HOWTO: Sleep on a plane?
September 13, 2011 1:35 AM   Subscribe

I am embarking on an 8 hour red eye flight. When I arrive I'm going to have to very shortly thereafter attend a funeral. What is the best way to ensure sleeping on a plane?

I'm going to be having an extremely taxing day and so I'd like to minimize the affects of jet lag.

I'm tallish, which means I'm permanently uncomfortable.

The noise gets me, the lights get mes, the cold often gets me and the interruption for a meal at the crack of dawn gets me up.

I'm looking for ideas to make those 8 hours less uncomfortable, and whose components can be sourced in the next 36 hours.

Examples: A good brand of earplugs? The ideal snack? This place you saw that sold really convenient pillows?

posted by pmv to Travel & Transportation (35 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I have an impossible time sleeping on flights, but Benadryl has put me out cold many a time.
posted by munchingzombie at 1:50 AM on September 13, 2011

When I do this I try to use items I'm already bringing to avoid packing/sourcing extra brickabrack. As for your concerns...

Noise: Do you have noise-canceling headphones and an iPod? Download some ambient or classical music. I just have cheap Altec Lansing earbud headphones that fit really snug and they block out everything. Don't even need music or individual earplugs.
Light: Sunglasses.
Cold: Comfy coat or sweatshirt. I always bring a pashmina. But bringing a real, light blanket might make you feel more like you're sleeping rather than just sleeping on a plane.
Meal: Nothing really to do about that, other than asking the flight attendant beforehand to please do their best not to wake you. They usually don't address sleeping passengers, but I've also heard of someone being woken up to ask if they want coffee. So maybe get that request squared away.
Pillows: Stores all over the airport sell small travel neck pillows, but I also see them at drugstores like CVS.

Consider an exit row for extra leg room and window seats are best for sleeping. As for extra comfort: I find lip balm, lots of water, and protein bars are particularly helpful for facing the jet lag. Good luck on your trip.
posted by Juicy Avenger at 2:06 AM on September 13, 2011

1. Fake a limp/bring crutches to score sympathy points to get the bulkhead seat (obviously not an exit row). I'm 6'4" and likewise have difficulty sleeping on flights, and I'm not above such deceit for the 14-hour flight from Seoul to NYC.
2. Load up on Bonine (Meclizine), which will give sleepiness the edge over discomfort.
3. Dress in loose, light clothes.
4. Wear a surgical mask and periodically dampen it to keep your airways moist.
5. Take one of those blankets they give you and just put it over your head so that you're in a little cocoon/tent.
6. Earplugs of whatever brand.
posted by holterbarbour at 2:22 AM on September 13, 2011

Take a small pillow on the plane and where shoes that you can slip off - with comfy socks
posted by Kai xi at 2:45 AM on September 13, 2011

Bring a cervical neck pillow, and wear an eye mask. You can get these cheaply from any travel shop.

Also, perhaps a label that says "please do not disturb".
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 2:58 AM on September 13, 2011

Window seat. In business class. (try and get an upgrade- do you have miles you can use to upgrade? Ask for one at the desk, etc. Just truthfully explain your story and smile nicely, don't demand) If you can't, try and get a window seat, you don't want people climbing over you. Unless you are also so tall you need to stretch into the aisle (but get bumped by the cart).
posted by titanium_geek at 3:15 AM on September 13, 2011

Neck pillow, eye mask, two glasses of red wine, and a mild sedative like codeine or Tylenol PM.
posted by emd3737 at 3:32 AM on September 13, 2011


Eye mask sounds like a winner too.
posted by teatime at 4:00 AM on September 13, 2011

Melatonin. However, this works best if you're flying east. You generally take it for 2 days before flying and the day of the flight, timing it about half an hour before you will be wanting to fall asleep on the plane. It's natural (produced by the body while sleeping) and can be found in the vitamin aisle of a store. If you do this, don't get the timed release capsules -- they aren't very effective. Just a normal 3-5 mg tablet works well.
I took melatonin for sleep trouble and it helped me get on a regular rhythm, but I've never tried it for jet lag. Google "melatonin jet lag" and you'll get a bunch of sites with more specific data on how it helps.
posted by DoubleLune at 4:10 AM on September 13, 2011

Go see a doc, have him/her write you a scrip to knock you out. These requests are honoured often, especially after somebody close to a patient dies. I am sorry for your loss.
posted by crazycanuck at 4:37 AM on September 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

don't forget shoes you can easily remove, and a pair of thick comfy socks.
posted by wayward vagabond at 4:48 AM on September 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

An 8 hour flight really isn't that long; once you factor in dinner service, after dinner movie, duty free, breakfast service, etc, there might only be 3 or 4 hours of designated "sleep time".

