a row of seats in an airplane

In the words of Coldplay: nobody said it was easy…

It doesn’t matter what cabin you’re in: flying overnight in a metal tube is hard. Sure, the beds in first class help, but there’s nothing natural about life at 36,000 feet, as you hurdle through the skies to new and exciting horizons.

Assuming none of the upgrade tips you’ve heard worked out, there are still a few ways to make economy a really solid – or at least survivable experience, and possibly even catch some zzzz’s en route. Here’s how to maximize your comfort and sleep on overnight flights…

a row of seats in a planeGive In, Or…

No one enjoys feeling nickel and dime’d, but when it comes to feeling remotely fresh after an overnight flight in ecoknomy, every inch counts. If at all possible, give in and pay up for extra legroom or extra recline seat towards the front of the cabin. If ever possible – try to ask for a bulkhead seat.

Not only will this help get you into a slightly more comfortable sleep position, it’ll also position you closer to the aircraft door for a swift exit upon landing so that you can unfold your back. Immigration lines aren’t getting any shorter, so the quicker you’re off the plane, the better chance you have of beating the rush.

Plus, many of these seats in advantageous positions usually include priority boarding as well, and you definitely don’t want your carry on to be six rows back! Not “giving in” can also have its advantages. Ask the gate agent (politely) as the flight is closing if any rows don’t have anyone seated in them, and you may be able to secure a practically flat bed for the journey.

a plate of food on a tableEat First

Sorry, but plane food almost always sucks, especially in economy, and if you’ve ever watched a water bottle contract in the air, think about what’s happening inside you as you take in food at altitude. Plus, plane food is always high on sodium (because your taste buds are dull in the air), so that increases swelling in the body.

Your best bet is to eat something of nutritional value in the airport or at home, before the flight. You’ll feel so much better from it,  and since you won’t have to wait hours for cabin crew to clear your tray, it should allow for some extra zzz’s.

Eating at destination time is also a major key to jet lag, so if you’re flying from New York to London, have your big meal at 3PM in New York, when it’s 8PM in London.

people sitting in a terminalBoard Last

If you need access to an overhead bin, move onto the next section. If you can manage to limit your carry on items to things that fit under your seat, listen up.

Especially on international flights, there’s an extreme amount of time that passes from the first boarding call to the moment the plane leaves the gate. Though business and first class travellers love lining up to be first on the plane, the more luxurious approach is actually being dead last.

If you’re worried about the 7 hours of flight time, don’t forget you may well sit in your seat for over 2 hours before take off, if you board first. The smartest frequent flyers and celebs board last, waiting near the gate until the final, final call. You simply make the walk to your seat, settle down, and off you go. The terminal is always going to be more comfortable than your economy seat.

Let It Out

There’s no arguing that a couple G&T’s or a nice glass of wine can help settle you in for a nights sleep, but pounding beers won’t often work out very well. The key to surviving overnight flights is sleeping every possible moment and also not getting in fights with seatmates.

If you get up to use the restroom every few minutes, you’re not only breaking airplane etiquette, which suggests no more than two allowed step overs, you’re robbing yourself of precious sleep time. Hydrate the day before your flight, and in the 12 hour period directly before, but in the coming hours before your flight, try to take it easy on extreme liquid intake, to allow yourself the best chance to stay seated.

Oh, and do the world a favor and invest in a refillable water bottle, so that you don’t waste any extra plastics.

a music player and earbudsCancel Noise

Hate the player, not the game. It’s completely unfair to roll your eyes and sigh at parents with young children on planes because there’s so much you can do, which babies cannjot.

The kids don’t want to cry, the parents don’t want the attention and people need to travel. If noise is an issue, you really have only yourself to blame. There are awesome headphone options at each price point, with noise reducing abilities, so not only will your audio sound great, the headphones will also help block out outside noise.  Plus, you can always ask to be seated away from any children.

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of seeing a screaming baby and giving it a smile, since you absolutely cannot hear it, between the noise cancellation and the deep witty crime drama you’ve got playing. You can now also get wireless adapters that allow you to use your favorite wireless bluetooth headphones at any seat.

Window Seat

There’s only one seat on the plane where you can control your sleeping destiny, and that’s the window seat. Assuming you’ve managed to “let it all out”, you can use the window as a sleeping surface and relax in peace, knowing no one will be tapping you just as you’re about to doze off.

