I think there are probably three keys:
1, Proper preparation
2, Good seating
3, Contingency handling
1, Proper Preparation:
What are the keys to rest? Comfort, bodily preparedness, space, lack of distractions, temperature, among other things.
Comfort: neck pillows are lifesavers. They make sleeping on your back much easier. I particularly like neck pillows with hoodies to keep you especially cozy and warm. Plus, jersey is just the best material to sleep on. So comfortable.
Think about what brings comfort to you. Is it a super soft blanket? Consider taking one along. Consider buying a small version of what you like if yours is big. Is it listening to soft music? Consider buying sleep-friendly headphones or earphones. Most are really annoying. Is it a regular pillow? Maybe you bring one along.
Bodily preparedness: there are some keys to regular sleep that involve bodily preparedness. Your body is going to have a tough enough time sleeping on a plane. Check these off!
- Eat well that day, including not having eaten much before going to bed and especially having avoided coffee in like the half day before
- Have an active day, preferably have worked out earlier
- Stretch out and be limber, your body is going to get cooped up on the plane; have good posture throughout the day ( )
- Try to be on a sleep schedule in the days preceding it so you just naturally want to sleep at those times and are used to
- Go to the bathroom and have that taken care of
- Don’t stare at a screen right before going to bed. Try something more old school: talk to someone, read a book, or just ponder / plan…
Space: have you thought through your plan for your carry-ons? If you’re going to be bringing two on, will you be okay with putting one under your seat? That’s going to take up some leg room. Maybe you want to consolidate. Or, maybe it can be positive: you can put your feet on that bag? If so, pack accordingly so you’re not worried about breaking something.
Hacker tip: I don’t recommend being rude and putting both your bags up at the beginning of a flight. But, once everyone has boarded, that space is fair game! Put the bag at your feet up there if there’s space.
Lack of Distractions: distractions can come in many types: sound, touch, sight, smell. In my opinion, the one you definitely should prepare for and is very common is sight. Eye covers are amazing. Again, material quality is a key differentiator here. But I highly recommend you use one. It helps you simulate the feeling of being in a place to go to sleep.
Think about what distractions bother you most and have an item or plan in place to tackle them. We’ll cover this in more detail in 3, too.
Temperature: most times, planes can be really cold. Sometimes, especially in Asia in my experience, they can also be too hot. Be prepared by dressing in layers. This allows you to get cooler or warmer as necessary. If you are a person who likes to be warm while sleeping, or tucked in at least, consider bringing a small/thin blanket.
2, Good seating
What are your preferences about bathroom going, bag access, and percentage of time sleeping? Do you like leaning against the window?
Even if you do not like leaning against the window, if you plan on sleeping 100% of the time and don’t care about getting to your carry-on in the compartments above, plus you don’t wake up at night to go to the bathroom much, it makes sense to get a window seat. The window seat isn’t disturbed by people needing to get out.
On the other hand, for me, I usually don’t plan on sleeping the whole time, don’t care much about being woken up to get up, and prefer the access to my bag, so I take aisle seats.
Are you tall? Do you love space? You might want to check out how much space you are getting. A different airline, or premium seat, or even exit seat may be worth the investment. Sometimes, for an exit seat, all you have to do is madly refresh your internet browser 1 minute before you are allowed to check in (which is 24 hours before your first flight).
In general, I highly recommend getting a seat as close to the front as possible and either an aisle or window. So check in as soon as you can!
3, Contingency planning & handling
Be prepared for the things that happen on planes and suck. These include delays, turbulence, annoying neighbors, light at weird times, and loud people.
Delays: these may very well happen. It might mean you get in much later in the morning. How does this effect you? For me, I tend to be picky about eating when traveling. And on red eye type flights, there often is no good food available at airports. So you probably want to pack a few snacks you like.
In addition, I tend to want to get some sleep. The key here is to obtain an estimate for when the plane is being boarded, sit near the gate anyways so you can be woken up by commotion if, for example, everyone is switching gates, set an alarm for when boarding starts, and try to get some rest there.
Turbulence: sometimes, planes just suck and make your stomach turn.
I always like to get my mindset right in these situations. ‘Poor pilots, they’re probably trying like heck to get us into stable airspace but the air authorities have guided them into a rough patch.’ Or ‘Wow, it’s so cool that we’re traveling the world here. Looks like we hit a more violent weather path.’ This helps you feel okay about the situation, or maybe even amazed that you guys are just cutting through it like nothing and more people are just taking it as an annoyance and not realizing how lucky we are to be living in this time.
In addition, if you know you are sensitive to these situations, it may make sense to bring some medicine. Dramamine is an over the counter motion sickness drug that seems to do the trick for people. I personally do not use it.
Annoying neighbors: people can be awful on planes. They can elbow you with loose arms on the arm rest. They can take up more space than they are allotted by unfortunate body types (bodybuilders, obese) or “wide knees.” They can be loud. They can shine their light on you. They can smell.
Sometimes, the easiest solution is to find another seat. If you are on a redeye, there may very well be some place for you to switch once the plane is airborne.
Other times, it means combating their problem. You can ask them politely. Or you can put an eye cover on. Or you can put headphones in. Or you can speak with the hostess. Try to balance being a warm, nice human that realizes everyone hates planes with getting what is within your “cultural rights,” like space and not getting elbowed.
One problem I will sometimes encounter is particularly annoying. People not being equitable or recognizing what is important on a plane.
- If someone has a whole row to themselves, even if it is an exit row, do not assume you can just move into the row. They may be planning on sleeping in it. Ask very nicely if you want to and do not be upset if they say no.
- If the middle seat between you two is available, only take up half the space! Half the space is for the other person; do not use it all. That is rude.
Now that we have those base guidelines in place, what to do when someone violates them? Either give up, speak to them very nicely, or speak to the hostess. And also, educate. Please educate on airplane etiquette.
I once had a woman do both to me and the air hostess was so horrified she told the person herself, without me saying anything (I just gave up).
Light at weird times: sometimes, the airline decides to serve food on the old place’s time zone (almost always, see bonus jet lag tip for more details). Other times, they just have the lights on for long periods at takeoff and landing. It can be annoying when you are trying to sleep. Have the right tools, like an eye cover and hoodie ready. And get your mental state prepared for it so it doesn’t bother you much.
Loud people: sometimes babies are onboard and unhappy with the air pressure differences. Other times, friends come on the plane. Or if it’s a flight from Vegas, sometimes people are still partying. Loud people happen on planes.
One solution is obviously get your mental state right. Try to empathize with them and forgive them and go to sleep. Pretend they were someone you actually liked. Also, it helps to think about your ideal solution. Perhaps it’s one ear to the seat and the other with a headphone. Or it’s bringing a headband and putting that over your ears for some modicum of blockage.
I don’t recommend…
- Sleeping pills. These things are not good for you and cause bad habits. If you must use one, go with a very small dose of melatonin. Most modern doses of melatonin are way too high. You do not need much.
Bonus jet lag tip…
- I see almost no one do this, and it boggles my mind. Sleep according to the time zone you are going into! Not the one you are coming from. Usually this means keeping yourself awake for unreasonable periods, which makes going to sleep easier anyways. I always do this going to India (basically stay up like 23 hours) and then sleep on India time and everyone is amazed that I am the only person not jet lagged.
- Warning: this actually makes it harder to sleep on the plane. Typically, airlines serve meals and disturb you as if we were all still on the time zone from where we left. But it makes your overall life better. And if you adopt all the tips in this post, you should be able to sleep through it.
(Note: originally posted as Quora post.)