren’t vegetarian). These are delivered before the rest of the food, so you can eat quickly and get back to sleep sooner.

Cloak yourself in silent darkness

Don’t own noise-canceling headphones? Well, you should consider investing in a pair. I’d also take along some slow, soothing music (acoustic folk is good), an eye mask and a neck pillow to reduce distractions and increase comfort levels. Some of my carry-on essentials are rounded up here.

Buckle your seat belt loosely around your waist over your blanket so you won’t be poked and asked to do so if the warning lights go on while you’re sleeping. Consider asking your neighbour to tell the air staff not to wake you for meals, if you brought your own snacks or prefer shut eye over sustenance.

Don’t give up

Even if you’re spread out over two chairs in a blanket cocoon, chances are you’ll be bumped by a passing passenger or awakened by a turbulence announcement at some point. Don’t admit defeat and return to the Vampire Diaries box set! Close your eyes and try to settle back in. Maybe you’ll only sleep for 2 hours before they wake you up for breakfast — but it’s better than nothing.

Do you struggle to sleep on flights? What have you found works for you? Let me know in the comments!

Featured travel kit:
Neck pillow, mint travel wallet, triangle notebook: all Typo. Noise-cancelling headphones: Sennheiser.

    • Kalienka
    • August 24, 2015

    where was this article when I flew to New Zealand?

    • Ah no! Well, now at least you know for your next adventure! 😉

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    • Gina
    • January 9, 2016

    Helpful tips! I am all about the eye mask. I prefer window though (even though I agree it gets way too cold sometimes) so people aren’t walking by me — this is less of a concern in the front of the plane, though, which goes along with your tip of choosing where your seat is wisely!

    • Good points Gina! I can see the benefit of the window if you don’t want to move around much during the flight. I also prefer the front of the plane (seems to have less turbulence?), but it gets booked up so fast 🙁

    • Katie
    • January 25, 2016

    You are definitely right about that isle seat. I suggest taking some Melatonin if you want to fall asleep faster. On my way back from England, I took some Melatonin about fifteen minutes before the plane started moving and was asleep in no time. When we were actually taking off I woke up to briefly to realize what was going on, but I was out again before we were off the ground- and all of this was without earplugs. I will never take another flight without it, and I highly recommend it if you are looking to go to sleep faster.

    • Ah thanks for the tip Katie! I haven’t tried Melatonin before, but I understand how it would work to trick your body into sleeping. And you didn’t have any problems with a disrupted sleep pattern once you’d arrived home? Will definitely investigate the next time I’m on a longer trip!

    • Katie, where did you get Melatonin? Is that something you can just buy at the grocery store? Do you prefer one brand over another? I am heading to South Africa in 10 days (16 hour flight) and really just want to be able to get some sleep on it!

        • Clare
        • March 2, 2016

        You can totally buy melatonin at the grocery store. It’s usually in with natural medicines and vitamins, but sometimes you can find it stocked by other sleep aids! <3 Good luck on your trip!

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    • Jody
    • February 11, 2016

    Melatonin is a natural substance our body already produces so, not to worry about disrupted sleep patterns. You can get it at any health food store. Since it is not regulated by the FDA,, (no vitamins are), I think it’s better to get it at a health food store than the grocery.

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    • Kelli
    • June 19, 2016

    Hi Lauren! Thank you for the tips. As a seasoned transatlantic traveler (glutton for punishment) I try to go to sleep between when they close the doors and take-off, if at all possible. Falling asleep with a little bit of light seems to help me stay asleep the whole flight. It’s a bit more like falling asleep at home.

    • I’ve never thought of it that way… I usually make myself stay awake until after take off and they’re done serving the food, so I know I won’t be interrupted / woken up. But I suppose it’s more normal for your body to be exposed to a little bit of light first.

    • Jane
    • July 23, 2016

    I always put my phone’s time to the time at my destination when I board the plane. That has helped me so much the last couple of times I flew from Australia to Ireland.

    • Ah that’s a great idea Jane! So you adjust mentally to the “new” time as soon as possible. I’ll have to try that.

    • Bonnie
    • August 12, 2016

    Where did you get that pillow?? It’s absolutely adorable!

    • Steph Boyd
    • November 25, 2016

    I always carry a full size pillow. It works well against a window to get into acomfie sleeping position. I also take nytol just before boarding. This makes me sleepy. I wear earphones and an eye mask. I also bring my own snacks to eat when it suits me.

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Hi! I'm Lauren, a daydreamer, vegetarian and aspiring world wanderer. I've visited 15 countries on 5 continents (so far!) and have a mild obsession with cats, dairy-free coffee and all things digital.

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