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Hacking Sleep While Flying

Updated September 5, 2019

Hacking Sleep While Flying

Traveling is supposed to be enjoyable – you’re leaving behind the stresses of everyday life to experience a new, exciting, and sometimes relaxing place. But no matter how often you travel, the journey to your destination can still be stressful. But after packing all of the right things, making it to the airport on time, and getting through the security line, finding your seat on the plane and getting comfortable should be when that vacation feeling finally comes. However, when the flight is long, includes a layover, or takes its passengers through different time zones, it can be difficult getting the proper rest.

There are plenty of tips and tricks detailing the best ways to snooze during your flight, but what strategies actually work? We surveyed over 980 people about their sleeping habits while flying, subsequent jet lag, and overall travel experiences. Whether the trip is for business or pleasure, getting an adequate amount of sleep can make or break the experience. Keep reading to find out how to make the best of your flight.

Importance of Positioning

Position Yourself For Success

Airplane seats have become quite small, making it nearly impossible to sit comfortably, let alone sleep. Unless flyers get lucky with empty seats next to them or shell out a ton of money for upgraded seating, the window seat in the front of the plane might be the best area for sleep. And unless located in the back of the plane, our survey respondents didn’t consider middle seats to be the worst for sleeping. Although travelers may consider the middle seat to be the worst seat on a plane, a middle seat located in the middle of the plane ranked second for the best sleep quality, followed by a middle seat in the front of the plane. Aisle seats in the front and back of the plane were considered some of the worst for sleep quality, however, perhaps due to passengers going and coming from the restrooms or flight attendants talking in their seats.

While window seats are ideal for various reasons – the view most likely topping them all – people may think the ability to lean to the side will help them sleep. But according to our study, leaning to the side resulted in the worst quality of sleep. Instead, leaning forward was the best option, followed by sitting up straight. Even reclining back didn’t seem to help much, a feature that airlines may be taking out altogether.

In-Air Sleep Quality

Sleeping On The Plane

Sleeping on a plane, in general, seemed to decrease its quality. Overall, 43% of flyers reported below-average sleep quality, and 18% reported very poor sleep quality. While 32% reported average sleep quality, only 5% said their sleep quality was above average or excellent.

So aside from finding the right position, what sleep aids help people make the most of their environment? Over half of respondents who had average or better sleep quality said earplugs were the biggest help. Considering only 32% of people reported headphones improving sleep, noise may not be the issue. Rather, changes in air pressure often leave passengers in pain, which can easily be avoided with earplugs.

While earplugs and eye masks most helped people achieve average and above-average sleep quality, uncomfortable chairs were overwhelmingly the worst sleep disruptors. Ninety-eight percent of respondents who had average or worse sleep quality cited uncomfortable chairs as the reason, followed by turbulence, airplane temperature, and light from the windows. But it isn’t just because people are trying to sleep in a chair rather than a bed – comfort is heavily linked to sleep, and a bad mattress could cause the same problems as a lousy airplane chair.

The time of the flight could have a significant impact as well. Catching a red-eye and taking off between the hours of 12 and 6 a.m. resulted in the best quality of sleep, loosely followed by taking off between noon and 5 p.m. Flying a red-eye can be extremely beneficial to catching some shut-eye, but if the flight includes layovers, breaking the sleep cycle to change planes can have the opposite effect.

Layover Lounges

Sleeping During Overnight Layovers

While avoiding layovers is ideal, they are often unavoidable. However, if they’re long enough, they could provide passengers with extra sleep. Granted, the majority of flyers reported below-average or worse sleep quality when sleeping during layovers, but 36% got an average quality of sleep, and 4% even boasted excellent quality. As one would expect, checking into a hotel room for a long layover resulted in a higher quality of sleep, but sleeping in the airport saved the average American $129.83.

Many international airports are adding sleeping pods for waiting passengers to catch some zzz’s, but just like transit hotels, comfort will cost a pretty penny. Forty-one percent of flyers chose to nap in a chair with armrests instead, and nearly 20% were lucky enough to find a bench. While padded benches were slightly less common, the extra padding helped to increase the sleep quality slightly. Regular benches and armchairs, on the other hand, resulted in the same quality of sleep, with 67% of people each reporting below-average sleep.

Lagging Behind

Overcoming Jet Lag

Traveling across time zones and not getting an adequate amount of quality sleep while flying can lead to days of disturbed sleep, daytime fatigue, trouble concentrating, stomach problems, and even mood changes – cumulatively known as jet lag or jet lag disorder. While the symptoms are typically related to a lack of sleep, various other factors can play a role in jet lag. Staying hydrated was the most effective way to prevent jet lag, followed by sleeping on the plane and arriving early to the destination to give your body time to adjust.

Of the various symptoms brought on by jet lag, daytime fatigue was the most common, with sleep disruptions like insomnia coming in second. While staying hydrated can prevent the exacerbation of these symptoms, they are often unavoidable. Due to an interruption in the neuronal processes involved in the sleep-wake cycle, the body’s clock becomes mismatched with the light-dark cycle when entering a new time zone. Sleeping as much as you can on the plane, staying hydrated, and exercising can help fight off the symptoms, but getting rid of jet lag simply takes time.

Secure Your Shut-Eye

Some aspects of flying and traveling are simply out of our control – from seating space on a plane to the length of layovers and available sleeping spots, sometimes we just have to make the most of what we’re given. Keeping jet lag in mind, picking the right takeoff time, staying hydrated, and remembering to lean forward rather than to the side can help to increase sleep quality and prevent jet lag from ruining your vacation or business trip.

Whether you’re preparing for an upcoming trip or mitigating the symptoms from a previous one, The Sleep Judge is here to help with all of your sleep needs. From tips on the best sleep aids to reviews of hundreds of mattresses, we have all the information you need to get the most out of your shut-eye – whether on a plane or at home. To learn more, visit us online today.

Sources

Methodology

To conduct this study, we collected responses from 981 respondents via survey. To qualify, respondents had to say they’d been on a plane in the past year and that they slept at one point during their flying experience.

An attention-check question was shown to respondents about halfway through the survey. If they failed, they were disqualified and excluded from the results of our study.

Common symptoms of jet lag and ways to prevent it were sourced from the Mayo Clinic’s website.

Limitations

The data shown here depends on self-reported experiences with work burnout. There are several problems that stem from self-reported data, including, but not limited to, selective memory, exaggeration and telescoping. We can’t be certain how closely our results match up to reality.

Fair Use Statement

As we saw in this study, the best place to sleep in an airport might just be a padded bench. But you know what you shouldn’t sleep on? This study. Feel free to share with your followers as long as it is for noncommercial purposes and you link back to this page so that they may delve into the full results of our findings.