The Best Way To Sleep On A Plane: 10 Lessons from a Lifelong Insomniac

By Abi King | Travel Tips

Sep 25
How to sleep on a plane text over sunset advice article

How to sleep on a plane

Notes from a Lifelong Insomniac on the Best Way to Sleep on a Plane

Are you one of those lucky people who can sleep absolutely anywhere without giving it a moment’s thought? While I break down and sob with envy, why not check out these travel other travel tips instead? For the rest of you come with me...And let's talk about the best way to sleep on a plane.

It’s probably fair to say that I am one of the world’s worst sleepers. A dog barks outside, I’m awake. A baby cries, I’m up for the rest of the night. Someone coughs and I’m firing up my laptop: no more sleep for me til our weary old earth spins around once more. (Exhibit A: I’m writing this at 4am.)

Now that my job involves spinning around the earth in a plane, while the earth spins in its own merry way, that quest for sleep has become all the more important. No matter what my friends and family think, at the end of the journey, I’m there to work, not collapse into a goggle-eyed, gibbering over-caffeinated heap. Besides which, sleeplessness isn’t fun to try even if it’s fun to type - and being sleepless in a confined space is even worse.

So, here goes. My hard won tips for the best way to sleep on a plane.

Disclosure: I find it difficult to sleep. Er, that's it. And some of these links may earn me commission at no extra cost to you!

The Best Way to Sleep on a Plane: Create Your Own Sleep Kit

1)      Block out the noise

Earplugs don’t work for me. They either fall out or they resemble having a drugged and irritable wasp lodged in my auditory canal. Give up on them and switch to a pair of well-fitting earphones instead. Then plug that in to something that soothes you. The remote, steady, comforting tones of the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent does it for me.

2)      Block out the light

Yes, I felt like an idiot when I first put one on and yes it will turn your hair into a wild and wayward mess but who cares about that? Grab an eye mask
and store it with your passport; you’ll never forget it again.

3)     Make your own duvet

Most airlines still provide blankets for long haul flights but, alas, not all do. Bring a stretchy jumper with you onto the plane, the bigger the better, plus a coat and if you’re feeling fancy, an extra pair of socks. Think of them as your sleep armour.

4)      Save your neck

Even more embarrassing than the eye mask, is the inflatable neck pillow. Huff and puff and feel the stares of strangers as you inflate it. Once you’re asleep, you won’t know or care who’s looking at you.

Top Sleep Tip!

Use a horseshoe shaped travel pillow but have the gap at the back. Much comfier than the way most people use them, with the gap at the front.

5)      Save your back

This one took me a long while to work out. In an ideal world, we’d all be flying on deliciously reclining full-size beds in business class or better yet in our own beds with little cartoon wings attached. In the meantime, try to grab a window seat so that you can lean against the wall (and gain control of the all-important window blind.)

If you’re on the short side (like me,) the best way to sleep on a plane involves taking the strain off your back. How? By making sure there’s something for you to rest your feet on. Your hand luggage may work - or a pair of upended boots also does the trick. The aim is to try to lodge yourself into position so that no part of you can slip (and hence wake you up) when you finally doze off. Worse yet is a body part dangling into the aisle, at the mercy of a trolley thundering through or a deranged and sleep-deprived parent chasing after a small child.

Top Sleep Tip!

Create your own footstool with this easy tip: pack an empty toiletries bag and fill it with all your odds and ends, a spare jumper, whatever. Use it to take the pressure off your back and wedge yourself into a comfy spot.

6)      Do not disturb

Always make sure your seatbelt can be seen over the top of your blanket and other paraphernalia so that the cabin crew don’t wake you up during turbulence. If you really need to sleep and don't even want the food, write a note to that effect and leave it tucked onto your seatbelt. Sounds daft but I've seen people do it. And why not?!

Read 101 Stress Free Travel Tips

7)      Do As You’re Told

As soon as the cabin lights go off, try to go to sleep, regardless of what time it is in the place you’ve just come from or the place you’re heading to. Give yourself half an hour and if you’re not asleep by then, fair enough, watch a film or switch on your laptop. But if you wait until you feel tired, Murphy’s law will dictate that that’s the exact moment the lights will blaze back on and the cabin crew with storm around like whirling dervishes while trying to serve you something optimistically called breakfast.

8)      Plug in

I’ve only just discovered this, but already I’m a big fan. Download SleepStream onto your iPhone and you’ll be able to hear sleep-inducing sounds set to a timer so that you don’t drain all the power from your battery. At first, the artificial fire, rain and wave soundtracks will sound ridiculous and an utter waste of your precious moments alive on this earth. The next thing you know, you’ll be waking up. Not bad value for only a few bob.

Coming soon: how to sleep on a plane when travelling with children. No, only kidding. Travel with children and no-one within a thirty-seat radius will get any sleep...

Read The Best Travel Apps for more helpful travel advice

9) Keep your feet warm

Cold feet kills sleep. It's the law of the universe! Bring some fluffy, big socks with you for a long haul flight, kick off your shoes and snuggle up.

A Word About Sleeping Pills

As a former doctor, I'd stay away from these unless your own doctor or psychiatrist explicitly recommend them. Immobility increases the risk of blood clots (DVTs) and you won't be able to follow safety instructions if needed. Don't be cavalier about it. Speak to your own healthcare professional and for the love of all that is sensible, don't buy dodgy pills off the internet!

