How to Sleep on a Plane

Sometimes an article is poorly written in a way that makes it hard to tell if it’s satire or not. This recent NY Times article on How to Sleep on a Plane, fits the bill:

If you can sleep on a plane, after all, you must have a higher consciousness that doesn’t stew about cramped quarters or fellow passengers. But you also arrive well rested. You use your time wisely. You recognize that people have been sleeping as long as there have been people; you don’t get hung up on brief fads like pillows, sheets and brushed teeth. Is it too grandiose to say that the airplane sleeper is in touch with his humanity in a profound way?…Plane sleep is among the most rewarding and satisfying and even impressive skills a modern person can acquire.

Most of the article has this dreamy, navel gazing tone, which results in a writing sin – not offering any advice despite the word HOW being in the title of the article.

Here’s my advice on how to actually sleep on a plane:

  1. Get exercise before you fly.  On planes you sit and eat and watch for hours. It’s unnatural. Before you fly, go the gym, or at least make sure you go the night before. I guarantee there is a quantity of exercise that if done before you fly will ensure you sleep on a plane. The question is: are you willing to do it? The more you do, the better your odds.
  2. Get there early. Then you don’t need to rush and can walk instead of taking trams, automated walkways (flat escalators) and shuttles. You can carry your bags and get some extra exercise, instead of putting everything on wheels. Your stuff isn’t that heavy – just carry it.  The walking and carrying are exercise your body needs to relax and feel like its earned its sleep.
  3. Dress for flying. Do you sleep in a suit or a dress at home? No. Wear something nice but comfortable. Wear comfortable layers so you can control your temperature at any time, even if they run out of blankets. Pack to make this possible. Wear decent socks so you can take your shoes off (Do you sleep with your shoes on at home? I hope not).
  4. Get your ticket early. Everyone has their preferences on aisle vs. window (See my Top Ten Die Hard Travel Tips) and you’re more likely to get them if you book early. It’s worth an extra $15 or $30 to me to get the seat of my choice, especially if I know I need the rest.
  5. Walk the plane. When you go the bathroom, take a stroll. You are allowed to walk up and down the aisles if you like, or linger in the bulkheads to stretch or just stand. A walk, or a stretch, gets the blood flowing which can make your body more relaxed, which makes sleep easier.
  6. Comfort is size related. I’m about 5’9″ and in good shape. I can be comfortable just about anywhere. But my 6′ 4″ or more portly friends have an entirely different challenge in getting comfortable and sleeping. Some things can’t be compensated for. The people you see sleeping on the plane might simply be a better fit for flying.
  7. Don’t eat or drink too much. Everyone is different, but booze and food likely makes it harder to sleep, not easier. Booze should be limited anyway since flying dehydrates you and alcohol does as well: hangovers are easier to find up in the sky.
  8. Pack light so your legs are free. I see people cram the largest possible duffel bag into the area under the seat in front of them. It’s pure masochism. Pay the extra $15 for checking another bag, or be willing to wait for checked bags to arrive if it’s your only bag. Most people don’t pack well, so they take many things they never need, causing unneeded suffering at every stage of the trip, including the flight.
  9. Get a good pair of headphones. Even if you don’t like music, listening to something of your choice, including silence, has a big impact on relaxation. Planes have tons of bad background noise (engines, babies, movies, annoying passengers) The headphones they give you are always awful – spend $30 for a decent pair you like.
  10. Don’t depend on working on the plane. It’s a bad environment for work. You might be able to get a few things done, but never at the same level of quality for time invested. If you are depending on flight time to get work done, you will be stressed and worried and less likely to switch into a restful state of mind.
  11. Learn to Relax. Many people don’t sleep well at home and its no surprise they fare worse in the air. Learn a simple breathing technique (Take 10 deep breaths, focusing on the breath, with your eyes closed), which is a kind of simple meditation. Just do it. You’re guaranteed to feel better. And if you don’t, you just succeeded in killing some time.
What are your tips for sleeping or being comfortable when you have to fly?

20 Responses to “How to Sleep on a Plane”

  1. Andy Hume

    Perhaps this is following on from Learn to Relax, but I think not being too worried about whether you actually do fall asleep can be helpful. It’s surprising what a difference just sitting with your eyes closed, attempting to fall asleep, can make. Don’t get frustrated – if it’s not happening just sit back, keep relaxed, and maybe it will happen soon. Or maybe not – but don’t sweat it.

    I’ve done this for 4 or 5 hours on red-eye flights across the Atlantic without reaching what you could really call sleep (I may have dozed off once or twice for a minute or two), but you definitely feel more refreshed once breakfast comes round than you would if you’d given up after 20 minutes and gone back to your book.

