Home » Sleep Hygiene » Mastering the Art of Sleeping on a Plane
Mastering the Art of Sleeping on a Plane

Mastering Sleep on a Plane: Tips for Restful Flights

checkbox, check mark


We’ve fact-checked and medically reviewed this article to ensure it meets the standards of our Editorial Policy.

Sleep Care Pro Logo

Written by

Sleep Care Pro

The Editorial Team at Sleep Care Pro is dedicated to educating the world on the importance of great sleep by providing expert analysis on Sleep Science, Hygiene and Health.


Reviewed by

Andrew McDowell, PA-C

Graduate of the University of Virginia and Wake Forest School of Medicine. Andrew has a decade of experience in critical care. He is the founder of Sleep Care Pro, a shift worker, and a US Army Veteran and sleep hygiene advocate.

Mastering the Art of Sleeping on a Plane

Understanding the Challenges of Sleeping on a Plane

Sleeping on a plane presents a unique set of challenges that can hinder one's ability to rest comfortably during flights. The primary difficulties stem from the environment and physical constraints inherent in air travel. One significant hurdle is the upright seating position, which is not naturally conducive to sleep. The human body, as highlighted by research, struggles with sleeping upright due to increased stress on the back, potentially causing discomfort or pain.

Environmental factors play a crucial role as well. Airplanes are filled with ambient noises from engines, fellow passengers, and cabin announcements. Bright lighting conditions and fluctuations in cabin temperature further disrupt sleep patterns. Adjusting to these elements requires preparation and possibly the use of travel aids such as noise-cancelling headphones or eye masks.

Furthermore, the psychological aspect of being in an unfamiliar setting can affect one's ability to relax enough to fall asleep. This anxiety can be exacerbated by worries about personal security or missing an important announcement.

To mitigate these challenges, experts recommend several strategies including selecting optimal seats for sleep (preferably window seats for head support), utilizing U-shaped pillows for chin support as suggested by a study in Human Factors and Ergonomics, wearing feet-warming socks for increased sleep efficiency based on findings in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology, and adopting relaxation techniques before and during flights.

Selecting the Best Seats for Sleep on a Plane

Finding the ideal seat on an airplane is crucial for enhancing sleep quality during flights. The seat selection can greatly influence your ability to relax and fall asleep, especially on long-haul journeys. Here are some expert-recommended guidelines to help you choose the best seats for sleep:

  • Window Seats: Ideal for those who prefer leaning against the side of the plane for support. Window seats also allow control over the window shade, making it easier to create a darker environment conducive to sleep. They're particularly recommended for passengers who wish to avoid being disturbed by fellow travelers moving around.
  • Seats Over the Wing: Known for offering a smoother ride due to their proximity to the plane's center of gravity. These seats are less affected by turbulence, which can help prevent disruptions in your sleep.
  • Exit Row & Premium Economy Seats: Provide extra legroom and space, allowing you more freedom to find comfortable sleeping positions. Additionally, overhead bin space is often more accessible from these seats.
  • Aisle Seats: While generally not as conducive to sleep due to traffic and potential disturbances, aisle seats do offer easier access if you need to move around or stretch your legs without disturbing others.

To maximize comfort and enhance your chances of sleeping well on a plane, consider avoiding seats near lavatories or galleys where noise and light could disrupt your rest. Remember that personal preferences play a significant role in determining the best seat for you; what works for one person may not necessarily work for another.

The Significance of Seat Selection for Sleep Quality on Planes

Choosing the right seat on an airplane can significantly influence your ability to sleep, especially on long flights. Understanding how different seat locations impact sleep quality is crucial for passengers looking to maximize rest during air travel. While individual preferences may vary, certain general principles can help guide your selection.

  • Near the Wings: Seats located near the wings of a plane tend to experience less turbulence due to their proximity to the plane's center of gravity. This stability can contribute to better sleep quality by minimizing disruptions.
  • Window Seats: Choosing a window seat not only allows control over light exposure with the window shade but also provides a surface against which you can lean and possibly achieve more comfortable sleeping positions. Additionally, window seats are less likely to be disturbed by fellow passengers moving in and out of their seats.
  • Aisle Seats: While aisle seats offer easier access to the lavatory and more legroom, they might not be ideal for sleeping due to frequent disturbances from cabin crew and other passengers walking by or from fellow row occupants needing access in and out.

