8 tips for sleeping well on long-distance night flights

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Countless passengers can’t sleep while flying, even on long night flights with the cabin’s main lighting off and all window shades pulled down. They work, read or otherwise entertain themselves the entire flight.

Unfortunately, by staying awake all night, whether through multiple time zones or just one or two, long distance fliers exacerbate their potential jet lag. Often, on arrival back home or at their destination, those who stayed awake through the night find they have a tough case of jet lag, which will last until their “biological clock” eventually resets.

The overall environment in planes’ cabins makes it hard to get a restful sleep. The anticipation of arriving at one’s destination or getting home can make the traveler’s mind race, also preventing sleep.

TU_Ad_350-350According to the National Sleep Foundation, “noises at levels as low as 40 decibels or as high as 70 decibels can keep us awake”; even more so if they’re unfamiliar, like the drone of jet engines, lavatory and galley traffic and passengers’ activities. Cabin temperatures that are too high or low disrupt sleep. Light, such as nearby reading lights, galley or lavatory lights, can keep us awake. The extremely low humidity in most airplane cabins rapidly dehydrates us, causing dry eyes, mouth and thirst. The seats in economy aren’t helpful either, with a poor sleeping surface and seat backs which are mostly upright, even when fully reclined.

Sometimes passengers are their own worst enemies. On those night flights from the US east coast to Europe, for example, soon after takeoff and shortly before the flight attendants darken the cabin, snacks and beverages are served. Many have an alcoholic beverage, coffee, tea or cola. Those beverages are both stimulants and diuretics. They’ll tend to keep passengers awake and wake them later to use the lavatory.

Here are my eight tips for getting a restful sleep while you’re flying:

1. Consider flying business class. I know it can cost thousands of dollars, but if you have some frequent flier miles stored up (60,000 for a US-European round trip flying US Air), you can use them to upgrade to business class. Business class seats are far more comfortable than in economy, significantly wider and can generally lie flat, essentially forming a bed for your overnight sleep. People I know who can never sleep in economy seats get a restful sleep when flying business class.

I think upgrades are the best use of frequent flier miles and have used them that way for years.

2. Fly a 787 or A350. The carbon-fiber-based Boeing 787 (soon the Airbus A350, too) has a much more comfortable cabin environment than other commercial scheduled aircraft flying today.

The other planes are primarily made of aluminum. To limit weakening their fuselages from repeated cabin pressurizations and potential corrosion, they’re pressurized to 8,000 feet above sea level, with cabin humidity limited to 4 percent. The carbon-fiber-based 787 is pressurized to a more comfortable 6,000 feet above sea level and its cabin humidity can be kept at 15 percent.

Choose to fly a 787 or A350 instead of aluminum-based planes for a more comfortable, restful cabin environment, if available for your flights.

3. Use an inflatable pillow. If you’re in economy, as you’ll be trying to sleep while sitting, consider an inflatable neck pillow with a soft cover to keep you comfortable and prevent neck kinks. Some travel veterans bring their own full down pillow that compresses into a small packet.

4. Block out cabin noise. For that and the drone of the engines, inexpensive, disposable foam earplugs work great. I’ve been using them for years. (They’re great in noisy hotels, too.) You insert them in your ear and they form fit to block the noise. Some travelers swear by noise-canceling headphones.

5. Wear layers. You never know how comfortable the cabin temperature will be. A couple of years ago, flying Lufthansa between the US and Frankfurt, our plane was very hot to Europe, but freezing coming home. To stay comfortable, wear layers when you fly so you can adjust your clothing to the cabin temperature. Make sure you have some kind of jacket or cover-up, even in summer, in case of a cold cabin.

6. Wear an eye mask. I used to wear a silk eye mask when flying to keep light out of my eyes to sleep. While lightweight and comfortable, I would occasionally awaken when my eyelashes came in contact with the mask. I recommend using an adjustable pre-formed eye mask which can’t contact your eyes or lashes, even during REM sleep. Fit is crucial, however, so make sure it’s returnable.

7. Lubricate your eyes. To keep my eyes comfortable, I often use an over-the-counter, preservative-free lubricant eye drop before going to sleep to prevent dry, itchy eyes.

8. Stay away from caffeine and alcohol. To make sure I stay comfortably hydrated and not need to constantly trek to the lavatory, I stay away from alcoholic beverages, as well as coffee, regular tea, cola and citrus juices, while aloft. I stick mainly with water, but also drink tomato juice, herbal tea, or cranberry and apple juice if available, which are neither stimulants or diuretics.

Happy sleeping while aloft. Please add any of your tips for long-distance overnight flights that can be used by others for a better night’s sleep.

Do you have trouble sleeping on long distance flights and with jet lag?

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  • TonyA_says

    Good Article. Now if only I can find a Dreamliner or A350 for my route.

  • NedLevi

    Thanks Tony. In the US, for US domestic airlines, there aren’t many, and the ones which exist, are all at United.

