When trying to sleep on a plane, the obstacles are stacked against you. The environment is loud, bright, crowded, and uncomfortable. But while the shut-eye most likely won't be the same quality as at home, it is still possible to get some rest with the right gear.
Before you get shopping, there are a few key considerations to keep in mind. Just because you have trouble sleeping on a plane now doesn't mean you're doomed. Sleeping on a plane is like any other skill: You have to practice to get good at it. It's as much a mental hurdle as a physical one.
"Don't underestimate the power of rest. Don't get too caught up in 'I need to sleep,' " says Ellen Wermter, a board-certified family nurse practitioner and Better Sleep Council spokesperson. "If you sleep, great. If you don't, you're still getting benefits from closing your eyes and getting quiet time."
Focusing on getting rest versus deep sleep will take the pressure off when you buckle up for takeoff. With the right gear, mental state, and practice, you can be snoozing in your seat in no time.
Here's what you need to get started.
1. Neck pillow.
Every expert we interviewed recommended buying a good neck pillow before you fly. But pillows aren't necessarily a one-size-fits-all kind of product. What one traveler may love, another may hate. It could take trial and error before you find what works for you.
"I try a ton of them," says Cacinda Maloney, a travel writer and former chiropractor. "Over time, I kind of went to the Cabeau brand that's very soft."
If you take a neck pillow out for a spin and it doesn’t seem quite right, don’t give up right away. Michael Breus — sleep expert, clinical physiologist, fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine — suggests flipping the script on the classic neck pillow.
He says that a lot of people, when using C-shaped neck pillows, "their head bobs forward and it wakes them up," Breus says. "I tell them to take the really thick part and put it under their chin."
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2. Eye mask.
Between the flashing entertainment systems, blinking seat-belt notifications, cabin lighting, and the screens of your fellow travelers, there's a lot of stimulating light that can keep travelers awake.
"All of the research clearly indicates that you don't want any blue-light emissions anywhere," says Chris Tomshack, CEO and founder of HealthSource Chiropractic.
Although you may not have any control over the lights on the plane, you can pack an eye mask to create a light-tight setting. Buy one that doesn't press too firmly on your eyes and still covers enough ground to protect from light getting inside.
Putting on an eye mask can also act as a signal to your body and mind that it’s time to sleep, not re-watch The English Patient on the seatback TV.
"A sleep mask will help you go into a zone of 'I'm ready to rest now,' " Wermter says. "It's a state you have to get in mentally."
3. Blue-light-blocking glasses
While we’re on the subject of light, experts say that blue light — that artificial light that beams out of phones, computers, and LED displays — is a detriment to your sleep quality. And unfortunately, planes are full of blue light.
"The plane is one of the largest sources of what we call 'junk light' that we can possibly put ourselves in," says Tomshack. "So let's eliminate that variable and wear blue-light-blocking glasses. It tells our brain, 'Hey we're not supposed to be awake. We're supposed to be dialing down.' "
There are lots of brands out there that make blue-light-blocking glasses, but Tomshack specifically recommends TrueDark.
In a perfect scenario, you'd be falling asleep in a dark room with the temperature around 66 degrees. But anyone who has ever flown knows that temperatures fluctuate from plane to plane or even within the duration of a flight.
"If you're hot, that's not conducive for sleep. You're uncomfortable, sweaty, itchy," Wermter says. "On the other end, sometimes it's freezing."
Main cabin passengers can’t rely on a plastic-wrapped complimentary blanket waiting on your seat these days. Prepare for a cold scenario by packing a scarf, shawl, or blanket in your carry-on. If you don't need it to keep warm, you can use it to further support your neck.
5. Compression socks
Compression socks are another way to keep warm on a plane, but that's not the only reason they're recommended by our experts.
"This isn't just for people over 60 or 70 who are at risk for deep-vein thrombosis or blood clots in their legs," Tomshack says. "This is for everybody, because they improve circulation."
The compression socks will help prevent stagnant blood flow while you're stuck being sedentary on the plane. Breus says picking out a pair doesn't have to be complicated; just order ones that correlate appropriately to your shoe or foot size.
6. Earplugs or noise-canceling headphones
Planes are loud. Really loud. Earplugs and noise-canceling headphones are your best options for combating noise pollution.
For plugs, Tomshack recommends finding a pair that have a noise reduction rating of at least 30 to be effective on a plane.
Choosing what to play on your noise-canceling headphone is up to you. Wermter says to pick something that blocks out the rest of the noise, and at the very least gives you something to focus on that’s not your thoughts. You can try audiobooks; sleep or relaxation apps; music or white noise.
Binaural beats are another options, which, Wertmer explains, "play in one ear and are slightly off in the other ear. It can get your brain wave into a slower rhythm that's better for relaxation or sleep."
You can help send a signal to your brain that it's time to sleep by using melatonin. Melatonin is a more natural alternative to a prescription sleep aid, and it's available at drugstores over the counter. Maloney travels with Sleep Now, a brand that features melatonin and chamomile to help travelers relax.
But less is more when it comes to the supplement, so make sure you're not taking too much.
"The challenge with melatonin is, Americans think: If a little is good, a lot is obviously better. And it's totally wrong," Tomshack says. "When it comes to melatonin, we really shouldn't exceed a half-milligram to 1 milligram on any given day."
Consult your doctor before experimenting with any type of sleep supplements. But if you're cleared: Follow the directions on your container; in general, plan to take it about 30 minutes before you want to snooze. Don't take melatonin or any sleep aid until you've boarded your plane and taken off. The last thing you want is to be a groggy zombie if your flight gets delayed and you get stuck on the ground.
The best sleep is interruption-free, and unfortunately, that's nearly impossible on a plane. The one interruption you can avoid is the refreshment cart. Pack your own water bottle so you don't have to live at the mercy of the flight attendants' service schedule.
"I used to always be worried about missing the drink cart and Biscoff cookies," says Wermter. "If you already come prepared with a water bottle, you can go into sleep mode without worrying about missing the refreshment cart."
Furthermore, skip the booze if you're trying to sleep on a plane. What sounds like a way to unwind can actually stimulate you, and additionally, alcohol is dehydrating.
"Most people are somewhat dehydrated and [then] get on an airplane where there's recirculated air and it's super dry," Breus says. "You become even more dehydrated adding alcohol to that mix."
You can have all the right gear in the world and still run into problems that will keep you awake on a plane. The odds are stacked against you, after all. But do your best and stay calm, and remind yourself that you are capable of sleeping anywhere.