Can you sleep on planes?

Airplane passenger
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Flying hundreds of times never made me an expert on sleeping on planes. In fact, this is a serious problem that bothers me a lot on long haul flights, especially overnight. All I can do is take some naps of 5 minutes or so, and wake up scared thinking that the plane is falling down. Meanwhile, my husband W even manages to snore. Lucky him who won’t arrive in the final destination looking like a zombie and with a bad mood.

The longest flights I ever took were from São Paulo to Toronto in 2004 – 10hrs 50 minutes – and from Madrid to São Paulo a couple of weeks ago – 10 hours. Boy, were those flights long! It seemed like the last 3 hours would never pass. I watched 2 movies, 1 episode of a TV series, I read pages and pages of books, wrote an entire post and translated it to Portuguese (How it’s like to be a waiter at the Oktoberfest), chose and edited photos on Photoshop, played games, ate and drank, talked, went to the bathroom, and not even a 2-minute nap was taken.

Thinking of myself and other people who also have trouble sleeping on planes, I decided to ask some fellow travel bloggers around, how they manage to sleep on a plane. And this what I got:

I usually sleep on planes, especially if it’s an early morning or a late night flight. One time, I had a late flight and it was delayed a couple of hours so by the time I got to my tiny seat on the plane I was so sleepy I fell asleep before takeoff and woke up when they were announcing they would be landing soon.

My secret? I put on the headphones, turn on my travel iPod, carefully choose some songs, turn up the volume, close my eyes and imagine I’m somewhere else (preferably, the awesome place I just visited or I’m about to visit). It works every time and it makes me avoid annoying people that may or may not be on my flight.

However, it’s never fun to wake up during turbulence, look out the window and see lightning. On the other hand, if a flight is during the day, I can’t sleep at all because I’m glued to that window seat to be ready to take some pictures. 😉

Vlad from Eff it… I’m on Holiday

Airplane wing
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I have to admit that I don’t often sleep for long on flights because I absolutely love flying and the expectation of visiting a new destination usually keeps me wide awake and excitable for the whole journey! I’m also a very light sleeper so I find it really hard to fall asleep on a noisy plane full of people. But I do try to make myself sleep for at least a couple of hours so that I’m not blurry-eyed and ready for bed as soon as we land.

My best tips to get some sleep would be to have a glass of wine or, my favourite, Baileys at the beginning of the flight as alcohol often leaves me feeling a little tired. I then make myself as comfortable as possible by changing into some baggy sweatpants or pyjama bottoms and covering myself with a warm fluffy cardigan or the blanket that the airline provides to keep me nicely snug and warm.

I always carry my amazing travel pillow – a super squishy Cushtie – which is much cosier than the usual travel pillows. Switching my overhead light off and watching a couple of films or reading a book usually makes me quite sleepy too. And, if all else fails, I always have my husband’s shoulder to rest my weary head on!

Ayla from Mrs Ayla’s Adventures

Airport

I love a long-haul flight for lots of reasons. First off it means the beginning of a new adventure but it’s also time to get off the grid, watch a film or two and get into a good book.  I also like to get some shut-eye during a flight so that I arrive feeling fresh and raring to go.  Here are some tips that help me get some in-flight rest and arrive at my destination ready to explore right from the off.

  • Choose your seat well – location is everything. I like a window seat because it means I can rest a pillow against the cabin wall. Also your fellow passengers won’t disturb you when they need to get out of their seat. I also try to make sure my seat row isn’t near the galley which can get really noisy or next to the toilets where people may queue.
  • Noise cancelling headphones are great not only for listening to music to drown out the noise of the flight or crying babies but also to deter over-friendly passengers from striking up unwanted conversations (that sounds mean doesn’t it!)
  • An eye mask blocks out any light from nearby screens or overhead lights.
  • Cabin temperatures tend to vary so I wear layers so I can peel off or layer on depending on temperature. A wrap or large scarf is a must for me on a flight.

Suzanne from The Travelbunny

Airplane flying

Unlike many fellow travellers, I often find it quite easy to fall asleep on planes and just a few months ago, in fact, I managed five solid hours, which was quite an achievement when you see my straightforward tricks of the trade. My methods don’t include colourful, inflatable neck pillows or serene panpipe music playing melodically through my earphones and they certainly don’t require any chemical enhancement in the form of alcohol or medication.

I use the good old-fashioned technique of lifting up the armrest and plonking my head down on the arm of a loved one (my usual choice is a spouse but siblings, parents and close friends could potentially work in equal measure.) If you are going to adopt this process, ensure you check with your human pillow whether or not they would tolerate the pool of dribble that might end up on their arm and of course, being little in height (like I am) helps as well because on those occasional flights with lots of free seats, you can scrunch up in the fetal position and your legs will still fit on the seats comfortably.

*Disclaimer* These tips are dependent upon having a travel companion, who is patient and kind enough to prioritise your sleep over theirs. I would not recommend trying out these suggestions with the stranger next to you if you are travelling alone or you might end up with harassment charges against you!

Shikha from Why Waste Annual Leave

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I am really bad at sleeping when sitting up – so that is why I do not often manage to sleep on planes. Just a few times when the flight is a bit empty and I have an extra seat and can lie down, then I sleep very well. I have a few times, when the trip was very long and for days, taken a pill that makes me relax, and then I managed to sleep for some hours on the plane. But this is not something I do often. If I travel in the nights it also helps, as they turn off the light and there is not too much sound or things happening around. Then I might manage to sleep a bit if I am very tired, even when sitting up.

