How to sleep on a plane: Everything you need for a restful flight in 2023
This article is a part of CNN Underscored’s Guide to Sleep, a week-long focus on everything you need to sleep better. We’ll be featuring new products and exclusive deals all week, so check in every morning to see what’s new.
Long-haul flights can feel neverending, particularly if you don’t get any sleep. If you’re like us, you wind up completely despondent at some point during your journey. Counting down the hours or minutes until you can finally get some relief off the plane becomes an obsession. And, even if you do manage to get some rest, sitting upright in close quarters can wreak havoc on your neck and back.
Frequent travelers will agree that sleeping upright is no easy task. But, add into the equation that you’re on a tube flying about 500 miles per hour, 35,000 feet above the ground with the hum of an engine in your ear, and sleeping on a plane can be impossible for some.
When it comes to getting better sleep on a plane, it ultimately comes down to two factors: the mindset you’re in and the steps you take to prepare yourself for the long journey ahead combined with the travel products you have with you. We talked with experts to find out all of the best products and tips to help you sleep better on your next long-haul flight.
First, the products you have with you can make all of the difference. Whether they help with a firm place to rest your head or an eyemask to block out the overhead light of the passenger in front of you, what you have with you matters.
Don’t be afraid to bring your own cozy blanket and pillow on your next long flight. Just make sure you have a set that won’t take up too much space in your carry-on luggage. The EverSnug Travel Blanket and Pillow works great for long flights because it’s lightweight and dual-purpose. You can leave it in its case for use as a comfy pillow, but you can also unzip your EverSnug to use the plush 65-inch by 40-inch blanket inside. This product is not only affordable, but it’s perfect for those times you may need a pillow or a blanket but not both.
Travel advisor Nicole LeBlanc of Mon Voyage Travel says she always gets on a plane wearing long, loose-knit clothing akin to wearing a nightgown. Then, layer up with this cozy travel cardigan from Imily Bela, which can give you an extra layer of comfort during overnight flights. Not only is this cardigan machine washable, but it’s less than $50 on Amazon when on sale and comes in 15 different colors.
LeBlanc also recommends the Travelrest Ultimate Pillow for superior comfort when you’re trying to sleep upright. This travel pillow is uniquely shaped to provide support whether your seat is on the aisle, next to the window or even if you’re in the dreaded middle seat.
“I can’t explain how this bizarre comma and banana shape works better for me, but I love it,” LeBlanc says. “It’s easily stored when deflated, rolling up like a croissant.”
In our testing, we dubbed the Cabeau Evolution S3 the “Goldilocks of travel pillows.” The pillow is firm enough to support your head and neck while also being soft enough to fall asleep on. Better yet, it’s made of a springy memory foam material that allows you to compress it into a small travel carrier to easily fit in your bag. This pillow is the perfect mix of comfort and portability.
Alternatively, Cabeau offers two other breathable, supportive neck pillows by way of its Evolution Cool Neck Pillow and Evolution Classic Neck Pillow. Through March 18, you can get 30% off these Cabeau pillows by using the promo code CNNSLEEP.
There’s nothing worse than feeling dehydrated several hours into your long-haul flight. Instead of hoping for a flight attendant to come around with water, it makes sense to have your own water bottle along for the ride.
This collapsible water bottle from LifeStraw is excellent for travelers. In our testing, we found that the collapsible nature of the bottle is great for storing in your travel backpack or another carry-on bag. Once you’re through airport security, fill up the bottle and stay hydrated during your travels. Plus, it’s got a filter to ensure you’re drinking clean water.
Derek Hales has been testing sleep-related products for his company NapLab since 2014. He swears by a good travel pillow for getting better sleep on a long flight, adding that his favorite is the Huzi Infinity pillow.
“The pillow wraps around your neck and is adjustable, allowing you to get the right support where you need it,” he says.
The pillow is made of soft bamboo fabric and layers of microfiber, so it’s more breathable than cotton. Better yet, caring for the pillow is easy — it’s machine washable. It also comes in eight different colors, so you can find the perfect one to match your carry-on bag.
Noise-canceling headphones can make all the difference in creating a good sleeping environment while you’re on a flight. Hales adds that his favorite noise-canceling headphones are the Bose QuietComfort 45, which he’s been using since 2016.
“They are incredibly well built, high performance, and compact for easy travel,” he says.
If you’re not in the mood to spend hundreds on noise-canceling headphones, you can still get some protection from plane noises with a good set of earplugs. Alpine FlyFit Airplane Pressure Relief Earplugs are less than $20 on Amazon, and they block out noises while also preventing ear pain while in the air. They’re made of reusable hypoallergenic material that are designed to fit in your ear canal. Pair them with a comfortable neck pillow, and your sleeping situation is sure to be immediately improved.
