Monday, June 07, 2010

How to sleep on a long haul flight

To the annoyance of people around me I have no trouble sleeping on long haul flights. And I don't take any fancy medication to do so. Having traveled a lot I've come to the conclusion that sleeping on a plane is a matter of attitude and a little preparation. This post is not for people who travel business or first class. It's for the average stiff who, like me, travels hundreds of thousands of miles in economy class.

First the gear. I put this here because everyone thinks that buying stuff is the vital element. This isn't actually true, the important bit is mental, but buying stuff might be a salve that'll make you work on the mental stuff later.

To create the conditions suitable for sleep you need: quiet, darkness, comfort and warmth. These are all hard things to come by on a jet, but much can be done do get close to good conditions.


This is cheap and expensive: I use ear plugs plus noise canceling headphones. Even with good quality ear plugs the noise canceling headphones will cut out sounds (particularly hissing sounds). I typically use silicone ear plugs because they mould to your ear shape and then I wear Bose QuietComfort 3 headphones. I'm not recommending specific brands though, just get good quality ear plugs and good quality headphones.

With those on and in you've got quiet.


Avoid the free blindfold that's given to passengers in economy class. They are usually ill fitting and uncomfortable with tiny elastic straps. Just buy a good blindfold which is wide enough to cover your eyes completely (including round the side of your head and above your eyebrows), that fits snugly around the nose (best if there is material that flaps down along the nose to keep out light) and has a wide, adjustable strap. Such as these.

Also make sure that the blindfold really cuts light: test it by shining a torch in your eyes while wearing it.

Now you have dark.


Get a neck pillow. I fly with one sewn by a member of my family, but you can just go buy one. I avoid the inflatable ones because they tend to be uncomfortable. It's worth the carry on space to have a good neck pillow (and they squash easily).

Wear it 'backwards' (i.e. with the slot pointing backwards so that your head can flop forward onto it. You'll still be able to lean sideways onto it to rest your head, but when you are asleep your head will move forward without you realizing.


I usually find that the blanket given by the airline is enough to keep me warm on a flight. If the flight is empty I'll steal a second one. One goes around by stomach, chest, legs with the seat belt fastened on the outside so that you will not be awakened by a flight attendant checking the belt. The other goes around by shoulders to keep my back and upper arms warm.

It's very important to keep your feet warm, but don't do it with your shoes on. To sleep comfortably you need to loosen your clothes. I loosen collar, cuffs and waist (undoing my belt and lowering my fly: looks odd to you, but it's under a blanket so no one else need to know) and I remove my shoes and socks.

To keep my feet warm I travel with a pair of sport socks that are two sizes too big for me. These slip on easily, don't constrict my ankles, and keep me warm.

The Seat

You want the best seat available: that means avoiding people walking over you (so you need a window seat), with lots of leg room (a bulkhead or exit row), that reclines (some seats on some aircraft have limited recline). Since you can choose your seat with most airlines online (often weeks in advance) do so.

To find out which seats are best use SeatGuru. SeatGuru has seat maps for all the airlines showing which seats are good or bad. I recently flew from San Francisco to London on British Airways and used SeatGuru to choose seat 29A (here's the seat map). 29A is an exit row seat with a half row of seats in front of it. Your legs stick out further even than a bulkhead seat. It reclines normally and is by the window.

Get in the Zone

The rule of sleeping on a plane is that that is all you do. You do not eat, you do not read, you do not watch a movie, you do not think about the time: you do nothing but sleep.

If you need to eat, do it at the airport before you board. You are not going to waste time waiting for the onboard meal when you could be sleeping. I prefer to eat at the airport and have a single drink (such as a beer). Do not drink anything caffeinated. I avoid caffeine for about four hours before each flight. Then I'll wait at the gate. Once onboard immediately use the toilet to avoid needing to go a little later (also the toilets are at their cleanest then).

Then sit down and prepare to sleep by getting out all the gear above. After take off recline the seat and prepare to sleep. Tell the person sitting next to you that you are going to sleep and do not need waking up for meals (at least once a helpful person has woken me for a meal I didn't want), tell the crew that you do not want any food now or before landing (you can always change your mind about the latter if you are awake when breakfast is served).

