Travel Tips

How Even a Nervous Flyer Can Sleep on a Plane

Try these easy tips to catch some shut eye on your next flight

The Vacationeer
Air-passengers watching the planes through the airport window at the terminal.

Finding tolerable sleep on a plane is a challenge for so many travelers. On top of being uncomfortable, those of us who are also nervous flyers, can add another element to uneasy sleep.

These butterflies make sleep seem impossible, so nervous flyers need to be a bit more strategic when preparing to sleep on a plane.

If you have anxiety up in the air, there are several ways to fall asleep at 35,000 feet.

Schedule the Right Flight

Yes, getting a good deal on a flight deserves a pat on the back, but sometimes if there is a flight with a better departure time, it can justify spending a little bit more. Since it can take nervous flyers awhile to fall asleep on an evening flight, avoid changing planes in the middle of the night. If possible, non-stop is the way to go to maximize rest in the air.

Sleep Less the Night Before

If you have kids, this is probably already built into your nightly routine. If not, try sleeping a third fewer hours than normal. By the time you get settled into your seat, your body will be begging to drift off to dreamland.

Exercise Before Your Flight

Whether you prefer running, yoga, weight lifting, or swimming, find a workout that will get your heartrate up.

You feel powerful after a good workout, and by the time you get on the plane, your body is conditioned for rest. There are even several airports that offer yoga rooms. So, if you don’t have time for a workout before your flight, get to the airport 30 minutes earlier than normal and enjoy plank, downward dog, and shavasna before boarding your plane.

Your body will not only appreciate the stretching, but you will feel more relaxed and ready for sleep.

Seat Location

Even if you aren’t a nervous flyer, if you are looking for sleep, a window seat is the best choice.

“Captain of the Window Seat” controls the pesky sunshade. When that sunshade is lifted after a red-eye flight…BRUTAL. Temporary vision loss, headaches, and anger set in.

As the “Keeper of the Window Seat”, you can also avoid climbers. There is bound to be a bump, stumble, or trip and fall happening during a fellow seatmate’s journey to the bathroom.

Avoid the bulkhead or emergency row seats. While this seat choice might offer more legroom, most don’t recline. Unless you can fall asleep in the position of a straight jacket, having a seat that reclines is a must for sleep-seekers.

Finally, avoid the last row of the plane. When daylight arrives on an overseas flight, the lines for the bathroom build up, and it can get ...smelly. Airplane air is already stuffy. You don’t want to try to sleep in stuffy, and now offensive, air.  

Take Care of Your Feet

Those socks you seem to get every year in your holiday stocking….the fuzzy, wooly, thick ones? Bring a brand new pair on your next flight and slip them on before you are ready to go to sleep.

Sometimes putting on a fresh pair of socks can make your body feel more relaxed. Yes, some overseas flights will give you socks, but they're nowhere near as warm and fluffy as the stocking stuffer ones.

Jammie Time

You might not be up for wearing pajamas on a plane, but changing into cozy breathable sweats, scrubs, or PJ pants can also relax your body and get you ready for sleep.

Some travelers like bringing their own pillow, but then you are stuck carrying it with you during your travels.

If you had to choose between bringing a pillow or a blanket, opt for the blanket. Putting blanket weight on while flying adds a little bit of comfort away from your own bed. Just be sure to buckle your seat belt over your blanket to avoid flight attendants waking you up to make sure you are buckled during turbulence.

Eat Healthy

Sometimes it’s hard to avoid carb-heavy foods in the airport or the salty saran wrap boxed dinner on your flight. Packing protein foods in your carry-on can help you find sleep.

Almonds, hummus, and even a comforting peanut butter sandwich are all great choices.

Many anxious flyers might order a glass of wine so the alcohol can aid sleep, but it in fact does the opposite. An already nervous flyer drinking a glass of wine can expect to have an increase in anxiety, not a sleepy state of mind.

Finally, no caffeine. Not even hours before your flight. Stick with a simple, but effective, glass of water.

Create a Sleep Nook

Anymore, many flights are sold out (or very full) so it’s rare to have a whole row to yourself to stretch out and create a ‘Row 32 Flight Slumber Bed’. In the window seat, you can recline your seat just enough so you can still look out the window if needed. The seat usually has an adjustable headrest, so using this as a pillow adds a bit of comfort. Also, use the footrest or prop your feet on top of a carry-on bag.

Noise Cancelling Headphones

Yes, they are a bit pricey but totally worth it for comfort and blocking out the hum of the engine, or the clank of the beverage cart. The headphones are so soft they can even feel almost ‘pillow-like’. Try listening to classical or soft music at a low volume before drifting off and keep the headset on during sleep.

Sleeping Positions

At home, we all have our favorite sleeping positions. Right side, left, stomach, curled up in a ball, even snuggled up next to a furry, four-legged friend. Of course things are going to be different in an upright cloth or leather seat. On an airplane, here are a few creative positions to help bring sleep to your flight:

  • The Puffer Fish: You begin by leaning against the window. Eventually, this pose organically morphs into an open mouth, breathing circles against the glass. (Maybe bring some Clorox wipes to give the window a good cleaning before you become the puffer fish?)
  • The Cuttlefish: Yes, another fish position. As long as you know the person next to you (or they are up for making a new friend), give the Cuttlefish a try. Lift up the armrest between the two of you. Use their body as a pillow and wrap your arms around their arm closest to you. While your seatmate might be sacrificing an ideal sleep position, you on the other hand, are comforted with a soft, warm space for shut-eye.
  • The Shavasana: This end-of-yoga practice pose can be used to find sleep on a plane. Recline your seat as much as it will go, legs stretched out, resting on a footrest or carry-on. Palms up. Index finger and thumb touching to make a small circle. Long, deep breaths until you find sleep.

Waking Up

If you sleep on a plane like a baby, but aren’t a morning (or after waking up from a nap) person, consider setting your alarm 30-45 minutes prior to landing. This way you will have time to rehydrate, use the bathroom, and enjoy the view of your new city during landing.

You won’t feel confused, rushed, or add any additional anxiety by waking up late and having to jet off the plane. If you can stay asleep until the plane’s wheels hit the runway…you have most certainly found successful sleep on your flight.

May Sleep Be With You on Your Next Flight

While many travelers can drift off to sleep, even before take-off, flyers with anxiety can struggle to find even a wink. Try one or all of these tips can help you find rest on your next flight.


The Vacationeer

The Vacationeer is a collective of Hilton Grand Vacations storytellers whose goal is to inspire travelers to go further. We're always on the lookout for new destinations to explore, useful travel tips, and unique ideas to help you plan the most memorable vacations possible.

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