How to sleep on a plane, from uncrossing your legs to making a tactical seat choice

Woman sleeping on a plane
Sleeping on planes isn't easy for everyone. (Getty Images)

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For a lucky few of us, getting sleep on a plane is easy. But for the large majority, nodding off at 35,000ft is no mean feat. Stiff seats, no leg room and the constant drone of the jet’s engine in your ears is hardly conducive to a good kip in the air.

Throw in a crying baby, the passenger behind you kicking your seat and intermittent bouncing from turbulence and you can kiss those precious 40 winks goodbye.

Thankfully there are a few tricks that will help you sleep during your next flight.

From cutting out the booze to uncrossing your legs, here are 10 handy hacks, including top tips from travel and sleep experts, that all long-haul travellers need to know.

1. Make a tactical seat choice

Easier said than done, you may think. Most airlines charge a supplement for seat selection, but if you arrive early enough at check in, you may be able to ask for a specific seat for free. And it could well be worth coughing up the supplement (usually around £20 for a long-haul flight) if it means you’ll sleep better.

First things first: try to get a window seat, so you have something to lean against and so other passengers won’t have to scramble over you when they need the loo. You’ll also be able to control the window shade. If possible, avoid the back row – the seats may not recline and they are usually located closest to the bathrooms, which can be noisy and smelly. The best place to sit to avoid feeling turbulence is usually over the wings or at the front of the aircraft.

2. Consider upgrading

It might seem like an unnecessary expense, but upgrading could mean the difference between sleeping well and getting no sleep. “My tip would be to get as high a class as possible,” says James Wilson aka The Sleep Geek, a sleep expert who works with large organisations. “Being able to lay down fully really helps.”

Getting an upgrade may not be as costly as you think, either. Inbound flight upgrades are better value, as you avoid the high APD tax levied for flights departing the UK. Flights from the East Coast USA can be upgraded to Premium Economy from just £80 with Trailfinders, while upgrading to a flatbed in Business Class costs from £500.

3. Block out background noise

Sharing sleeping quarters with 300-odd other passengers doesn’t make for a peaceful night sleep, so packing ear plugs is an absolute must. For an even quieter experience, splash out on a decent pair of noise-cancelling headphones, like these from Bose, which will also mean you’ll hear and enjoy the in-flight entertainment better. When it’s time to get some rest, listening to relaxing music or a sleeping app, like the White Noise app, should help you drift off.

4. Embrace darkness

An eye mask will help you control your sleeping environment on long-haul flights – you won't be disturbed by the changing light patterns inside the cabin, or a window seat passenger letting harsh sunlight in with the blind up. Travel writer Travis Levius swears by eye masks. "One of my recent journey legs included a 13-hour flight from Doha to New York (JFK), and having an eye mask to block the lights made for a smooth sleep.”

Man asleep on plane with eye mask and neck pillow
Treat yourself to a good quality eye mask and a neck pillow to aid your on-flight snooze. (Getty Images)

5. Avoid booze and caffeine

When the drinks trolley comes round, a glass or two of red wine might seem like the perfect tonic to help you fall asleep. But alcohol actually disrupts sleep, and will leave you dehydrated at the other end. Likewise, it’s not a good idea to have caffeine coursing through your veins as you try to catch some shut-eye, so avoid the temptation of a cup of coffee before boarding – and sip water throughout your flight. Travis Levius says: “When I know I need quality sleep on a plane, I refrain from drinking alcohol or caffeine before and during the flight. I can always indulge in a glass of wine or two after I land."

6. Take a neck pillow

A lifesaver for long-haul travellers, the trusty neck pillow will keep your neck and noggin nicely supported as you drift off. Paying a little more for a good quality model is money well spent. Try the Cabeau Evolution Memory Foam Travel Pillow and the Trtl wraparound.

7. Uncross your legs

Many of us cross our legs when we sit down – but this can hinder the blood flow on one side and place strain on your lower back. It’s better, and more comfortable on long flights where you need to sleep, to keep your legs parallel with your knees slightly bent.

8. Put your feet up

If you’re flying in economy class, you can still try to get as comfy as possible. Claire Woods from Trailfinders swears by feet hammocks. “They allow you to get closer to the horizontal we would all love to be in on overnight flights,” she says. The nifty device, like this one, clips easily on the tray table, allowing your legs to stretch in all directions to relieve muscle fatigue.

9. Read a book

Instead of having a movie marathon, pick up a book or magazine. TV screens (and other electronic devices) emit blue light, which prevents sleep hormones from being produced and reduces your chances of getting to sleep during a flight. Reading a book, on the other hand, can help you drift off.

10. Get into your routine

If you have a bedtime routine at home, try to follow it on the plane, too. Peter Douglas from Trailfinders says: “The best thing to do is try and replicate your own bedtime routine so ideally change into pyjamas or baggy clothes as you usually would, and having a similar pre-bed drink or doing whatever you do at home. This will help your brain think it is ready to sleep.” You can also try rolling relaxing lavender oil on your pulse points (neck, wrists and behind the knees).