What I've done on flights like that is try to go to sleep as soon as I get on the plane. Get a window seat, eat a light dinner at the airport, take a couple of sleeping pills as soon as you start boarding the plane so they kick in as you're taking off, put one of those cervical neck collar things on, snuggle up in whatever blankets or sweatshirts you have, take off your shoes and put on warm fuzzy socks and start trying to sleep as soon as you're settled. You could try binaural beats or white noise or ambient music or nothing, whatever works for you. If you know how your sleeping pills affect you, you might take another when you wake up 4 hours into the flight (I don't know why, but I always do).

If you have any sleeping pills that you know really conch you out, plan to take those. It's benadryl for me. Also, I avoid alcohol because it actually prevents me sleeping all that well. Plus you might have to get up for the bathroom.

Having a toothbrush/toothpaste, some deodorant and something to wash your face with really helps wake me up once I've arrived. I've had full birdbaths, hair included, standing in airport terminal bathrooms (the only time I'm thankful for those hand dryers). I feel fresher and have that clean 'start the morning' feeling, even if I only got 2 hours really good sleep.

I'm sorry to hear about the funeral. Best wishes to you and yours.
posted by mosessis at 4:49 AM on September 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

I used to do the 8-9 hour flight several times a year for work, and this is what worked for me:

Earplugs - don't need to be expensive, I buy the 99 cent cheap foam ones and they do a great job.

Scarf or blanket - I drape a pashmina over my head, this blocks light, nobody bothers trying to wake me up for meals, and the fact that your breath stays sort of trapped in it means that you are breathing moister air and don't get as dried out.

Seat selection - I guess if you are tall, exit rows are good. My choice (shh!) is to go for the seats that back onto the bulkhead. Often these seats don't recline as far as other seats (if you look at Seat Guru, they often advise against these ones). However, as there is nobody sitting behind you, you can recline it as far as it goes and leave it like that the whole time. Otherwise, even if you aren't having a meal, you'll often be asked to put your seat upright for the person behind you. I try and pick a middle aisle seat (and hope that they other people in the middle know each other and will climb over each other, rather than me). I used to do window seats (good for sleeping without being disturbed), but not good if you are also trying to stay hydrated.

Medication - consider it, except that for me, I tend to feel effects beyond the 8 hour flight. I often just take anti-histamine/motion sickness stuff, which is enough for me. It doesn't knock me out completely but does take the edge of those issues that disturb you.

Food - eat at the airport before you depart, and take a few small snacks for the meals you won't eat on the plane (it is better for jetlag not to eat, can't be bothered with cite now). I like a granola bar or two, a chocolate bar, just a small treat. Often the crew have stickers they can put on your seat

Clothing - something comfortable. I often wear my normal clothes to check-in, but then get changed just before boarding into loose fitting, comfortable clothes ('lounge wear').

Coffee - realise that if you usually drink coffee, your body/mind will work out that you haven't been caffeinated at the right time and that will make you feel as crap as the jetlag. Try and get a coffee first thing on arrival.
posted by AnnaRat at 4:51 AM on September 13, 2011

Sorry, dangling sentence there - often crew have stickers to put on your seat and mark it as do not disturb. But I have found I do not get woken up if I have the pashmina over my head. Sometimes I dimly hear "maam, do you want something to eat?" but I either don't respond or make a little shake and they go away!
posted by AnnaRat at 4:54 AM on September 13, 2011

Loose, layered warm clothes (planes are cold, and the blankets they give you are thin and small). Neck pillow. Window seat. Eat beforehand, have a few drinks and go to the washroom before getting on board. Tell the person sitting next to you that you don't want to be wakened for meals, or if the airline provides it, put the sticker that says this on your seat/blanket. If you get to choose your seat, wait until a lot of people have checked in already and try to score one with an empty seat next to you (or ask the check-in staff to put you in a bulkhead or partially empty row). On widebody planes (2 aisles) the bulkhead has a good chance of being at an emergency exit and galley/lavatory...not the greatest for the cold/smell/traffic.

Earplugs, or noise-isolating earphones (not noise-cancelling...the white noise they produce can make your ears hurt after 4 or so hours).

Since it's a red-eye, the cabin lights will be dim/off and window shades closed. Figure out how to turn off the seat-back screen and you probably don't have to worry about light, but you can always bring an eyemask if you're sensitive to that. If you're not adverse to drugs, they seem to provide many people with the results they desire.

