Deep sleep secrets for your next marathon flight

Want to arrive at your destination refreshed and ready to go? Then you’ll need to sleep on the plane.

That’s easier said than done. Getting to sleep — and staying asleep — on planes can be difficult for many passengers because of plane noise, cabin conversations and too much light.

Pamela Mason of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) notes that inside cabin noise can reach 105 decibels (dB) at take off and landing, while at cruising the noise typically drops to around 85 dB. According to Mason, long exposure to 85 db can even cause temporary hearing problems.

But there are ways to get a restful sleep while aloft. Here are my secrets for sleeping in the air:

Consider upgrading
If you can talk your way into a lie-flat seat business class, it’s worth it for long, international flights. Anyone who has flown in lie-flat seats will tell you that with a blanket and pillow, while it’s not quite the same, it’s almost like being in a small hotel bed.

Choose your seat carefully
Some swear by mimicking how you sleep at home. They suggest you note the side of the bed you sleep in, then choose that side of the plane for your seat. While it doesn’t work for me, it might for you. Others believe choosing a window seat is essential as it gives you something to lean against if you sleep on your side. I haven’t found that true either, but I know many who say it’s helped them.

To me, if you need to use the lavatory more frequently than most, choose an aisle seat. Otherwise, a window seat is your best bet, as you won’t be jostled by passengers going up and down the aisle.

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Use or another seating chart website to learn about the problems of seats you might choose. Stay away from seats that barely recline or have fixed armrests, as they’re uncomfortable. Stay at least four rows away from lavatories and galleys, since they are noisy and lighted throughout flights. On some airlines, bulkhead seats are used by families with babies and infants, so avoid them.

In 2006, Kurtulus Ozcan and Semih Nemlioglu, of Istanbul University, conducted tests to determine if noise levels in planes varied according to seat location. They made their tests in two single-aisle Airbus A321 planes. They found that window seats were 4 dB noisier than middle and aisle seats, plus seats forward of the engines were generally quieter than those beside or behind them. I try to sit in seats in front of the engines, rather than behind.

Forget alcohol and caffeine
Because caffeine is a stimulant, avoid it if planning to sleep on your flight. Caffeine and alcohol are diuretics. Avoid them to reduce your need to wake up to urinate.

Wear comfortable clothes
It’s tough to sleep when you’re uncomfortable. Don’t wear tight-fitting clothes. They’re not conducive to sleep on planes.

Bring a pillow
I use a blow-up donut pillow and keep it a bit soft. It’s cloth-covered for comfort. They may look ugly, but they work and don’t fall away if you move a bit, or if there is turbulence on your flight. I use an inflatable wedge pillow to support my lower back, because I move forward in my seat for a more comfortable sleeping position.

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Bring an eye mask and earplugs or alternatives
Use a lightweight, comfortable eye mask in the airplane cabin to block light from your eyes. An alternative, though not as effective, is a pair of sunglasses. My primary method of blotting out plane noise and cabin conversation is to wear a noise canceling headset, even if I’m not listening to anything. If it’s especially noisy, I plug the headset into my iPhone and use my “White Noise” app. As an alternative, you can bring foam earplugs.

Bring a boring video on a tablet
Many say that when they’re home, and if they turn on their TV and begin to watch a boring movie, they’re asleep in minutes. If that’s you, duplicate that on your flight. Put a boring movie on your tablet. Use it when you’re ready to sleep, and, hopefully, you’ll be asleep in minutes.

Send an unmistakable message that you want to sleep
Sleeping on planes can be difficult if you’ve got a night owl in the seat next to you, or someone who is restless and wants to talk. I found if I get out my eye mask, and say as I put it on, “Sorry, it’s bedtime now,” they finally get the message.

Tell the flight attendant you’re going to sleep
On some flights, a middle of the night snack and drink is served. Let your flight attendant know you don’t want to be disturbed for it.

Put your seat belt over your blanket
If you’re using a blanket, fasten your seat belt on top of it, so the flight attendant won’t disturb you to ensure you’re wearing it.

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Hopefully on your next long flight, one or more of these suggestions will help you sleep while in the air.

Ned Levi

Ned Levi has traveled the world as an engineer and business executive. He is the founder of NSL Associates, a technology consulting company, and is a professional photographer specializing in travel and wildlife photography.

  • sirwired

    And there’s nothing wrong with taking a sleeping pill, but DO NOT mix with alcohol!

    If you do want to try that route, give them a test-drive at home first, as people react differently to the different available meds. Besides the obvious prescription choices, there are two main OTC sleeping pills, both of which are anti-histamines of some sort:

    The most common is Diphenhydramine HCl (Benadryl, and most sleeping pills on the shelf). In an interesting twist, when sold as a generic Benadryl, it’s usually cheaper than when sold as a generic sleeping pill, even though it’s the same drug. Speaking for myself, it does nothing for me. I can take two and they’ll just make me feel miserable, but awake.

    The other is Doxylamine Succinate (Unisom SleepTabs, but not any other Unisom product) When packaged as a generic, it usually comes in an orange box, or a blue box with orange trim (to mimic the coloring Unisom uses.) One of those will knock me out in a hurry, but leave me feeling like a zombie until noon the next day. (According to Wikipedia anyway, Doxylamine is even more potent that some Rx sleep aids.) I take a half pill when I just need a gentle nudge getting asleep (they break in half easily.)

  • AJPeabody

    The danger from sleep meds is that once used you could be confused or ineffective if there is any emergency or other unexpected occurrence during the flight, and, if the pill hasn’t worn off by arrival time, other difficulties could ensue.

  • sirwired

    Which is why I suggested a test run at home first.

  • AJPeabody

    Yet, if something requires awake alertness 2 hours into a medicated sleep, what then?

  • nyctraveler

    I usually take one Advil PM tablet (and only one) while eating the dinner meal on redeye flights. I’m ready to shut my eyes by the time they come around to pick up trash. Eye mask and headphones are essential and I can generally sleep for about 4-5 hours. Bonus is that the ibuprofen helps with the aches of being contorted in an airplane seat for that long. I also find that using a collapsible foot rest helps tremendously for minimizing lower back pain.

  • Carchar

    I take an Ambien and hope it works. I have trouble falling asleep if I’m not lying flat. I’m still lucky if it puts me “out” for as much as two hours.

  • sirwired

    The danger to myself and others arriving at my destination deprived of sleep (it’d be dangerous for me to drive, dangerous for me to walk, etc.) is far greater than the infinitesimal chance that something will go wrong during the cruise phase of flight.

    I’m trying to remember the last time there was an inflight emergency that required action by passengers in the middle of the flight, and I’m coming up blank. Nearly all survivable emergencies requiring passengers to do anything besides buckle their seatbelt (which you should do anyway) occur at the beginning and end of the flight.

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