The type of seat (reclining vs. non-reclining) also plays a critical role in sleep quality on airplanes. Studies suggest that increased seat recline improves sleep quality, offering deeper sleep phases such as slow-wave and REM sleep compared with upright seating positions.

In summary, while personal preferences should guide final seat choice, understanding how location affects comfort and stability can help you choose positions conducive to better rest during flights.

Reclining Seats vs. Non-Reclining Seats: Maximizing Sleep Comfort

The debate between reclining and non-reclining airplane seats is a hot topic among travelers, especially when considering sleep quality on flights. With airlines adjusting the recline functionality to accommodate more passengers and enhance overall travel experience, it's crucial to understand how these adjustments might impact your ability to rest.

Delta Airlines, for example, has modified some coach seats to reduce the recline from four inches to two inches in an effort to minimize disturbances among passengers. This change reflects a broader industry trend towards maximizing space efficiency and minimizing conflict over personal space (CNN). As seat pitch—the distance between rows—shrinks from an average of 35 inches down to as little as 28 inches in some cases, the decision of whether or not to recline your seat becomes more significant (Outside Online).

Choosing whether to recline involves weighing personal comfort against courtesy for fellow passengers. With tighter spaces, reclining your seat can have a larger impact on those seated behind you. The ethical dilemma around reclining is nuanced; while some argue it's a right given the presence of a recline button, others suggest maintaining upright positions out of respect for shared space (One Mile at a Time). Ultimately, if looking for optimal sleep on an airplane, selecting seats with enhanced legroom options such as economy plus or exit rows might provide a better solution than relying solely on the ability to recline.

In summary, when considering sleep quality on flights, understanding and navigating the dynamics between reclining and non-reclining seats is essential. Making informed seating choices can significantly improve your comfort level without infringing on others' space.

Crafting the Perfect Sleep Environment on a Plane

Transforming your airplane seat into a sleep-friendly zone mirrors the principles of creating an ideal bedroom environment, albeit with some travel-specific adjustments. The goal is to improve comfort and minimize disturbances, thus enhancing the chances of restful sleep during flights.

  • Adjust Temperature: While you can't control the cabin temperature, dressing in layers or using an airline-provided blanket can help maintain a comfortable body temperature.
  • Minimize Noise: Noise-cancellation headphones are invaluable on flights for blocking out engine noise and chatter. If these aren't available, earplugs can be a good alternative.
  • Optimize Lighting: Use an eye mask to shield your eyes from cabin lights or sunlight streaming through windows. This mimics the darkness required for melatonin production, aiding sleep onset.
  • Select Proper Sleepwear: Comfortable clothing is essential for sleeping on planes. Choose loose-fitting, breathable fabrics similar to pajamas at home to enhance comfort and relaxation.
  • Create Support: Neck pillows provide crucial support during sleep, preventing your head from dropping into uncomfortable positions. Opting for memory foam pillows may offer better neck support than inflatable ones.

Incorporating these elements into your travel routine can significantly transform your seating area into a cozy nook conducive to sleep, replicating as closely as possible the optimized conditions of a well-set bedroom designed for restful slumber.

Optimizing Cabin Lighting and Temperature for Better Sleep on Flights

Creating a conducive sleep environment on a plane involves understanding how light and temperature affect our sleep. According to Sleep Foundation, the ideal bedroom temperature for optimal sleep is in the mid-60s Fahrenheit. While individual preferences may vary, maintaining a cooler environment generally promotes better sleep by aligning with the body's natural drop in core temperature during nighttime.

To manage lighting, it’s crucial to minimize exposure to blue light, as highlighted by research from Harvard Medical School cited by SleepScore. Blue light suppresses melatonin production more powerfully than other types of light, disrupting our circadian rhythm. On flights, passengers can use eye masks to block out cabin lights or window glare and consider adjusting their electronic devices to warmer screen tones or using them minimally before trying to sleep.

Temperature adjustments can be more challenging due to limited control over cabin climate. However, passengers can enhance their comfort by wearing breathable clothing and using blankets strategically — not too thick to avoid overheating. Additionally, taking a warm shower or bath before flights may help lower your core body temperature through subsequent cooling, facilitating easier onset of sleep as suggested by New York Times Wirecutter.

