How To Sleep On A Plane: The Ultimate Guide For Digital Nomads

Photo, Ian Mckenzie via flickr

Getting sleep on a plane – it can be a real challenge. For one thing, there just aren’t that many opportunities to cram into a metal tube with hundreds of anxious strangers to practice down here on the ground. Even for those of us who find it easy to sleep on a plane, getting comfortable, truly restful sleep is never a guarantee.  Here’s how to get the best rest while you’re hurtling through the sky.

Prep Before You Jet

Manage Expectations

How to sleep on planes – Minaal Poll

Know what you’re in for. Only one-third of our users claim to be able to sleep on a plane in comfort and in spite of all the hype, even the most sumptuous lie-flat seats in first class are no match for a simple bed on the ground… or so we’ve heard. Note: still waiting to test out those $23K suites Singapore Airlines (This guy did).

Jet Lag

Plan ahead with the expectation that you won’t be getting your best rest in the air. The further the flight, the longer it takes to bounce back from jet lag. Losing time by traveling west to east tends to make for a tougher recovery and, according to WebMD, the number of time zones crossed divided by two gives a rough estimate of days you’ll feel jet lag.  

Among the Minaal team, the number is a bit less scientific but we expect to feel somewhat zonked for a few days after a big flight. As long as you’re not landing and rolling straight into the octagon  expecting to put out an optimal performance, you should be fine.

Be Flexible

Try not to overload the hope of getting a good night’s sleep on a plane with a lot of extra mental baggage. The more you dwell on your need for rest, the more frustrating you’ll find it when you struggle to doze off .  

Instead, have a few solid entertainment options lined up to distract yourself if you aren’t feeling sleepy, and consider any sustained naps a bonus.

The same goes for productivity goals. Plan to be flexible. If your body tells you it’s time to power down, be ready to put your project on hold and rest while you can (i.e., between meal services). More sleep on the plane means less jet lag, and less jet lag means you’ll be back to 100% much quicker.

Score The Best Seat

Book and check in early enough to avoid getting stuck with a middle seat. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this: do not accept a middle seat at any cost (and if you like middle seats then YOU ARE A MONSTER). 

If you’re traveling alone and want to minimize your chances of a middle seat buddy, choose a row with a single aisle seat already occupied near the back of the plane. As a couple, you can do the same: surround an empty middle seat and hope for the best. There are no guarantees, but middle seats near the back of the plane are typically the last to be filled. If it does turn out that you have a seat mate, chances are they’ll be delighted (and more than a little suspicious) at your suggestion to swap the middle for either a window or aisle.

Window Vs. Aisle

How to sleep on a plane – window vs aisle seats
Travis Wise via Flickr

Everyone has their preference in The Great Window vs. Aisle Seat Debate (see Erica Ho, of Map Happy for a strong defense of #aislelife). But if your aim is purely to sleep on a plane undisturbed, a window seat is your best bet to cut down on traffic from your seat mates.

Having a window to rest against means less chance of getting your elbow blasted by a raging beverage cart and gives better control over your light exposure. Plus – and this is a big one – it’s *slightly* less embarrassing to drool in semi-private darkness.

Exit rows and bulkheads give you more legroom to splay out – but they can also be a double-edged sword. That extra legroom may come at the expense of being able to recline, or if you’re a forward sleeper, the tray table setup may not be to your liking (to put it lightly). Bulkheads are often held for families with small children and there’s a chance that they’ll be given the bulkhead next to yours. More on noise-cancelling headphones below.😉

Get Into Position

If you have a particular side of the bed you prefer to sleep on, pick a seat on the side of the plane you usually lean toward. This is key if you like the window seat, but it can also help keep you from slumping over into the aisle.

When reclining, be chill. If you already limit your travel gear to carry-on only, you get the concept of taking only what you need. The same principle applies when taking up space on a plane. As it turns out, a few people on r/AskReddit have opinions about this subject.😜

Luckily, on long-haul flights there tends to be more of consensus about when it’s time to lay back for some shuteye and when to sit upright.

If you absolutely must lean forward to sleep, do so at your own risk: the tray table is filthier than the toilet. Strong avoid.

Oh, and if you’re the type that knocks out before the safety lecture, make sure your seat belt’s showing over your blanket or other layers, so there’s no reason to disturb you.

Seat Info Is Peace Of Mind

Thought the choice of window or aisle was simple? HA!

If you really want to dig in, there are actual intel-gathering tools out there like SeatGuru. It provides a seating map based on your specific flight number and aircraft with some of the key details airlines don’t typically share. To make it easy to read at a glance, the best seats are highlighted in green (and the worst in red). You’ll never be surprised by an unexpectedly awful seat again.

Note: STILL no app that’ll vouch for your seat mates, though.

