Being able to sleep on your flight to Europe adds an extra day to your trip.  Assuming your trip is for a week, then you just added 17% to your trip for $0.  

Your Trip: With and Without Sleeping on the Plane

Flights from North America to Europe are almost invariably overnight with you arriving fairly early in the morning.  If you don’t manage to sleep on the flight, you will be a wreck that first day.  It will be a waste.

Further, you likely won’t be able to check into your hotel right away and will have to walk around feeling terrible.  It is likely your flight will arrive early in the morning, and usually your room isn’t ready yet.  Even so, once you get your hotel room, you may end up having to take a nap, which wastes the day and usually causes prolonged sleep schedule problems on your trip.  In any case, one way or the other, the day is wasted.  You will have just paid a lot of money for a bad day.  So let’s try to avoid that!

What if, on the other hand, you’re able to sleep on the flight?  Once you leave the airport, you can drop off your things at your hotel and hit the ground running.  You now have an entire day of sight-seeing.  You might not feel the best you have ever felt, but you will be ok.  It is like adding an extra day to your vacation. And it cost nothing.  Yet I find very few people take any serious steps to make sure that they are able to sleep on the flight.

There’s no guarantee, of course.  Some people find it difficult or impossible to sleep on planes.  Most people don’t find it terribly easy.  You are typically excited about your trip and the seats just aren’t built for sleeping.  But you can take steps to maximize your chances of sleeping on the plane and for staying asleep as long as possible. Here’s how.

Tips for Sleeping on Planes

1. Come Tired

It starts well before you get on the plane.  Try to get up a little earlier the day before your flight, and try to do some exercise that day as well.  Don’t overdo it, but you want to do what you can to make sure your body is a little tired when you get on the plane.  Do what you can to get your metabolism in as good of shape for sleeping as possible.

2. Ambien

Next, I recommend you talk to your doctor about getting some Ambien before the trip.  I personally take one as I am preparing to board the airplane (more about the timing in a second).  Honestly, I’m uncomfortable recommending medication as the answer to anyone’s problems (and I typically avoid medication when I can), but in this case it is a big part of the answer for me. 

I resisted this for years, but my wife (who is a doctor) finally talked me into it, and now I do it every time.  If you are against that, maybe just take some melatonin and avoid caffeine that day.

3. Skip the Meal

Now let’s talk about what to do once you are on the plane.  My advice is that you do not wait around for the airline meal before attempting to get some sleep.  Rather, eat dinner at the airport before you get on the plane.  Treat yourself to a nice, full, meal (assuming your airport has a place where you can do that), which will aid in sleeping.  It will be far better than anything you get on the plane. 

For years I let a bad airline meal get in between me and sleeping, and it was a bad idea.  You are not missing anything by skipping that meal, and you’ll be in better shape to get more sleep anyway.

4. Bring Your Own Pillow

Once you are on the plane, you will need to get comfortable. For those of you that paid for business class seats, this will be a lot easier. But that’s usually not me, and for those of us that are slumming it back in coach, we will need to take some additional measures.  This starts with a pillow.

Don’t rely on the tiny airline pillow.  Bring your own.   The type is up to you.  I have seen people bring their own full-size pillows and then throw them away when the flight is over (they are very cheap).  Other people just fold up jackets or sweaters. 

My current solution is to use a neck pillow and, although I typically hate neck pillows, this one attaches to the headrest on my seat and holds my head up.  I find that works better for me.  That said, there is no one size fits all pillow.  Just don’t rely on the tiny pillow the airlines give you, as it is inadequate for anything.

5. Raise Your Feet

I like to sit in the exit row or bulkhead row because there is much more space in front of you.  If you are tall, this could be really important.  Even if you are not all that tall (sadly, like me), it is still nice to have the extra room.

With all this room in front of you, you can stretch out your legs when you are trying to sleep.  You’ll find, however, that having your feet lower than the rest of you soon gets a little uncomfortable.  Not uncomfortable like it really bothers you, but enough that it may impact your ability to sleep.  The answer is to get a blowup footrest for the plane.  These are cheap and take up little space in your bag.  Once you are on the plane and ready to try to sleep, blow it up and put your feet on it.  If you like it, great.  If you don’t, throw it away (but I think you’ll like it).

6. Plan to Stay Warm

You also should make sure you are going to be warm on the flight.  Flights can sometimes get rather cold and this can keep you awake. The airlines will typically give you a small blanket, but this may not be adequate.

My advice here dovetails with my general packing advice, which is to wear your heaviest clothing items on the plane (this lets you pack more stuff).  Typically, you take these layers off and shove them under the seat, but if you get cold you can put them back on.

7. Block Out Noise and Light

Next, you want to block out light and noise.  It is a scientific fact that the two biggest impediments to sleep are light and noise, so you should bring a pair of eyeshades and a set of earplugs. You can also use headphones if you like.  That will help keep you asleep if there is noise on the plane or if they turn the lights on and off.

I’m actually amending this advice following a few recent trips.  A crying or screaming kid will ruin everything and, perhaps I’m just particularly unlucky, but my recent international flights have seen more and more of this.  Ear plugs are inadequate to block it out.  You need headphones playing music or something.  Play whatever music  blocks out the crying kid but still lets you relax (for me it is classical).  In any case, bring a pair of headphones.


A Final Piece of Advice

One final piece of advice: don’t think a few drinks will help. Believe me I have given this a fair shake and it just does more harm than good. Save the drinks for when you are there.  You’ll arrive in much better shape.

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