In summary, mitigating the impact of disruptive cabin conditions requires foresight: selecting travel attire that can adapt to varying temperatures and employing strategies like eye masks or adjusting device screens can significantly improve the quality of rest during flights.

Optimizing Airline Sleep Aids: Blankets and Pillows

Creating a comfortable sleep environment on a plane is crucial for restful sleep during flights. While airlines often provide blankets and pillows, understanding how to use them effectively can significantly enhance your sleeping experience. Here are some recommendations:

  • Layering for Comfort: Airplane cabins can fluctuate in temperature. Layering a thin blanket under a thicker one allows you to adjust your warmth as needed without fully waking up.
  • Pillow Placement: Instead of solely using the pillow for your head, consider placing it between your lower back and the seat to support your spine or under your feet to elevate them slightly. This can reduce swelling and improve circulation.
  • Fabric Matters: If bringing personal sleep aids, choose items made from breathable fabrics like cotton or bamboo to avoid overheating.
  • Hygiene Considerations: Given concerns about the cleanliness of airline-provided items, bringing a small, lightweight travel blanket and pillowcase might offer peace of mind. Research shows that while most airlines launder these items, having your own guarantees cleanliness.
  • Pillow Shape: For neck support, especially if you're seated upright, a U-shaped travel pillow that supports from all sides could prevent neck strain more effectively than standard pillows.

Incorporating these strategies can make sleeping on planes more comfortable and hygienic. Whether using airline-provided or personal sleep aids, the key is adapting them to suit individual needs for temperature control, support, fabric preference, and hygiene.

Harnessing Noise-Cancellation Technology for Better Sleep on Flights

Noise-cancellation headphones have emerged as a vital tool for travelers seeking rest in the bustling environment of air travel. By leveraging active noise cancellation (ANC) technology, these headphones detect external sounds and emit counteracting "anti-noise" waves. This advanced mechanism significantly diminishes ambient noises such as the aircraft's engine roar or chatter, creating a quieter personal space conducive to sleep.

The application of ANC technology in headphones is not just about silencing unwanted sound; it's about crafting an oasis of tranquility at 35,000 feet. Models like the Kokoon Sleep Headphones and Taotronics BH042 earbuds are engineered with both comfort and noise reduction in mind, allowing passengers to experience peaceful uninterrupted sleep despite the surrounding cacophony. These devices often incorporate additional features like noise masking and offer varying levels of noise reduction—from mid- to low-frequency sounds by up to 20dB to 45dB—thereby protecting ears from high-intensity sound events.

Moreover, studies have documented benefits such as recorded mean reductions in noise exposure over a 24-hour period by using ANC headphones. While no headphone can eliminate all external sounds entirely, the right pair can transform a noisy flight into a more serene journey, enhancing sleep quality by creating a peaceful environment.

When selecting noise-cancelling headphones for travel, consider comfort for extended wear, battery life sufficient for long flights, and whether you plan to use them outside of sleeping—for music or calls—which might influence your choice regarding build quality and additional functionalities.

Navigating Sleep Aids for Air Travel

For many travelers, the quest for a good night's sleep on long flights leads to considering sleep aids or medications. While these can offer quick relief from insomnia induced by air travel, understanding their benefits and risks is crucial for safe use. According to Sleep Foundation, prescription sleep medications typically work by altering brain chemicals associated with sleep-wake cycles, offering an immediate solution to insomnia.

However, the use of such aids is not without its challenges. Common side effects can include daytime drowsiness and a heightened risk of falls, particularly concerning in unfamiliar environments like airports or new cities. As highlighted by LCMC Health, consulting with a healthcare professional before taking any sleep aid is paramount to assess individual health conditions and potential interactions with other medications.

Melatonin supplements have been found effective in reducing jet lag when traveling across time zones, as per research cited by Condé Nast Traveler. Yet, the efficacy of melatonin and other non-prescription options varies widely among individuals. To mitigate risks while benefiting from these aids, combining them with healthy sleep practices—such as maintaining a comfortable sleeping environment and avoiding caffeine before flights—is advisable.

In conclusion, while sleep aids can provide much-needed rest during air travel, their use should be carefully considered alongside lifestyle adjustments to ensure safety and effectiveness.

