How to Sleep Well on an Overnight Flight

By Marcy Lovitch · April 22, 2023 · 9 minute read

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How to Sleep Well on an Overnight Flight

Trying to sleep on an overnight flight can feel like a mission impossible, what with the noise, cramped quarters, uncomfortable seats, plus all those meal and beverage service interruptions. Lack of sleep on an all-night flight can leave you feeling drowsy, irritable, and lethargic upon arrival at your destination, which is not the way you want to start your trip.

Despite the inherent obstacles, you shouldn’t resign yourself to spending a long flight wide awake. There are hacks that can help you get some quality slumber on an overnight flight. Read on to learn:

•   The importance of getting sleep on an overnight flight

•   How to sleep well by choosing the right flight and seat

•   What you can do to prepare ahead of your flight

•   Things you can do to wind down and relax on your flight

Why It’s Important to Get Sleep on an Overnight Flight

When you get adequate sleep during the night, your brain and body rest and recover, allowing you to feel energized the next day. Without enough shut-eye, you’ll likely feel more physically, emotionally, and mentally tired.

In addition, lack of sleep on an overnight flight can contribute to jet lag, which typically happens when an individual travels east or west across three or more time zones.

•   Besides fatigue, symptoms of jet lag can include trouble processing information clearly, difficulty coping with change, having slower reaction times, and experiencing problems with balance and coordination.

•   Jet lag can impair your alertness, which can be dangerous if, for instance, you’re renting a car and will be driving right after your flight. It can also make you more vulnerable to pickpockets and scammers.

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Choosing the Best Flight and Seat

The timing of your flights and where you sit on the plane can play a key role in how well you sleep overnight. Certain departure times sync better with your body clock to make sleep come on a little easier. And some seats and areas of the plane work better for sleeping.

Here, consider these suggestions for when to take off and how to pick the prime seat for snoozing.

Timing Your Flight for Optimal Sleep

Our bodies have an internal clock, or “circadian rhythm,” that tells us when it’s time to sleep and wake up. Taking an overnight flight can disrupt your body’s natural cycle of wakefulness and sleep. For example, if you’re flying from New York City to Paris, which is six hours ahead, you’ll land when it’s already morning, but your body is telling you it’s still nighttime. Two points to keep in mind:

•   When it comes to taking an overnight flight, you’re working with your natural body clock instead of fighting against it. So go ahead and book that 9am vs. 4pm flight. At some point, you’re bound to get sleepy around your usual bedtime. Overnight flights can be better if you’re traveling with babies and children, since the flight coincides with their bedtime too.

•   You can also get more uninterrupted sleep by choosing a direct flight. Yes, it can be pricier, but having to switch flights in the middle of the night results in broken sleep, plus layovers can further mess up your internal clock.

Picking A Seat

Many airlines offer first class and business class red-eye passengers the most sleep-focused perks, such as extra leg room, more privacy, and seats that convert into beds. However, buying seats in these sections can be very expensive — thousands of dollars more than a seat in coach. If you don’t have that much money socked away in your travel fund, consider the following:

•   Do you have unused miles you’ve accrued by using an airline credit card? Now might be the time to cash in and use them for a first or business class seat or upgrade.

•   Consider if it’s worthwhile to charge an expensive and more comfortable seat and then have the credit card reward points to use as you see fit. Or you might opt for cash back.

•   If you purchase your ticket with a travel credit card or cash back rewards credit card, you might earn miles that you can use on future travel, which can help offset the expense.

If you choose to fly coach, there are ways to snagging the best type of seat in which you can doze off. Some tips:

•   Window seats tend to be best for sleeping. You can rest your head against the window or wall, and don’t have to deal with passengers waking you up as they climb over you to move around the cabin. Window seats also provide the most privacy and give you control of the window shade. Book early, as window seats are popular and tend to disappear quickly.

•   Your next choice might be to opt for an aisle, which can give you more room to stretch your legs. Beware of falling asleep that way, though; you’ll likely be woken up by flight attendants or fellow passengers who need to get by you.

•   Seats closer to the front of the plane are often quieter and make for a smoother ride. Sitting in the back of the plane doesn’t bode well for sleeping, especially if you’re in the last row in a seat with limited to no recline.

•   Another reason the rear of an aircraft is best avoided: It’s usually the location for the restroom, which can be noisy and have frequent passenger traffic.

•   Steer clear of a seat near the galley areas where flight attendants may be moving around at all hours.
Once you’re safely in the air and the seatbelt sign is turned off, look around to see if there are any free rows where three empty seats could give you the opportunity to lie down. Check in with the flight attendants to make sure it’s allowed and the seats don’t belong to anyone else.