How to sleep on a plane – SeatGuru seating map example
SeatGuru map example

Now, what to do if you’ve consulted SeatGuru and found that perfect exit row window seat, only to discover that your coveted spot is already occupied?

For that there’s ExpertFlyer. With it, you can set an alert to notify you via text or email when the spot you want becomes available. You can set alerts before you’ve even booked and nab your ideal seat as soon as it comes up. As Clint Johnston, founder of Triphackr says,

Not all economy seats were created equal.

For more on how to use SeatGuru and ExpertFlyer, check out Clint’s post over here: ’How To Hack Your Seat In Economy.’

Limit Your Travel Gear

How to sleep on a plane – Limit your travel gear, Minaal Carry-on 2.0 and Daily
Carry-on 2.0 and Minaal Daily

Traveling light can lift an enormous amount of stress off your shoulders and help get you into a relaxed frame of mind before you board. You’ll have an easier time finding a spot for your bags near your seat once you’re on the plane, plus, you won’t have to struggle to get them into the overhead bin.

If you fly with just a carry-on and personal item, you can often check-in online and head straight to your gate, skipping the departures desks entirely.

Note: Double check on this before trying it at unfamiliar airports.  

But the fewer lines, stops and other impedances you have to overcome your way to the gate, the easier it is to stay mellow (or at least sane).

On the other hand, skipping check-in (like a boss) means you won’t get a chance to bat your lashes at the ground crew and ask, purdy please, for that elusive seat upgrade.

With flights as busy as they are these days, unless you have status with an airline, the chances of a free upgrade are slim – but hey, if you’re a gambler that just may be the way to take your nap game to a whole new level.

Hacking The Paid Upgrade

How to sleep on a plane – the original van
Our pale blue point of origin.

Minaal began in the back of a powder-blue 1998 Plymouth Grand Voyager. 5 people were living in at the time, on a road trip circumnavigating North America. In other words, we know a lot about traveling in ‘style,’ but it’s not the style you think of when you’re thinking stylie-style.

We still fly (and get somewhat restless sleep in) economy seats all the time. But, depending on your situation, if you really need to hit the ground running to deliver the perfect pitch, nothing beats an upgrade out of economy class.

In a recent FourHourWorkWeek podcast titled ‘How to “Waste Money” To Improve the Quality of Your Life,’ Tim Ferriss admitted that he was trapped in a frugal mindset he had grown up with and couldn’t bring himself to pay $2000 to upgrade out of economy even when he was giving a talk shortly after landing. The results were disastrous.

“I was blowing hundreds of thousands of dollars of opportunity by flying economy internationally when I needed to sleep,” Tim said. Ultimately, he had to ask himself, “Was the $2000 (saved) worth sacrificing my health for a week and being at half capacity? …was it worth the potential opportunity cost of the people in the audience that could’ve hired me for very high paying gigs?” His answer, “No, not at all.” Four Hour Work Week Podcast: 17m09s

Each of us has different obligations and upgrading to business or first class out of pocket is a serious chunk of change for almost anyone. It’s roughly the equivalent of a couple month’s expenses for a scrappy digital nomad bootstrapping in Chiang Mai, for example. So, if the thought of paying $2000 for a more comfortable seat turns your stomach, that’s a pretty good (and totally normal) indication that you shouldn’t pay cash.

No cash doesn’t automatically mean no ticket, however. Rules vary by airline, but there are often opportunities to upgrade from economy to business class with airline miles alone or with a combination of mileage and a greatly reduced cash fee.

In the right circumstances, paying for a lie-flat seat to get some real rest and arriving fresh can be well worth it. So, know what you need and don’t take the option off the table assuming it’s impossible until you’ve checked.

Economy plus/comfort are much more affordable options (10-20x cheaper than an international business class upgrade) if you’re willing to shell out for some extra space and can get by with a bit of added leg room.

Got a sweet upgrade story? Let us know in the comments.

Put on your Upgrade Goggles

A look at the upgrade life.

Exercise

Stick To The Plan

Make sure you get your regular exercise in the day before your long haul flight. Exercise is one of the best ways to relieve stress, offload restless energy and combat insomnia in the air and on the ground. But don’t go H.A.M. right before takeoff. Overdoing it during your workout, on top of the normal dehydration that comes from dry air in the cabin, can increase soreness and discomfort and lead to muscle cramps.

Stretch Out

On the day of your flight, try to stay loose and limber. Do a bit of light stretching before you leave, while at the airport, and during each bathroom break while in flight. Stretching is an excellent way to increase circulation, get blood flowing to soothe achy muscles and relieve pressure points and joint pain. There’s no way to keep it truly low key when you’re stretching out in public, but Map Happy’s Erica Ho has a few ideas on how to loosen up without launching into a full barre class and totally annoying your neighbors.

