We’re headed right into the thick of the holiday season. Over the next several weeks, a lot of us will be spending time on airplanes in order to be with family. As you all know, I travel constantly and now with the holidays it’s with my family, which can be a little stressful! It’s stating the obvious to say that air travel these days isn’t easy. Crowded flights with too-little leg room, long lines and even longer delays, weary and irritable fellow travelers can all make air travel unpleasant. Flying can also do a number on sleep. Travel-related stress and jet lag disrupt sleep cycles and cause sleep deprivation. (The fast food and junk food we tend to eat while traveling doesn’t help, either.) Just in time for the holidays, I thought I’d share with you the list of sleep tips for flying that I’ve curated over the years, over hundreds of thousands of miles of air travel.
Time your flight right
I always encourage people to make travel arrangements with their sleep in mind. That way you can minimize your need to sleep on your flight, or at least align your air travel with your sleep schedule. Flights that arrive in the early evening are ideal. That gives you time to take a walk, have a light supper, and get a full night of sleep. Of course, that’s not always possible. If you’re traveling overnight or at off-peak hours, plan to sleep on your flight during the window of time you’d be sleeping in your destination time zone. (The same goes for eating, and consuming caffeine.) That’s one way to help minimize jet lag.
Buy the best ticket you can afford
It can be tempting to book the most budget-friendly seats available. But your comfort and your sleep will benefit if you move up the ladder. Business and first-class offer bigger, more comfortable seats as well as more legroom and more ability to recline. (Even “premium economy” has additional comfort perks that can make a difference to your comfort and rest on a plane—you can see some of those details by airline, here.) Particularly if you’re on a long flight, it’s worth purchasing the best ticket within your budget. Use your miles, watch for specials, and ask airlines about upgrades. Being able to recline and stretch your legs while you fly often costs less than you think. Also, check out www.seatguru.com. This is one of my favorite sites and it tells you which seats on the plane are great for sleep!
Reserve a window seat
This one’s a no-brainer. Sitting next to the window gives you a natural place to lean in for a nap. You’re also less likely to be disturbed by activity happening in the aisles. And you won’t be awakened from sleep by seatmates asking you to shift your knees so they can pass through. Book seats away from the lavatories, where there’s more likely to be steady activity and disruptive noise that will make it harder to catch some zzz’s.
Sleep at the right times on overnight flights
Traveling west is easier on sleep and circadian rhythms than traveling east. If you’re on a late flight headed east, plan to get your sleep in the early hours of your flight. You’ll be aligning yourself with the earlier evening hours of your destination. For westbound overnight flights, you’ll want to do the reverse. Delaying sleep until later in the flight can help you adjust your sleep cycle to your destination’s later time zone. It can be confusing, and a lot to think about with all that goes into traveling. I am involved with a new app that will do all this thinking for you. Check out www.timeshifter.com/thesleepdoctor. You’ll get two free jet lag plans!
Wear comfy clothes
I can’t stress this one enough. Loose-fitting clothes in soft, natural fabrics are key for traveling comfortably and sleeping well on planes. I’m not suggesting you actually travel in your PJs. But do avoid clothing that pinches or constricts you. Natural fabrics that are breathable will help your body regulate its temperature and avoid overheating on those times when the a/c isn’t working and you’re stuck on the tarmac. But watch out for those wool sweaters that might itch and irritate your skin while you’re trying to sneak in some sleep during your flight.
Layer up for warmth and temperature flexibility
You won’t have any control over the temperature of your flight, so it helps to wear a few simple, lightweight layers you can add or remove as needed. Keep in mind, airline cabins are more likely to be chilly than hot. Being too hot or too cold will interfere with your ability to sleep. Cold feet make it difficult to sleep, so wear comfy, warm socks.
Stretch your legs before you settle in
Before boarding, walk a bit in the airport, and do some simple calf stretches. On long flights, be sure to get up and move around periodically. Also, stretch and flex your legs while you’re sitting. Also do a figure 4 stretch every 30-60 min in your seat to keep your lower back loose. This will help you avoid the stiffness and pain that can come from extended periods of sitting. Stretching and movement ahead of your flight, as well as during your flight, also help reduce your risk of blood clots. The CDC offers some important information on the dangers of blood clots during long-distance travel, and how to reduce your risk. Here’s one way: use compression socks. I know you think they are only for old people, but you are wrong, these can be a tremendous help!
Watch your posture
Don’t cross your legs in your seat. This posture will impede normal blood flow in your lower body. A crossed-leg position also twists your spine out of alignment, which can cause pain and discomfort that may interfere with sleeping on your flight and when you finally land in a bed. Sit with your legs extended in front of you as much as is possible, ideally with a slight bend in your knees.
Relax with a neck pillow
A neck pillow is part of my sleep-essentials travel kit. (I’ll talk about what else is in that kit in a minute.) Having a travel pillow can make the difference between a comfortable in-flight nap and a long, tedious, uncomfortable flight that ends with no sleep and a stiff neck. Select one that’s lightweight and easy to pack in your carry on. Make sure the fabric is comfortable against your skin. Choose one in fleece and it can keep your neck from feeling cold on the plane—another boost for your sleep.
