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msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/9/2009 4:59:55 PM ET 2009-09-09T20:59:55

I can’t sleep on a plane, especially on long flights. I’m guessing it has something to do with having my body jammed into a space the size of a milk carton.

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But like most situations in life, the problem isn’t that simple. There are other factors involved as well, such as food, alcohol, noise, light, smelly cologne or perfume, interruptions from well-meaning flight attendants, turbulence from bumpy air outside, turbulence from fidgety neighboring passengers inside, and the adorable baby who turns into a scream machine at altitudes above 30,000 feet.

As it turns out, I’m not alone. I’ve talked to many others who have trouble sleeping inside a fast-moving steel container while their noses are within five inches of the reclined seat in front of them.

Who knew?

A recent trip to Europe was no different, I’m afraid. Before my departure, I received lots of counsel from friends and experts on how to catch some shut-eye on flights of more than eight hours. And I even took some of that advice. But alas, I found myself as wide awake as Malcolm McDowell’s character in “A Clockwork Orange,” and he had his eyes pried open with sticks.

It’s really all just a state of mind. Of course, my state of mind on long flights is annoyingly alert. Not so with some of the experts I consulted.

“Before I ever get on a plane, I embrace what I call the ‘Middle Seat Zen,’” explained Peter Greenberg, one of the top travel writers in the business, “which means I don’t know what my boarding pass says and I don’t care. I convince myself I’m getting the middle seat, because if I do then I won’t be disappointed, and if I don’t then I will be pleasantly surprised.

“Because of the Middle Seat Zen, I’ve learned to sleep in any possible position on a plane. I sometimes use my tray table as a pathetic pillow.”

I tried that. One tip I’d like to share: Make sure the flight attendant has cleared away your half-eaten meal before you do it.

Greenberg said he has an entire game plan he follows, which has worked for him over the years. And this man has slept on planes that have traversed the planet several times over.

Among his rules: No alcohol. No airline food. If you have to eat and drink, have something light like apple juice or sparkling water, and fruit.

And one of his major points of instruction is this: “No matter where I go, I force myself to stay up until 11 p.m. local time in the city where you are going to land. Pay attention to their time zone, not yours. If you succumb to the temptation of taking that little three-in-the-afternoon nap, nobody will see you for two days.

“It’s not just a matter of sleeping on a plane, but how you prepare for the flight and prepare for after the flight.”

Dr. Ronald Kramer, a practicing neurologist in Denver as well as a sleep medicine expert, said part of that pre-flight prep work could involve a sleeping pill, like Ambien. But like most physicians, he advises caution.

“You don’t want to combine them with alcohol,” he stressed. “There should be several hours between, say, a dinner cocktail on a plane and taking the appropriate sleeping pill.”

Kramer also said that it is important to do a trial run well before the flight if you’re taking a sleeping pill for the first time. “You don’t want to take a sleeping pill for the first time in a public bedroom, an airplane,” he explained. “You want to try it at home once or twice to make sure there are no bad side effects. There can be some bad side effects, like sleepwalking. You don’t want to find yourself sleepwalking on a plane.”

Of course, there have been times, in the seventh hour of a 10-hour flight, let’s say, when it would be difficult to distinguish my walk to the lavatory with sleepwalking.

8 things airlines won’t tell youKramer offer other tips as well: wear earplugs to drown out the drone of the engine and the chatter from other passengers; wear an eye mask to block out light; wear loose-fitting clothes; exercise a couple hours or more before flight time, if possible, to help promote sleep on a plane; don’t drink a lot of coffee before you try to get to sleep; don’t drink a lot of alcohol the night before you’re going to fly.

And you can take Melatonin supplements, although he said that is more of an “adjunctive treatment,” to be used along with a sleeping pill.

Dr. Kamran Rabbani, an internal medicine physician based in Encino, Ca., recommends a little red wine to take the edge off while flying and trying to snooze, which was welcome news, because it’s the one area of attempted in-flight sleep in which I have been well ahead of the curve.

“Red wine has a lot of the same properties as some of the sleeping pills as far as relaxing,” he said. “Resveratrol, the element in red wine, appears to be beneficial for general health. The nature of red wine has soothing and calming effects, much better than Adavan or Xanax.”

Rabbani also said that body positioning is critical in getting winks on a flying machine. “The most important thing is to have your head back, so you’re not so vertical.” Then he added gloomily: “Which is almost impossible on a plane.”

This brings us to the delicate topic of class. In the United States of America, we don’t divide ourselves too much in terms of distinct classes. We’re a melting pot, after all. For instance, quite often you might find the middle class rubbing elbows with the upper middle class, especially at the DMV.

But when it comes to airlines, there is first class, business class, and then what Bennett Marks refers to as “sardine class.”

Marks is an executive with a major cell phone company who makes frequent trips to Europe and Asia from his home in the Boston area. He carries what he calls a “Bucky,” a U-shaped buckwheat pillow that fits around his neck and stabilizes his head when he is hermetically sealed in a coach seat.

Slideshow: Awful airlines But he has another secret: Upgrade. Naturally, the seats in first class and business class are much more comfy and roomy than those in coach. In fact, on my recent flight to Europe, the first class cabin — which they let me walk through — looked more relaxing than a Moroccan hookah lounge.

Frequent fliers like Marks can rack up the miles, and therefore upgrades are more accessible. “The lay-flat seats are heaven-sent,” Marks said. “Upgrades are one of the few real benefits of flying a lot.”

The bottom line for dozing on planes: It depends on the individual. Some people can fall asleep on command. Some need a little assistance in doing so. Some are condemned to experience every waking moment of a long flight.

On the plus side, I did gain a thorough understanding of every item offered in the SkyMall catalog.

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