Sleeping on an airplane can be a challenge, but you can rest easy — we have some tips for you from our aerial experts! (Illustration: iStock)
It’s one of the most unfair things about flying — other than being charged a fee to check a single bag (We won’t be getting over that one anytime soon, airlines.): Some passengers are able to fall asleep before takeoff and snooze soundly until the plane lands, while others struggle to get even a moment of shut-eye.
“Everyone wants to get some rest on the airplane,” says flight attendant Betty Thesky, author of Betty In the Sky With a Suitcase: Hilarious Stories of Air Travel by the World’s Favorite Flight Attendant. "But crowded airplanes, small seats, and crying babies don’t always dovetail with restful slumber.“
Flight attendants witness first-hand passengers’ struggles to sleep on planes. Thesky says some sleep-deprived passengers have gone so far as to ask her for sleeping pills (as if a pill cart comes down the aisle right behind the beverage cart).
“I was flying back from Hawaii and a woman rang her flight attendant call bell and told me, ‘I called ahead and told reservations that I needed to sleep on this flight and they said I would be able to sleep,’” says Thesky. Apparently the passenger thought her sleep reservation entitled her to a bigger seat or a bed. “I told her that every single person on the airplane wants to sleep,” Thesky says, “and the reservations operator probably got a good chuckle when you called in with your ‘sleep request.’”
Passengers desperate for sleep can do some strange things. (Photo: iStock)
Thesky tells of another passenger who had an even stranger request straight from The Twilight Zone. “Once, an odd-looking guy at the window seat asked me if he could go and sleep out on the wing,” she remembers. "He then explained that it said in the in-flight magazine that you could sleep on the wing.” Not only did the flight crew reject his request — because, of course!!!! — they moved him out of his exit row seat. Apparently, someone who asks to sleep on the plane’s wing may not be all that reliable in an emergency.
But Thesky does offer a word in the passenger’s defense. “As I retold the story to a coworker she said, 'Oh, there is an ad in the in-flight magazine with a cartoon of a passenger sleeping on the wing,’” she remembers. “So at least he had some reference to his wacky request!"
Sleeping on the wing: Is that a thing? (Spoiler alert: No) (Illustration: iStock)
But funny stories aside, flight attendants have unique insight into what works, and what doesn’t, in the quest to get some mile-high shuteye. Here are their best tips.
Adjust your expectations
The best way to fall asleep on a plane may be to think about anything but sleep. (Illustration: iStock)
The first rule of successful in-flight sleeping: Don’t go into a flight expecting to sleep. "Passengers will often have unrealistic expectations on a all night flight,” Thesky says. “They think, 'I’ll sleep on the plane and be ready to hit the ground running’ when they land at their destination many time zones away.”
Such a mentality is a recipe for a sleepless flight. “Putting pressure on yourself will almost guarantee that you won’t doze off,” Thesky says. She suggests trying a little reverse psychology on yourself and adjusting your sleep expectations.
“It’s easy to fall asleep when you’re supposed to stay awake, like in a boring classroom or at jury duty,” she says, “so set a plan that you’re not going to sleep on the flight and instead catch up on all the movies you haven’t seen. You just may wake up as the wheels are coming down.”
Get a window seat
A window seat is ideal for sleeping, but not every window seat will do. (Photo: iStock)
A window seat gives you a nice flat surface on which to rest your head. But flight attendant Lauren McLaughlin has turned this no-brainer into a science: “On most of our planes I look for the indent in the window,” she says of her efforts to find a window seat most conducive to sleeping. “If the window indent is an inch or two in front of the seat, it’s the best place for your head to lean into."
Lauren shows us a window seat with a nice sweet spot where you can rest your head just before the window indentation. (Photo: Lauren McLaughlin)
Of course, when you book a flight online, it’s impossible to tell which seat has the magic sleep-maximizing indentation. Hey, SeatGuru, you guys need to get on this!
Dress for sleep success
Qantas gives out pajamas to lucky fliers! (Photo: Qantas)
Good airplane sleeping can be a matter of what you wear. "On long flights it helps to have on comfortable clothing and loose-fitting shoes,” says Southwest Airlines flight attendant Emily Witkop. “Due to pressurization, our bodies swell and it can be uncomfortable if you aren’t used to it."
Witkop raves about a flight she took where first-class passengers were given pajamas and slippers, which is sometimes the case on international flights. "Genius!,” she says. “Just don’t wear your personal pajamas on the plane if you are over five years old. That is poor traveling etiquette and people will not disregard your just-rolled-out-of-bed look."
The right gear
Make no mistake: this woman is equipped for sleeping! (Photo: iStock)
There’s a reason many airport shops are filled with airplane sleeping gear. Many passengers swear by it. Says Witkop, "The travel pillow, eye mask, and earbuds/headphone combo usually works well on short flights.”
Flight attendant Michelle Lazzaro also has her sleep gear preferences. “If I really tried [to sleep on a plane] I would first of all have one of those really plush eye masks like the Tempur-Pedic,” she says, “and a neck pillow so my head doesn’t fall from side to side!”
Eating and drinking the right things
A nice cup of tea can help you off to dreamland. (Photo: iStock)
“If its a long flight bring a chamomile tea bag,” suggests another flight attendant. (The crew can provide the hot water and cup.) You might also want to take a second look at the in-flight snacks, some of which might make you feel too uncomfortable to sleep. “Avoiding salty snacks can reduce some bloating,” says Witkop.
Wear sunglasses at night
Sunglasses: for serious sleepers only! (Illustration: iStock)
Pulling a Corey Hart might help protect you from chatty seatmates who seek to foil your sleeping plans. “If you want to be left alone, wear sunglasses,” says Lindsay. “Some people want to chat with their neighbor, so it’s the one time I suggest wearing sunglasses indoors. Any other time is just rude.” Big headphones also tend to have the same effect.
WATCH: Sunglasses at Night
And whatever you do…
“Just don’t put your feet up on the bulkhead,” says Lauren McLaughlin [she demonstrates this undesirable behavior in the photo below]:
Lauren demonstrates what not to do in your quest for sleep. (Photo: Lauren McLaughlin)
The last thing the people around you need are your feet in smelling distance as they’re trying to sleep, because the only thing worse than not sleeping yourself is preventing a fellow passenger from sleeping. . Plus, it’s just bad manners. Remember, the sleep gods may be mercurial and fleeting with their generosity to weary travelers. But they also believe in karma.