If you want to sleep on the plane, pack a sleep mask, headphones, a warm blanket, and a neck pillow; drink a lot of water, but no alcohol or coffee, and eat only small portions.
These are the usual (legitimate) tips you will receive on how to get sleep on a long-distance flight. And then, although you have already tried various things, the depressing thought of the many uncomfortable, painful hours on the plane diminishes the anticipation of your journey. Let’s not complicate it; the ability to sleep during a long flight does not require any special skill, nor is it deep science. All that is needed to find sleep on a plane is a bit of smart planning.
These are 8 simple and effective ways to get restful sleep on a long-haul flight.
1. Find the best seat on the plane
Use always online check-in if you want to choose your seat. I advise to check in 24 to 36 hours before departure; at that time many people have already checked in, but the selection is still big enough to get a good seat.
Exit rows, aisle or window seats, and seats close to the front of the plane are typically considered the best. On an overnight flight, you might prefer a window seat so you can rest your head. Nervous fliers may want to sit as far as possible in front, where there is less turbulence.
Also, the quietest seats on an airplane are forward of the wings because the engines are located under the wings and all of the sounds of the engine and disturbed air are projected away from you. Now if you really want to go into the nitty-gritty, you might want to choose with which plane you to fly with. Generally, Airbus engines are considered being much quieter than Boeing engines, and Airbus A380 is most commonly said to be the quietest airplane.
Unfortunately, free of charge seat reservation options no longer exist, so occasionally you need to budget well over $ 10 each way to pre-book the best seat on the plane. But in case of a long haul flight, this might be well invested.
2. Wait to get onto the plane
Most of the time, people are already queuing to get first onto the plane long before the airline staff calls for boarding. However, in my experience, it is often an advantage to getting into the plane relatively late. Then you can see at first glance, which seats or even entire rows are not occupied. You can then approach the crew and ask if you can swap places.
In any case, you should always politely ask a flight attendant; just grabbing another seat upsets the crew. Follow the rules and respect that the airline staff is in charge. I have seen it many times that after boarding is completed the cabin crew assists passengers finding another seat, e.g. to meet the needs of families with small children or of couples who were seated separately. If you approach the cabin crew politely, you have a good chance to get a better seat. It is definitely worth a try and if you don’t ask you don’t get. It has worked for me many times on several flights, and a couple of times I was even lucky to be seated in business class.
Another advantage of getting in last: on a long-haul flight I have experienced a few times that my seat was double booked. Since I came in second, I got an upgrade to business class with no question asked. Of course, there is also an element of luck involved, but it’s worth a try.
3. Choose the aisle or window seat
In the aisle, you do not have it far to the restrooms, and you do not have to disturb your neighbors when you stand up. The big advantage of the window seat is, however: You can comfortably lean your head against the wall of the aircraft and sleep much more comfortably than in the aisle or middle position. Also, you are in control of the window shade.
Everyone hates the middle seat, so it often stays unoccupied if the plain is not fully booked. Maybe you’re lucky, have chosen a window seat and the middle seat next you stays free so that you can stretch out a bit.
4. Consider taking Melatonin
Your internal clock is controlled hormonally, melatonin being the most essential sleep hormone. It is produced by the pineal gland in the brain which regulates your sleep, wakefulness, and circadian rhythms.
Because melatonin is a hormone, there is some debate over possible health risks. However, melatonin is considered remarkably effective in preventing or reducing jet lag, and occasional short-term use is said to be safe.
If you choose to take melatonin, keep a low dosage. Very high levels of melatonin can have a counter effect and disrupt your sleep cycle. In rare cases, it can also cause a headache, short-term feelings of depression, dizziness, nausea, and irritability.
The timing of when you actually take melatonin is just as important. When taken as an oral supplement, it reaches a maximum concentration in your blood after 30 minutes. Therefore, taking melatonin 30-60 minutes before you go to sleep is a good option.
Melatonin is considered in the US as a dietary supplement. Hence it can be purchased without a prescription.
5. Don’t take sleeping pills, meditate instead!
Even if you always have trouble sleeping on the plane, stay away from sleeping pills! Sleeping pills upset your internal biological clock which might lead to sleep deprivation once arrived at your destination. Try quiet meditation or meditative music instead. Maybe there is even an alternative entertainment program on your flight where you can play relaxing music. This is when earplugs and sleep masks are essential tools and help you to relax and to get some undisturbed sleep.