How about you? Do you have any tips for the best way to sleep on a plane?

How to sleep on a plane - handy travel tips and tricks from @insidetravellab

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About the Author

Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more.

  • Annette | Bucket List Journey says:

    I am truly hoping that these ideas will work for me, as I can never sleep on a plane! Can’t wait to give it a shot on my red-eye next month :)

    • Abi says:

      Good luck! But remember, don’t leave it to the last minute…Some of this “equipment” you have to put together before you get on board.

  • alicia says:

    Great post. Very useful info. Sleeping on planes is one of my big pitfalls. I just can’t seem to get good sleep.

    Sometimes I find myself half starring at people who are deep asleep on a red eye and I am up tossing and turning. My green eyed monster kicks in just a bit and I briefly imagine something bitter going in their open mouths as they snore. Ok just kidding. I would never. lol

    I do pretty much all of those suggestions. Plus I try to get a seat by the window. Even though I am colder (which makes it super hard to sleep), I can’t even think of sleeping if people keep brushing past me walking up and down the aisles. Not their fault, it’s tiny space.

  • I’m surprised that no forms of medication were mentioned :P I’ve never tried it myself but I know several people who swear by drugging themselves into a coma prior to take-off.

    I do always try to sleep in the time-zone I’m headed for though, I find it cuts jetlag massively getting a head start on it. Inevitable blazing lights and optimistically named breakfast aside.

    • Abi says:

      Ah, well, the medic in me balances up the risk of feeling exhausted against the risk of a coma-induced deep vein thrombosis so I’d never go for the medication option! A few glasses of wine can help, though ;) And as for sleeping to match your future timezone? Frankly, that’s just showing off! I have to take whatever comes my way when it comes to sleep and be thankful for it.

  • Carrie - PipeDreamJunkie says:

    I’ve done most of what you’ve mentioned. The other thing I’m known for doing, especially for early morning flights, is I stay up all night, typically surfing the web to pass the time. By the time the plane has taken off, I’m unconscious. It can be rough, but it’s worth it; when the plane lands, I’m awake and ready to explore.

    • Abi says:

      I like this idea – a lot. I’m adding it to my list!

  • Love this article. I figured all of these out so painfully on my own. Took me many a year to give in to the neck pillow and eye mask – but BOY did it ever make flying BETTER! Great article – I’m spreading the news!

    • Abi says:

      Thank you! Yes, I find that a pick ‘n’ mix approach just doesn’t work for me. I have to do them ALL and forget about how ridiculous I look…

  • Dalia says:

    Amazing and funny blog, I discovered that I do almost all of them, is funny because I’m a terrible sleeper in my bed but everytime that I’m in a plane or even on a road and I’m not driving; I fell asleep as a baby..!

    • Abi says:

      You lucky, lucky person you! (PS – maybe you need some road or plane sound effects at home to help you sleep in your bed?! ;) )

  • Blog Me Travel says:

    Haha your guide to how to sleep on a plane made me chuckle! I too am on the short side so everything within my vicinity becomes a prop: the flip-down table becomes a headrest, my bag becomes a footstool, and excess clothing is used to wedge me into my seat.

    At the risk of sharing too much information – when sleep has seemed so far away – I’ve been known to cut tampons in half so I can use them as earplugs!

    • Abi says:

      That last tip has never crossed my mind – until now! Hilarious – and, who knows? Maybe one day very useful…

  • Monica says:

    You’re going to hate me here Abi but I wish I was a little more like you and could actually stay awake on a plane. I always think a plane is the perfect place to catch up on work, read a good book, watch some films or stare idly out the window and do absolutely nothing. But the second I sit down I’m always fast asleep and miss out!

    • Abi says:

      Miss out?! Miss out?????!!!!! Well, OK, take off and landing can be interesting but EVERYONE gets woken up for that (Right?!) Every so often, you’ll catch a glimpse of Mongolia or the snowy peaks of the Himalayas outside the window but that’s only if you’ve managed to get a window seat…As for everything else you mention, they’re all better on solid ground after a good “night’s” sleep. Apart, perhaps, from watching films. Watching films while sleep-deprived makes those stories seem so much more real and captivating…So, OK, yes. You are missing out ;)

  • James Pengelley (@HairyChef) says:

    I would also advocate the purchase of Bose noise canceling headphones…they cancel noise…funnily enough…and are great to fall asleep with

    • Abi says:

      A quick google shows them to be enormous! But perhaps I’ll check them out. Whatever it takes, right?!

  • Eric says:

    Some good ideas there. I find it difficult to sleep probably due to adrenalin pumping through my system. At home I play some nice ballads on my iPod. I have about 45 minutes worth of songs I am very familiar with. I also take an Allerax 25mg tablet about 1 hour before I want to sleep. I intend to carry out this routine on my next flight. I shall let you know if it works.

  • Bernie Mieth says:

    Instead of a travel pillow, I got the SeatSnoozer which is really the alternative. Works great, inexpensive! Amazon. com – SeatSnoozer or http://www.seatsnoozer.com.

    Bernie

    • Abi King says:

      I’ve heard good things about the J pillow too. Need to try one out…

  • I’m flying to the UK later this year from the Midwest. The best sleep inducer I think I’ll have is that I’m working five hours that day, and then I have a connection with a long layover (that will be dinnertime) before my flight across the pond. I ought to be pooped by the time I get on the second plane.

    I do plan to take ONE Unisom, too. One will make me sleepy but not hungover.

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