From A to B with plenty of Zzzz: Top tips for sleeping on planes

By David Flynn, February 25 2016
From A to B with plenty of Zzzz: Top tips for sleeping on planes

It's easy to spot the most frequent of frequent flyers, even without glancing at the colour of their airline loyalty card.

Their travel patterns are etched with the deeply-worn lines of habit. Those practices, honed by hundreds of business trips, ensure they arrive early at the airport to minimise the chance of delay and, for some, maximise lounge time.

There's early selection of the best seat, and online check-in if they're off on a quick hand-luggage-only trip to the likes of Auckland, Singapore or Hong Kong.

There's a departure card completed in advance, and a spare express lane slip 'just in case', to speed their path through check-in.

Once aboard, there's the routine of when to work, eat, relax and – most importantly – sleep.

Falling asleep on the job

This last part is where many infrequent flyers fall down, especially on flights from Australia to the US and Europe.

Spend too many hours awake – be it ploughing through work, or binge-viewing a box set of your favourite TV show – and you'll pay for it at the end of your trip.

Instead of being rested and ready for the day ahead (which is enough of a challenge when you land in Los Angeles or London around 6am) you'll struggle to make it through the day.

And with your sleep patterns totally out of whack, there's an even greater chance you'll wake up in the wee hours of the following morning and face a second day in bleary-eyed, headache-racked zombie mode, which in turn will crimp your work dinners and drinks.

That's exactly what happened to me when business travel became a regular part of my life, with overseas trips every month or two.

Plan to sleep, sleep your plan

Yet it's all so easily avoided. With a little planning and a dose of discipline you can make the most of your chance to sleep above the clouds and hit the ground running... or at least walking at a leisurely pace without bumping into things.

First up, do the maths on your flight.

Let's take the popular outbound flight to Los Angeles on Qantas as an example, flown out of either Sydney or Melbourne. Leaving around noon for a 6.30am touchdown at LAX, that translates to 13-14 hours' flying time.

A little more than half that flight takes place during what would be snoozing hours if you were already Stateside. That's your first clue to getting in sync with the US timezone.

Only the heaviest sleepers will doze through the last two hours of the flight, when the cabin lights come up and breakfast is served.

So your designated 'sleeping time' needs to start as little as five hours into your flight, just to get a necessary six hours under your belt.

Too much beats too little

If you can, aim to head to sleep as early as possible. It's better that you shoot for as much as nine hours and fall a bit short – in which case, you can spend the last few hours of the flight working, reading or watching a movie – than leaving it too late and ending up groggy after just four hours counting sheep.

And as you're guaranteed to have a less restful sleep on the plane than you would at home, you might want to allow for a little more snooze time, as well as more time to actually nod off in the first place.

This is where it's worth experimenting with some sleep-friendly tablets.

I'm a fan of melatonin – readily available in the US at drugstores such as Walgreens and in New York, Duane Reade – and natural sleep tabs containing valerian.

Some colleagues find that codeine-based painkillers such as Nurofen Plus or Panadeine Extra can work well, but it's worth consulting a physician to make sure you're compatible with any such medication.

Soft foam or silicon earplugs can also help by suppressing cabin noise, while an eye mask – lightly spritzed with a sleep spray such as This Works or Bach's Rescue Remedy Sleep – is a great addition to your carry-on amenity kit.

What are your top tips for sleeping on planes?

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David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

18 Jun 2015

Total posts 105

I got some Bose QC20's a year or so back and they have really helped me get some sleep on planes now. Either low volume music or none at all and its much easier to sleep even in economy. 


Emirates Airlines - Skywards

30 Nov 2015

Total posts 732

I usually fly Emirates Business and the single window seats are a cocoon of comfort, luxury and your own private world of isolation. I have only ever had my sleep disturbed once with a couple who had two out of control kids who were clearly out of place. Paying this sort of money it's the height of arrogance for children to be disturbing the peace.  Avoid seats near bad behaved children and screaming babies and their cashed up parents who simply don't care.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

27 Feb 2015

Total posts 34

When you fly emirates, you gonna get some good stuff, dont complain as there is not reason too. 

30 Aug 2013

Total posts 442

Here's a tip - dont try and sleep in a business shirt!

My tips?

Make sure your airline has pajamas.

Or fly Emirates Business and get absolutely TANKED at the bar. Hell, you may not even want to sleep on Emirates Business... its surprisingly like a flying nightclub. My 14 hour flight to Dubai (which was going to be the longest flight of my life) felt shorter than some 8 hour flights I've taken.

That said, I actually don't sleep on Emirates Business (too busy getting hammered) but I did sleep well in Emirates First even if I didn't want to (time sleeping is time not being pampered).

Anyway, for me PJ's are vital to sleep.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

25 Sep 2013

Total posts 1244

SdK, this is my favourite post of yours yet.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer Platinum

07 Feb 2013

Total posts 549

All class


28 Jul 2013

Total posts 29

Totally agree about soft, loose pyjamas, plus eye mask adn Bose earphones. .

and equally remember the good old days, when with no buisness, after the meal and maybe the central screen movie, walked to the  galley, had a cleansing ale or two, and talked for the rest of the night to the crowd who had assembled there. Even smokers !!!

Wonderful fun.


Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

24 Apr 2013

Total posts 57

Melatonin works well for me. I also use it for getting back into sync on returning to Australia. Such a shame it's not available in Oz in the required doses. Sonata is supposed to be good for this - used by the military and shift-workers - but we don't have that either in Australia. 

01 Feb 2012

Total posts 370

yeah i use it a lot. its very easy to get online at iherb. For beginners I'd start on 1mg. Good thing about is unlike more serious drugs, you can still wake up fine if there's an emergency on the plane and you need to wake up. 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

04 Nov 2011

Total posts 361

Dress comfortably. Always find it strange seeing people in business attire such as suits etc on long haul. I am always taking the opoortunity to get changed when travelling for work. Even shorter flights, just makes things much more comfortable.

A couple of drinks, half a Restavit tablet and its lights out Irene.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

11 Oct 2014

Total posts 694

If the cabin temperature is 'warm', don't overheat yourself with multiple items of clothing, blankets or the ever-present thick doonas, particulalrly those preferred by the Chinese carriers.

Even if you manage not to wake up mid-flight, you'll not sleep well. Instead of refreshed, you'll wake up hot and bothered and feeling worn-out. Those QF PJ's seem - to me - to be the right mix of light and durable fabric that breathes reasonably well. They go on every longhaul flight with me, whether its a QF flight or a competing carrier.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

20 Feb 2016

Total posts 25

Like the Bose headphones idea.  Like the melatonin suggestion.

I'm always flying into Lax with two connections already.  10 hrs later I'm tired ready to sleep but end up waiting for the first meal service up to 90 mins  in y or y+.

Can I get my meal delayed so I can get to sleep first up? How can I do this?


Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

24 Apr 2013

Total posts 57

Qantas has an option on Q-Eat to be able to do this - "No meal". See

You can also choose to not be woken up on the breakfast menu card.

Cathay Pacific - Asia Miles

25 Apr 2013

Total posts 542

Sigh. Back in August, I was lucky enough to get in Cathay Pacific's business class on their 777-300ER from Hong Kong to London, and since it was summer I didn't have any work with me. I barely slept at all, presumably due to how well rested I was. Perhaps fairly, on my next business class longhaul in Korean Air's 777-200 from Seoul to Vancouver, I brought a couple of lab reports on the plane, as well as a few other presentations. For some reason, for both the inbound and the outbound I managed to sleep like a pig, and even slept on the positioning flights (as well as all the other flights I've had this year).

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