Monday-Morning Moving: 10 Tips For Catching Z’s On A Plane

Catching some Z's on a plane is easier than catching Z's in the terminal. Usually. Marginally.
Catching some Z’s on a plane is easier than catching Z’s in the terminal. Usually. Marginally.

By Sharyn Alden

When someone tells me they’ve just returned from Europe or Asia or any other long trip, I always ask how their flight was. Invariably they answer the same way: The flight was fine, but oh, how they wish they could’ve slept on the plane.

Bleary-eyed and burned-out is no way to start (or end) a vacation or a business trip. So what can you do about it? Maybe more than you think.

The potential for sleep is certainly present on a plane. Unlike home, where you have to cram in a good night’s sleep in between the laundry and the emails, when you’re flying long-haul you’ve got nothing but time. And sleep is a darn good time-waster.

Here are some ways to make snoozing in cramped quarters 35,000 feet more like the real, dreamy thing.

  • Choose the right seat. Travelers take whatever seat is available when they book their flight, and they don’t usually choose a sleep-friendly seat. Business-class seats should be your first choice if you want a good long nap or have a super-long time in the air – like a 14-hour flight to Australia. If these more-expensive seats are out of scope consider a window seat, where you can lean against the plane wall and take control of the window shade. Try to avoid seats by lavatories, especially in the back of the plane. Steady traffic and chatting in the aisles will leave you yearning for another spot. Forget bulkhead rows. That extra legroom is great, but some of these seats don’t recline. Plus, families with young children often snatch up these seats.
  • Travel lean. You’ve got your seat; now don’t unload half your carryon on the floor or in the seat pocket in front of you. The less stuff around you – electronic gear, books and magazines and other stuff you’ve carted from home — the more space you’ll have to stretch out and take a nap. Leave all the moving parts in your suitcase or at home.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing. As I watch people boarding flights, it amazes me how people dress for flights – especially long flights. Women and men often stuff themselves into tight clothes. That may be fun party gear, but it’s not fun for sitting long stretches of time. Keep your clothing loose; leave the tight belts and jeans in the suitcase. Ask yourself: Would you want to sleep in that clothing at home? Instead, think PJs with a daytime spin.
  • Forego sensory stimulation. Talk about temptation: There are these computer screens pre-loaded with movies, games and TV shows inches away on the back of the seat in front of you, and you have all this time, and it wouldn’t hurt to watch one little scene and … no. Avert your eyes and put first things first. I try to nap early to midway in a long flight, then watch a movie (or two) later. If you watch movies first and then try to nap, it can be harder to turn off your brain, especially if you just watched a shoot-’em-up thriller.

    Pretending you're at home can make it (slightly) easier to sleep on a plane.
    Pretending you’re at home can make it (slightly) easier to sleep on a plane.
  • Pretend you’re at home … yeah, I know. Naturally, a seat on a plane can’t emulate your own bed. But I pretend it does. That pretense often leads to a good sleep high in the skies. I wrap myself in a blanket, burrow down and mentally transport myself to my comfortable bed at home. This visualization often works in conjunction with eyeshades and noise-cancelling headphones.
  • Try noise-cancelling headphones. Listening to soothing music can make a big difference when you are trying to sleep. Bose has good noise-cancelling headphones, but they’re pricey. Still, the trade-off is engine noise, and seemingly unending in-flight distractions.
  • Stay away from light; use eyeshades. The animated flash of movie screens, reading lights, cabin lights, or sunlight bursting in on an eastbound flight can affect your ability to sleep. Bring eyeshades with you; they can make an enormous difference in changing the environment around you.
  • Lose the caffeine. Don’t indulge in caffeine drinks when you plan on sleeping. Instead, when the drink cart comes around, substitute water or juice for caffeinated soda, tea or coffee.
  • Try a sleep aid. Some travelers use melatonin, a naturally occurring substance in our bodies that triggers sleep patterns. There are other sleep aids you might want to try. Test them before you travel, or ask your physician or pharmacist for recommendations.
  • Be realistic—you’re not curled up in a king-size bed. At home, does someone check in the middle of the night to see if your seat belt is tightened? When you’re in deep REM sleep at home, does a child throw toys at your head, or are you awakened with an announcement pointing out a good view of the London Bridge? Of course not. Sleeping on a plane is tough business. With that said:
    • Don’t overthink sleeping. Come prepared to be relaxed and be comfortable, so sleep is a natural outcome.
    • At the same time, don’t attack it the other way around by pushing yourself to go to sleep like some people do when they experience a bout of insomnia in the middle of the night.
    • Finally, don’t blame yourself if you stay awake on a flight. Many times there are too many interruptions onboard for sleeping, no matter how adept you are at drifting off.

Keep trying a mix of these tips every time you take a long flight, and someday when someone like me asks, “How was your flight?”, you’ll be able to say, “Terrific! I slept more than half the time we were in the air.”

Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, Inc., based in Madison, Wis. Contact her at

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