How to sleep on a plane and wake up refreshed

Man asleep on a plane
(Image credit: Getty)

Some people are capable of sleeping soundly as soon as the plane leaves the tarmac, while others struggle to sleep on a plane at all. With uncomfortable seating, no leg room and too much light, there’s a lot to contend with when it comes to falling asleep on a plane. Fortunately, there are things you can do to ensure you arrive at your destination well-rested.

Whether you want a power nap on a short flight or you’re aiming to get a full eight hours on a long-haul flight, we’ve asked the experts how to go from wide awake to falling asleep on a plane without even thinking about it. Here, we'll look at the common challenges we face when trying to sleep on a plane, and share tips on how you can overcome them with just a few simple changes. 

How to sleep on a plane: expert tips and products

1. Use a great pair of sleep earplugs 

With around 100 other people all jammed into a plane there are bound to be some noises that can disturb you. From people talking to young children crying, it’s not the same environment as your own bedroom. Choosing the best sleep earplugs can cancel out noise or play soothing sounds as you drift off.

Some sleep earplugs like the QuietOn 3, feature noise-cancelling technology to block ambient sounds so you can nod off faster. However, you may not want complete noise cancellation, especially if you don't want to miss important announcements or want to be woken up for plane meals, so choose the right ones for you.

2. Swap alcohol or caffeine for water

If you’re on a long-haul flight it may be tempting to get your money's worth in free alcoholic drinks or coffee, but both can leave you feeling alert and dehydrated according to Dave Gibson, a sleep expert at eve Sleep.

“Caffeine is well known to keep us awake and quickly enters the bloodstream. Alcohol, whilst helping us nod off will then wake us in the later stages of sleep, disrupting sleep quality," Gibson says. Thus, he recommends drinking water (or non-caffeinated soft drinks) to stay hydrated in mid-air.

Gibson also offers this advice if you want to sleep during your entire trip: "If you intend to sleep on a flight you could also try to hydrate before the flight so that you aren’t prompted to go to the toilet once asleep.”

3. Wear compression socks

In addition to walking around the cabin every so often, wearing the right socks will improve blood flow through your legs and feet so you don’t wake up with cramps, pins and needles, or deep vein thrombosis (blood clots). Plus, the temperature on most flights tends to dip as soon as you’re in the air, so a good pair of socks will keep your feet warm, too.

Look for compression socks, which feature a circulation-promoting compression profile to improve blood flow and venous return. reducing the risk of deep vein thrombosis whilst promoting effective recovery of your leg muscles. Slip them on at home before you head to the airport to wear them throughout your flight. Also, ensure they're snug but not too tight, or else your legs may lose circulation. 

4. Book business class (or get a window seat)

If you can afford it, most long-haul flights have a premium or business class section with roomier seats – some of which recline all the way back and convert into a bed. Of course, this isn't a cost-effective option, but there is another (cheaper) way to pick the right seating for mid-flight snoozing if you must settle for economy.

Therapist and lifestyle coach Marisa Peer has traveled extensively and recommends opting for a window seat close to the front of the plane. "This means you won’t have people waking you to get past for a loo break and you also have control of the window shade," says Peer, "Passengers closer to the front feel less of the turbulence during the flight as well as peripheral noises like adjustments to the plane’s wings.”

5. Breathe and meditate

No doubt the pressure of traversing between time zones, getting through airport security and boarding the plane has left you feeling stressed - not conducive to a good night's sleep. Breathwork and meditation are great ways to calm your nervous system and prepare your body for sleep before takeoff.

If you’ve never tried breathwork or meditation, you can download any of the best meditation apps to help get you started. Apps like Calm have guided sessions to lull you to center and eventually restful sleep. (Read our Calm app review to learn how well it works.) Just download the app to your phone prior to departure and you'll be good to go.

If you don’t want to faff with an app then try Melo, a small handheld device that lights up and vibrates to gently take you through breathing exercises - helping you to relieve any anxiety before nodding off. (Melo is based in the UK, but ships worldwide.)

6. Wear an eye mask

When its nighttime our bodies release melatonin, also known as the sleep hormone. However, it may be a good while before lights-out on the flight, or perhaps your seatmate is using their phone with the brightest screen setting. Either way, it can be difficult to fall asleep if there's too much light in your vicinity.

Instead, delve into darkness by donning an eye mask as soon as you’re comfortably in your seat. This way, your body will start to think it's time to wind down. If you're in business class, an eye mask is often provided for you, but you can purchase one prior to your trip that's closer to the feel and fit you're looking for.

Also, this is another reason why you'll want to vie for a window seat. You'll be able to control the shade, and how much natural light enters your section.

How to feel refreshed after sleeping on a plane

If you’ve followed all our advice and slept soundly during the flight, then you’ll feel less sleepy – but it may take you a while to feel totally refreshed. If you wake up before the plane begins its descent, get up and stretch for 5 to 10 minutes, moving your hands and feet in circular motions. (Of course, be mindful of any cabin crew going through the aisles doing their final checks.)

After you've shaken off the cobwebs, take a trip to the bathroom to splash your face with some water and clean your teeth. Once you get back to your seat, keep yourself hydrated to shrug off any sleep inertia. 

After that, let some natural light back in by pulling up your window blind. This will help your mind alert your body to what time of day it is.

Better sleep tips for when you’re home

When you finally get back home you’ll no doubt want to flop into bed and work off any jet lag, but if you’re waking up with aches and pains long after your trip has concluded, it’s probably time for a mattress upgrade. 

Catherine Quinn, president of the British Chiropractic Association says: “The sleep council recommends getting a new mattress every seven years to help ensure a dreamy night’s sleep, so learn to recognise the warning signs that it’s time to change. If you wake up feeling stiff or aching, or if your mattress is misshapen, sagging, or you can feel individual springs, it’s time to invest in a new one.”

Investing in one of the best mattresses can go a long way in improving the quality of your sleep and your overall well-being. Browsing mattress sales and deals will allow you to save money on a top-tier bed so you'll be able to buy something reliable, regardless of budget.

You'll also want to pair your mattress with the best pillow for your sleep style and body type. If you're unsure of what that is, there's a simple expert-recommended test you can take to learn if you're sleeping on the wrong pillow.

Other things you can do to help sleep better at home is to keep your room cool and clutter-free, avoid blue light from your phone for an hour before bed, open a window to let fresh air into the room and invest in black-out blinds (or an eye mask). 

Good hygiene is also crucial to a good night's sleep, so make sure to clean your mattress and bedding regularly. Learn how to wash a pillow and how often you should flip a mattress – and invest in a mattress protector to keep allergens and bed bugs at bay, too.

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Sarah Finley

Sarah is a freelance writer - writing across titles including Woman&Home, Fit&Well, TechRadar, the Independent and the BBC. She covers a variety of subjects, including trends in beauty, business and wellness - but her biggest passions are travel and fitness. She can normally be found trying out the latest fitness class or on a plane to an exotic destination. While she loves to combine the two - signing up to do hiking holidays in LA, intense boot camps in Bali - last year she went on her dream activity holiday: paddleboarding around deserted islands in Croatia.