Entertainment

Screen Management

Blue light impairs melatonin production, a hormone that influences circadian rhythms. Melatonin is responsible for making us sleepy at the right time of day. While any light is disruptive, blue light suppresses melatonin production for nearly twice as long as natural light. Red light, in contrast, has the least impact on melatonin.

If you have to use electronics, try Flux (macOS/Windows), Night Shift (iOS), or an app like Twilight (Android) that automatically shift light toward the red end of the spectrum. 

Read to Unwind

‘“Reading on an airplane is one of the best possible rituals you can do to help you fall asleep,” says Ben Michaelis, a clinical psychologist and wellness author writing on Airfare. “It helps put your mind at ease, making you feel relaxed and distanced from the hustle and bustle of traveling.”’[1]

Good old dead tree books and magazines are the best way to go. Just make sure you steer clear of politics (no comment) or work-related reading if they tend to set your mind buzzing.

Time It Right

Adjust your sleep schedule in advance

Starting to shift your sleep schedule a couple days before your flight can help ease the effects of jet lag on the other end. Long-term traveler, Jodi Ettenberg, Legal Nomads, sums up a sweet trick:

For long-haul travel, I use flux on my laptop and I change the location to my upcoming destination about five days before I head out. That way, at least my circadian rhythms are starting to get used to the new time zone’s light/dark periods.

Show Up Tired

Try getting a bit less sleep (30-90 min) the night before your flight. You don’t want to be groggy, but feeling slightly more drowsy than average can help you settle into your seat and encourage your eyelids to slide shut on cue.

Exogenous Substances

Drugs and Supplements

Supplements like melatonin, Magnesium, 5 HTP (5-Hydroxytryptophan) and drugs like Xanax, NyQuil, Ambien, and gummy bears of the exotic recreational variety have all been tried elsewhere on the internet.

If you like to tinker with your equilibrium, there’s a universe of options. Just be aware that if you’re breaking from your normal routine and heading into uncharted territory on your next flight, you may end up putting yourself through more of a sleep experiment than actually waking up well rested.

On The Beverage Cart

How to sleep on a plane, Dennis Farina style from Snatch (film)This point is equally likely to be unsurprising *and* roundly ignored by most of you, but for real, if you want to leave the plane feeling refreshed, hold off on the booze. Firstly, you’re far more likely to end up on @passengershaming or in the headlines for wearing your life vest as a crown and challenging the flight attendants to a duel with a mini bottle (more here). On top of that, alcohol dehydrates you, disrupts your circadian rhythm and makes you have to get up more often to pee. Added up, that makes it more difficult to sleep well on your flight. In our most definitely limited experience, drunk sleep is never good sleep.

Avoid caffeinated drinks like coffee, black tea, and soda. In addition to keeping you awake, caffeine is a diuretic that’ll have you clambering over your neighbors more frequently and make you sorry you booked that window seat.

Water or herbal tea are better options than juice, which can give you a sugar rush. It’s a great idea to bring your own bottle onto the plane to stay hydrated. You also won’t have to call a flight attendant every time your mouth is dry. Chamomile teain particular, has been used since ancient times as a mild sleep aid, so pack a few tea bags and prepare to get medieval.

Food: when, what and how much

If you really want to maximize your sleeping time, eat before takeoff rather than on the plane. You’ll be able to sleep longer without interruption and the food on the ground is always (well, *almost* always) better than what you’ll get in the air. Even if you’re eating in first class, your senses of taste and smell are impaired on a flight due to dryness and low pressure.

Know yourself. If you’re looking for the best rest, avoid eating outside of your normal diet. Now is not the time to roll the dice on the bacon-wrapped jalapeno poppers con queso. If you’ve got an iron gut feel free to indulge. But for most, it’s best not to overeat or stray too far from your everyday diet before or during a flight. 

Awesome Headgear to help you sleep

Rocking some advanced headgear not only looks cool (OK, “cool”), it signals to your seat mates that you’d prefer to be left alone. Headphones, sleep masks and neck pillows can help to insulate you from the outside world and give you back control of your sensory environment.

Eyewear Options

According to the Harvard School of Medicine Division of Sleep Medicine, “Light is one of the most important external factors that can affect sleep.” Total darkness really does help you relax. That translates to better rest when you’re trying to sleep on a plane. Block out the light with a sleep mask, sunglasses, a hat, hood or scarf…

…or a bandana.

Minaal Co-Founders Ready To Sleep On A Plane
Extra points if you get a friend in on the action and/or combine any of the above.

use Aromatherapy to relax

Unfortunately, an array of scented candles would not be advised, but you could spray your sleep mask or pillow with something pleasant before packing. Luckily, although the recycled air on a plane isn’t the most refreshing, that reduced sense of smell we mentioned before, may work to your advantage when Old Man Stankpea in seat B37 kicks off his clogs.

