Monday, December 27, 2010

How to Sleep on the Plane - Traveling Happily

For those of you faced with lengthy airline travel, sleeping on the plane is the only redeeming factor to look forward to after crowded airports, mediocre (at best) airline food, and TSA.  If you can't sleep on the plane, you're screwed.  What to do?  Learn.  Follow these guidelines to help you get the most possible rest before reaching your destination...

Before you go.  Try not to sleep too much before you get on the plane.  It helps to be a little tired if you're going to have to sleep sitting up.  This may sound obvious, but many people try to be too well-rested before they get to the airport.  This makes sense if your flight is going to be less than three hours, but I can't imagine why anyone would think they can sleep on the plane after already having a full night's sleep.

At the airport.  Try to stay calm.  Getting all wound up is just going to make you have to wind down before you can get to sleep.  Try not to let anything that happens at the airport bother you.  You're there.  You have your ticket.  You find your gate and wait for your turn to get on the plane.  No big deal.  Let security hassle you if it makes them happy.  Tune out the family with the annoying kids.  Have an overpriced beer if you must.  Just don't worry about anything.

Getting comfortable in your seat.  Okay, you've found a place for your carry on and now you're in your seat.  Chances are, your seat is uncomfortable.  For some reason, seat designers for both cars and airplanes have decided that seats that make you sit like Mr. Burns are the most cost-effective.  I don't know why, so don't ask.  The solution to this is to use a little airplane pillow, a folded up sweatshirt, or some other soft thing that can fill some space and stuff it behind your lower to mid back.  This should help you straighten out a bit.  It should also help your neck fall back at a more natural angle when you get the go ahead to recline your seat back the full five inches or so that it's designed for.

Awesome Tip of the Day:  Scoot your bum all the way into the back corner of the seat.  You are much more likely to get mid to lower back pain if you let there be a space between you and the seat for your lower back to sag into while you sleep.

Dealing with space confinement.  This is a really difficult one for a lot of people.  Feeling confined is very psychological.  Here's an example... a lot of people move to island paradises and get "island fever", which is a term used to describe the claustrophobic feeling of knowing you're stuck on an island and can't easily go anywhere.  The interesting thing is that most of these people never drive more than two hours worth of distance (so not stuck in traffic) in any direction in their home town.  They stay in their city most of the time.  They only start to panic because they are suddenly aware that they can't leave even if they wanted to.  That said, a lot of discomfort on an airplane really comes from knowing that you can't move around much.

Here's what to do.  Find a reasonably comfortable position to sit in.  If you know you're sensitive to light or sound, bring an eye mask or earplugs accordingly.  Take a nice slow breath, and let your body sink into the chair.  Try not to move other than just breathing.  This will help you avoid feeling restricted.  If you chose not to move, there is no problem.  Once you're in this relaxed position, try to just let all the thoughts in your head fall in importance.  If you think of something, just remember that, "Yeah, who cares?  It's nap time."  Consider those imposing thoughts a phone that keeps ringing as you are trying to sleep.  It's best to not answer, even better to turn it off.  (Yes, I just called that better than best...)  So stare at the back of your eyelids if you must.  Think about how much you just can't wait to sleep.  Think about how happy and relaxed you are.  Pretend you just got into bed after a long, hard day.  Before you know it, you will probably be asleep.  If not, even just being calm in this position will help you avoid discomfort and feel rested by the time you reach your destination.  When you do reach your destination, try not to snap to attention.  Take a moment and let your thoughts come back and plan out what you need to do next before you start moving your body around.

Being restless.  There are two remaining things that ought to be addressed.  The first one is the restless body.  If you find yourself trying to relax, but your body won't cooperate, give your body what it wants.  Take a moment from your reasonably comfortable sitting position and tense every muscle in your body.  Hold it until it gets difficult to hold.  Repeat if you must.  Once you find yourself losing power to stay tense, let go of all that tension and just relax.  Hopefully, that will get out that physical antsiness and let you get to sleep.

Another thing worth trying is a solid stretching and relaxation session before you leave your house.  I do this any time I'm going to be in a car or on a plane for more than two hours.  It helps my ability to sit still for long periods of time without becoming uncomfortable.  A good work out is recommended for those of you who are energetic.  Also, airport gates have plenty of floor space.  I'm not above stretching for twenty to thirty minutes between flights if need be.  It helps kill time during a layover and it feels wonderful.  Most people just ignore me while I do this, although I've had a few people join me once or twice.  I will never see those people again anyway, so I don't care at all if they think it's weird.  My traveling experience is much more pleasant than theirs, so I win.  If you are traveling with a close friend or significant other, it doesn't hurt to trade a little neck and shoulder massage while you wait for your flights.

The second thing is mental restlessness.  Similar to the body, sometimes simply relaxing isn't enough and you need to sort of "burn off" whatever tension needs to get out.  Choose something that is strenuous for your mind and do it.  Try to visualize math problems and solve them mentally if that works for you.  Visualize folding up a piece of paper, punching a couple of holes in it, and try to figure where the holes would be located if you unfolded it.  Try to remember all the signs you saw on your way to the plane.  Whatever it takes, just tire your mind so it is willing to submit to relaxation.

If you have any questions about your particular sleeping challenges while traveling, place them in the comments below and I would be happy to help you come up with solutions.


  1. I'm a fan of those inflatable toilet seat travel pillows, they fold up to less than the size of a man's wallet and keep your head where it should be. Also, booze, just one or two max, but stick with the low volume mixed drinks or else your bladder will disrupt any attempts at sleep.

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