If getting some shut-eye on a plane were easy, everyone would do it, right?

By Lindsay Tigar
Updated August 26, 2019
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Every traveler knows the pain of looking helplessly at your seatmate as they snore away on a red-eye while you absolutely, no matter what, just can’t sleep on a plane. (You’ve conquered the sometimes-chaotic flight check-in and survived any flight cancellations—you’ve earned a little shuteye, right?) Not knowing how to sleep on a plane is even more annoying if it’s your partner or traveling companion snoozing away next to you, who will land rested and ready to go sightseeing while you search anxiously for the nearest coffee source.

If you’re a sensitive sleeper or lack the ability to sleep on the move, red-eyes may be exhausting. Here’s the silver lining high above the clouds: You—yes, even you—can actually sleep on an airplane, but you need to follow a few strategies. You know the rules of what you can bring on a plane—consider these the rules of a sleep-supportive flight. From the decisions you make the day of takeoff to your carry-on packing strategy, here are some tricks of the how-to-sleep-on-a-plane trade, straight from frequent fliers.

Skip caffeine the whole day

When you’re hopping on an overnight flight to Europe, you likely won’t board until dinnertime or later. To make the most of time zones, many airlines structure schedules so you arrive at your destination in the morning, allowing for an additional day of adventuring. Though it’s tempting to go about your day before the flight as normal, travel planner Cindy Sanborn says it’s better to forgo coffee, tea, or any other caffeine-fueled drink of choice. Even if your flight isn’t until 8 p.m., skip that 8 a.m. java. “It can increase anxiety or make you nauseated, which will make it harder to sleep during the flight,” she says.

Always pack a travel sleeping kit

Some folks are expert packers, while others struggle to figure out exactly what they need for a trip. Whichever camp you fall in, it’s important to curate a go-to carry-on travel kit that provides everything you need to sleep. Sarah Funk, a travel producer and show host, says she never goes anywhere without her Travel Sleep Kit. What’s in it? An eye mask, ear plugs, a mini toothbrush, toothpaste, lavender oil, makeup removing sheets, face cream, a sheet face mask, a hair tie, and some lip balm. She also brings a neck pillow so she can support her neck as she dozes.

Though some airlines will provide a small toothbrush, eye mask, and ear plugs, not all do, so having your own set will make it more likely you can drift to dreamland. “I especially love to dab a bit of lavender oil under my nose before going to sleep on the plane because it helps relax me,” she says. “All of the other items help to make me feel at home in an environment that would be uncomfortable otherwise.”

Skip the booze

As a news anchor, Mary Corsetti hops from city to city, looking for the next story—and spending a fair share of her time flying. Because she needs rest both for her health and to make good TV appearances, she’s mastered the fine art of sleeping miles high in the sky. One of the most effective strategies may not be that fun, but it works: skipping alcohol. You’re already dehydrated from being on an airplane, and several glasses of wine or cans of beer will have your bladder on overdrive. Corsetti says one alcoholic beverage is OK to ease your nerves, but anything more is bad news.

Splurge on an upgrade if you can

Though not everyone has room in their budget to upgrade to a business or first-class seat, house sitting expert and author Kelly Hayes-Raitt says there are small investments that can make a difference. For an extra $20 to $50, you can move from the basic economy to the economy comfort category for most airlines, which adds more legroom and space. Hayes-Raitt also says it’s worth it to make a bid on a last-minute upgrade to business if the option is available. Even if it is only $100, if no one else puts in an offer, you could be upgraded, just like that. If you tend to fly the same airline often, make sure to sign up for a free account with them to collect points. Airlines will reward the loyal, and you’re more likely to get an upgrade if they see you’re a frequent flier.

Invest in noise-canceling headphones

If you’ve tried ear plugs on a flight and they just don’t cut it for you, it may be time to invest in something higher-quality. Travel blogger Joe Fieldsend says noise-canceling headphones have changed his ability to nod off on a flight.

“Technology nowadays is amazing, and nowhere is this more evident with the advances in headphones that can magnetically block out external sounds,” he says. “The engines, the screaming babies, the dings from the seatbelt sign—you won’t hear any of it.” There are many options out there, but one of the top rated is from Bose, featuring comfortable ear coverings that make it easy to lean on a pillow on the side of a plane.

Avoid the screen

If you limit your screen time before heading to bed at home, why would you tune in to one movie after another when you’re on a flight? Though it’s tempting to watch something calm or happy once you’ve reached cruising altitude, travel planner LaVonne Markus says it isn’t great for your eyes or your mind. Since listening to dialogue and watching the movie will stimulate your body, it makes it difficult to shut off your thoughts and get to sleep. If you have a 10-hour-plus flight, she says you may be able to squeeze in one movie and then rest, but if it’s only a handful of hours, it’s better to get straight to sleep. You definitely don’t want to be wondering, “Is 7 hours of sleep enough?” to justify watching a second movie.

Do everything you would normally do before sleeping in bed

Think about your nightly routine—what do you do? Wash your face? Brush your teeth? Read a book? Go through a meditation? Change into jammies? Now think about your habits on a plane: Are they different? They shouldn’t be, according to Funk. You probably can’t go through your whole routine on a flight, but you can mimic much of your getting sleepy song-and-dance.

“Your mind is powerful, and if you can trick it to make it seem more like you are at home, it does wonders,” Funk says. “Before going to sleep on a plane, I will change into comfortable sleeping clothes, brush my teeth, wash my face, and put on heavy face cream. Then, after I put on my eye cover and ear plugs, I will visualize that I am laying in my bed. Normally that does the trick!”

Do what you can to follow her lead—wear comfortable, pajama-like travel clothes, bring your nighttime moisturizer, and try to follow your regular routine in that tiny airplane bathroom.

Choose a window seat

If you usually pick an aisle seat so you can get off the flight ASAP once the cabin doors have opened, it’s time to play musical chairs for your next long-haul flight. Fieldsend says the window seat is the better choice for sleep because you have the edge of the plane to lean against.

You also avoid being distracted by other passengers: “There is nothing worse than finally drifting off only to be brought back to consciousness by a tap on your shoulder from someone needing the toilet,” he says. You can reserve your seat by logging into your account with the airline or checking in early the day before your flight to see what’s available.

Prepare for landing

If you constantly find yourself stressing about what you’ll do once the flight lands, save yourself the angst and prepare all documents and information before you ever step foot on a plane. Hayes-Raitt recommends collecting your travel documents, hotel directions and address, landing cards for customs if required, and anything else necessary.

“It’s easier to organize these when you are fresh—and have more elbow room—than when you are bleary-eyed and woozy,” she says. “Plus, you’ll sleep better if you aren’t worried about the logistics of landing.”