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Travel Tips

21 Tips for Sleeping on Long-Haul International Flights

Scott Keyes
By 
Scott Keyes
Founder & Chief Flight Expert (CFE)
5 min read
Last updated 
August 29, 2019

There’s nothing worse than settling in for a long-haul international flight across the ocean, only to sit there wide-awake for 12 solid hours. While sleeping on planes can be difficult, there are some things you can do to ease the discomfort.

Here are our expert tips for how to sleep on a plane. 

1. Book a red-eye.

If your flight is leaving around the time you’d normally go to bed, your body is already pre-wired to get sleepy around that time. Just be sure and adapt to your new time zone as quickly as you can upon arrival (i.e. no naps!) to avoid the dreaded jet lag setting it.

2. Download a sleep app.

Apps like the subscription-based Calm, which offer a free trial for the first 30 days, come preloaded with hundreds of guided meditations, music tracks and sleep stories. Other free apps like White Noise have everything from jungle tracks to the sound of the waves to put you in a Zen-like mindset.

3. Book a window seat.

No one wants to be stuck in the middle for 12 hours, and choosing an aisle means you may have to get up often to let your seatmates out. Having something to lean your head against can go a long way toward falling asleep, so book a window seat if your goal is to catch some ZZZs.

4. …or choose a seat far from the lavatory.

If you’re a light sleeper who is easily awoken by every passerby, being seated by the lav is a no for you.

5. Wear yourself out before your flight.

Have an afternoon or evening flight? Hit the gym or go for a run before you leave for the airport, so you’re good and tired by the time your plane takes off.

6. Bring noise-canceling headphones.

Drowning out the noise of the passengers surrounding you—particularly if there are children on the flight—is much easier with a pair of high-quality, noise-canceling headphones. If you don’t want to invest in a pair, earplugs—or Bluetooth earbuds connected to your phone—are your second best-option.

If you’re a light sleeper who is easily awoken by every passerby, being seated by the lav is a no for you.

7. Upgrade your seat.

Having a little extra legroom or the option to recline farther can make all the difference in sleeping. Even if you didn’t make the decision to buy a more expensive class at purchase, oftentimes the airline will offer the option to upgrade to premium economy or even business class for a more affordable fee at check-in if seats exist. (Though note that basic economy fares are typically not eligible for paid upgrades.) 

8. Gradually begin adjusting your internal clock days in advance.

If you’re traveling east where the time is later, start going to bed an hour earlier each day a few days (or weeks) before your trip even starts so eventually your internal clock will close the gap on the actual time zone change.

9. Go easy on the alcohol.

Sure, the complimentary alcohol on international flights does sound tempting, but it’s been scientifically proven that alcohol consumption translates to non-restorative sleep, so refrain entirely (or limit yourself to a glass of wine) if you want to spend some time in dreamland.

10. And steer clear of caffeine.

Go light on the caffeine the entire day or your flight and even avoid it entirely if you can manage. If you’re used to having a beverage in hand, try a decaffeinated herbal tea or a sparkling water instead.

11. Hydrate.

It’s a fine line between staying hydrated and not needing to disturb your seatmates every hour as you head to the lav, but planes are notoriously dry and suck the moisture right out of your system—not to mention, dehydration can lead to headaches and nausea—so start hydrating well before you fly and keep a steady flow of water pulsing through your system. And no, beer does not count as hydration.

12. Watch what you eat.

Carb-heavy or spicy foods may lead to indigestion. You know your body and its triggers, so feed it what is going to feel the most comfortable while sitting in the same position for hours on end.

13. Pack snacks.

There’s nothing worse than being awoken in the middle of the night by hunger pangs, particularly on a completely new time zone and with the next meal service hours away. Preemptively nip the hunger in the bud by carrying your own healthy snacks, like granola or energy bars, nuts and trail mix, and fruit.

14. Bring an eye mask.

The more you can block out external factors like plane noise and light, the more likely you are to fall asleep. Choose one that not only blocks out your neighbor’s annoying overhead LEDs, but also contours to your face for the utmost comfort.

15. Bring your own blanket.

There’s nothing like the comfort of home to ease you into a sleepy state; not to mention, planes are just plain cold. Brrrrr.

16. Pack a pillow.

The airline may supply you with a scratchy pillow for your long-haul, but you’ll likely sleep better if you bring your own travel pillow. Tip: Opt for one like the Trtl that has side supports so you can sleep better sitting up even if your seat doesn’t have a deep recline option.

17. Change into comfortable clothing.

Long are the days when flying requires business wear. Your joints swell at altitude, so cut them some slack. Dress in loose clothing that is comfortable for an overnight flight, or else bring a pair of pajamas or athleisure onto the flight to change into when the lights go down, and be sure and pack layers (particularly, warm socks) as planes are prone to getting chilly shortly after takeoff. For those at risk for deep vein thrombosis, be sure and wear compression socks.

18. Stretch before (or on) your flight.

Ever catch wind of a yogi doing meditative stretches after the cabin lights have dimmed? That’s because stretching relieves stress and puts you in a more restful state. If you don’t feel comfortable popping an asana or two on the plane, get a round of stretches in at the airport before takeoff, or at the very least, practice deep breathing both before the flight and during.

19. Put your electronics away. 

Blue light—the emissions from cell phones, laptops and other personal electronics—is notorious for throwing off your circadian rhythm and suppressing melatonin, so do yourself a favor and stow your electronics after the plane takes off for more peaceful slumber.

20. Practice your usual pre-sleep routine. 

Humans are creatures of habit and the routines we create can help set off certain reactions in our bodies. For example, if you normally prepare for bed by drinking decaf tea and curling up with a good book for an hour, try to do the same when it’s bedtime on the flight. The simple act of following a familiar routine may have you feeling sleepy before you know it. 

21. Pack a sleep aid.

If all else fails, there are plenty of over-the-counter options like melatonin and ZzzQuil that can assist your sleep patterns. Just be sure to do a trial run on the ground so you know how they affect you. 

If all else fails and you can’t fall asleep, being tired for a day isn’t going to kill you. Upon arrival, do your best to stay awake until a normal bedtime, and get some Vitamin D as you explore your destination. Get your body adjusted to your new time zone, and you’re more or less guaranteed to sleep soundly your first night in-country.


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Last Updated 
August 9, 2019
21 Tips for Sleeping on Long-Haul International Flights
Scott Keyes
Founder & Chief Flight Expert (CFE)

Scott has traveled to 46 countries (and 46 states!), living in California, to Oaxaca, to Oregon. He’s left-handed, drinks five cups of tea daily, and holds a vendetta against the “Happy Birthday” song. On a dare, he once ate 13 hot dogs (and a bowl of Dippin’ Dots) at the ballpark. He grew up in Ohio and founded Scott’s Cheap Flights in a Denver coffee shop. Favorite airport: PDX.

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