    So far, United has taken delivery of 11 Boeing 787’s, but has an additional 65 on order. American has 42 on order, and Delta 18 on order. Southwest and US Airways/American haven’t ordered any. World-wide there are 1,057 orders total for the various 787 models.

    Over at Airbus, the first A350 is expected to be delivered later this year. It will go to Qatar Airways. Currently, Airbus has 742 for the various A350 models. Recently Air Emirates cancelled an order for 70 of the A350 planes. It appears as though Emirates will instead purchase a significant number of the new Boeing 777X which it perceives is better suited for its routes. While Airbus has downplayed the cancellation, it really hurt as it was about 9% of their total orders.

    In the US, United has ordered 35 A350’s and US Airways/American has 22 on order. I think it’s possible both those orders could be somewhat soft, but have no inside information about the orders at all. This is just my deductive speculation at work.

    Over at United I think the order was about hedging their bets initially. The 787 was delayed for quite a while, and some were questioning if the plane could meet its fuel efficiency claims, then the 787 had those battery problems. Now the plane is in solid, steady production, the experience of the airlines, including United itself, flying the 787 have shown Boeing’s fuel efficiency claims are being exceeded and the battery problem is out of the way.

    Over at American/US Airways, though Doug Parker, formerly the head of US Airways, is in charge of the new American and has been primarily an Airbus devotee, he has inherited a far larger American fleet than US Airways’ and its wide bodies are all Boeing, plus American has 42 B 787’s on order which American has stated they intend to maintain. I’m wondering if it makes sense to retain the US Airways order for the A350, which introduces another new wide body plane to both operations and maintenance instead of converting the order to 22 B 878’s. (While American won’t be getting rid of the US Airways 24 A330’s, I note they have no new A330’s on order.

    American currently has 167 wide body aircraft in service or on order. They are all Boeing aircraft. US Airways has 46 wide body aircraft in service or on order, of which almost half are on order. They are all from Airbus. I have eliminated some planes currently in service at American/US Airways as they are due to be retired over the next year or so. If the orders hold at American/US Airways the wide body aircraft split for the company will be 78.4% Boeing, 21.6% Airbus. If the Airbus A350 order was converted to the 787, the split would be 88.7% Boeing, 11.3% Airbus (only the existing A330’s).

    The one thing that makes me think I could be wrong about American converting their A350 order is that just last December 27th they changed their order from a mix of A350 models to solely the A350-900. That change occurred about 6 weeks after the merger was official following then end of all lawsuits trying to block the merger of American and US Airways, by settlement, dismissal, or the Supreme Court refusing to hear the complaint.

    Time will tell.

  • VELS14

    Great article. Sometimes I block out the noise in the cabin when I go to sleep by wearing my noise cancelling headset connected to my iPhone, while using my white noise app, which drowns out what noise the headset doesn’t block.

  • carol

    The more you can sleep, the less jet-lag. Try an old-style antihistamine immediately after boarding (benadryl or chlortrimton generics). Most people will get drowsy with them if they don’t usually take them.

  • NedLevi

    I must start by saying, I’m most definitely not a physician, but I’ve done more than a little research into this, and have spoken to doctors about the use of common antihistamines as sleep aids while traveling.

    In fact, doctors at the Mayo Clinic explain that “Antihistamines can cause drowsiness…” and go on to say that antihistamines are found in many sleep aids. They also say that, “Tolerance to the sedative effects of antihistamines can develop quickly,” so the more often these drugs are used, the less effect they’ll have.

    As a general sleep aid, however, the Mayo Clinic doesn’t recommend antihistamine use.

    Use of antihistamines such as Benadryl to quiet and help toddlers sleep while flying has been discussed and written about for years, however, while the drug may work for some children, just like it may work for some adults, it use and effects have been questioned by many physicians. Darshak Sanghavi, a nationally known pediatrician in the US, and author of “A Map of the Child: A Pediatrician’s Tour of the Body,” has said, “According to a good randomized trial of Benadryl to promote sleep in infants, the drug didn’t really work any better than a placebo.”

    There’s no reason to believe a good randomized trial for adult use of Benadryl would have different results.

    Taking antihistamines to help you sleep overnight while flying can also be counterproductive for many children and adults. As we know, cabin pressurization and the humidity level in planes, even in the newer carbon fiber based planes like the Boeing 787, tend to dehydrate us. Many air travelers who normally never suffer “dry eye” feel its symptoms on long flights, for example. Nasal passages tend to dry up to an extent on long flights, which might not be too bad if you have a cold. Taking an antihistamine, for many, compounds many of the effects of aircraft pressurization and low humidity. It can result in making some passengers so uncomfortable that sleep becomes almost impossible.

    I’ve seen more than a few children, who dosed on Benadryl by their parents, become hyper and irritable, not at all sleepy on their flights, exactly what their parents didn’t want.

    More than a few air travelers who have taken antihistamines to help them sleep while flying report in some surveys they felt, as they describe it, a hangover effect at the end of the flight. They felt unable to concentrate, were somewhat irritable, and ended the flight with a headache. While there are no numbers to tell us how many feel these kinds of effects, I feel certain, it’s not just one or two.