Definitely a change of clothes and a place to shower/wash for when you arrive.
posted by t_dubs at 4:57 AM on September 13, 2011

I'm about to do 20 hours or so - I have a regimen of: eye mask, temazipam tablet, explorer socks over compression stockings, getting an extra blanket from airline functionaries, neck pillow, water, lip balm, eye cream, headphones. I eat the first meal and then settle down, count to 100 and concentrate on my breathing, rotate my ankles a few times etc. When I wake, I make sure to do some yoga stretches up the back of the plane whilst waiting for the bathroom. I put on loads of moisturizer, hand cream etc and take off my compressing stockings, moisturize my feet [so GOOD!] and ready myself for what's ahead on arrival.
posted by honey-barbara at 6:03 AM on September 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

if you don't have an eye mask, just make a blindfold out of a folded up bandana tied around your head and pulled down over your eyes. this or an eye mask serve as a pretty clear "do not wake me, thanks" signal for the flight attendants.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:04 AM on September 13, 2011

Best answer: I recommend a visit from the Ambien walrus.

Seriously, this is what Ambien was made for: knocking you out on long, uncomfortable plane flights.
posted by killdevil at 6:05 AM on September 13, 2011 [5 favorites]

You need a pillow between your chin and sternum or on the side of your neck between your head and your shoulder. That way, you can relax your neck and head without jolting awake.
posted by prefpara at 6:42 AM on September 13, 2011

Ear plugs (bring extras in case they fall out), eye mask, neck pillow, thin blanket or warm clothes, and tylenol pm (or other sleep inducing medicine) taken ~0.5-1 hr before flight start. This way you'll be super sleepy right as you get on the plane, because the tylenol pm will have kicked in, you'll pass out immediately, and its effects should wear off by the time you have to get off the plane. You don't want to take it after you get on the plane because you'll still be groggy < 8 hours later.
posted by at 7:15 AM on September 13, 2011

I have an impossible time sleeping on flights, but Benadryl has put me out cold many a time.

This. A pediatric dose of Benadryl will put adult me in dead-to-the-world territory for several hours.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 7:22 AM on September 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Window seat in bulkhead if possible. Exit row seats often don't recline at all. If bulkhead isn't possible I'd still go for the window seat. Nothing worse than being woken to let someone else use the facilities.

Either Benadryl or Ambien, though be prepared for potential grogginess after waking. I find Melatonin will work fairly well for me as long as I'm not super keyed up for any reason.

I don't like sleeping with a mask, but if it doesn't bother you it's a pretty cheap way to keep the light out and that seems to be what starts the waking process for me more than most things.

Music player. In my ears any head/earphones seem to amplify certain ambient sounds so I need a little music to drown out the conversation around me.

Horseshoe shaped neck pillows often don't work for me unless I do some seriously modification to the stuffing. I once found one that had tiny beads in it - that one worked best just as is. Consider whether that sort of item will work for you. If not, do bring a smaller/regular size pillow you can "wad" up and lean against the window.

If you wear glasses, take them off and place them some place secure that you won't forget to grab them before deplaning.

Good luck and sorry for your loss.
posted by FlamingBore at 7:51 AM on September 13, 2011

Best source for earplugs - gun shop or a local pharmacy which sells the ones they sell in gun shops. The ones I have are orange and are conically shaped. Squeeze them and insert into the ear canal. They were head and shoulders above the ones I found made for air travel. As a bonus they often come in a little container of 10...

As for sleeping, the above suggestions are good - except I personally would not take something extra to put me out. Arrive at the airport tired, eat a good meal before hand, drink lots of water the day before (just not the last minute before boarding), and then close your eyes and try to sleep from the moment you get on the plane. If you can't sleep, do not decide to watch the movie or eat the meal - just keep trying to sleep.
posted by NoDef at 7:51 AM on September 13, 2011

Sorry for your loss.

Seconding FlamingBore -- horseshoe-shaped neck pillows don't work for me either. You might want to try (carry as a backup?) this long inflatable pillow. Odd shape, but I've found that using this via a window seat setup works well for me.
posted by flomo at 8:03 AM on September 13, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions!

I think I prefer the knockout route, as I normally grow fidgety if I don't fall asleep quickly and have a bedtime more suited for traveling West than East.

I wasn't aware of non airport located travel shops, so I'm definitely googling that now.

Y'alls had good answers, but killdevil's ambien walrus definitely made me laugh.
posted by pmv at 8:27 AM on September 13, 2011

I wasn't aware of non airport located travel shops, so I'm definitely googling that now.

Nthing neck pillows and earplugs. Off the top of my head, you can buy some of these travel googaws at AAA offices (if you're in the U.S.), or at luggage specialty shops. If you and your doctor decide to explore the Ambien walrus route, be careful of combining with alcohol.
posted by aught at 8:40 AM on September 13, 2011

My strategy is to put in my earplugs and get cozy as soon as I get on the plane, and switch to an audiobook that I've heard before once you're allowed to turn on electronics. I'm not asleep the whole time, but I stress out about it less with the audiobook (i.e. I'm not thinking "Oh no! I'm not asleep! Why can't I get to sleep! This is horrible!").

