Credit: Cirque du Soleil. If you assume this position on your next long haul flight, chances are you won't be smiling (or sleeping, for that matter).

For anyone who has ever had the terrorizing experience of insomnia on a red eye flight, the notion of sleeping on plane might seem laughable.  When your window seat is more like an audition for Cirque du Soleil than a luxurious four-poster bed, call upon our favorite habits and gadgets to ensure that your next spin in the stratosphere is filled with sweet dreams.

I’ll never forget my first seventeen-hour haul to Hong Kong.  Punctuated with a baby’s dire screams and the explosive laughter of five Korean tween boys, I felt a rage unsuitable for a metal capsule in the sky.  My head was spinning by the time I had to make a mad-dash to my connection, and my first two days in Southeast Asia were spent trying to make up for twenty-four hours of claustrophobic hell.

Luckily I’ve since armed myself with an arsenal of habits and tools that make sleeping in the sky more plausible.  Here are five RSJ-approved tips to get the most rest in any situation.


Forget the night cap and bring on the night capsules.

Bar Strelka, Moscow. Lychee Martinis may be more delicious than Melatonin.

How many times have you come home from a night of alcohol-laden debauchery and gotten the best sleep of your life? While alcohol may seem like a good way to knock yourself out fast, think of the 4 am wake ups, restless night sweats and other hungover afflictions that come with hours of guzzling cocktails.  Jack Daniels, Captain Morgan & co. will sing you to sleep a lot slower than a natural supplement like Melatonin.

A compound made by your own body that does not carry the same grog-inducing effects as sleeping pills, natural Melatonin supplements are a great way to knock-out naturally.  Take one with your dinner to ensure that by the time you are ready to kick back, the supplement will be kicking in.

Forget the side effects of scary prescription pills and narcotics; melatonin is a gentle sleep aid that will not leave you feeling hungover upon landing.

In fact, if you can get the stuff ahead of time – consider taking Melatonin for a few days before your flight.  As the compound is incredibly gentle, it may need a little time to build up in your system.


Release your body AND brain tension.

Meditation is a great method of relaxation, particularly when your physical surroundings are less than comfortable.

Half of the problem with plane sleeping comes in the gold medal worthy contortion act you put on just to get comfortable.  Many of us fold up in our seats and try to relax our minds into sleep while our bodies are screaming for help.

Whether you’re packed into economy or sailing through first class, consider a simple body tension releasing exercise to get more comfortable in any position.  This seven minute audio track from Meditainment helps you to relax every single muscle group in your body individually.  If you don’t plan to use an iPod on your next trip, the basic premise is simple: starting with your feet, identify any areas where you feel pain or tension and slowly imagine a relaxing energy pushing through them.  Focus on each area of your body individually until you are completely at ease.

After your body is at rest, consider doing a mental exercise or meditation that brings you to a quieter place.  Listen to a soothing track of music, or download one of our favorite sleep-enhancing meditations.  Either way, it’s hard to go from fully alert to completely asleep in a matter of minutes, so gradually bring yourself into a state of relaxation to avoid frustration.


Block out external stressors – you’ll probably look divalicious in the process.

Do you think Fergie would think twice before throwing on her eyeshades? Exactly.

Eye shades and ear plugs are NOT just for Paris Hilton (or for girls, for that matter).  Blocking out the inevitable cabin lights, sunrise and screaming babies is absolutely essential to getting a good night’s sleep!  Get a comfortable eye shade like this one from Brookstone (no, not your sunglasses – the pressure on your temples will dive you crazy), and make sure it fits snugly.

Additionally, we have two suggestions for blocking out the noise (you’ll thank us for it later) –

1.  For the music listeners – SLEEPPHONES.  We receive no kickbacks for endorsements, so when we recommend a product it comes from our hearts and not our wallets.  Sleepphones are cushioned headbands with built-in speakers to play your tunes without the burn of an earbud in your ear canal.  You can position yourself for comfort and not for maximum Bose headphone coverage while still drowning out the screaming tot in Aisle 5.

2.  For the silence seekers – invest in a good pair of earplugs.  While the concept may seem foreign (or gross), a set of earplugs can turn your loud plane ride into the stillness of the night.  Consider purchasing a pair of high-end earplugs if you foresee extensive use, or grab a pair of wax/cotton plugs (not foam! they don’t work!) from the terminal drug store.  Read the directions carefully for maximum comfort and safety.


Neck Pillow: Use it sideways, even if people stare at you.

You might get some weird looks, but that's only from the haters who AREN'T SLEEPING.

Frequent travelers swear by their neck pillows, and for many years I could barely understand why.  The design of a neck pillow makes me feel more like a constrained psychiatric patient or neck trauma victim than sleeping beauty.  However, I recently learned a secret from a seatmate of mine that radicalized the way I sleep on planes: turn the neck pillow sideways.

If you find that the back of a neck pillow is too uncomfortable, consider rotating the pillow so that your ear rests on the back, and the two curves sit on either side of your neck.  This can reduce compression (ouch) and provide just the right amount of support without creating the “neck cast” effect.  Spring for a non-blowup pillow to prevent over or under inflation.


Don’t forget the life-giving essentials: hydrate & breathe! 

Who knows? If you keep hydrated, maybe you'll turn into this chick from the Mattoni water ad.

Did you know that dehydration is a primary cause of insomnia? Yeah, well, think of a plane as the ultimate desert – filled with recycled air and synthetic materials dying to take the water out of you.  Drink as much water as you can (or the optimal amount that prevents you from becoming a Frequent Shopper at the airplane lavatory) and consider starting a hydration routine for a week before you fly.  Eat foods rich with water and consider cutting out the sodas and alcohol.

4-7-8.  No, these aren’t the Powerball winning numbers, but they may be your winning combo when it comes to deep breathing.  If you are a nervous flyer (or if you’ve been dreading falling asleep on a red eye since you booked the seat), your breathing may unconsciously become more shallow.  The 4-7-8 breathing exercise is a surefire way to keep your oxygen levels up, and it is easy enough to do as you drift to sleep:

1.  Exhale completely through your mouth.

2.  Close your mouth and inhale through the nose for a count of 4.

3.  Hold that breath for a count of 7.

4.  Exhale completely through your mouth for a count of eight.

5.  Repeat steps 1-4 at least three more times.

We hope that with these easy steps your next flight will leave you feeling relaxed and energized.  Do you have any surefire methods for getting your sleep on during a red eye? Let’s hear them in the comments below!

Slideshow: A composite of all flights across the span of a morning at Hanover Airport.