Your Guide to Sleeping Like a Baby Angel on Any Plane
These days more than 2.5 million people who fly daily in the States -- meaning a population roughly the size of Houston -- are trying to catch a nap in the sky. Whether it’s a short hop in a puddle jumper or a world-spanning journey -- say, the nonstop from Dallas-Fort Worth to Sydney (the ol’ howdy-mate connection) -- you’ve got to be able to nod off if you want to feel like your sane self upon arrival.
It’s easy for even a practiced traveler to forget to factor in sleep to the entire process of flying. But start early enough and you’ll snooze through the safety announcements -- literally, for a change. Here’s how to sleep (aka time travel) the next time you’re on a plane.
It starts when you book your flight
To sleep when you fly, start by thinking, What do sleepy people hate? That’s right, they hate everything. So build in as much nothing to your flight as possible.
Book the nonstop flight instead of the one that’ll have you jogging a roller bag across Denver International midway across the country. Fly later in the evening, especially if you’re flying west-to-east, to keep in closest sync with your sleep cycle. And ideally, pick some deeply unpopular day to fly -- make that evening a Tuesday, say -- to increase the odds that you have your pick of seats (or possibly an entire row to yourself).
About that seat choice: It matters, a lot.
Get a window seat so you can lean against a wall and keep your elbows far from rolling beverage carts. Put yourself as far as possible from the serving areas and bathrooms. Remember that among the reasons first class sits near the front of the plane is ambiance -- the further back you get in a plane, the louder the ride gets.
Also, think twice about bulkhead or exit row seats. While the extra legroom sounds great, some exit row seats don’t recline (so that they won’t be an obstruction in case of an emergency) and the armrests on some bulkhead seats can’t be raised. Scout all this on SeatGuru or SeatExpert to get a seat map for almost any commercial aircraft and airlines.
Bring the right sleeping gear
Now that you’ve done your best to place yourself in the right seat in the right row on the right flight on the right night, a fork in the tarmac appears: pillows or pills? Combine and accessorize these tools to build yourself a DIY nap pod.
First, arrive in comfortable clothes. Wear a top that you can adjust -- sleeves that roll up are perfect -- or go all NFL Sunday on it and change into a sweatsuit or pajamas once you hit cruising altitude. If you go this route, a soft alarm 30 minutes before landing will give you a chance to change back into your grown-up get-up.
Get a blanket and buckle your seatbelt over it, to ward off any questions about you being buckled in. Then bust out your neck-hugging travel pillow. Pro tip from flight attendant turned travel writer Heather Poole: If you’re stuck in the middle seat, wear the travel pillow backwards so that you can rest your chin on the front of the pillow to avoid leaning on your neighbor for support.
A sleep mask or baseball cap is crucial, since even the dim light from someone reading 12 rows away may trigger the photosensitive receptors in your retinas. Ear plugs are cheap and easy; less cheap and less easy -- but probably cooler -- are noise-cancelling headphones. If you want the full merit badge, put essential oils on your stuff to ward off weird odors and give yourself some relaxing, homey smells.
If the goal is strictly to fall asleep, perhaps to head off jet lag (more on that later), then it’s a big help if you arrive to your flight sleepy. Seems simple, but it works.
Or, there’s medication for that
If you need that extra push to get some proper shut-eye, there are several medicinal routes you can take.
Ambien. It needs an Rx so you know it works. Maybe too well, though; the sedative-hypnotic slows down brain activity to induce sleepiness. Side effects include retroactive amnesia -- you could wake up mid-flight and have no memory of it -- or sleepwalking, also not ideal on a cramped flight. Still, the drug and its generic, Zolpidem, have been shown to fight off jet lag.
Tylenol PM and other antihistamines. These over-the-counter meds are easy to buy in small portions. Read the label for diphenhydramine, the same antihistamine found in Benadryl. Tylenol PM may leave you feeling hungover upon waking. Thus, illustrating the law of conservation of matter and energy in the form of sleeping pills.
Melatonin. This hormone occurs naturally in the body. Taking an extra dose helps induce sleep and adjust your internal clock. A review from UK researchers found melatonin decreases jet lag if you take it close to your target bedtime at your destination, especially if you’re traveling across numerous time zones. There are no major side effects to worry about either, though everything in measured doses -- as with any supplement or medication, your mileage may vary.
Dramamine. This over-the-counter drug is a great twofer for travelers. Mostly used to combat motion sickness, it’ll also knock you right onto your ass. May not be the greatest for a short flight or if you need to drive when you land.
To avoid feeling generally groggy, sleep experts advise introducing these medicines into your sleep habits a week or two before your flight. That way, your body will be acclimated to the experience, and you will know and can anticipate any side effects.
A word of caution: Flying, in general, makes you dehydrated. You’ll need to chug small cups of water to outpace the dry cabin air. Though a little alcohol for the nerves won’t kill you, it is inadvisable to combine the booze with pills -- which can dehydrate you and exaggerate certain side effects, like feeling tipsy at high altitude. You’d rather avoid that hungover feeling rather than exacerbate it.
Count the time zones
You’re probably sold on the idea of sleeping on planes if you’re this far into this story. But if you’re crossing several time zones, you may want to take it quite seriously. Any flight that traverses more than four time zones -- just New York to London, we’re talking -- is going to do a number on your circadian body rhythms. The result, jet lag, is your body struggling to adjust to your new local time. Your body typically adjusts to a new time zone at a rate of around one hour per day, so you may be feeling out of sync for a while.
Scientists at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences who study circadian rhythms have found it to be among the oldest evolutionary traits in mammals. The results of experiments published in the journal Cell note that it is a photosensitive system that likely developed as a safety response to overexposure to the sun. Besides our sleep cycle, an out of whack circadian rhythm affects our metabolism, body temperature, hormone release, moods, thirst, and appetite. Don’t muck up the oldest internal clock you have. Think strategically and nap hard to get the most out of your precious little vacation time.