Harnessing Natural Sleep Aids for Better Rest During Air Travel

Traveling by air can disrupt the body's natural sleep rhythms, but incorporating natural sleep aids can make a significant difference in achieving restful slumber on a plane. Magnesium, an essential mineral involved in over 300 bodily processes, plays a crucial role in relaxing the nervous system, thereby facilitating easier onset of sleep. This makes it a prime candidate for combating travel-induced insomnia. Magnesium supplements, particularly when taken in the evening, may help soothe your body into sleepiness.

Tart cherry juice is another noteworthy natural aid; it naturally increases melatonin levels and enhances tryptophan's availability, both essential for regulating sleep cycles. Consuming tart cherry juice before flights could potentially aid in adjusting to new time zones more swiftly and improving overall sleep quality during travel. Additionally, passionflower has been utilized historically as a sedative across various cultures. Its calming effects on the mind make it an excellent choice for easing anxiety and inducing peacefulness amidst the hustle of air travel.

To leverage these natural aids effectively, consider their form of intake and potential interactions with other medications or health conditions you may have. Consulting with a healthcare provider before incorporating these into your pre-flight routine is advisable to ensure safety and efficacy.

Navigating Sleep Medications for In-Flight Rest

Traveling by air can disrupt normal sleep patterns, prompting many passengers to turn to both prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids. However, understanding the efficacy and safety of these medications is crucial for ensuring a restful flight without adverse effects. Prescription sleeping pills, such as ramelteon, are designed for specific sleep disorders like insomnia characterized by difficulty with sleep onset. They often have fewer side effects than other types but require a physician's approval.

OTC sleep aids, including antihistamines like diphenhydramine and natural supplements such as valerian root or melatonin, offer temporary relief from occasional disturbed sleep or jet lag. Yet, their effectiveness can vary widely among individuals, and potential side effects like daytime grogginess or more serious concerns for older adults warrant caution.

The National Library of Medicine highlights the limited robust clinical evidence supporting the efficacy and safety of common OTC sleep aids, emphasizing the importance of short-term use. Furthermore, certain populations, especially older adults or those with chronic health conditions, may experience increased risks when using these medications.

Before resorting to sleep medications for in-flight rest, travelers should consider non-pharmacological strategies such as adjusting light exposure or practicing relaxation techniques. If medication seems necessary, consulting a healthcare provider to discuss the most appropriate option based on individual health status and travel circumstances is advisable.

Hydration vs. Caffeine: Balancing for Better Sleep on Flights

Traveling by air can significantly disrupt our sleep patterns, partly due to cabin pressure, but also because of our hydration choices and caffeine consumption. Staying hydrated is crucial for maintaining optimal bodily functions, including sleep regulation. Drinking enough water aids in regulating body temperature and keeping organs functioning properly, which are essential for restful sleep. On the contrary, caffeine, a stimulant found in coffee, tea, and many sodas, can adversely affect sleep quality.

Caffeine works by blocking adenosine receptors in the brain, keeping us awake when we might otherwise feel sleepy. Its effects can last up to five hours after consumption, potentially delaying sleep onset and reducing overall sleep duration. Furthermore, high caffeine intake is associated with tiredness in the morning as it disrupts the natural sleep-wake cycle.

To enhance sleep quality on flights:

  • Avoid consuming caffeinated beverages before and during your flight.
  • Opt for water or hydrating electrolyte drinks to maintain hydration without stimulating wakefulness.
  • Incorporate hydrating foods into your meals or snacks onboard.

A study highlighted by the National Library of Medicine reveals that caffeine's impact on sleep is significant enough that moderate to severe withdrawal symptoms can occur when intake is suddenly reduced. This underscores the importance of moderation or avoidance before bedtime—especially in an environment like an airplane where sleeping conditions are already less than ideal.

Proper hydration not only supports better sleep but also counteracts some of the dehydrating effects of air travel. By choosing water over caffeinated drinks and ensuring you're adequately hydrated before boarding, you're setting yourself up for a more restful flight experience.

Harnessing Relaxation Techniques for In-Flight Sleep

Finding tranquility in the cramped quarters of an airplane can seem daunting. However, incorporating relaxation techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, and deep-breathing exercises has been shown to significantly ease the challenges of sleeping on a plane. These practices not only help in managing stress but also enhance physical well-being, making them perfect companions for air travel.

