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How to get some shut-eye at 35,000 feet

Do you struggle with sleeping on planes? You're not alone. But choosing the right seat, bringing the right gear and making a few small changes in your flying habits could help.
Image: Passengers sleep on a low cost flight
With all the distractions and hassles of air travel, what doesn't make it tough to sleep on planes?Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images file
/ Source: Independent Traveler

Not enough legroom. People climbing over you. Noise from movies and video games and screaming children. Sunlight pouring in your neighbor's window at 35,000 feet. With all the distractions and hassles of air travel, what doesn't make it tough to sleep on planes?

If you struggle to get some shuteye each time you take to the air, you're not alone — but choosing the right seat, bringing the right gear and making a few small changes in your flying habits could help you sleep better on your next flight. Read on for our travel-tested tips.

Choose your seat wisely
Your seat location could be one of the most important factors in how well — or how poorly —you sleep on your next trip. Try to get a window seat if possible; it will give you something to lean against and get you out of the way of other folks in your row, who won't have to scramble over you each time they need to use the bathroom. You'll also have some control over the window shade.

Think twice about bulkhead or exit row seats. Sure, the extra legroom is great, but some exit row seats do not recline (so that they won't be an obstruction in case of emergency), and some bulkhead seats have armrests that can't be raised. Sleeping in one of these is like sleeping in a straitjacket, especially if the seat next to you is unoccupied, or worse, the entire row is empty (as happened to me on a flight from Australia — 14 hours in the air, an empty row and the worst flight I've ever had). What could have been a nice sleep nook is now more like, well, an airplane seat.

Andrea Rotondo of also cautions against bulkhead seats because they're "often reserved for families traveling with babies or young kids, [and] can be noisy."

Another area to avoid is the last row of the plane. Again, the seats may not recline, and they're often located right near the lavatories — where both noise and odor could be an issue.

Aside from the very last row, there are pros and cons to sitting near the front of the plane and sitting near the back. Seats near the rear of the plane may be noisier due to the planes' engines and clink-clanking from the galley, but it's also more likely that you'll have a couple of seats (or even a whole row) to yourself back there — and the extra space could make up for the extra noise.

To help you choose your seat, check out Seat Guru, which offers color-coded seating charts for nearly every plane on every airline. And don't miss our tips for getting the best airplane seat.

Cut down on your carry-ons
If you have two full carry-ons, one might end up under your feet, limiting your legroom and making it harder to sleep. Try this: Take one carry-on, and inside that one have a small knapsack or pouch packed with essentials like snacks, favorite socks and a book. Before you stow the larger bag, take the smaller bag out and stuff it into the back of the seat in front of you.

Forget the caffeine
Especially on a daytime flight, where even the view out the window can be a distraction, you'll find it much harder to sleep if you have caffeine coursing through your veins. Skip the temptation to have a cup of coffee or a soda before boarding, and stick to water or juice when the drink cart comes around.

Blankets and pillows — stake your claim
There are never enough blankets and pillows to go around. Board early and stake your claim. If there isn't a set in your seat, immediately ask the flight attendant for one.

Bring a neck pillow
Many travelers swear by their supportive neck pillows (Wendy Perrin of The Perrin Post likes the Komfort Kollar). Personally, I've found few neck pillows that really work the way they're designed. They're too big in the back, which tilts my head forward, and then offer no support under my chin to hold up my noggin that has just been pushed forward. I turn them around; this works like a charm. Experiment a bit and see what works for you.

Free your feet
This is a controversial subject. Some people slip their shoes off as soon as they get on a plane; others wouldn't dream of it. Further, there's the issue of keeping your circulation flowing; going barefoot permits your feet to swell.

Take care of your dogs and wear clean socks. Bare feet don't offend; stinky feet do. Wear shoes you can slip on and off easily. This way you're not pulling at shoelaces and flinging elbows mid-flight. On overseas flights, some airlines give you socks that will keep you warm and encourage circulation in your feet.

Try a sleep aid
I am not a doctor and will not attempt to advise you on what drugs you should take as sleep aids. That said, here are a few products I've used with some success:

Melatonin: This is a naturally occurring substance — it's the compound that triggers our sleep patterns, and it's as natural as eating. The level of melatonin in our bodies declines as we age; this is why older folks often sleep less as they advance in years.

As it is a gentle approach, melatonin doesn't seem to work for everyone. One Olympic doctor I know, who counsels athletes on beating jet lag, advises that you begin taking melatonin three days before you travel. Your number of winks may vary.

Dramamine: This motion sickness remedy is a pretty common over-the-counter drug, but beware; it will knock you out, and the advice not to operate heavy machinery (like, say, a car) is to be heeded. If you are on a shorter flight or need to be alert when you wake up, you may want to avoid this one.

For more ideas, see Medications for Travel.

Use headphones with discretion
Save yourself the $4 - $5 and catch some more winks by passing on the airline's headphones. TV and movies can keep you up the entire flight. On one transatlantic flight last year, I sat awake until three in the morning watching "Man in the Moon"; I laughed out loud and definitely enjoyed myself, but the next day in Europe, I yearned deeply for the two hours of sleep I lost to Jim Carrey's depictions of Andy Kaufman and Tony Clifton.

On the other hand, listening to soothing music can help tune out distractions and lull you into a peaceful sleep. For best results, try Bose's popular noise-canceling headphones; they're pricey, but they're the best product on the market for frequent fliers looking to escape engine noise and other in-flight distractions. (Ear plugs are a less effective but much cheaper alternative.)

Recline your seat — but be courteous
On a night flight, expecting someone not to sleep is like asking them to put down their window shade during a flight over the Grand Canyon or Haleakala. Ideally, everyone has the same idea and seatbacks will tip backward soon into your flight.

However, you should always look behind you to make sure the coast is clear before pushing the button to put your seat back. It gives the person behind you a heads up if they have coffee in front of them or have their head down on the tray table.

Simple common courtesy applies here.

Make sure you won't be disturbed
Jayne52, a former airline staffer, recommends notifying your flight attendant that you want to sleep — that way he or she will know not to disturb you when the drink or snack cart comes around. If you're under a blanket, be sure your seat belt is buckled over top of it so the belt is visible at all times.

Stay away from the light
The animated flash of movie screens, reading lights, cabin lights, sunlight bursting in on an eastbound flight — all can disturb your slumber. Get yourself an eye mask. Some airlines provide them, but it's best to keep one in your traveling kit just to be safe.

When it's time to wake up ...
The worst part of sleeping is waking up, I always say. It's even worse on a plane, when you're waking up to bright lights, luggage carousels and sunshine so bright you can hear it.

If it's a long flight, consider setting a watch or cell phone alarm for 45 minutes before you have to land. That gives you time to go to the restroom, gather your gear, tie your shoes, watch the approach to your destination — you might even convince an attendant to pour you a cup of coffee — and walk off the plane fully awake.

Reaching your destination fully rested, whether you indulge in a short and sweet nap or a full rack en route, always beats lurching around an airport tired and crabby. Grab your 40 winks (and then some) in flight, and you'll be a happier traveler.