Do not think about the time. Last week when leaving San Francisco it was about 1730 which is much too early to sleep (think that and you'll stress yourself thinking you can't go to sleep yet), in the UK it was 0130 which is much too late to go to sleep (think that and you'll stress yourself thinking of sleep you've missed). But the flight was over ten hours. The right thing to think is: oh, 10 hours of sleep, that'll do me good. But do not look at your watch and think about the flight time left. Just close your eyes, put on the blindfold, shut out the noise and relax.

Of course, relaxing is hard, but I find that something simple like alternate nostril breathing works wonders to calm me down. The yogi probably won't tell you but the beer also helps.

PS It's important to know how to unblock your ears because blocked ears can be painful. Here's a good description.


Toddles said...

absolutely!! Great advice. Hadn't seen a pillow used backwards before. I'll try in next flight. Going to sent this to a special someone looking forward to a long haul flight soon.

Unknown said...

These are good tips, but my number one tip for sleeping long haul is to wear something super comfortable on the flight.

I have a pair of baggy tracksuit bottoms and long-sleeve t-shirt, that roll down into nothing, which I change into in the departure lounge or on the plane. With a pair of thick warm socks it makes the world of difference.

I love watching people on the SFO->LHR flight who dress like they're on the way to an evening in a cocktail bar. They invariably end up looking disheveled and grumpy by the time we arrive.

Ramit Grover said...

I agree with Andrew totally. Thanks for the tips buddy.

Unknown said...

Interesting. I am myself a power-sleeper on planes to the amazement of most other passengers.

A few different advices: eat in the plane but don't do it the usual way. I always request vegetarian meal (special meal request).
1) you have a light meal (and easy digestion)
2) you are served first and foremost

Agree with the movie comment. Do not start using the entertainment system!

Seth Dickens said...

No way, not only are you my best friend Julian's cousin, not only did you organise that whole campaign to get Alan Turing an official apology, but most importantly you also just got linked to from LifeHacker (okay perhaps least importantly really). Way to go John!

Thanks for the tips, too - must admit I have resorted to Valium on more than one occasion, I'll have to give these healthier tips a try!


Anonymous said...

Great tips, but for socks "airline socks" keep your feet warm and keep your legs from swelling. I don't necessarily have them on from the time I leave my house (you are supposed to have them on 1 hour before you fly), but I make sure I'm wearing shoes that I can easily slip off an on in my seat...usually Birkenstocks because of the amount of walking involved in flying.

Unknown said...

You forgot to mention there's no need to have the noise-cancelling headphones hooked up to an input source. They work just as well at reducing noise whether you've got music (or comedy, or an audio book, etc, etc) coming through them or not.

It's also a wise idea to purchase, and wear, a set of headphones well in advance of your planned trip. Ten minutes into the flight is not the right time to put them on your head for the first time. Find a pair that are comfortable and get used to them long before you board the aircraft, otherwise you're just your wasting time.

mobycat said...

I'd like to know how you managed to choose an exit row ahead of time. EVERY flight I've ever flown has not allowed that row to be assigned until the day of the flight.

Susanne said...

What you say makes a lot of sense. My biggest problem falling asleep is being comfortable. I just can't seem to be comfy sitting upright, I get pain in my lower back. I only manage to sleep when the seat next to me is free, so I can sort of lie down (which doesn't happen a lot). Any ideas for that?

Amy said...

Great advice! I use he pillow sideway and tilt my body so that my head won't fall toward the opening of the "U".

The eye mask and ear plugs are really essential since there are always screaming children and fluorescent lights.

Sleepy travels!

Unknown said...

I like to get to sleep as soon as the plane boards. If you're flying hundreds of thousands of miles a) why are you not getting upgraded? but b) you're likely able to board before everyone else in coach. Cocoon up and get to sleep before the rest of the plane even boards.

Alternatively, I like to take advantage of the pressurization effect and use it to knock myself out. I always feel sleepy when they close the door, so I can usually doze off before we even taxi.

