Saturday, May 9, 2009

How to Sleep on an Plane

By Glenn Campbell (updated Sept. 22, 2014)

For many travelers, the most dreaded part of traveling overseas is the overnight flight to get there. Sitting upright 8-20 hours crammed together with strangers is no one's idea of a good time. How do you sleep under conditions like this? For that matter, how do you sleep in a regular domestic overnight flight—the infamous red-eye?

I've had a lot of experience doing it, and I have it down to the science. If I am determined to sleep on a flight, I can almost always do it. It just requires some preparation and practice.

Below is my advice for making the best of a bad situation. My advice comes in sections:
  1. Seat Selection
  2. Equipment
  3. In-Flight Technique.
Seat Selection

You can greatly improve your red-eye experience by choosing a good sleeping seat. Although seating may not always be within your control, it is worth the effort to try.

The dumb and easy way to tackle an overnight flight is to fly First Class. The seats are bigger up there; they usually recline more, and they often have footrests. Sometimes they even stretch out into flat beds. But how much more are you willing to pay for these modest amenities? $500? $3000? If you have the money and that's how you want to spend it, be my guest, but that's a lot to shell out for what might be only a marginal improvement in comfort. Furthermore, if the plane isn't full, a First Class seat might not be the most comfortable sleeping accommodations on the plane. I have been on many flights where First Class has been packed full while coach has been wide open, meaning that the suckers up front have paid heavily for the privilege of worse seats.

What are the best sleeping seats? Three seats to yourself in coach! That's Heaven if you can get it. With three seats, you can raise the arm rests, stretch out almost full length and sleep almost as soundly as a hotel bed. No one in traditional First Class can do that!

If you can't get three seats, the next best thing is two seats to yourself or an empty middle seat between you and the next passenger. On wide-body aircraft (like the Boeing 767 or Airbus 330) there are two seats alone against the windows. If you are limber (as I am), you might be able to curl up in the fetal position on those two seats and sleep as soundly as on three seats.

Granted, two or three seats to yourself may be like seeing a unicorn—a mythical beast you might not encounter in a lifetime. Still, you want to keep an eye on the current seating map of your flight to see if this might be possible. You can also try to choose a half-empty plane when you make your reservation, but that may be unrealistic. Major airlines let you check the seat map before buying a ticket, but if you buy your ticket in advance, you don't really know how full the place will be at the time of departure. In general, transatlantic flights tend to run very full, while transcontinental flight are more variable.

If you are traveling alone on a full flight, your best seat for sleeping is usually a window, so always choose one when you can. A window seat gives you a wall to lean against and a semi-enclosed nook all to yourself, with no one stumbling over you to use the restroom. You might also try for a window seat in the back of the aircraft, since the seats in the back tend to be a little less full than those in the front.

If you are a couple traveling together, you might want to choose a window seat and an aisle seat, leaving the middle seat open between you. Middle seats are always the last ones filled, so that seat may remain empty. If someone else ends up there, they would probably be willing to trade with one of you, so splitting up is usually a no-lose gamble.

You always want a seat that reclines. Nowadays, the recline in coach isn't much--maybe 6 inches or less, but this small angle can mean a big difference in comfort, keeping your head from falling forward when you sleep. The row immediately in front of an emergency exit may not recline, so you should avoid those seats.

The best seat in coach is usually an exit row seat that reclines, which would happen if there is no emergency exit behind you. In an exit row, you usually have plenty of leg room.

If you can't get a window, an aisle seat is best, so at least you can get up whenever you want and you have some empty space to one side of you.

If you find yourself with a dreaded middle seat, you always want to confirm with the gate agent that no other seats are available. Middle seats are bad news, but you can survive them if you have to.

If you can, you should check the online seat maps the day before your flight. You can also ask the gate agent how full the flight is when you check in for the flight. If you are aware of the seating configuration of the plane, you can always try to negotiate for a better seat before you get on. If you are stuck with a non-window seat, you should check with the gate agent less than 60 minutes before boarding (or 30 minutes domestically) to see if any passengers failed to check in.

Whether the aircraft is full will affect how you board the aircraft. If it's full, there's no sense in fighting your seating assignment: Just board whenever your assigned boarding group is called. However, if the plane has lots of unsold seats (or if you don't know how full it is), you should always try to be the last passenger to board. If you know you're the last, you can look around for empty seats that are better than the one you have. If you see such a seat, just take it, and if no one complains, it's yours!


Certain things you can bring with you will vastly improve your in-flight sleeping experience. They are given here from the most important to the least.

1) Warm clothing! This is by far the most important equipment, because if you are cold you won't be able to sleep. Regardless of the tropical destination you may be flying to, always travel in long pants, socks and a thick shirt with shoulders covered. You should also have a sweater or sweatshirt with you should you need it, and possibly a knit winter cap, since most heat is lost through your head (especially if one is hairless up there).

2) A light blanket. Some airlines now charge for blankets on domestic flights, but blankets are still provided free of change on long international flights. You may want to bring one with you to be sure. A thin airline-style blanket is usually sufficient, but without it you may be too cold to sleep.

3) Ear plugs. Foam ear plugs can be extremely useful to mute the safety announcements, engine noise and chatter of your fellow passengers. They work best when you stick them deep into your ear canal so they are barely visible. (It takes some practice.) I put them in at the beginning of the flight and don't take them out until the end (unless I am talking to someone).

