How To Sleep On A Plane

I make a dozen or more overnight flights each year during my frenzied schedule as a travel photographer and I’ve learned a few tricks on how to get the proper rest to maintain the highest physical, mental, and creative energy levels possible. Sleeping at night while traveling can be difficult for a lot of people. Different beds than you’re accustomed to, jet lag, and disruptions to your body’s circadian rhythm are just a few reasons. My advice when traveling internationally is to get your sleep whenever and wherever you can. That includes on the bus, in the car (as long as you’re not driving) and on planes, especially during overnight flights.

The worst way to begin an overseas adventure is tired, fatigued, and with zero energy after a 14-hour flight. Here are some tips on how to avoid that by getting some good sleep on the plane.

My Three Favorite Accessories for Travel Sleep

Therm-a-Rest Compressible Travel Pillow I’ve tried pillows of every variety in order to perfect the cosmic airplane sleep. The airline pillows are crap. I even never understood the neck pillows that seem uber popular with travelers. They were never comfortable at all to me. The Therm-a-Rest Compressible Travel Pillow (medium size) is about twice as big as the standard airline pillow, has 3 times the loft, and compresses down to a manageable size for putting in your carry on bags.

Bose QuietComfort 20 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones Bose products are simply the best. I prefer the noise-cancelling ear buds over the bulky headphones that makes it difficult to get comfortable for sleep. Use these for soft music or use the noise-cancelling feature alone just to cut down on ambient plane noise.

Earth Therapeutics Dream Zone Sleep Mask I’ve tried a half dozen eye shades until I found these. These are silky, soft and so comfortable to wear. When I lay by head back to rest, I don’t even realize I am wearing anything over my eyes.


I don’t try to sleep immediately after takeoff. I’ve learned the routine of the on-board staff so I choose the optimal time to pull down the eye shades and get some shut eye. When the plane climbs to 10,000 feet, there are usually a barrage of announcements and crass commercial promotions you have to endure. Then within the first hour, dinner is usually served. I take a pass on the airline food but I might order a glass of wine at this point to help continue the process of winding down. Some of you might be tempted to drink more than just one glass of wine to help with sleep. This is a bad idea. Drinking excessive alcohol will lead to more bathroom visits and dehydration. As I said, it’s just a bad idea. Don’t do it.

As soon as the dinner service is completed and the lights in the main cabin are turned down, I’ll use the restroom one last time, throw on a sweater to stay warm, grab my pillow, turn on the noise-canceling headphones, and drop the eye shades. My next conscious moment should come about eight hours later with the breakfast service announcement.

The Window Seat

I think we can all agree that the middle seat is the least desirable seat option. But the window is far superior to the aisle seat if you plan on catching some sleep on your long flight. There are several good reasons for this. First, you won’t have passengers or flight attendants bumping into you while strolling down the aisle during the night. Second, you don’t have to worry about fellow passengers in your row waking you to get up to use the restroom. Third, the window seat offers the side of the plane and/or window to rest your head and pillow up against. Window seat. Very important.

Get Comfortable

If you’re using one of the blankets provided to you by the airline, make sure your seatbelt is clearly visible. Otherwise, if the plane encounters turbulence, an airline attendant might wake you to be sure you’re buckled in. That goes for any heavy coats or sweaters as well. It might be difficult to fall asleep again after the interruption.

To Recline Or Not To Recline?

There is a surprisingly heated debate among “travel experts” on whether it’s appropriate to recline your seat on a plane. Many say it’s rude and it should absolutely never be done. But then again, that big round button on the side of the armrest is there for a reason. The closer your body can gain the horizontal, the easier sleep will be. If there is no one sitting in the seat behind me, I will definitely recline. If the person behind me has reclined, I will also recline with no issues. If the passenger in front of me has reclined and there is someone sitting behind me, I will always politely ask if it’s ok before pushing my seat back. No one has ever refused the request.