In our testing, this set from Bose won the title of the best overall noise-canceling headphones. That is thanks to their class-leading sound and phenomenal noise-canceling ability. So if you’re trying to down out the crying baby three rows ahead or the loud conversation happening the row behind you, you’re in good hands with these headphones.
This 10-piece convenience kit offers everything you need to feel comfortable and clean on your long-haul flight. From a comb for your hair to lotion, a toothbrush and toothpaste and deodorant, you’ll arrive feeling fresh.
The best part? All the items in this amenity kit are TSA-compliant, so you can keep the whole kit in your backpack or carry-on bag.
Travel advisor Laurie Robinson of Ovation Travel Group swears by compression socks, particularly when she’s traveling on longer, overnight flights.
“It keeps the blood circulating, which actually helps you sleep and reduces jet lag,” she says. “I was in total disbelief until I tried it myself, and now it has become a staple.”
While you can pick up compression socks almost anywhere, this three-pack from Bombas is made of extra durable yarn and comes in three different sizes and a few different colors and patterns.
While the travel products you have with you can help, sleep experts and researchers agree that your travel mindset and the steps you take the day of your flight can impact your experience more than anything else. If your goal is getting some shut-eye during a long-haul flight, consider these tips.
Arrive well-rested and don’t try to force it
Colin Espie, co-founder and chief scientist at Big Health and Professor of Sleep Medicine at the University of Oxford, says that you shouldn’t try to force yourself to sleep. Even though it may seem counterintuitive, it’s important to try and let yourself fall asleep naturally.
“Sleep is a natural biological process, and it is much easier to let your body naturally take over, which can be challenging when you’re uncomfortable,” he says.
Espie also adds that you’ll recover from sleep loss more quickly if you’re well-rested before you fly.
“If you start with a sleep debt, it could make you more prone to jet lag,” Espie says.
Being well-rested before you fly will ensure you’re fully aware and alert during the travel process, while also allowing yourself a better chance at getting sleep on the plane.
Sleep Medicine Specialist Dr. Peter Polos, who serves as an expert consultant for Sleep Number, says maintaining your normal bedtime ritual can also help you sleep on a plane. This tip will work best if you choose a flight itinerary that aligns with your regular sleeping habits. For example, choosing a transatlantic flight that departs at 7 pm might give you just enough time to eat something and get several hours of sleep on the plane before you arrive at your destination.
Not only do you want to try to sleep at the same times as you normally would, but Polos adds that shutting down electronics 60 minutes before sleep time to avoid blue light exposure from tablets and phones can help.
“Using these kinds of devices close to bedtime can inhibit melatonin release and delay sleep onset,” says Polos. “Instead, try relaxing or unwinding with music, reading or meditation before going to sleep.”
Similar to your sleep routine at home, you’ll want to be in the right mindset for sleep on a plane. Cutting out screens — yes, even the seatback entertainment screen — can help.
If you get the chance to select your own seat, Espie says you should be choosy when it comes to where you sit. Specifically, try to secure a seat away from busy areas on the plane, such as near the lavatories or other service areas where flight attendants may move around at all hours.
You should also try to select seats with extra legroom if you can, which can be difficult to know ahead of time. However, websites like SeatGuru can help. You can look up the type of plane assigned to your itinerary and see which seats might have a little more space and more room to recline.
Remember, too, that you may not be stuck with the seat you selected when you booked your flight. You can always keep an eye on the seating chart to see if something better opens up. Or, you can use various online tools to see how available seats change as your trip approaches. ExpertFlyer even lets you set up free seat alerts to notify you when the seat you want becomes available.
If you’re currently stuck in a middle seat on an overnight itinerary, moving to an aisle or a window ahead of time can make a big difference.
Polos knows that many frequent flyers like to bring travel snacks along, especially on long flights. However, snacks with sugar and substances like caffeine, chocolate and alcohol can all affect sleep.
While it’s common knowledge that caffeine keeps some people from falling asleep, alcohol may help you fall asleep initially, which can be confusing. However, Polos says alcohol can have a negative effect on sleep architecture and sleep cycles, even if it helps with the onset of sleep. Swap that glass of wine for water, or consider a cup of peppermint tea to soothe the senses as you prepare to drift off to sleep.
It’s also worth noting that meals with excessive amounts of fat can lead to abnormal sleep breathing patterns and other side effects. As a result, Polos says you should skip the extra plane snacks before bed.
Ultimately, sleeping on a plane doesn’t have to be as dreadfully bad as it may seem. If you come prepared in the right mindset and with the right tools, catching some Zs in the air may be easier than you think.
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