    Some of the suggestions I made above to help one sleep while aloft were from physicians. The one suggestion they made almost universally was to stay away from alcohol, caffeine and from any diuretic beverages while flying, which is something many travelers ignore.

    The National Sleep Foundation stresses creating the best “sleep environment” possible whenever we want and need to get a restful sleep.

    That’s the way I choose to go. Create the best sleep environment on the plane I can, and avoid being my own worst enemy by taking actions which would be counterproductive to sleep.

  • NedLevi

    Thanks for the tip V. I’ve used a white noise app on my iPad in hotels, but not while flying. For me, wearing the headset would tend to keep me up, but it might be a great solution for others.

  • Carchar

    I can’t sleep unless I am lying down. Even when I take generic Ambien, I can’t fall asleep on a red-eye. So, I keep myself up during the day of arrival and then am able to sleep at night, even with a time differential.

  • Rodolfo

    You didn’t include my choice in the vote. I sleep very poorly on planes, but also have little problem with jet lag. I just sleep poorly all the time, so a bad night of sleep in the air doesn’t disrupt any routines. I just go to bed at the normal bedtime at arrival, and get up as usual.

  • mjhoop

    antihistamines are not recommended for older adults by geriatricians.

  • NedLevi

    Thanks. That’s good to know.

  • NedLevi

    Sorry to hear that. If I go through enough time zones I get some jet lag, but I can generally sleep on planes. I go for those upgrades to Business Class with miles as often as I can snag them, which is most of the time. It’s not hard to get to sleep in those wonderful lie-flat modular seats most of the airlines have put in Business Class these days.

  • NedLevi

    Hi C. A few friends I have can’t sleep on planes at all, no matter what they’ve tried, if they’re in economy. Like me they try upgrading as often as possible so they can lie down during night flights.

    Of course on the domestic red-eyes in the US, even in First Class you’re still sitting up to a large extent even in full recline. It’s normally enough for me to sleep on those flights, however, if I’m really tired.

    Staying awake through a long night flight can really knock me, and most people I know, to very unpleasant jet lag lasting far longer than it otherwise wood, but there are some things we can all do to mitigate jet lag, but that sounds like another column for me to write soon.

  • Sleeper

    One word: Ambien!

  • http://upgrd.com/roadmoretraveled MeanMeosh

    The grand irony is, what works best for me is exactly what everyone says NOT to do. A couple of glasses of wine knocks me out for pretty much the entire trip over to Europe, even in coach. My biggest problem when flying coach is “saddle sore” from my posterior sliding down the seat due to lack of recline. I usually like to have an extra pillow to sit on for that reason. It doesn’t completely take care of the problem, but does help a little. I also try to book seats directly in front of a bulkhead, so I can recline all the way back without bothering anyone behind me. Just beware that can backfire, as some seats in front of a bulkhead have limited/no recline, and/or are close to the lavatories.

    The other thing I’ve tried that works to some degree is to intentionally sleep less the night before. If I’m headed to Europe, I’ll purposely stay up until 2 A.M. or so the day before. That usually ensures that I’m fully pooped after dinner, and I’ll seep most of the rest of the way.

    ADDED: one important thing to remember about FF upgrades is that most, if not all, programs today require co-pays to upgrade with miles, which can be substantial (the last time I used one to Europe, several years ago, it was $350 per person to upgrade from Y to J plus the mileage). It might still work out to be a good deal, but if you’re going to be dropping an extra $700 roundtrip, you might look at an airline that offers premium economy instead. That’s often available for not much more than the upgrade fee. Even the few extra inches of legroom you get make a difference.

  • NedLevi

    What a great idea MM, a posterior pillow. I’d bet that would help many people. We’d likely need to bring an inflatable one for ourselves since the airlines have so few to give out most of the time.

    I do the same thing, staying up late too, but I didn’t design it that way. That’s when I seem to always pack, last minute. I remember my Mom who packed for trips she and my Dad would take. She started packing about 2 weeks before they left and would lay out everything over time on a spare bed in my bedroom.

    You’re a hundred percent right about the FF miles upgrades. I had to pay a substantial fee to upgrade my economy seat to Business Class for an upcoming trip, plus use miles with US Airways/AA, though the total cost was about $3,000 less expensive than the least expensive rate for Business Class.

    As to Premium Economy, sometimes you save cash, and sometimes not, though you do save the miles for another day. On a flight last year on United to Buenos Aires I took Premium Economy (Thank goodness it was available.), as Business Class had no upgrades and surprisingly was already sold out. It was much better than Economy as we had ample legroom, comfortable but still Economy like seats, but also had just two seats together for my wife and I. No middle seat for us. That said, the price was virtually identical to the cash outlay for an economy ticket plus Business Class upgrade fee, had one been available. Of course, I didn’t use miles at all, but frankly, I would have been happy to use them and would have if Business Class upgrades were available.