How to Sleep on Redeye Flights

If there’s one thing I’m a seasoned veteran at, it’s getting sleep on red-eye flights. Over the past several years I’ve taken probably 200 of them. Actually, this is the first week in recent memory where I haven’t taken a redeye; I usually average one to two a week. My record, however, is four redeyes in a week, and I’m not talking international redeyes with a flat bed, but rather painful domestic redeyes spanning no more than four or five hours. Redeyes internationally in a premium cabin are a piece of cake, so that won’t be the focus of this article. Instead, we’re talking any domestic redeye, in particular in coach. With that in mind, here are my top tips for getting sleep on a red-eye flight:

Have the Right Mindset: Red-eye Flights Are Good
This might sound crazy, but for me, half of going to sleep is actually wanting to sleep. This is probably more of a problem that road warriors face than the infrequent flyer. In the past, I always dreaded redeyes. I woke up the morning I would have to take a redeye, already saying to myself what a long night it would be. In a way, it’s like a kid the night before Christmas. They’re so anxious that they can’t sleep. Along the same lines, I used to spend most of my time on redeyes feeling sorry for myself, saying how awful it was, etc. Instead, I’ve come to appreciate redeyes for what they are – huge timesavers. Instead of leaving the west coast at the crack of dawn and arriving on the east coast at dusk, I leave the west coast late at night and arrive on the east coast at the crack of dawn. It’s a huge timesaver, and I find that looking at it that way is half the battle.

Dress Comfortably
For whatever reason, this seems to translate into “wear pants that say ‘PINK’ or ‘JUICY’ right around your rear” for some. That’s not the case. People know how to dress comfortably in general, but there’s more to that than just wearing a comfortable shirt and pants. Wear shoes that fit loosely. If you’re going to take your shoes off, have socks on that have good cushioning. I find that after a redeye, socks tend to feel really dry and stiff if you didn’t have shoes on, so get the right socks.

Wear a Hoodie
I’m putting this in a separate category from “dress comfortably” for a reason. The toughest part about sleeping in an airplane seat, for me at least, is the challenge of trying to figure out where to rest my hands when I sleep. That’s the beauty of a hoodie with pouches. It’s the perfect place to rest your hands without them constantly fumbling around, not to mention I always pull up the “hoodie” to add a bit of extra cushioning when resting my head.

Take a Window Seat Whenever Possible
I’m almost exclusively an aisle kind of guy, but for a redeye there’s good reason to select a window seat, especially in coach. While in first class the aircraft wall is a bit far from the window seat to rest on, in coach the window seat is positioned perfectly for resting your head to sleep. Whatever you do, don’t end up in a middle seat. When you book your flight, if no aisle or window seats are available, consider paying extra for one of the “premium” seats, which the airlines often sell for a small premium, either because they’re located in the front of the aircraft or have a bit of extra legroom. Middle seats are never good, though they’re the worst on redeyes.

Strategize With Your Seat Selection
There are three components to this. First of all, know the position of the TV monitors of the aircraft. This doesn’t apply on all airlines. US Airways and Alaska, for example, don’t have in-flight entertainment. Delta and Continental have personal televisions on many of their aircraft, so this isn’t a factor. But on United, for example, there are overhead monitors. If you don’t use eyeshades, sit as far as possible away from them if you want to sleep, since the light from them can keep you up. This is a strategy I always employ when flying United, especially on the 767 and 777 aircraft, where they have massive projector screens.

Along the same lines, sit relatively far back on the aircraft. If there are going to be any empty middle seats on the aircraft, they’re most likely going to be towards the back, since gate agents typically fill in empty middle seats starting in the front of the aircraft. With flights consistently at close to capacity nowadays, there might not be quite as much use to this strategy anymore.

Lastly, avoid rows that don’t recline. Often the exit rows and the last rows in any given cabin don’t recline, so avoid those at all costs on a redeye. As far as bulkheads go, only select them if they’re partial bulkheads – in other words, if you can still rest your feet under them, which isn’t possible most of the time. Seatguru.com is always a great source for figuring out where to sit.

Be Well Hydrated Before You Fly
On daytime flights I always say stay well hydrated during the flight, but for short redeyes, my advice is the opposite. Be well hydrated a couple of hours before the flight so that you’re not thirsty on the plane and don’t have to use the lavatory repeatedly. After all, if you take a window seat as suggested above, it’ll be problematic to get out when your seatmates are sleeping. Along the same lines, if you do drink, avoid coffee, alcohol, and carbonated beverages, which can dehydrate you or upset your stomach.

Bring a Blanket and/or Pillow
This is a topic I’m just slightly torn on. Start by knowing your airline and whether they offer pillows and blankets or not. Many airlines eliminated pillows and blankets in coach a couple of years back. For me, it’s tough to sleep on a redeye without a blanket. I can handle no pillow (my hoodie kind of helps with that), but I still find it really helpful to have some sort of a thin blanket in order to sleep. Now, bringing on a full size pillow and blanket will backfire, because space is very limited, and you’ll only end up hitting your seatmate in the face with it throughout the night. So if you have a thin blanket (or if you’re a woman traveling with a shawl, which can double as a blanket), by all means bring it along. If you don’t, many airlines nowadays will sell “snooze packs” which you can keep for future flights as well. It might just be a good investment. Always remember to fasten your seatbelt above your outermost garment, so the flight attendant doesn’t have to wake you up when there’s turbulence.

Be Exhausted When You Board
If you’re a night owl like me, you just won’t be exhausted when you board a redeye at 10PM, since that’s (almost) the middle of the day for me. But that’s easy enough to counter. If you’re as extreme as me you might decide to pull an all nighter the night before (if you’re able to be productive, it might not be a bad idea), or alternatively just limit your sleep and get up early that morning. Redeyes are much less painful when you’re actually able to sleep on them.

If You Can Upgrade, Pay Close Attention to Routes
Generally speaking I don’t find there to be a huge difference in quality of sleep between a domestic first class seat and a coach seat. However, if you’re flying a route which features international business class seats, even on a domestic route, consider upgrading. For example, American, Delta, and United all fly planes between New York and Los Angeles/San Francisco that feature a business class cabin with more comfortable recliner seats. Even if it costs you 15,000 miles and a $50 co-pay, it’s money well spent.

Bring Earplugs and Eyeshades
A good pair of eyeshades can go a long way to getting sleep on a redeye. Along the same lines, either earplugs or in-ear headphones are also useful. I don’t like “on ear” headphones like the Bose QC headsets on redeyes, because they prevent me from being able to place my head against the wall or side of the seat. So for redeyes, the simpler the in-ear headphones, the better.

SleepAids
While I’m not a user of any of these, I’ve heard many people rave about Ambien, Maltonin, Valium, etc. Of course always consult a doctor before using these, and remember that Ambien and Valium should only be taken for longer flights. That might be much more useful for a Los Angeles to Sydney redeye, as opposed to Los Angeles to Chicago redeye.

There you have it, those are my top 10 redeye tips. Happy, safe, and restful flying!

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