Also, I get a window seat and have a no drink service, no meal policy on overnight flights.

I figure, a night of 2 or 3 hours sleep is not the best way to face the day (especially when I'm going straight to something else), but it's survivable, so I give myself permission to not sleep and in the end I feel much more rested than if I freak out about it.
posted by mskyle at 9:00 AM on September 13, 2011

I have a devil of a time sleeping on flights (or sleeping sitting up, in general). Trial-and-error has shown me that there are only two reliable ways to put myself to sleep on a long-haul flight: either drink myself into a stupor, or get on the plane so exhausted that I couldn't stay awake if I wanted to. The former is...not the greatest plan, since alcohol's effect on me is unpredictable and "able to fall asleep" drunk could be anything from two drinks to six and, well, six drinks is not what you want to be doing on an airplane or when you need to function the next day. That leaves what got me from Tel Aviv to Newark sleeping like a baby: not sleeping the night before. In my case, 30-some hours spent awake, mostly pre-security at Ben Gurion, led to me passing right the hell out the moment my butt hit the airplane seat. Bliss!

Things that can help me sleep on a plane, but not put me to sleep: cocooning under a sweatshirt (the flight attendants are smart cookies. They'll probably figure out that if you're entirely hidden under something, you don't want to be woken up for bad coffee), headphones in and my ipod going, a window seat so I have something to lean against, and a pillow between my chin and shoulder.
posted by badgermushroomSNAKE at 9:51 AM on September 13, 2011

This is the best sleep mask known to mankind. I bought mine at a travel store and have now bought probably five more and given them as gifts. Lightweight, soft, light-tight, and has room for you to open your eyes under the mask unimpeded (I hate feeling like my eyes are trapped closed.)

Also window seat and melatonin (although try it out ahead of time, Melatonin gives some people nightmares I hear.)
posted by wuzandfuzz at 10:30 AM on September 13, 2011

Even going the knockout route, it wouldn't hurt to bring some earplugs just in case. You will probably feel more rested if you can give yourself a more comfortable environment in any way, even if you would be asleep just the same.

Earplugs -- for those new to them I recommend picking up a few different types, so that you can change them out if they feel bothersome after a while. Drugstores will have several varieties. The foam ones that have a smoother appearance on the outside block sound well, but plastic earplugs are easier to put in for some people. The more expensive models ($15+) tend to be for things where you specifically want to hear some sounds, so not needed for sleeping.

I can't stand eyemasks, dark sunglasses and a hat with a brim cut down on the light a lot, plus you don't expose yourself to brighter light if you should need to use your eyes for anything. Wearing sunglasses in the airport also helps cue the brain in that it's time to go to sleep soon.

Bring something that you can fold to fill in the hollows of the bottom or back of the seat. Something that doesn't have zippers or buttons.
posted by yohko at 11:26 AM on September 13, 2011

Hearos are the best brand of earplugs. We lived in a busy downtown, and have tried every brand we could get our hands on. I never get on a flight without them.
posted by luciddream928 at 1:26 PM on September 13, 2011

I've done this plenty and while IANAD, I've checked for interactions.

Doxylamine (Unisom - the original formulation, not diphenhydramine) + a benzodiazepine. Easy on, easy off and if you're like me, it'll make the funeral easier.

Set your alarm on loud.
posted by at 1:58 PM on September 13, 2011

Oops. I meant to include that I generally have a hard time getting to sleep (light, noise) and ambien does very little for me. Additionally, the window of effect is really short; if I don't fall asleep within the hour, it's not going to help me. Of course, YMMV.
posted by at 2:00 PM on September 13, 2011

Neck pillow, eye mask, two glasses of red wine, and a mild sedative like codeine or Tylenol PM.

This is a dumb idea. Acetaminophen & alcohol is not a nice thing to do to your liver.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 2:11 PM on September 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'm nearly 6'6" and make multiple connection flights quite a bit. Great tip for you: bring a LARGE laptop bag that can fit some clothes in addition to a second carry on. Security lets it through as its a laptop bag and a second carry on. The people at the gate typically don't see those two bags as being kosher so...

You offer, before boarding begins and before they formally request it, to gate check one of them since, "oh man, the flight looks pretty full today". After they have your bag (and make sure its the bag you wouldn't mind seeing some time next week. Four states over.) gently ask if there might be an emergency exit row seat for tall people or something. On US Scareways they'll have semi-emergency exit row spacing on the front 5-7 rows of coach seating. I believe its called economy plus.

You can also just get there a smidge early and grovel at the gate for a better seat before a bunch of other people beat you to it.
posted by Slackermagee at 2:20 PM on September 13, 2011

« Older Jewish folk song?   |   If you'd read Murakami in the original then you'd... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.