If you’ve flown on a commercial plane recently, you know it’s challenging enough to stretch your arms without groping your neighbor or knocking over your drink — stretching out into a comfy sleeping position isn’t going to happen in economy class.
Add in seat-kicking toddlers, recycled air, bright sunlight streaming through the window, noisy passengers, and the fact that you’re hurtling through space, and sleep probably seems less likely than falling in love with a member of the royal family on your next solo trip.
But it’s possible to arrive at your destination semi-refreshed. Here’s how to sleep on a plane — don’t forget to apologize to your seatmate for all the drool.
1. Pop a Sleep Aid
If you have trouble sleeping on airplanes, even on overnight flights, you may want to consider a sleep aid. We’re telling you this so you don’t stay up all night staring at us while we’re trying to sleep.
Sleep aids generally fall into three categories:
- prescription drugs (like Ambien, a sedative that treats insomnia)
- over-the-counter medicines containing diphenhydramine (an ingredient which causes drowsiness)
- natural supplements (like melatonin, a hormone that regulates your body’s circadian rhythm)
Will Benadryl Help Me Sleep?
Probably. Any over-the-counter antihistamine with diphenhydramine — the main active ingredient in Benadryl and its generic versions — can make you drowsy. But keep in mind this can stay in your system for up to six hours, so you might still be a little groggy when you land.
How Much Melatonin Should I Take? And When?
According to the National Sleep Foundation, you should take between 0.2mg and 5mg of melatonin, about 60 minutes before you want to fall asleep.
Here’s the basic idea: Your body naturally secretes melatonin when it’s time to sleep, but that doesn’t help when you’re on a 6 p.m. flight from New York to Europe — your internal clock thinks it’s dinner time and doesn’t care that it’ll already be morning when you land. Taking a melatonin supplement might help you get adjusted to a new sleep-wake cycle, which can help to ward off jet lag.
Is Ambien a Bad Idea?
It depends. Have you taken Ambien before without sleep-eating a whole rotisserie chicken or buying pizza-cat tapestries on Amazon? (Don’t ask how we know those exist.) If so, then it might be fine.
But…remember Kristen Wiig’s character in Bridesmaids? If you’ve never taken Ambien, a crowded airplane is not the place to experiment, unless you’ve always wanted someone to live-tweet your in-flight antics. Ambien will help you sleep on a plane, but side effects may include sleepwalking and even taking on complex tasks (you know, like using an airplane bathroom without actually touching anything) in your sleep.
In the subreddit /TIFU, one user who popped Ambien on a flight described being videotaped standing up and announcing how high they were to other passengers. “I also found out they saw me spilling ice cream all over myself but thought it was too funny to intervene, and they let the innocent flight attendant wipe up napoleon ice cream off my shirt/tray/seat,” the user wrote.
Bottom line: Consult with your doc first, and tread carefully.
2. Make Yourself Comfortable
Assuming you didn’t spring for first class seats with fully-flat beds — if you did, we would give you the evil eye but we can’t see past that bougie first-class curtain — here’s how to get as comfy as possible (without making everyone else around you uncomfortable — no, you can’t use your seatmate’s leg as a travel pillow).
Choose the right seat.
If first or business class aren’t an option, choose an exit row seat or a window seat — or, ideally, both. You’ll be isolated from the hustle and bustle of the aisle, and no one will have to climb over you mid-flight to use the restroom or raid the beverage cart in an Ambien-zombie haze. Plus you can rest your head against the window, using your travel pillow as padding.
Pack a pillow.
A high-quality travel pillow should be the first item on your pre-flight shopping list. Yes, even before the tiny tequila bottles. Look for one that provides a support and comfort without being too bulky to fit in your carry-on.
Wear comfortable clothing.
Dress in soft, loose clothing that doesn’t dig in or chafe. (Hint: rompers have never let you down before, and they won’t start now.) Pack socks or slippers, and bring a light blanket in case the AC is set to “meat freezer.”
Block out light and noise.
Pack an eye mask that offers ample coverage, and try earplugs or noise cancelling headphones so you can’t hear the bros in row 34 rehashing the details of their Vegas weekend.
If you opt for headphones, play some calming music, nature sounds, or a meditation designed for sleep. Download the tracks to your device before takeoff, and dim your screen to reduce blue light emission. You may want to do a trial run of wearing your headphones and using your travel pillow at the same time.
Be sleep-deprived when you board.
I unknowingly test-drove this trick recently after laying awake with insomnia the night before a West Coast-bound flight from South Carolina, and my only regret is not apologizing to other passengers for my snoring.
3. Stock Up on Sandman-Summoning Gear
If the free airline pillow just isn’t cutting it, these products can help you get comfy.
MLVOC Travel Pillow (Amazon)
This memory foam pillow is breathable and comes with a contoured eye mask. Or, if you sleep like a bobblehead, this bendable pillow can provide chin support.
Voluex Sleep Mask (Amazon)
Block out light with this memory foam mask, since airlines frown upon you installing blackout curtains around your seat. (So…many…rules.)
Sleepy Ride Airplane Footrest (Amazon)
Instead of trying to rest your feet on the “personal item” stashed under your seat, hang this from the arms of your tray table.
TaoTronics Active Noise Canceling Earphones (Amazon)
Block out sound without looking like a sleeping DJ.
BUILT CLEAR Women’s Jumpsuit (Amazon)
Snuggle up in this stylish jumpsuit that’s basically pajamas in disguise.
NOVCO Women’s Fuzzy Slipper Socks (Amazon)
These fuzzy socks will keep your feet warm, and they’re so cute, the people in front of you won’t even complain if you prop your feet up on their armrest. Aww, a panda! No one can yell at a panda.
Cabeau Fold ‘n Go Travel Blanket (Amazon)
This microfiber throw can be rolled up and used as a pillow, seat cushion, or lumbar support. Or build a cool fort with the other passengers in your row.
Calm app subscription
A premium subscription to the Calm app offers an extensive library of sounds to fall asleep to, including guided meditations, sleep stories, nature sounds, white and pink noise, fan noise, and music.
Wait…Does the Pilot Sleep?
Fearful flyers, you might want to stop reading here. Look, a bird!
Yes, pilots sleep — but only in shifts on international flights, and never in the cockpit.
A first class or business class seat that reclines into a bed is typically reserved for snoozing pilots, says Susan Fogwell, a Philadelphia-based, 22-year veteran flight attendant. A drape wraps around the pilot’s seat (for “privacy,” which is probably code for “so the passengers don’t freak out”) and they receive a blanket, pillows and amenity kit that includes an eye mask and ear plugs.
Don’t worry — there are still two pilots manning the plane. “On these flights, there are three pilots,” Fogwell explains. “At all times, there will be two pilots in the cockpit while the third is on a rest break.”
And don’t worry about your pilot popping an Ambien and flying directly into a Manifest time warp. “None of us can take any sleeping aid,” says flight attendant Sarah Reed. “You just get used to napping on the airplane, and usually, we drink coffee upon waking.”