Recommended: Credit Card Miles vs. Cash Back: Guide to Choosing

How to Prepare

Here’s some advice to help you fall and stay asleep on a long-haul overnight flight.

•   Adjust your sleep schedule before you leave. Begin to reset your body clock several days prior to your voyage. The Mayo Clinic suggests if you’re traveling east, go to bed one hour earlier each night for a few days before your trip. When heading west, hit the hay one hour later than usual for a couple of days.

•   Eat lightly and clean. Eating spicy, fatty, fried, or high-carb foods before the flight can leave you feeling too full and uncomfortable to sleep.

•   Make sure your seatbelt is visible. This will avoid sleep interruptions by flight attendants who may need passengers to put on their seatbelts during the flight. If you’re covering yourself with a blanket, fasten your seatbelt over it so there’s no need for flight staff to rouse you.

•   Skip caffeine and alcohol. Caffeinated and alcoholic beverages can interrupt sleep and dehydrate you. Instead, keep yourself hydrated by drinking H2O or herbal tea , such as chamomile, valerian root, or passionflower. Research has shown these can help you feel sleepy and improve sleep quality. (You might bring your own teabags and ask the flight attendants for hot water.)

•   Get some exercise that day. Physical activity can help improve sleep quality. Even walking around the airport before your flight counts.

•   Dress in comfortable layers. You never know what the cabin temperature might be, so it’s a good idea to layer up in case you get too hot or cold. Wearing cozy lounge-wear, versus skinny jeans, will up your comfort level so you can sleep better.

•   Take a sleep aid. Many people find taking a prescription or over-the-counter sleeping medication helps them sleep on a plane. One caveat: Both nonprescription and prescription sleeping pills can cause daytime grogginess. A safer option? Try taking melatonin supplements, a synthetic version of the natural hormone your body makes to produce sleepiness .

•   Use your tray table as a head rest. Some people find leaning over and resting their head on their tray table with a pillow makes it easier to get some sleep. This can be especially helpful if you’re in a middle or an aisle seat.

What to Bring for an Overnight Flight

Some airlines may give you a complimentary kit with toiletries and other items to make your night flight more comfortable. You might, however, want to put together your own in case you don’t get one or the airline’s kit doesn’t have everything you might need. Here are some suggested sleep-better items to pack in your carry-on:

•   Neck or travel pillow

•   Noise-canceling headphones or ear plugs

•   Eye mask

•   Cozy warm socks and slipon shoes

•   Blanket or wrap

•   Snacks in case you sleep through meal service or get hungry in between

When and How to Wind Down in the Air

Your pre-bed routine doesn’t have to fall to the wayside just because you’re flying. There are some things you can do during your journey to relax and encourage sleepiness:

•   Listen to calming music or a podcast

•   Engage in a relaxing activity such as reading a book, knitting, or breaking out a mini deck of cards to play Solitaire.

•   Avoid looking at screens and skip the inflight entertainment since exposure to blue light can interfere with sleep.

•   Don’t stress if sleep doesn’t happen. It can be difficult to sleep when you can’t get comfortable. Anxiety around traveling with pets and/or small children or just flying in general, can prevent you from relaxing. Instead, try to at least rest your eyes and do some deep breathing.

Recommended: How Families Can Afford to Travel

The Takeaway

No doubt about it, trying to snooze on an overnight flight can be downright challenging. Lack of sleep on a redeye can result in physical and mental exhaustion, which isn’t the best way to kick off your travels. Fortunately, by booking certain seats and following a few steps, you can likely get the in-flight rest you need to help make you feel alert and ready to roll once you touch down.

Whether you want to travel more or get a better ROI for your travel dollar, SoFi can help. SoFi Travel is a new service exclusively for SoFi members that lets you budget, plan, and book your next trip in a convenient one-stop shop. SoFi takes the guessing game out of how much you can afford for that honeymoon, family vacation, or quick getaway — and we help you save too.

SoFi Travel can take you farther.


Should I pull an all-nighter to sleep on a plane?

No. Getting on a night flight already sleep-deprived doesn’t guarantee you’re going to sleep well on the plane. It’s also counterproductive. If you haven’t slept the night before, you’ll most likely be struggling to stay awake when you need to get things done on your travel day.

How many hours should you wake up before you land?

Plan to set your alarm so you can wake up somewhere between 45 minutes to an hour before landing. Since waking up on a plane can be disorienting, it’s important to have some time to become fully alert before you disembark.

Is jet lag easier flying east or west?

It’s easier to deal with jet lag when you’re flying west than east. When you fly east, you “lose” time as opposed to flying west when you “gain” time. It’s believed your body can adapt more quickly to staying up late than going to sleep earlier.

Photo credit: iStock/Meinzahn

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