Can’t sleep on airplanes? These products and techniques can help.

By | April 24th, 2017

The rumble of a jet engine is a comforting sound to some air travelers, making it easy to sleep on virtually any flight. For others, just the thought of being trapped in a pressurized aluminum tube is enough to send massive doses of adrenaline into their bloodstreams, ensuring alertness for days.

Pamela Wagner falls somewhere in the middle. Though not a white-knuckled flier, she says the noise makes rest impossible.

“I’m used to super silence when I’m sleeping,” she says. “Not exactly what you get on a flight.”

True. The interior of an aircraft is anything but silent, with noises ranging from chatty passengers to screaming children and, of course, the constant whine — of the engines. It’s also uncomfortable, even if you’re in one of those lie-flat business-class seats, which don’t always lie all the way down. Try falling asleep in a sitting position, even when you’re not on an aircraft, and you’ll know why sleeping on a plane can be a pipe dream.

Having a snooze on a plane is not getting any easier. You don’t have to be a passenger on a long-haul or overnight flight to know that. Flights are operating at capacity, and everyone seems to be a little more anxious these days.

Fortunately, there are ways to rest amid the pandemonium. The latest methods involve a combination of sensory deprivation and relaxation techniques. If they don’t put you to sleep, they’ll at least make you a little calmer in the air.

Wagner, an advertising consultant who lives in New York and often flies long distances, figured out the best way to block the noise. “I invested in a noise-canceling headset,” she says. She also loaded her smartphone with calming music, which can induce sleep.

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Headsets are a key component to unraveling the sleep mystery on commercial aircraft. The interior of a plane is about as loud as a diesel train passing you at a distance of 100 feet. That sustained noise can be cut with earplugs or noise-canceling headphones. Wagner prefers Bose QuietControl 30 wireless headphones (bose.com, $299.95) with a specially designed headset that reduces the pressure and aches often caused by conventional in-ear headphones.

If you don’t toss and turn, on-ear headsets can offer even more protection and noise cancellation. The AKG N60 NC (us.akg.com; $249.95) offers up to 30 hours of battery life and weighs a bit more than 5 ounces, so it won’t clutter up your carry-on luggage. Libratone’s Q-Adapt On-Ear headphones (libratone.com; $249) feature four levels of noise cancellation and a soft earpiece, which is useful for extended wear, but has only 20 hours of battery life. But if you sleep on your side, you should probably consider a pair of SleepPhones (sleepphones.com; $49.95) flat speakers embedded inside a plush, machine-washable headband. The unit is designed to be used by travelers who are sleeping on their sides.

Either way, if you’re planning more than one long-distance flight this year, a noise-cancellation headset should be at the top of your wish list.

There are a few other essentials to sleeping, including the right attire and a few accessories. Think soft and oversize. A good example is the One Man Commuter Jacket (onemanouterwear.com; $189), an all-weather, lightweight jacket with a hood, which gives you a little extra privacy on a long flight and doubles as a cover. Only it doesn’t look like a cover and can be worn for the rest of your trip.


The Bose QuietControl 30 headphones feature tiny earbuds that integrate six microphones and a neckband that houses the rest of the electronics system. It also features controllable noise cancellation. (Bose)

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The right eye mask is important, too. The Midnight Magic Sleep Mask (cabeau.com; $19.99) is about as comfortable as it gets. It adjusts to your face and offers a full blackout, so you don’t have to worry about light leaking in and interrupting your rest. You can also try the Wrap-a-Nap, a multi-use combination travel pillow and eye mask (wrapanap.com; $24.99). It looks like a fuzzy snake and it wraps around your head.

In the travel pillow category, the Trtl (thegrommet.com, $29.95) offers lots of comfort plus neck support without the bulk of those inflatable pillows. The Swiss Army knife of travel pillows is the new Facecradle (facecradle.me, $49) which adjusts to several positions and is created specifically for sleeping in economy class seats. I’ve been following this campaign on Kickstarter, and think this one shows a lot of potential.

Perhaps even more critical than having the right pillows or headsets are these sleep strategies that experienced air travelers use:

Plan ahead: Choose the right seat for sleep. In economy class, that would be the window seat. “It’s ideal for sleeping,” says Robert Oexman, director of the Sleep to Live Institute, which conducts sleep research. “Use a sweater or jacket against the wall as a pillow, which can help create a makeshift sleeping surface.”

Meditate before you fly: “Anyone can meditate almost anywhere by simply practicing a technique that uniquely works for each individual,” says Jeffery Martin, a meditation and sleep expert at Sofia University in Palo Alto, Calif. He recommends a mantra, or silently repeating “love,” “peace” or another word or phrase for 20 minutes while waiting at the gate.

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Stay hydrated: Avoid alcohol and pack a reusable water bottle and fill it up at any water fountain. “To make it more interesting, add a peppermint teabag in room-temperature water,” advises Tieraona Low Dog, an integrative medicine specialist and chief medical officer of Well & Being, a resort spa. “It imparts a lovely mint flavor to the water, while gently settling the stomach and any travel nerves, helping to calm the body and mind and induce sleep.”

Take deep breaths: One of the best ways to fall asleep without pills is to quiet the mind with deep-breathing exercises, says sleep researcher Craig Sim Webb, author of “The Dreams Behind the Music.” “Inhale as deeply as you can without being uncomfortable,” he says. Hold the inhalation as long as you can comfortably and then focus your attention on parts of your body, starting with your feet. “Breathe out normally. Do not pause or hold the exhalation at all, but breathe in again immediately and repeat steps,” he says.

Of course, there are also pharmaceutical methods of ensuring sleep, including an Ambien prescription and an over-the-counter solution such as Good Day Chocolate sleep supplements (gooddaychocolate; $36.99).

I’m not making that up. Chocolates that make you sleep — they’re a thing. Each piece of the milk chocolate contains one milligram of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep.

And, if none of this works? Well, don’t feel left out. Enjoy the in-flight movie and get some sleep when you arrive, like the other half of the passengers on your flight.



  • sirwired

    Not appropriate for everybody, but there is now a 4-hour version of Ambien that goes by the brand name of “Intermezzo” (it’s available as generic.) Most doctors and pharmacists don’t know about it, so you’ll have to specifically ask for it. (The standard Ambien lasts for 8 hours.)

    I’ve found that it’s great for trans-continental and trans-oceanic flights and also for middle-of-the-night wakeups due to jet lag.

  • michael anthony

    Yes, intermezzo is a good choice. As is diphenhydramine. The latter is non habit forming.

    I doubt Ambien, or the short acting, will ever go OTC. There are two many cases of active sleepwalking, where someone actually starts working on a task, such as cooking, going out for a walk, etc, and then suddenly waking up, wondering how they got to where they are. The vast majority of people take Ambien without problem, it’s just those few cases are enough to probably keep it prescription only.

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