    1. Scott Berkun

      I find the topic of relaxation fascinating. People often tell each other “just relax” when clearly, if it were that simple, the person who needed to relax would just do on their own. I say that to people sometimes, and then think about it later. What an asshole I am: I forget what it’s like to be nervous whenever I’m not :)

      I fly often so I have my routines and expectations. Its much harder to be comfortable at all, much less for sleeping, if you’re doing something you don’t do often.

    2. Lexi Justice

      Thanks scott! im going to London thee 15th of aug. And when I leave cork im going to bring a neck pillow and on the way back I will use headphoneds

  2. Gary

    I would recommend getting an *excellent* pair of headphones, not just a good pair. Spend $300 on quality noise cancelling headphones, the difference is truly spectacular.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Gary: have a brand / model you recommend?

      I find specific brands of earbuds have a wide range in how much noise they block. It’s a shame best-buy doesn’t let you try this stuff out before you buy.

      1. Filip

        I have tried a few and own both sennheiser px 250 ii and Bose QC15, the Bose are the best thing for transatlantic, big plane/noise travel, but a little bulky to carry around. But it makes such a big difference.

      2. Gary

        I’ve always been a fan of Sennheiser, my PXC 350’s have served me well for years. They’re a bit bulky, but I don’t find that a problem when sleeping, as I don’t move much. Bose also do a good range of noise cancelling headphones, though I haven’t had a chance to use them in the air.

        I haven’t used ear phones for some time, but I would expect similar quality from Sennheiser or Bose. Alternatively, I’ve heard good things about Ultimate Ears’ custom-fit ear monitors. They’ll be a fair bit more expensive, but could totally be worth it if you use them a lot.

  3. Lynn Cherny

    Benadryl. Skip the meals to sleep, if they’re at a weird hour (by your home clock), put on eyeblinders, use earphones with something soothing or earplugs, use a ton of pillows in various places, and tune out as much as you can.

    1. Roger Dennis

      I live in New Zealand, and as a result when I travel it usually involves large time zone changes. For this, skip the Benadryl in favour of melatonin. I’ve pulled some mind numbing schedules (e.g. NZ->SIN->LHR->AMS->LHR->SIN->SYD->NZ in eight days) and avoided any jetlag by using melatonin. Highly recommended (and sort-of natural)

  4. cecil

    Thanks for that Scott. I’m only 5’8″ and I still can’t manage to sleep on a plane. I have terrible memories of my flight back from Tahiti to Paris (22 hours – no sleep) …

    Just a comment on #11. That’s probably true. Still, James Duncan Davidson managed to write the Apache Ant Java build library during a flight (london / NYC I believe).

  5. Kristin Arnold

    Scott- Agree with you completely! I always take some magazines and/or a novel to read on the plane as well. So…I actually look forward to flying! :-)
    One other thing to add to your list when flying across country or around the world: Set your watch to the new time as soon as you take off. Then sleep when you should be sleeping. Be awake when you should be awake. (This is a great tip for those overseas trips!). I also carry a small neck brace for longer trips – not those bean bags they sell at the airport, but a compact neck brace from ReLeaf.

  6. Jennifer

    I loved this list, despite the fact that I’ve never been able to stay awake on an airplane. Window seat, aisle seat, it doesn’t matter – once the flight attendant starts the safety spiel I knock out. I never realized exactly how much trouble people have doing this, or how much of a desired goal it was.

  7. Karel G

    Take your drinks onboard and put them in the seat pocket when the AirMall magazine is located. Remember to tell the attendent in your area that you don’t need refreshments (since they will forcibly try to wake you up if you don’t respond when they ask why you want to drink).

  8. Youth Speaker Laymon Hicks

    I’m like Jennifer in one of the previous comments… as soon as the plane is taxi-ing out of the gate, I’m zonked out. I have found that dressing for the flight is a must. I’ve got cold from time to time and there weren’t any blankets. Don’t make that mistake again.

  9. Kelli M.

    I’m shrt enough that my toes barely touch the floor in airline seats. I find placing a bag under the seat that I can prop my feet on to be quite helpful in getting comfortable enough to zone out.

  10. Jack Parks

    Movie soundtracks are great background noise for sleeping or working. Songs with lyrics tend to keep my mind active.

    Also, I always carry-on water. The couple of laddle-fuls of water every couple of hours doesn’t seem to keep me hydrated.

  11. Wickedgeekie

    Also never underestimate the power of auto-suggestion: if you board that plane hanging on to the thought “I can’t sleep on a plane”, prepare yourself for self actualization. However, don’t also set expectations too high, planes and coach class are not natural places to sleep and better rest will come with practice.

  12. India Travel

    Its is very nice information for a Plane traveler. I like it. Thanks for sharing

  13. Youth Speaker Dennard Mitchell

    Point #4 (Get your ticket early.) was written for me. I’ve learned from traveling that I must get my ticket early so that I can get a window seat. Once I have that window seat, nothing (babies crying, serving of food, etc.) will keep me from falling asleep.


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