4) Sleep mask. A sleep mask blocks out the ambient light and, more importantly, the annoying movies or TV shows playing around you. A sleep mask is available in the pharmacy section at Walmart for about $3, or you can pay $10 at the airport. If you don't have one, you try using something else, like a knit cap pulled down over your eyes. Although technically your eyelids should work, I find that an eye mask works a lot better to block out distractions to sleep.

5) A neck pillow or homemade equivalent. The standard square pillows provided by airlines are almost useless when sitting up, since they fall away when you sleep. Those "airline pillows" that wrap around your neck can sometimes be helpful. The aim is to prevent your head from falling over as you sleep. Not all wraparound pillows are created equal, however. Most of those sold in airports (probably including the one shown here) are simply too fat and bulky, especially behind your neck, where you don't want any padding. (You only need it between your head and shoulders. You probably want a relatively thin bean-bag or blow-up model, but you'll have to experiment to find out what works for you. One thing that sometime works for me: my own patented Knotted-Blanket-Pillow™: Hang an airline blanket around your neck like a scarf (or your jacket if you have one) then tie it in a big double knot against your neck. You use the knot as a pillow between your head and one of your shoulders. It looks funny, but it works!

6) Footrest. Whatever bag you put under the seat in front of you, it should be usable as a footrest. If you can raise your feet just a few inches, it can improve your comfort and reduce pooling of blood in your legs. (You want to make sure you don't have anything delicate in the bag that could be crushed.)

7) Aspirin. I always take two aspirin at the start of every long flight. Aspirin does two things: (1) It helps prevent muscular aches and pains due to the unusual sleep position, and (2) it prevents clotting in the legs when blood pools there (at least in theory). The main role of aspirin here is not as a pain-killer but as an antiinflammatory, helping to reduce mechanical problems before they happen.

In-Flight Technique

The main difficulty of sleeping in the sitting position is that blood tends to pool in your legs, which can be very uncomfortable after a couple of hours. There is some suggestion in the press that this increases the risk of a blood clots in the legs, but the aspirin should reduce this risk. It probably isn't healthy for your cardiovascular system to sleep sitting upright on a regular basis, but one night probably won't hurt you. The optimal sleep position is to raise your legs to almost the same level as your head, but if you can't do this you'll have to make do. At least recline your seat and raise your feet as far as possible.

Take your shoes off! It's much more comfortable, especially since your legs and feet tend to swell after a period of sitting up.

When the safety instructions tell you to fasten your seat belt "low and tight around your waist," defy them! You should instead make it as loose as possible, extending the belt as far as it will go. (Flight attendants will check that the belt is fastened, but they rarely check how tight it is.)

To sleep better, you should avoid caffeine and alcohol on the flight, and remember to pee before you sleep so you don't have to get up again. Remember: The less you drink, the less you have to pee.

Use your ear plugs and eye mask to block out the world. Position your neck pillow so your head can go limp, then get down to the business of snoozing. If you're lucky, snooze will turn to real sleep, and the time will fly by. (Imagine going to sleep in New York and waking up in Europe. It sometimes happens!)

If you happen to have three seats to yourself, lucky you! You should be able to just lie down and sleep all the way to your destination. You aren't supposed to lie down during takeoff and landing, but in practice you can do it as soon as the flight attendants take their seats. You may want to keep the middle-seat belt fastened around you and visible to the flight attendants so they don't have to wake you to verify it when the seat belt light is on. (Or you can arrange the seat belt so it appears to be fastened.)

Once you decide to sleep, you should ignore all entertainment and beverage services. A few hours sleep is usually worth far more than free food, drink and movies.

The only other advice I can offer is that sleeping on a plane usually gets easier each time you do it. The first time may be hell, but the second is a little less so. It's just a matter of both your body and mind getting used to it. (Think of it as an Olympic sport that requires some conditioning.) After years of doing it, I can now sleep on virtually any flight, even in a middle seat hemmed in by two oversize passengers. It's not the perfect sleep, but its better than nothing.

Also see: How to Sleep in an Airport

©2009, Glenn Campbell,
This entry was begun in Boston and released from Las Vegas.
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You are welcome to comment on this entry below.


  1. Awesome article...but, when possible, use the seat 'clear air turbulence'.

  2. Like everything else, you have to find your own compromise between comfort and safety.

  3. Wonderful post, however I would recommend using some type of head restraint actually designed for use on planes. I like the Aerosleeper, its one of a kind. Check it out at

  4. I really liked this post^^I'm going abroad soon, so this was very useful for me^-^Thank you:D

  5. When was this written? 1991? Coach class is never anything but completely full these days as airlines struggle to make a profit with rising fuel costs. They cram more people into smaller plans. The only way to guarantee more comfort is to purchase a business or first class seat.

    1. do you know the actual cost to refuel a plane? the air fare covers that cost many times over...

  6. Good article. I would add one thing:- I am tall and the only way I could get comfortable is by using a home rigged version of the Skyrest Travel Pillow (google it or skymall). I just stuff a day pack full of clothes abd then lean forward on it. You could use blow up pillows to inflate the bag, to allow room for carry on.

  7. You recommend to take off the shoes. well, I just hate when people do it and the smell appears. Its just wrong to others!

  8. I'm going to try something in June for the first time, just thought of it - an inflatable beach ball at my feet to use as a foot rest, can blow it up to about 40cm to fill the floor space, then deflate it for easy storage later. Hopefully it works.

    1. Worth a shot, but you usually have so little space at your feet that it's tough to put anything there. Your feet might just roll off the ball. Much more important is to make sure you have a window seat so you have something to lean against, and not put a bag under the seat in front of you so you have more foot space.