Good news: You’ve just booked a dream vacation. Bad news: You’ll suffer through epically long flights, cramped seats, and loud passengers to get there.
While a few lucky folks can pass out easily upon takeoff, for most of us, quality in-flight sleep is a struggle. And that can lead to exhaustion and several nights of playing catch-up when you arrive at your final destination.
Beyond the tips you likely already know — invest in earplugs, an eye mask, and a pillow; wear comfy clothing; and book a first-class ticket with a lie-flat seat (#lifegoals) — here are more ways you can rest en route.
1. Score a window seat
If you can reserve a window seat, do it. You’ll be able to lean over and rest your head on the side of the plane. It’s a lot easier than trying to fall asleep on a neck pillow while basically sitting upright. Bonus: You can also control your light exposure.
The best way to guarantee you can pick your seat is to build status with an airline. “I tend to fly one airline group as much as possible, so I have status,” says Damian McCabe, CEO of McCabe World Travel, who has logged more than 100,000 miles in the air.
McCabe says perks can include a better seat and priority boarding. Plus, there’ll be more space for your carry-on.
Also, make sure you can stretch out your feet, says Alyx Brown, a sports chiropractor at Boulder Sports Clinic. It’s more than just a comfort issue — it’s also better for your circulation (more on that below).
McCabe recommends using the airline’s website or sites like SeatGuru to pick the best seat possible and get additional details (like legroom inches and proximity to bathrooms) that aren’t always available when booking online.
2. Pack some comfort items
Remember your favorite teddy bear as a kid? Think of this as the adult version. “I take a shawl and a good pair of socks, and I always have music because it helps to relax,” McCabe says.
Now’s the time to put that well-worn sweater, super-soft faded t-shirt, and chill playlist to good use. Falling asleep when you’re in the midst of 200 people and 30,000 feet up in the air is all about making yourself feel as at home as possible.
3. Stock up on melatonin
“If you’re traveling alone, be very careful about using any sleep medicine unless you know how it affects you,” says Max Hirshkowitz, PhD, former chairman of the National Sleep Foundation.
He adds that most over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids contain antihistamines, which are typically longer-acting and may leave you feeling groggy.
If you really want some help, try supplementing with melatonin. It’s a hormone that your body produces anyway and it’s there to help regulate your circadian rhythm — that nudge that it’s time for you to go to bed.
Though it’s not yet approved by the FDA (it’s classed as a dietary supplement), several studies have shown that melatonin may improve sleep issues.
4. Adjust your sleep schedule
Whether you’re traveling east or west can make a difference in your pre-flight plan. Heading east? Go to bed 30 to 60 minutes earlier than usual in the days leading up to your trip.
“Then, try to get up 30 minutes earlier, so you’ve shifted the whole sleeping window a little bit earlier,” explains Haley Byers, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in sleep.
Though the research is a bit older, one study found that a combination of shifting sleep cycles and using melatonin allowed subjects to avoid jet lag entirely.
5. Set your watch to your new time zone
As soon as you leave your starting city, act as if you’re already in the time zone of your destination, Byers suggests.
For instance, if you feel like you need a cup of Joe, only have it if you’d be drinking coffee at that time in your arrival city, Byers says. If it’s 10 p.m., the answer is no — regardless of how you feel in your current time zone.
The sooner you can start acclimating to your new destination, the better off you’ll be once you actually arrive.
6. Power down
In general, research shows that light exposure is a bad idea if you’re trying to sleep, especially blue light from our devices.
Electronic screens are similar to sunlight, says Byers. “So, when you’re looking at that right before bed, you’re suppressing melatonin release.”
To get solid shut-eye on board, close the window shade and turn off the overhead lights. Dim as many blue light sources as possible, like smartphones, laptops, and the screen on the back of the seat in front of you.
If you’re traveling east on an overnight flight, avoid light exposure and try to sleep during the first half of the flight (likely when it’s night where you’re heading).
If you’re going west, avoid light exposure during the second half of your flight to initiate a delay in your circadian rhythm. The good news is, if you’re flying west and you’re a night owl, you have an advantage, Hirshkowitz says.
Think about it: If you’re flying from NYC to LA, you’re now three hours behind. So, if it’s 3 a.m. in the Big Apple (and to your body), it’s only midnight in Cali. That’s an easier adjustment if you already like staying up late.
You’ll also get to “sleep in” the next morning. If you have an 8 a.m. meeting, it might feel more like 11 a.m. to your body.
The reverse — traveling east — is typically harder. Arriving at 3 a.m. local time, your body thinks it should only be midnight, and getting up at 8 a.m. will feel like 5 a.m.
7. Uncross your legs
When you cross your legs, you clamp down on one side, which could restrict blood flow. If your flight is more than four hours, this could increase your chances of a blood clot, according to the CDC.
“You could also torque your low back,” says Karena Wu, PT, clinical director for ActiveCare Physical Therapy in NYC and Mumbai.
Because your lower half is slightly twisted either to the right or left (depending on which leg you crossed), and your upper body is still facing straight ahead, you add a small amount of additional stress to your lumbar.
If you fall asleep that way, you’ll likely wake up at some point and immediately cross your legs the other way because you’re subconsciously trying to even out that twist.
Here’s a better way to sit: keep your legs straight, with a slight bend to your knees. “You want to avoid any blood pooling in the lower part of your body,” Brown says.
If you’re petite, Wu suggests shifting your entire body to the side and leaning your shoulder into your seat.
8. Support your spine
Reclining your chair will help ease some of the pressure on your lower (lumbar) spine. With less pressure on your back, you may be cozy enough to fall asleep.
The second-best position is sitting up straight. But if your abdominal muscles aren’t strong, you won’t have any lumbar support, which can lead to lower back pain.
The fix: a lumbar pillow, which helps to keep that curve in your low back, Brown says. “You can use a travel pillow or even a rolled-up jacket.”
The worst thing you can do is to fall asleep leaning forward without any back support. “In that position, you’re putting the most pressure on the [spinal] discs,” Brown says.
9. Skip alcohol
Though it might be tempting — you’re on vacation, right? — booze won’t help you sleep soundly. “Alcohol will initially promote sleep, but it’s usually only in effect for three to four hours, and then you can’t get back to sleep,” Hirshkowitz says.
On top of that, you might wake with a headache and feel thirsty. That could lead to overcompensating with water, and we all know that frequent bathroom trips won’t make it easy to fall asleep, not to mention it’ll piss off the people trying to sleep next to you. Awkward…
10. Listen to a guided meditation
A 2015 study showed that meditation can be an effective way to get better sleep. And, if you didn’t sleep well the night before, meditation can help you feel less crappy.
With YouTube and apps like Insight Timer, Calm, and Headspace, there are thousands — of free guided meditations to choose from right now. Search for keywords like “sleep,” “anxiety relief,” or “relaxation,” and you’ll be winding down in no time.
11. Stay up
Even though it sucks, it’s best to stay awake as long as you can before your usual bedtime. “If you sleep all day, then you’re going to be up all night, prolonging the same issue,” Byers says.
If you nap, keep it short — 15 to 30 minutes, max. And accept that it may take a few days to feel completely back to normal.
If the first day or two you’re groggy, hungry at odd times, or have GI issues, it’s just part of your body adjusting. Give it time, and soon you’ll be back to enjoying your getaway.