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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?!
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.
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
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!
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. Find out more.
Please log in again. The login page will open in a new tab. After logging in you can close it and return to this page.