How to Sleep During a Flight: The Secrets of In-Flight Slumber

By Jonathan Spira on 12 November 2012
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A darkened cabin is just the beginning

Sleeping during flights is a challenge for many people.  Indeed, until recently, I’ve only managed to achieve sleep on flights that met several qualifications, including being at my regular bedtime and having a comfortable lie-flat seat/bed.

While lie-flat beds and mattress toppers help, the odds are still against you when it comes to getting a restful night’s sleep during a flight.  Low humidity, cabin pressure, noise, ambient light, smells, and of course the change in time zones all conspire against you.

The airlines clearly know this, which is why lie-flat seats that convert into comfortable beds are a key competitive advantage.  But not everyone flies business or first and not all business-class cabins have comfortable lie-flat beds to begin with.

Here are some strategies for getting a minimum of a few hours of shuteye:

Change Time Zones Before You Fly

Two days prior to departing on a transatlantic flight, I start getting up earlier than normal. The first day I get up roughly 90 minutes ahead of schedule, and the second day (day of departure), I get up as much as three hours earlier than usual.  This not only puts me well on the way to being in my new time zone in Europe, but it also makes me much sleepier by the time I board the plane later that day.

Dress Comfortably

An increasing number of airlines offer business- and/or first-class passengers pajamas but dressing comfortably can go a long way for a good night’s sleep.  For longer flights, I’ll change into a loose-fitting long-sleeved t-shirt and for very long flights (over 8 hours) I’ll opt for pajamas, but loose-fitting slacks and a shirt will do wonders.


Some people swear by melatonin and others prefer using sleeping pills.  Melatonin helps regulate sleep and waking cycles and is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain. It’s also found in many foods including fruits, meat, nuts, and vegetables. More importantly, for travelers, it can be purchased as a dietary supplement over the counter, although it may be wise to discuss its use with a doctor before taking it.  I find that sleeping pills make me groggy while melatonin helps me deal with jet lag and time zone changes.

Choose Your Flight Time Carefully

My favorite flights to London are those that leave New York roughly 30 minutes before midnight.  This time coincides with my bedtime and, even though it’s not a particularly long flight, I’m able to fall asleep fairly easily.   I always try for the latest possible flight when going eastbound and the earliest possible flight when going in a westerly direction.

Click here to continue to Page 2Food and Drink, Seat Location, Other Considerations

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