Design Your Ideal Sound Environment To Sleep On A Plane

Chances are your ideal environment to get the best sleep on a plane sounds like this…

<nothing>

<not even crickets>

But a plane sounds more like:

wrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM!!!!

Enter the humble earplug. The subsonic roar of jet engines (or the wailing infant who seems to be all around you) can increase your stress levels, making it difficult to sleep on a plane. Prolonged exposure to loud environmental noise can even impair cognitive performance and auditory recall. In short, that’s bad.

Noise isolating, or better yet, noise canceling headphones – in spite of being 300X more expensive than a wad of foam to cram in your ear – get the job done just as well if not better. They also play music without all the cables and according to lots of our users, are deeply, deeply awesome.  

How to sleep on a plane – Thomas Le Coz on his Bose QC35 headphones
@ThomasLeCoz via Twitter
How to sleep on a plane – Andreas Schreiber and his Bose QC35 headphones
@onyame via Twitter
How to sleep on a plane – Kristen L Kish in Boston with her Minaal Carry-on and QC35 Headphones
@kristenlkish via Instagram

Pillow Selection

If you don’t trust the pillows provided in flight, you’re in luck. In recent years there’s been a huge uptick in the development of increasingly hilarious pillows, neck braces, chin hammocks, um… faceplant tower cuffs(?) and otherwise complicated contraptions to keep your head on top of your neck.

While they may look bulky or even downright antisocial, they can be a great help if you don’t favor (or couldn’t score) the window seat. If there’s a pillow design you swear by, we need to know about it! Link it up in the comments below.

Pillow proliferation

How to sleep on a plane – pillow selection

Clothing

Keep it loose and choose wrinkle-resistant fabrics when possible. Wear layers, a scarf or bring a small packable blanket or travel towel for warmth, especially if the blankets provided gross you out. Some horror stories suggest they probably should. Honestly, we don’t want to know.

Our advice: trust what you’re wearing to keep you warm. Use the blanket and/or pillow provided for extra back support.

the right Footwear

A pair of loose-fitting shoes that you can slip on and off with ease are the most comfortable footwear to sleep on a plane. Not to mention, they’re easy to put on for a quick trip to the bathroom. If you’re traveling light and had to wear your heaviest pair of boots out of necessity, make sure to pack a pair of cozy socks to pad around in.

Pack you pjs

If you really want to go all out, or you need to keep your business attire looking less lived in when you land, you can pack pajamas for the flight. Strong choice, Casey.

How to sleep on a plane Casey Neistat pajamas
@caseyneistat via Instagram

On long haul flights, there’s time to change on the plane, even if it’s a bit… uh, “cramped”.

In-flight Etiquette

As far as in-flight fashion goes, all bets are off. Once you’re on board, we say break out your footie pajamas and get cozy if it’ll help you relax and catch some Z’s.

Reminder: that’s not a free pass for bad behavior. Refer to @passengershaming again. The horror… But go ahead and change into something comfortable.

Once you’re back on the ground, keep it dignified. By that, we mean dress like you’re in a public place called an ‘airport’, filled with actual real human people.

The Aftermath

Tips And Tricks

After your flight, avoid the urge to nap. Get plenty of fresh air and sunlight to signal to your body that it’s time to wake up.

Avoid using stimulants like caffeine to fight sleepiness during the day. Even though you feel tired, your circadian rhythm hasn’t shifted yet. Stop drinking coffee by 3pm if you take any at all. Otherwise you could find yourself struggling to get to sleep later. When morning rolls around in your time zone your body will try to keep you alert.

Force yourself to stay awake until 1-2 hours before your regular bed time in your new time zone, then go ahead and crash. As we said above, it’s totally normal to feel off due to jet lag for the next few days so don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re not operating at peak performance.

Don’t Over-think It

We’re all about reducing friction and fighting travel drag on the road. So, now that we’ve been through just about anything we could think of to eek a few extra Zs out of your next flight, we hope you put these tips, tricks and hacks to good use. That’d be seriously awesome! So if you do, let us know how it went in the comments (In-flight drool confessions are highly encouraged!).

On the other hand, if you found yourself taking copious notes somewhere between the SeatGuru seat map and that GIF (Yeah, it’s GIF! Don’t start with us now… You’ve almost made it to the end of this epic post.) of the legendary Dennis Farina, the problem might be that you’re trying too hard. The truth is, you don’t need to stock up on self-inflating neck support polygons, or make a checklist and try to nail all of the top tips for how to sleep on a plane.

You just need to be as relaxed as possible. Think of all of those hours in the sky as a long-haul sabbatical where the digital world can’t reach you. Enjoy the chance escape from the ordinary flow of time, and most importantly, have a restful flight.

Grab Your Gear

Matt Gelgota