Hanne from Places People Stories

 

So, if you want to try, here is a list of things that might help:

  • Choose your seat carefully (avoid seating neat the toilets)
  • Use the airplane’s pillow/blanket or your own
  • Watch series/movies
  • Read a book
  • Use someone’s shoulder (be careful with that, as Shikha said)
  • Drink an alcoholic beverage
  • Listen to music
  • Wear confortable clothes
  • Medication (I never tried and don’t really support this method; if you choose to use it talk to your doctor first)
  • Count sheep on your head
  • Pray that the plane won’t be full so you can take an extra seat!

I have tried sleeping on W’s shoulder, with a pillow, with my head bend on the small table in front of my seat, listening to music, having wine and reading. Nothing works. It’s not that I can’t relax, as Hanne, I can’t seem to sleep when I’m in upright position, I simply need to lie down. Getting an extra seat would probably be the best solution for me.

 

What about you? Can you sleep on planes? Let me know on the poll below:

A special thanks to Vlad, Ayla, Shikha, Suzanne and Hanne for taking part and sharing their tips and experiences with us!

Ps: I’m already thinking of my upcoming 10-hour-overnight-flight from São Paulo to Madrid.

About Allane

A Brazilian living in Germany. Married to W. mommy to a baby girl and a Golden Retriever. Traveler, writer, aspiring photographer, diver, wine appreciator, Formula 1 fan, avid reader of historical and young adult fictions books. City girl, nature lover, believer of a better world, one little change at a time.

  • I have that issue too, especially on morning flights. Once I flew with my brother to Washington DC (from Athens via Amsterdam) and he slept almost the whole time…he finds it so easy to sleep. I had some success on night flights though!

    • Ohhh lucky him!! I wish I could do that, even on night flights it’s very hard for me 🙁
      I hope one day I get some extra seats and see how it goes 😀

  • Places People Stories

    That was some great tips the others bloggers came with! 🙂
    I agree with the medication thing and I think everyone should talk to their doctor first…At first, I was very scared to use it. But then I had a friend I travelled with and her dad was a doctor, and he said it was no danger. So I tried that one time. After wards I have talked to many other doctors, and they actually do the same, and use this themselves when travelling for sleep. But ofcourse it is much better if you manage to sleep without using any medication…

    • That’s great that you talked to a doctor first. My sister is a doctor and she told me the same, that it’s no danger, depending on the pill of course, and that you need to talk to a doctor first to see which one you should take.
      I never tried this option before, I’m afraid that I will wake up even more tired hahaha 😀

  • Oh my, 15 and half?! Wow! One of the longest.
    If it’s during the day, I don’t mind not sleeping, I find a way to keep myself busy, but if it’s at night, it’s terrible, because I can’t sleep and can’t focus on anything else because I’m too tired 🙁
    Thank you for sharing your experience… travel pillows also make my neck hurt.

  • Ohhh my, what a long flight! Lucky you that you can manage to sleep, even if it wasn’t for the entire journey. I wish I could do that on my upcoming flight, which is a night flight 🙁 Extra seats would be the solution, as I can’t sleep sitting up 🙁

  • Same here 🙁

  • My pleasure Ayla!! Thank you for sharing your experience 🙂
    Noo I didn’t 🙁 but at least the flight was during the day, so I could keep myself busy. But the return flight will be at night, and it will be even harder!! Let’s hope I find an extra seat 😀

  • I can totally relate with you when it comes to international flights. I don’t mind not sleeping on short flights, but the long ones really bother me, especially if it’s at night. I have tried many things, apart from medicine and extra seats… maybe I will get lucky on my next flight and get an extra seat 😀

  • Sorry to hear you find it hard to sleep on planes Allane but as I get older, I too find it much less easy than I used to. Being upright it is hard unless you are utterly exhausted. Thank you so much for including my contribution!

    • Yes, I agree with you! I can only sleep in the upright position if I’m really exhausted, and only for a few minutes. Very hard and uncomfortable! hahaha

  • My longest flight has been 15 hour and the only time I have ever managed to sleep was when I was upgraded to first class and could lie flat on a bed… I find travel pillows so uncomfortable and then I get hot then cold and then hot again!

    • OMG 15 hours? At least it was first class, I think if I had a flat bed I would definitely sleep too, but sitting is soooo difficult and uncomfortable! I have a problem with my nose, it gets really dry!

  • Ohh I’m glad to know I’m not the only one! It is so hard… maybe one day I will get to sleep on a bed in first class 😀

  • Ohh no really? I think we have the same problem. It is very hard 🙁 I hope we find a way to cope with it.

  • Thank you Vlad for accepting 😀
    hahaha yes, try the glass of wine… it helps a little, at least to make time pass faster!

  • I also watch lots of movies. I think I should try walking a little, it’s good for the body I guess. Sitting 10 hours in a plane seat is not fun!

  • Ohhh having an extra room certainly helps a lot 😀 So far I never got the chance to get extra seats to try to sleep better.

  • hahaha that’s so interesting that you can sleep on trains and cars but not in planes 😀
    I hope some of these tips help you out next time!

  • Mabel Kwong

    I am not good on sleeping on planes at all. The most I’ve slept on a flight is an hour at most at a stretch – I will keep waking up because of people walking by, and the headphones often don’t block out the noise (I just put the headphones over my ears, can’t sleep when there’s music). Sometimes when I take motion sickness medication they make me sleepy, so I will nod off easier a bit more but still, there will always be some sound or the jerking of the plane to wake me up 😀

    • Ohh nooo, sorry to know that! The noise is definitely an annoying problem! It’s not the worst one for me, and if I fly at night then people are quieter so it doesn’t bother me much.
      Do you feel sick when flying?