How to Sleep on an Airplane

A frequent flier offers advice on getting shut-eye among the clouds.

By Haley Martin October 15, 2013

Sleeping on an airplane can be a nightmare. Squished among your coach companions, you might as well be packed into a can of sardines: stranger’s elbows and knees jostling for ground, too-cold recycled oxygen blasting from above, and—thanks to the baby to your left—ears ringing.

But fear not. It is possible to master the art of in-flight sleep, and avoid the usual zombie-like arrival at your destination.

A ticket counter employee at Portland International Airport for a major airline, Grant Abrams uses his airfare benefits to fly about twice every month. So far, he's traveled to 48 American states and ten different countries.

Abrams spoke to Tripster about his strategies for getting in-flight shut-eye, and feeling rested on arrival.

  • During check-in, choose a window seat close to the front of the plane. “The side wall of the aircraft gives you something to rest your head on and you won’t be bothered by passengers getting up to use the lavatories,” he says. Also, depending on the aircraft, the closer you sit to the front, the quieter it can be.
  • Abrams suggests investing in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. “I don’t mean $50 knock offs. Spend the $300 for top of the line headphones and the outside noise will drop to virtually zero- no engines, conversations, or crying babies,” he says. (Abrams recommends the Bose Quiet Comfort 15s.)
  • To cope with jet lag, Abrams adjusts to his destination’s time zone before leaving. “If I am traveling to Europe from Portland, I make use of the time on the aircraft to catch up on sleep so I land feeling like I slept through a normal night in Europe,” he says. This might require intentionally depriving yourself of sleep the night before to make sure you’ll be tired when you board the plane. (Keep in mind that while sitting in the same seat for ten consecutive hours, a little soreness is inevitable.)
  • "Most major airlines offer extra legroom seats in the first few rows of economy,” Abrams says. “If you have the physique of a basketball player, or just want to get a comfortable sleep," he says, there's no other way to go. 
  • If all else fails and you have the funds, treat yourself to a first class ticket on one of your longer flights.  Abrams says on a trip he took to South Korea, his favorite part was the 13 hours he spent in first class from Dallas to Tokyo. “From the five course meal to the lie flat seat-bed, it will stand for a long time as my favorite flight experience,” he says. “Save your miles or save your money- you owe it to yourself to try it at least once.”
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