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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

8 Tips for Actually Sleeping on a Red-Eye

I’ve been making a lot of cross-country treks for work lately, and because I hate to lose a day to a six-hour plane ride and three-hour time difference, I often take the red-eye. That’s right—I take off at 11 PM, land at 7 AM, and head to the office after a quick freshening up in the JFK bathroom.

And while cozying up in seat 31A will never be my ideal way to sleep, I’ve developed a routine that ensures I’ll get at least a good four hours of shut-eye before touching ground. On your next red-eye, follow these tips to sleep like a bi-coastal baby.


1. Book the Late-Night Red-Eye

If possible, take the last flight out of town. I’ve made the mistake of leaving at 9:30—and taking off an hour before my usual bedtime makes it pretty hard to get to sleep. On the other hand, if you depart at 11:30 or 12 when you’re extra-tired, you’re much more likely to pass out as soon as you cozy up in your not-so-spacious seat.


2. Be Seat-Strategic

Four words: Book a window seat. Even if you’re typically an aisle-loving kind of guy or gal, scoring a window is the only way to ensure you won’t be woken up by your friendly seat-mates needing a mid-flight bathroom break. Also, when you check in online, click “View/Change Seats” to check out the plane’s seat map. If there are any rows that have an open middle seat (or are completely open)—switch there, immediately, even if it’ll move you further back in the plane. That extra space to stretch out your legs can be a godsend.


3. Protect Your Head

Most planes these days have the adjustable head-rests that ensure your head won’t be rocking back and forth as you’re drifting off to sleep. But if you’re flying a budget airline (hey, Southwest), it’s definitely worth it to invest in a neck pillow. No, it doesn’t compare to your Tempur-Pedic at home, but it’ll ensure you don’t wake up with a major crick in your neck. Try an inflatable one if you’re worried about space.


4. Dress for Success

While I know there are people who can sleep in their suits, I find that I have a much better night’s sleep if I’m cozied up in knit pants and a warm sweater. Next, while I typically wear easy-to-slide-on flip-flops or flats so I can breeze through security, I always, always pack thick socks to pull on during the flight. Most people don’t do this (just ask my seat-mates, who look at me like I'm insane), but it always helps me feel more comfortable and makes sure I don't wake up shivering mid-flight.


5. Be an Early Bird

A word to the wise: Board the plane as soon as humanly possible. Yes, be one of those people who’s pushing and elbow-jabbing just to get to the front of the line. Why? Unless you’re in first class or a premier economy section, most flights are pretty stingy in the blanket department, often only offering one per row. You can always ask the flight attendant to see if there are extras, but boarding early is the best way to ensure you can snag one.


6. Bring Blanket Back-up

That said, you’ll always want to have back-up in case you don’t get a blanket or are on one of those flights that charge for them (Virgin America, I’m looking at you). By backup, I mean two scarves (one for your top half, one for your bottom). Thick pashminas or super-oversized scarves from H&M are great for this purpose—wear one and tuck one in your carry-on.


7. Ensure Quiet Time 

Invest in a pair of earplugs (the orange kind from the drug store will work just fine) to stick in after take-off. They won’t completely block out the screaming child in the row behind you, but they’ll give you sweet relief from the engines, the fasten seatbelt sign, and most chatter going on around you. If you’re a frequent traveler, it’s also worth investing in noise-cancelling headphones—they’re not cheap, but a nice pair will ensure a totally silent night.


8. Sip Something to Sleep

To put you over the sleepy edge, a cup of Sleepytime tea or an over-the-counter drug like ZzzQuil (like Tylenol or Advil PM, but without the painkiller) can be helpful—I’ve found that both are mild enough that I feel fine when I wake up. If you typically have trouble sleeping or have anxiety on planes, you can also talk to your doctor about melatonin supplements, Ambien, or an anxiety-reducing drug like Xanax. A very important note here: Don’t take anything until you’re boarding the plane—I’ve made this mistake before and nearly ended up face-planted on the floor of the Las Vegas airport. Yikes.


And with that, it’s game time! Board the plane in your comfiest clothes, snag a blanket, and get cozy in that window seat. When you wake (and, well, after an enormous cup of coffee), you’ll be ready to face the day. Sweet dreams!


Photo of woman sleeping on plane courtesy of Shutterstock.

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