Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Red-Eye Survival Guide

This entry has been replaced by revised one: How to Sleep on an Airplane (Homeless by Choice, 5/9/09). The entry below is retained only for archive purposes.

For most people, one of the most difficult things about visiting a different continent (or just crossing one continent) is the grueling flight there. Crossing an ocean typically involves sleeping, or attempting to sleep, while sitting upright in cramped quarters. As a very frequent flyer, I do this often, and through experience I have learned how to make it relatively painless.

The ultimate goal of overnight travel is to sleep from the moment you hit the seat to the moment the aircraft pulls into the destination gate. This would make the flight an exercise in instantaneous travel: Go to sleep in New York, wake up in Paris. This goal may not be achievable in the real world, but I have gotten pretty close. Doing it requires both preparation and acclimation. The more you fly, the better you will get at it.

Here are my suggestions:
  1. Dress warmly. This is probably the most important rule. When you sleep, your metabolism slows down and needs more insulation. If you’re cold, you’re not going to sleep and you’ll be miserable. Even when you’re flying in the summer or between tropical destinations, the temperature in the plane is going to be the same as the rest of the year. For any but the shortest flights, always wear long pants and a long-sleeve shirt, and you must bring a sweater or sweatshirt if you plan to sleep. You should also bring a warm cap or a hooded sweatshirt, especially if your hair is thin. Go for loose, comfortable clothing. (If you are traveling on business, try to avoid wearing those clothes on the plane.)

  2. Do whatever you can to get a window seat. When flying at night, you may not care about the window itself, but the wall of the plane gives you something to lean your head against. You also know that no one will be climbing over you or asking you to move so they can get out. With a wall to yourself, you get a little more privacy and freedom, and you don't need to worry about falling on your fellow passengers when you nod off.

  3. Grab an airline blanket as soon as you get on the plane. Airline blankets can be valuable for keeping warm, but you can’t always count on getting one. Snag one early, because there’s sometimes not enough to go around.

  4. Bring some foam earplugs. The will help drown out in-flight announcements and nearby conversations. You don’t need the announcements! You already know what they say, so deaf is better. The airline is required to play the safety instructions, but you aren’t required to listen. The only announcement you need to take action on is the one to “return your seat back to its full upright position” a few minutes before landing, but if you don’t hear it, a flight attendant will tap you on the shoulder.

  5. Be sure to get a seat that reclines. Some seats, typically in the last row of each section, don’t recline. The recline on any seat is usually only about six inches or less, but this can make a big difference when you are trying to sleep upright.

  6. Fasten your seatbelt loosely. Ignore the instructions to fasten the belt “low and tight around your waist.” Instead, loosen the belt as far as it will go. Flight attendants will check that your belt is fastened but they won’t check how tight it is. Compared to a car, the safety value of an airline seat belt is trivial, so you want to make it as comfortable as possible. When you use a blanket, the belt should be outside the blanket so the flight attendants don’t have to wake you to verify that it is fastened.

  7. Use the restroom before getting on the plane. You don’t want to have to get up from your seat unless necessary.

  8. Experiment with a wrap-around neck pillow. I am generally skeptical of these, but there have been a couple of times when they have been helpful to me, especially on long night flights in a packed plane. Unlike the airline-issued pillows, they stay in position. You can buy these pillows at the airport, but they are much cheaper from a department store. Only the beanbag or blow-up types work. (It should be relatively thin, just to keep your head upright.) The thick, batting-filled types are too bulky and don't work.

  9. Bring a bottle of water with you. The air in planes is very dry and you need to be able to drink when you are thirsty, but you also don’t want to stay awake to wait for the airline’s beverage service. Full bottles of water aren’t allowed through security, but empty bottles are, and you can fill them up from a water fountain inside the terminal. In a pinch, you can also fill your water bottle from the faucet water in the airline lavatory. (It is technically "potable" and comes from the same municipal supply as the water fountains in the airport. You have to have some sort of cup, however, to move the water from the faucet to your bottle.)

  10. Buy a sleep mask. This is a cheap eye mask to block out light. It may be available at the airport but also at most pharmacies and department stores (about $3 at Wal-Mart). This blocks out both the light and the in-flight movie. (Without it, you may have trouble keeping your eyes closed, and the drivel on the screen may draw your attention.)

  11. Take two aspirin at the start of the flight. Aspirin is a wonder drug that prevents blood clots and helps reduce muscular pains before they happen. Sleeping in a contorted position can be hard on your back and neck (or at least it’s hard on mine), and I find that aspirin heads off serious problems later. Sleeping with your legs so far below your heart is probably not healthy in the long run, and studies have linked it to blood clots in the legs. If nothing else, you may notice swelling in your legs and feet. I assume that aspirin mitigates some of this.

  12. Take your shoes off. Sleep just goes better that way. You’ll need socks to keep your feet warm.

  13. Before the flight, try to check how full it is. You can guess at the load factors of the flight by looking at the seat maps on the airline’s website or at (To view the seat maps, go through the preliminary steps of buying a ticket.) You can also ask if the flight is full when you check in. The number of empty seats on the flight may alter your behavior when boarding it. If the flight is completely full, you know you’re not going to get a better seat than what you have, so you can board in your assigned order. However, if the flight is relatively light then you should try to be the last person boarding. Then you know that any empty seats are probably unassigned. (You are supposed to ask a flight attendant before you change your seat, but I just do it and wait for someone to complain.) Having three or more seats to yourself is the ideal condition, in which case you can stretch out in comfort and sleep all the way there (more comfortable than First Class!). On widebody aircraft, having the two seats beside window is the next best thing. (I find that I can lie down in a fetal position and sleep soundly on two seats, but not everyone can.) If you find yourself assigned to middle seat ("B" or "E" on most aircraft), if is often worth the effort to delay boarding and try to negotiate for a better seat before gettin on the plane.
In practice, if I decide I’m going to sleep on a flight, I start working on it from the moment I hit the seat. I take off my shoes, close the window shade, install my earplugs, hat, mask, optional neck pillow and blanket, fasten the seatbelt loosely where the flight attendants can see it, then I try to tune out everything. As soon as I feel the plane leave the runway, I recline my seat. I ignore all announcements and in-flight services, including food and beverages. My sole objective is to sleep, and if I am successful, I won’t have any contact with the outside world until the flight attendant taps me on my shoulder before landing and tells me to return the seat to upright.

Sleeping upright is just something you have to get used to. It can never be as easy or restful as sleeping lying down, but the more you do it, the easier it gets. The main problem is that your legs swell up and can become uncomfortable, sometimes for days after the flight.

Sleeping in airports is a lot like sleeping in airplanes. See my separate entry, How to Sleep in an Airport.

Posted from Bedford, Massachusetts. ©Glenn Campbell.
Photo source