Pack healthy, sleep-friendly snacks
Eating well while traveling can be a real challenge. You won’t be able to fall asleep on your flight if you’re starving, so be sure to have some light snack options handy. Fruits and nuts make great travel foods. So do my favorite pre-sleep snack, Nightfood bars. Avoid eating large, heavy meals. And time your eating so it aligns with the schedule of your destination—that’s another way to help re-sync your circadian rhythms and limit jet lag.
Flying is notorious for causing dehydration. Why? Airplane cabin environments are very low in humidity. That creates the throat-scratching, uncomfortably dry air we associate with airplanes. A dry environment accelerates the rate at which we lose water from our bodies. Keep a water bottle handy sip on throughout your flight. You’ll feel better and have an easier time sleeping in transit. On a related note: new research shows dehydration is connected to sleep deprivation. If you’re not getting enough sleep on a regular basis, you’re more likely to be dehydrated.
You knew this one was coming, right? One drink before or during your flight is fine. But any more than that will likely interfere with your sleep—even if those couple of drinks help you fall asleep initially. Alcohol disrupts sleep rhythms. It also dehydrates—compounding an issue that’s already problematic for sleeping in-flight. Alcohol keeps us in lighter stages of sleep, which means you’re more likely to be awakened by every bit of jostling or conversation in your area of the plane.
Use a natural sleep aid
A natural supplement can help give your body the extra lift into sleep it needs when you’re traveling. For many years, I used melatonin for traveling, both on my flights and to adjust to a new time zone. These days, I use my sleep formula, Aktive Sleep Booster, a blend of natural, sleep-promoting ingredients including CBD, valerian and hops.
Make sure your seatbelt is visible before your nap
You’re about to settle in for some zzz’s during the middle of your flight. Before you close your eyes, make sure your seatbelt can be seen by flight crew, so they don’t need to wake you to check that you’re fastened in properly. (This has ruined many a nap for frequent travelers.) If you’re using a blanket or an oversized sweater, just make sure your seatbelt is fastened on top of your comfy layers.
Have a meditation handy
Stress, anxiety and frustration are all common to air travel. Breathing exercises, visualization, and meditation all can help you relax. These relaxation techniques help sleep too. Rather than feeling agitated and tense all flight long, wouldn’t you rather be getting some well-deserved rest? If you’re not sure how to meditate, install a guided meditation app on your phone. The simplest breathing exercise I know can work wonders in the middle of a stressful flight. It’s called 4-7-8 breathing. Here’s how to use it. In a comfortable position, with your eyes open or closed:
- Inhale for 4 seconds
- Hold breath for 7 seconds
- Exhale slowly, for 8 seconds
- Repeat several times
That’s it! This will calm you down, slowing your breathing and your heart rate. This simple exercise and other simple meditations are helpful in reducing anxiety about flying. They’re also great everyday tools to help you sleep better.
Make a travel playlist (and load up on audiobooks)
Music that relaxes you can reduce your stress and keep you closer to sleep mode while on a grueling flight. Create a soothing playlist of favorite tunes to calm you down and help transport your mind away from your less-than-ideal sleep circumstances. I also like to have a couple of new audiobooks on hand, I find them even more relaxing than reading while on a flight.
Limit light exposure
Eye masks are essential for sleeping while traveling. I like to keep a couple in my pre-packed sleep travel kit. You can go even further in limiting sleep-reducing light exposure on flights. Reduce the brightness and the color temperature on your digital devices, so you’re not flooding your eyes (and your brain) with stimulating, sleep-inhibiting blue light. I also travel with a pair of Sleep Doctor Blue Light Blocking Glasses. These high-quality blue light blockers will significantly reduce your exposure to bright lights from your own devices—and those nearby devices that belong to your seatmates.
Pack a sleep-kit for the plane
I don’t “wing it” when it comes to travel. I keep a sleep-kit handy for all the times I have to hop on a plane. Dedicating space in your carry-on bag to these items ensures you’re prepared to exert some control over your environment and get the sleep you need. My sleep kit includes:
- An eye mask
- Ear plugs and noise-cancelling headphones
- Travel pillow
- Nightfood bars
- A reusable water bottle
- Sleep Doctor Blue Light Blocking Glasses
- Aktive Sleep booster
- A relaxing playlist
- At least one new audiobook
- A light blanket or sweater
- Compression socks
I wish you safe travels, a festive start to the holiday season, and plenty of great sleep!
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor™
Michael Breus, Ph.D - The Sleep Doctor is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and one of only 168 psychologists to pass the Sleep Medical Specialty Board without going to medical school. Dr. Breus is a sought after lecturer and his knowledge is shared daily in major national media worldwide including Today, Dr. Oz, Oprah, and for fourteen years as the sleep expert on WebMD. Dr. Breus is the bestselling author of The Power of When, The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan and Good Night!