Every other seat on the airplane is subject to bumps from passengers, crew or beverage carts, so if you really want a good nights sleep, window seat it is. Though it could potentially put you in close proximity to lavatories in some instances, choosing the last row of a cabin can also be a great hack, since you can immediately recline your seat without disturbing others.

It’s seen as impolite to recline into someone during meal service, but if you have a window seat in the last row of your section, there’s no one to disturb. Everyone wins.

a glass of wine next to a windowSay No

People have a hard time turning down “free stuff”, so they wait around with eyes open, just in case an interesting food item or beverage cart service comes there way.

If you want to survive any overnight flight with ease, just put your eye mask on, say no and close your eyes as soon as the wheels go up. It’s scientifically proven that fasting – including all drinks except water – will help you beat jet lag.

You may start to notice that every semi pro traveler in the cabin says no to meal service, so join them! Breakfast however can be a yes. Sometimes it’s great to have a light snack as you approach landing, to pick up your metabolism and place your digestion on local time!

Bring A Pen

Airline cabin crew have a particular disdain for passengers who ask to borrow a pen. Bring a pen, and fill out your immigration form before you fall asleep for countries which still require them.

The form will likely be far more legible, especially if you’re into sleeping pills, and allow you to sleep on flights until wheels hit runway. Make a habit of asking for an immigration form as quickly as possible, getting it squared away, tuck it in with your passport and hit the snooze button.

What’s your best tip for overnight flights?

Featured image courtesy of Virgin Atlantic.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. I once passed up dinner in transatlantic business class. It was just sleeping. I did wake up for breakfast, though. Good advice and article.

    Flying across the Pacific is a little different. Due to the length, I might eat dinner. Or I might skip it and bring my own food.

  2. The only problem with boarding last, is all the early boarders out there luggage in your overhead space. That has happened to me a few times. Flying to Joburg from Atlanta, I was in 32, my bag ended up is 56! Not nice. Had a last minute phone call that kept me from boarding. Then, all the people in back kept walking up to “my” overhead bin, slamming it shut when retrieving their stuff!

  3. Bringing an eye mask is the best tip a friend ever gave me for overnight flights. To me, it makes a huge difference! Some flights in economy offer them yet most do not. For redeye or overnight flights I just put on the eye mask and can easily sleep 6-7 hours straight. If I forget my eye mask, most of the time I still wake up because the person in front of me turned on his/her light or the backlight of the screen in front of me is bright enough to make my eyes think it’s dawn. lmao

  4. Also, I have to consider what I eat starting the day before my flight. If I’m eating high fiber or gaseous foods, I’ll be rather uncomfortable during the flight. Of course I don’t be constipated but considering the type of food I eat prior to the flight makes a huge difference.

  5. When you board last, and I mean really last, where there are at most a couple of people behind you,
    you have information that the other people already on the plane do not have: the plane is loaded and there
    are no more people coming. If the plane is not completely full, and there are little sets of 2-3 unoccupied seats here and there, you can take these seats rather than your assigned seat and be reasonably assured that you will have them to yourself for the duration of the flight. And if you are really bold and have the nerve, ask to see the seat map as you give the agent your boarding pass. This will give you a clue as to where these little pockets of open seats may be located.

  6. Immigration lines aren’t getting any shorter,

    Actually, in my experience, immigration lines are getting shorter, at least in some places. My last three or four entries into the US (JFK and SFO) and recent trip to the UK (Manchester) have been very fast due to new eGate / automation at the point of entry.

  7. I recently flew into SFO and ORD and immigration lines were very long. Grateful for Global Entry, but it took forever to get my baggage, as is common at those airports.

  8. Agree with most of what you said other than sitting in the last row near the bathrooms. The noise, smell, congestion simply is not worth the ability to decline without bothering someone. Also if u wait until the last minute to board do so only when having no carry on luggage or simply having a bag which can fit under your seat.

  9. I think your advice is well meant and might help a bit, but being remotely comfortable in long-haul coach is pretty much an exercise in futility these days. More stress than ever for both passengers and crew, food doesn’t seem to have notably improved, seats are tighter than ever, often the seats are the horrible slimline seats that cause backaches even on shorter flights, and basic courtesy has largely vanished.

  10. Purchase a foot rest sling which allows you to effectively lie flat- total game changer, feels like premium economy

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