Mindfulness involves focusing one's attention on the present moment while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. It's a simple yet powerful way to relax that requires no special equipment or environment (Mayo Clinic). Meditation takes this focus deeper, guiding the mind away from distracting thoughts and towards a state of clarity and calmness. This mental state is conducive to sleep because it lowers stress levels and promotes emotional balance.

Deep-breathing exercises are another cornerstone of relaxation that can be particularly beneficial on flights. By slowing down the breath, these exercises trigger the body’s natural relaxation response. This response counters the stress-induced 'fight-or-flight' mode by decreasing heart rate and blood pressure (Harvard Health Publishing). Engaging in deep breathing not only facilitates physical relaxation but also enhances oxygen exchange—a boon for combating jet lag symptoms.

Implementing these techniques during your flight can create an oasis of calm amidst the chaos of travel. Whether it’s through mindful observation of your breath or engaging in guided meditation via an app—these strategies can significantly improve your ability to relax and sleep onboard.

Adjusting Your Sleep Schedule Before Flying

Jet lag can significantly impact the quality and enjoyment of your travel by disrupting your sleep patterns. However, adjusting your sleep schedule before flying is a proactive strategy to align more closely with your destination's time zone, thereby reducing the effects of jet lag.

  • Start Early: Begin adjusting your sleep schedule a few days before departure. If you're traveling east, go to bed earlier each night and wake up earlier in the morning. For westward travel, do the opposite.
  • Light Exposure: Light plays a crucial role in resetting our internal clock. Try to get exposure to natural sunlight during the morning if you're traveling east and during the late afternoon or evening if heading west. Apps like Timeshifter and RISE can provide personalized advice on light exposure.
  • Mimic Your Destination’s Routine: Alter not just your sleep times but also meal times according to your destination’s local time as this can further help adjust your body’s internal clock.
  • Avoid Stimulants: Reduce consumption of caffeine and avoid heavy meals close to what will be bedtime at your destination.

To ease into new time zones, these adjustments should ideally start 2-3 days before departure. While it may not completely eliminate jet lag, it can substantially mitigate its severity, allowing you to enjoy more restful nights and energized days upon arrival.

The Pros and Cons of Sleeping on a Plane

Sleeping on a plane can be both a necessity and a challenge for travelers. While the ability to catch some shut-eye during flights can make long journeys more bearable, numerous factors impact the quality and feasibility of in-flight sleep.

  • Pros:
    1. Maximizes travel time efficiency by reducing jet lag, allowing passengers to arrive more rested.
    2. Provides an opportunity for relaxation and mental rest in an otherwise busy travel schedule.
    3. Can improve overall mood and cognitive function upon reaching the destination, thanks to better-rested state.
  • Cons:
    1. Economy seat designs have narrowed over time, making comfortable sleep positions hard to achieve.
    2. The environment is not conducive to deep sleep due to cabin noise, interruptions from crew or fellow passengers, and fluctuating cabin temperatures and lighting.
    3. Potential health risks including deep vein thrombosis (DVT) from prolonged immobility, especially in cramped seating arrangements.

    Dressing comfortably, choosing the right seat location, using personal comfort items like ergonomic pillows or blankets, and employing relaxation techniques can enhance sleep quality. However, each traveler's ability to sleep well on a plane varies significantly based on individual preferences and strategies employed. While some manage to achieve restful sleep with ease, others may find it nearly impossible without resorting to additional aids or adjustments.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the best seats for sleeping on a plane?

Choosing a window seat allows you to lean against the side of the plane for support and control over the window shade. It also avoids being disturbed by fellow passengers moving in and out of their seats.

How can I make my airplane seat more comfortable for sleeping?

Using a neck pillow, a blanket, and noise-cancelling headphones can significantly enhance comfort. Adjusting the seat recline and using a footrest, if available, can also help in finding a more comfortable sleeping position.

What should I wear to sleep comfortably on a plane?

Opt for loose-fitting, breathable clothing to stay comfortable during the flight. Layering can also be beneficial to adjust to changing cabin temperatures.

Are there any effective strategies to overcome jet lag?

To minimize jet lag, try to adjust your sleep schedule a few days before your trip to align with the time zone of your destination. Stay hydrated, avoid alcohol and caffeine before sleeping, and try to get exposure to natural sunlight during the day at your destination.

Scroll to Top