If all this doesn’t help: Try not to sleep the night before you fly. Make yourself stay up until you get on the plane. Then when you get on the plane, you will be so tired that the lack of sleep will let you sleep most of the flight.
6. Stand up and move around
Even if you’ve managed to make yourself comfortable in your seat, every few hours you should stand up and move a bit. Walk back and forth along the aisle and do some simple stretching exercises where there is enough room, e.g., in front of an emergency exit: Alternately lift your legs and circle your feet; raise your arms slightly and gently rotate your shoulders.
While still sitting you can raise your heels or stretch your arms over the head and move your upper body slightly to the right and left.
There are many simple exercises which can be easily carried out in limited space. They all help to stimulate your blood circulation and prevent edema (leg swelling), clot formation and deep venous thrombosis (DVT) caused by cramped seating.
7. Wear compression stockings
No matter how old you are, longer periods of inactivity coupled with space limitations slows down your circulation considerably and increases the risk of dangerous thrombosis. In fact, if a blood clot forms in your leg, you may even face life-threatening consequences such as pulmonary embolism or a stroke. This is reinforced by the sinking pressure and dry air in the aircraft.
Not only in case you are genetically predisposed to get heavy legs quickly but every time you are facing a prolonged period of sitting such as on a long distant flight, the best thing to do is to wear compression socks or stockings to ensure a better blood circulation in your legs. Compression socks are designed to apply pressure on blood vessels; this allows them to work effectively by improving blood circulation through the veins and back to the heart.
You might think: “Do I really want to wear compression socks?” A definite YES! A long plane trip is not a vanity fair; your health and wellbeing come first! As a matter of fact, have a closer look next time you sit on a plane and you will see that these stockings can be found on the legs of almost every flight attendant; from pregnant woman, to pilot and high-performance athlete, they all use them not only as a precaution to prevent any of the above mentioned life-threatening diseases. Compression socks or stockings limit swelling of the legs which means less pain and better sleep, an thus let you leave the plane more rested.
8. Choose the right neck pillow
Back to the beginning: The single most important device is indeed the right neck pillow which fits your individual neck and shoulder shape. Even if falling asleep on a plane is not your problem, waking up at the end of the trip with a stiff neck or a terrible headache almost certainly will be.
There are numerous types of pillows out there, but I would recommend one of these depending on your preferences: either the traditional neck pillow that contours to your neck and shoulder, or a long inflatable pillow that provides full lateral support for the upper body. Regarding the traditional neck pillow, it is tempting to choose an inflatable one but if weight is not your number one priority go for the memory foam version with a machine-washable cover. Your body temperature warms up the memory foam which in turn comfortably molds to the contours of your neck, an advantage you don’t get with an inflatable pillow. The neck pillow not only helps you to sleep better but also to stay awake if necessary; that is why I also use it when driving a car.
The long shape inflated pillow is a rather new invention and might look a bit funny, but for me, it was a real game changer. Due to its long slightly curved shape the pillow is placed right above your shoulder and diagonally across your body; it is fixed with a strap that slings around your body like a carrying bag. This pillow is perfect for the window seat where you can place it between the wall of the aircraft and your upper body to be able to lean against it cozily.
Since the long shape pillow practically deflates into a small piece after usage, I can take them both, the traditional neck pillow as well as the long shape pillow to be always prepared for long hours on the plane – no matter which seat I get.
What to pack for a long distance flight?
Over the years, I created a useful cabin luggage checklist to be able to be prepared for any kind of seat, seating position, seat neighbor, and state of mind. These are the items to include in your long-haul flight packing list:
- Neck pillow
- Light jacket and blanket
- Empty bottle for water
- Fresh fruit
- Earplugs & sleep mask
- Book & Magazines
- Noise-cancellation headphones & soft music or meditation
- Toothbrush & -paste
- Face cream or oil
- Deodorant & refreshment towels
- Cuddly socks & sweaters
Wear loose, stretchy track pants and make sure you have charged all the gadgets which you will be using during the flight. It’s also worth mentioning that you keep any documents or keys you’ll need throughout the trip in your carry-on. Have a pleasant flight!