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How To Actually Sleep On Your Next Red Eye Flight

Welcome to FlyerTalk 101, a guide to traveling like an expert from the experts. For more guides like this, check out our FlyerTalk 101 tag or head to the forum links in this article to have any of your questions answered.

Red eye flights are great in theory: sleep on the plane and you’ll wake up in a new city completely free of jet lag. This is a great travel hack if you can afford a flat-bed up in first class, but for the rest of us peons in economy, welcome to Hell. Over here, we contort our bodies into positions we didn’t even know possible just to fall asleep for 10 minutes before the pins and needles set in.

Flying on a red eye doesn’t have to be a lesson in misery. Okay, it doesn’t have to be that much of a lesson in misery. While most people don’t love to sleep sitting up unless they’re actually a horse masquerading as a human, there are a couple things you can do to promote a pretty decent rest.

Want to get the most shut eye on your next red eye? Curl up with your blanket scarf and follow these nine tips.

Snag A Window Seat

Window seats are the Holy Grail of economy comfort and well worth whatever seat reservation fee you need to pay in advance. There’s nothing quite like resting your head against the side of a moving aircraft, especially if you upgrade to a seat with extra leg room. It’ll pretty much feel like you’re sleeping on a Casper mattress compared to a chintzy horseshoe travel pillow (if that mattress was continuously shrinking, nailed vertically to wall, and hurtling through the sky at 500 miles per hour).

Mind The Pillow Placement

Neck pillows are popular for a reason. While those lucky enough to snag window seats might want to luxuriously lean against a full-sized pillow they brought from home, a neck pillow is pretty much the only thing that will give you some sort of relief in a middle or aisle seat. Pick the type of pillow that suits your sleep style — and pick wisely. Once you’ve exhausted the in-flight entertainment, it will feel like the most important decision of your life.

Something like the Trtle Pillow Plus or Travelrest All-In-One Travel, Neck & Body Pillow creates a surface to lean against. This is a great for side sleepers. For those who wake up when their head bobs forward, the ZzzBand Travel Pillow Alternative might work (if you don’t mind some funny looks from your fellow passengers). The Povinmos travel pillow is an unlikely hero for those who typically try to fall asleep on the seat-back tray (which is pretty much the dirtiest place on the whole plane, so you should probably stop). It rests in your lap and lets you sleep leaning forward, which feels almost like sleeping on your stomach if you’re delirious from sitting down for hours while squished in a human sardine can with wings. The key word is almost.

According to Dr. Lev Kalika, owner of New York Dynamic Neuromuscular Rehabilitation & Physical Therapy in New York City, you should also consider adding a second pillow to your repertoire. Beat that back pain and beat it fast.

“For people with large kyphosis (convexity in [the] mid-back) it is nice to have a small pillow you can put between your mid-back and at the seat,” he says. “This will straighten your necking mid back and reduce muscular tension and loading on your joints.”

Buckle Your Seat Belt Over You Blanket

If only for the simple reason that flight attendants will wake you up if they can’t see that your seat belt is buckled.

Don’t Underestimate The White Noise Playlist

Planes are unbelievably noisy, especially if you’re seated near one of the engines (if you didn’t book your seat in advance and checked in late, that’s probably you). To filter it out, you need a good pair of noise canceling headphones and the perfect white noise playlist. Spotify has plenty of them, but I personally prefer a single, repeated track that sounds almost like the whir of the plane itself (this one’s mine). Turn up the white noise, and it’s like everyone else around you has completely disappeared until someone inevitably elbows you or a flight attendant runs over your foot with a meal cart.

Remember: you might not have access to WiFi in-flight, so make sure to save any Spotify playlist saved in advance.

Avoid Caffeine

This is an obvious one, but caffeine can seriously mess with your sleep cycle. Even an innocent afternoon cup of coffee has a half-life of four to six hours, which means you could still feel its effects as you’re waiting to board. Go ahead and have your morning cup (no one wants to be trapped in a plane next to cranky person crying about having a caffeine headache), but do try to avoid it for the rest of the day.

Have A Sleep-Minded Diet

One of life’s simplest joys is wrapping yourself in a blanket, ripping open a giant bag of Haribo gummies, and turning on the most overrated Academy Award-nominated movie you can find on the in-flight entertainment. Resist the urge, and while you’re at it, resist the urge to raid the in-flight menu for sugary snacks, soda and those bizarre miniature cans of Pringles that have somehow become an airline staple. This is not going to help you fall asleep, as much as it feeds the soul.

According to Lisa Richards, nutritionist and author of The Candida Diet, simple carbohydrates — like those found in dairy, candy, soft drinks and other processed foods — reduce serotonin, which is essential for sleep. Instead, Richards recommends loading up on snacks that promote the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle.

“Almonds and walnuts are simple and safe snacks to travel with that will also help you to fall asleep. They contain melatonin which is the chemical that will enable you to sleep soundly,” she says. “Bananas also contain melatonin and can easily be taken onto a plane.”

When all else fails, opt for a relaxing cup of chamomile or peppermint tea. You may even want to bring your favorite sleepytime blend and simply ask the flight attendants for hot water.

Drink Plenty Of Water, But Not Too Much

Much like avoiding caffeine, this should be a given. Flying is dehydrating, and dehydration disrupts your sleep cycle. Stay hydrated throughout the day, but don’t over-hydrate once it’s getting close to flight time. Limit how much you drink two hours before your flight and avoid the temptation of having an in-flight cocktail. You don’t want to constantly have to get up to use the restroom. Plus, do you really want to do that to your equally as sleep-deprived bench-mates?

Alternatively, if you have a history of blood clots, please don’t limit your water intake to avoid going to the bathroom.

Naps Are The Key

It’s time to admit that you won’t ever actually get eight full hours of sleep on any red eye flight, even if you’re in one of those insane Emirates first-class suites (and let’s be honest, you probably are not). Acceptance is the first step, according to Kate Sullivan, a master’s level psychologist who’s currently working with Otis Travel Group.

“If you relax into it and accept that you’ll be getting several bouts of light sleep, with waking in between, you’ll end up feeling more mentally and physically refreshed because you’re not stressing yourself even more, or expecting something that can’t happen.”

You might also want to pick up an eye mask that’s raised around the eye sockets. Anything pressing flat against your eyelids can disrupt your REM sleep when your eyes start to — for lack of better words — rapidly move.

Forget It All, And Just Take Medicine

Listen, it’d be hard for me to advise everyone to immediately reach for the hard stuff. You don’t want to pull a Roseanne or accidentally buy out the entire SkyMall in an Ambien-fueled, sleep-shopping spree. There are just some people who can’t sleep on planes without some extra assistance, whether it’s sleep aids like melatonin or ZzzQuil, over-the-counter medicines with drowsy effects, or serious prescriptions. Whatever you take, check with your doctor and make sure you know how it’s going to affect your body before you actually get on the plane. No one wants to deal with someone hallucinating a colonial woman on the wing.


Have your own tips for getting more sleep on a red eye flight? Join this Red Eye Sleeping forum post and add to the list of advice.