Of course, with both approaches, you lose the ability to use the noise-cancelling headset, but you can put them around your neck and use them if something nudges you slightly awake during the flight.

MargaretG said...

Actually one of the few great things about the long haul flights to New Zealand is that at "night" the crew declare it to be night-time, dim the lights and more or less force everyone to go quiet.

I haven't seen this done on other airlines -- and it makes an awful lot of sense.

Ian Harris said...

Never join the queue to board the plane.

Instead, sit back and be the very last person aboard.

Often you'll find much better seats than yours that are left empty.

Sometimes, you'll even find a whole row empty that you can take.

And if not, well you still have your assigned seat.

Jonathan said...

Excellent advise. But what do I do with the 3 screaming kids that my wife assures me are my responsibility? So far I have tried to get them into the A/V system, etc. But otherwise just try to keep them quiet so as to not disturb the sleeping man next to me.

Kevin said...

These are all correct -- I go a couple steps further:

1) Set your watch to destination time once on the plane, so that if you do wake or check the time, it will be in the context of where you want to land.

2) One whiskey is better than one beer -- same sedating effect but less of an impact on the bladder.

3) I tend to wake (much earlier -- like middle of the night) the day of flight so that I will be more tired when boarding.

4) The day before the flight, I also skip the meal corresponding to "sleep time" at the destination (I make up for it by eating a meal when I wake up early.)

All of these work with the tips here to trick your body into accepting sleep.

[Coming up on 30 transoceanic trips with no jet lag on either end!]

Unknown said...

After reading about unsanitary airplane blankets, they do have the Ick factor for me. I feel much more comfortable bring my own hygienic travel blanket along. I like to snuggle so the long ones with the foot pockets are the way to go for me. Check what is currently available in the market place at The Travel Blanket Place

rbp said...

Great tips! I'm about to try them all :)

About the window seat: it may pay to persevere. I tried to change a seat for a forthcoming transcontinental flight, but the only window seat was at the very back. I got it, but I called again later (the same day), and there were two other window seats available. Supposedly someone changed, or cancelled their reservation, or perhaps the first attendant simply didn't try hard enough. Anyway, I got a much better seat.

Also: I'm going somewhere 5 timezones away, so I figured I'd try to shift my own "timezone" to that, 1h a day, until the day of the trip. Everyday, starting a week before departure, I'll go to bed and get up one hour earlier (after 5 days, I'll just keep the pace). This means that, for a few days before the trip, I'll go to bed really early, and be up while it's still night time. But hopefully I'll be up not feeling sleepy in the morning for my commitment in Europe :)

Unknown said...

Good stuff, but i'd have to disagree with you on your recommendation on using a travel pillow. I use a little head restraint specially designed for use on airplanes called the Aerosleeper. You've never seen anything like it. Check it out @

John said...

This is very good advice. As someone who works in the hearing profession, a common misconception is that all you need to do is 'block out hte sound' however, as detailed, this is not always the case.

maria said...

I will try it out. I am going to be on a plane in two days for 12 hours so im gonna try it out. It was a little upside down with the pillow and i didnt think about that! Thank you for sharing this! Alot of people seems to say it work so im positive! :)

maria said...

Great advice thank you!! :)

Unknown said...

Eliminate When Not in Use: If you choose to go away your headset in the airplane, be sure to unplug it after each journey.

Unknown said...

Here's ANOTHER suggestion.

Take that sleeping pill the night before you fly, and sleep as late as possible, until you have just enough time to get up, eat "breakfast" and go to the airport.

Then, watch movies, read, get up and walk about (do NOT get a window seat) in short, rather than trying to force yourself to sleep in an economy seat, just "enjoy" the flight and then deal with a bit of jet lag upon arrival.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

Thank you for the information. Travel is a very great experience and that is what we have learned from your blog.

Rachel L said...

I agree with Suzanne; I always get bad pain at the base of my spine from sitting upright on hard seats. This keeps me wide awake. Any tips for that? Last flight I ended up trying to roll my blanket and wedge it under my spine. Tips for this please!

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