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How to sleep on a plane

Written by Abbie Stutzer

Sleeping on a plane is hard even if you’re flying first class. We’ve gathered some science-based tips to help you catch some extra Zzzs during your next flight.

Sleep on an airplane is worse

First, you aren’t imagining that you get worse sleep on an airplane. According to a limited 2013 study in the journal Sleep, in-flight sleep is worse quality than sleep on the ground. The study’s researchers examined and compared the sleep quality of an in-flight crew while they were in-air, and during a hotel layover. 

However, some in-flight sleep is better than no in-flight sleep. Another 2013 study in the Journal of Sleep Research found that additional in-flight sleep among pilots helped mitigate fatigue on longer flights.

Products that make sleeping on a plane easier

So, now that we’ve established that you aren’t imaging that sleeping on a plane is more difficult than “grounded” sleep, in a bed, let’s look at some items that can help you sleep better while in the air.

Pack a travel pillow

First, invest in a travel pillow that’s right for you.

Modern travel pillows typically are U-shaped. This U-shape allows pillows to rest on a person’s shoulders and provides neck support, without creating neck pain. A travel pillow’s design allows people to crane their necks at a comfortable angle. Other non-U-shaped travel pillows look like typical bedroom pillows, and some travel pillows are long and slim and look like body pillows.

When choosing a travel pillow, you can pick between an inflatable or non-inflatable (memory foam) model. Whatever pillow model you choose, just make certain you try it out before you buy it. 

The following lists contain the benefits and downfalls of inflatable pillows and non-inflatable pillows.

Inflatable pillows:

  • Cheaper ($10-20)
  • Adjustable (with an average of a 3” loft)
  • Easier to travel with
  • Can gradually leak air

Non-inflatable pillows:

  • Have an average loft between 3” to 5”
  • Non-adjustable, but more stable
  • More expensive ($10-40)
  • Bulky, difficult to travel with

Invest in earplugs

Similar to travel pillows, earplugs come in different sizes, materials, etc. 

The two most popular types of earplugs are foam and silicone.

Foam earplugs:

  • Less expensive.
  • Designed to fit into then expand in the ear canal, creating a soundproof barrier. 
  • Some model types can be reused.

Silicone earplugs: 

  • Are a bit more expensive.
  • Designed to cover the entrance of the ear. 
  • Can typically be reused. 

Before you buy a pair for your next flight, consider the size of your ear canal (to ensure a good fit), and the ear plug Noise Reduction Rating. Ear plugs with a NRR of 27 or higher are considered most effective.

Learn a few breathing exercises

Although certain sleep products can help you sleep better, a great tool that can help enhance sleep on a daily basis—no matter where you are—is learning a breathing exercise. 

We’ve covered various types of breathing techniques in this post. However, a quiet exercise, such as the “lengthened breath” exercise, may work best in a travel situation.

The lengthened breath exercise, also known as pranayama breathing 

Inhale for the count of three, then exhale for the count of six. The idea is to have a prolonged exhale in comparison to your inhale. This technique can reduce stress and induce relaxation.