How to Sleep on a Plane, Even in Economy Class

Published May 29, 2020

Written by:

Jenn Sutherland-Miller

Jenn raised 4 children while traveling full-time for more than a decade– it’s called worldschooling and it’s awesome. Jenn has...

Edited by:

Fred Perrotta
Fred Perrotta
Fred Perrotta

Fred Perrotta is the co-founder and CEO of Tortuga. His first backpacking trip to Europe inspired him to start the...

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Sleeping on a plane can be tough. To improve your odds, try these tips: Use medication if you feel comfortable. Utilize your seat to your advantage. Invest in accessories.

You’re 98% thrilled to be traveling abroad and making that cross-oceanic flight. What’s that 2% holding you back from being over-the-top with excitement? That. Long. Ass. Flight. Fear not, friends—even those who travel in economy class, and don’t have the magic capability of falling asleep anywhere, can catch some shut eye on a long-haul flight. There are tips and tricks that will help you to sleep on a plane!

How to Sleep on a Plane: Use Medication

When figuring out how to sleep on a plane, even in economy class, you might want to employ the help of a few little… sleep aids… AKA medication. Not everyone is totally comfortable with utilizing medication to sleep on a plane, but when your choices are land in-country part-zombie, or get a couple of hours of sleep, some sleep medication can do the body good.  Note: We don’t recommend that you take prescription meds that haven’t been prescribed to you. And, even with over the counter medications, never take more than the recommended dosage. You don’t want to accidentally arrive in-country still feeling the lagging drowsiness, or worse, have a reaction that requires medical care. Medication is serious business.

Benadryl, Aleve PM, or Tylenol PM

Using over the counter drugs that you already take at home, like Aleve PM and Benadryl, can be an effective way to sleep on the plane. These are typically non-addictive, relatively easy to obtain (over the counter FTW), and have an active ingredient called Diphenhydramine. This drowsiness-inducing antihistamine is not a recommended solution for ongoing sleep problems, but if you need a few hours of plane sleep, it can do the trick. Plus, because they’re fairly common medications, you might already have these little pink or blue wonders in your medicine cabinet.

  • What it is: Antihistamine
  • When to take it: 1-2 hours before your ideal sleep time

Melatonin (the natural route)

Melatonin is a hormone your body produces around bedtime, and one that can help control your natural sleep-wake cycle. Taking melatonin supplements has been known to shift your circadian rhythm without bringing about the grogginess or longer-term sleep affects that antihistamines can. After you land, try to stay awake until the normal sleep time and then take another dose of melatonin to help shift your body towards the new time zone.

  • What it is: Hormone supplement
  • When to take it: Align with the “normal sleep time” of your destination

Other Prescription & Over the Counter Sleeping Pills for Flying

There are a variety of other sleep aids for flying out there—Ambien, Lunesta, Temazepan, Valerian. No matter which drug you pursue as your sleeptime-aid of choice, please don’t make your flight abroad your first dose. Talk to your doctor about options and test it  at home before you go so you’re more aware of side effects and how your body reacts. 

Sleeping on a Plane in Economy Class: Optimize Your Space

When figuring out how to sleep on a plane in economy class, you’re going to want to pay attention to which seat you are assigned. On an overnight flight it is often worth the extra seat selection fee to know you’re going to be in a spot you can snooze in. Depending on comfort level with contorting your body to weird positions, you will need to utilize different strategies to optimize your seat space and get a good night’s sleep.

Window Seat

You lucky dog! With a built in headrest you don’t have to negotiate nearly as much awkward touching of your seat mates. While you might not get to hit the loo as frequently as you’d like, you still have the best chances for catching some zzzz’s mid-flight. Lean into that window and sleep

Middle Seat

Sorry. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s focus on how you can still sleep on a plane while in the middle seat. In an ideal world, your travel partner would be to your left or right (and willing to let you cozy up close to their shoulders to improve your chances of comfort). Otherwise, the best way to sleep on a plane for you is to employ the school-boy sleep tactic—pull down your tray, cross your arms, and lay your head in a pile on top. Another option is adjusting the plane headrest wings to offer your head more support as you lean to the left or right. The likelihood that you’ll fall asleep with your mouth open is pretty high from the middle seat, but no one is going to remember you anyway. 

Aisle Seat

You may have free and frequent access to the toilet, but you’ll still have to get creative as you figure out how to sleep in the aisle seat of a plane. For one, keep those elbows and feet tucked in—no one likes being constantly run over by the drink cart (and the flight attendants aren’t thrilled about running you over, either). Much like the middle seat, you’ll want to rest on the tray or lean left or right with the help of the headrests. Consider scrunching your legs up (if space permits) and leaning your head on your knees, too. Be warned that, 9 times out of 10, as soon as you begin to fall asleep, the person next to you is likely going to need to use the restroom. Don’t let the false starts keep you from accomplishing your goal, though!

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The Right Gear for Sleeping on a Plane

You’ve already thought through your trip packing list, but have you created your airplane sleep packing list? These are the things that you need to pack to get some rest. The best part? They all fit neatly into your carry-on  or personal item.

Travel Pillow

Stave off the nightmares with your trusty travel pillow. Most travel pillows on the market suck, but these are the ones that don’t. Our writer Shawn recommends the Cabeau Evolution S3 Travel Pillow ($40) to anyone in the market for a new plane-friendly cuddle buddy. You’ll come to realize your sleeping on a plane pillow is nearly as essential as your boarding pass!

Eye Masks

I was a little taken aback when my partner David tried on his Nidra Deep Sleep Luxury Eye Mask (Amazon, $12) for the first time and looked like he was wearing a black bra on his face, but he swears it’s the thing that separates him from experiencing a “long ass flight” and a “long flight.” Bennett compared some of the best travel eye masks, from budget to deluxe. Check out his recommendations if you’re in the market.

Earplugs or Noise Cancelling Headphones

Planes are noisy. Seat mates snore. Babies cry. If sleep is important to you, invest in a quality pair of earplugs at the very least. If you want to take it up a notch, noise cancelling headphones are a key piece of flight gear for increasing quiet on long flights. Shawn compared the bluetooth headphones options so that you don’t have to.

Travel Scarf

A snuggly travel scarf can double as a pillow or a blanket. It can also hide your tears when you’re re-watching Apollo 13 mid-flight. Keep your scarf neutral—something you can pair with multiple outfits—and make sure it’s made of good materials (so it doesn’t unravel out of nowhere). I love this Travel-Themed scarf from Kate Spade (Nordstrom, $47).

Plane Socks

You might not normally wear socks when sleeping at home, but you also might not normally sleep sitting upright and in a room full of dozens of strangers. Pack a pair of wool travel socks, like SmartWool ($10), to help you master the art of how to sleep on a plane in economy class. If your flight is a long one, compression socks will help you arrive refreshed and lessen the risk of circulation or clotting trouble mid-flight. Laura compared some of the best compression socks to help you figure out which ones are best for your journey.

Jenn Sutherland-Miller

Jenn raised 4 children while traveling full-time for more than a decade– it’s called worldschooling and it’s awesome. Jenn has been published in numerous travel publications, partnered with brands to promote travel and education, she writes and speaks frequently on topics related to work-life integration for travelers, solo female travel, and family travel. Jenn has traveled deeply in more than 50 countries on six continents.

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