Getting a decent amount of sleep on an overnight flight is key to enjoying the first couple of days of any trip. One of the worst parts about flying is finding you are assigned to a middle seat in economy class on a long overnight flight. You imagine the hours of torture in awkward sleeping positions, squashed between two people, holding your bladder to avoid annoying your seatmates yet again as you get up to pee for the tenth time. You dread arriving at your destination, either walking around in a sleep-deprived fog or losing the first day or two of your vacation to fitful sleep.
While there are plenty of travel tips to survive a long-haul flight or even make your economy flight *almost* like first class, there are some specific steps you can take to be able to sleep better in the middle seat in economy class. In fact, these travel tips are great for sleeping in any seat on planes, trains, ferries, or during road trips in a car or bus where you are forced to sleep sitting upright.
CREATE YOUR TRAVEL SLEEP TOOL KIT FOR SLEEPING IN THE MIDDLE SEAT
The first step is to arm yourself with a travel sleep tool kit. I recommend making your own. Don’t expect your airline to provide effective amenities, even in business class.
Make sure to try out at least some of these tools while you relax in a chair at home before you ever get to your airplane seat. You don’t want to pull them out mid-flight only to find that your travel neck pillow is too wimpy or your new noise-canceling headphones are uncomfortable.
Here are some items you might include in your sleep tool kit:
- Travel pillow or memory foam neck support
- Lumbar pillow or support (best if made of memory foam)
- A sleep aid like melatonin, magnesium, valerian, or your prescribed sleep medication. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about which sleep aid is right for you and your medical conditions.
- Ear plugs or noise-canceling headphones
- Eye mask to block out light
- Warm comfortable clothes in layers to help you find the optimum sleep temperature
- Bring an extra travel blanket or ask a flight attendant for an extra one after boarding. Even if you don’t use it to cover up you can roll it to create an extra neck pillow or lumbar pillow.
- Inflatable footrest or foot hammock to take the pressure off your back (there are lots of options on Amazon)
- Lavender essential oil to dab behind your ears. Lavender increases slow-wave sleep, the type of sleep where the heartbeat slows down and muscles fully relax.
- Chamomile tea or other sleep-promoting tea. I have found that Pukka Night Time Tea works well for me but the taste is less appealing than a simple chamomile tea.
- Blue light-blocking glasses
- Snacks to keep hunger from robbing you of sleep. Choose snacks high in magnesium like bananas help regular blood pressure and induce sleep.
- Compression socks (to help prevent blood clots and leg swelling) or warm soft socks. A study in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology found that warm socks led to 7.6% higher sleep efficiency, 7.5 times fewer times waking up from sleep, and 32 more minutes of sleep on average.
BEFORE THE FLIGHT: YOUR ACTION PLAN FOR SLEEPING IN THE MIDDLE SEAT
If you go to book your flight and find that the only seats available are middle seats, don’t freak out. You still have options!
Avoid the middle seat altogether by choosing an aisle or window when booking
Of course, the best plan is to avoid the middle seat altogether. Having frequent flyer status with an airline can give you an advantage for preferred window or aisle seats.
Even if you don’t have status with an airline you can pay a little extra for an aisle seat, window seat, or even an exit row for extra legroom.
When trying to determine if it is worth the extra cost, calculate how many hours you will lose from severe jet lag on arrival. If your hotel is $150 a night and you will lose a day to sleeping off your jet lag it might be worth paying $150 extra for a different seat if it improves your chances of getting some shut-eye.
Try an alternative to regular economy class like premium economy or an economy couch
If you can’t afford a business class seat but want something in between for long flights, you can opt for a premium economy seat with extra leg room, a footrest, and increased seat pitch.
Alternatively, the Air New Zealand Economy SkyCouch gives you an entire row with footrest seat extenders that raise to turn it into a cozy bed. This is almost as good as the flat seats in business class for optimal sleeping positions.
ANA has a similar product called the Couchii that provides an entire row for extra room. It comes with seat extenders that create a flat bed. Having the entire row also means you can spread out with extra legroom when sitting upright.
Block one or more adjacent seats at a steep discount
Several airlines will let you buy and block one or more adjacent seats so you can stretch out or lie down. You can even guarantee a whole row to yourself. You might think this would cost too much but the prices are surprisingly reasonable.
Some airlines will even throw in a mattress topper, Business Class-quality blanket and pillow, and extra luggage allowance.
Check out the list of airlines offering the option to block seats or reserve an entire row here.
If you have multiple flight legs, choose flights with the same carrier
If you are booking international flights with one of the major US airlines, you may find that only one of the legs is with the primary airline. Because of this you only be able to choose your seat on that leg of your trip.
For the flights with their partner airlines, you may not have advanced seat selection at the time of your booking. You can try using your booking number to log in directly with the partner airline to choose your seat. But sometimes you have to wait until that airline assigns you, often resulting in a middle seat for at least one person in your party.
If you don’t have any luck with advanced seat selection online, try calling the partner airline. You can also go to the airline counter when you arrive for the first leg of your trip. Be polite and don’t be afraid to speak up about any physical traits (like being tall or wide) that would make a middle seat very uncomfortable for you.
If you still don’t have any luck, ask again when you get to the gate for the flight.
Check in online as far in advance as you can to see if any other seats have opened up
When it is time to check in for your flight, check the website again. Sometimes seats will open because airlines have released seats or people will have canceled or changed flights. Review the seat map to see if any better seats become available or if there are any you are willing to pay to upgrade to. Some airlines will allow you to make a bid for open premium economy seats.
If you are stuck with the middle seat then choose the best middle seat on the seat map
Ok, so let’s assume you are stuck with a middle seat and have no other option. Now the trick is to choose the best middle seat.
- Try booking an international red eye when you would naturally be sleeping most of the time.
- Pay for a middle seat in an exit row or bulkhead for extra space. You will get more leg room and it will be easier to squeeze by a sleeping seatmate to get to the bathroom.
- Pick a seat away from family rows. Some airlines, like Delta, are now reserving rows for families traveling together. Consider choosing a seat away from children who may spend the long flight crying or kicking the back of your seat.
- Check the plane configuration on the seat map. If it is a 3-3-3 configuration, choose the middle section so you can exit on either side depending on which seatmate is sleeping. This will also help prevent you from being disturbed when your seatmate in the window seat gets up to go to the toilet.
- Avoid middle seats in from of exit rows since some of these seats don’t recline in order to avoid blocking the path to the emergency door.
Choose a direct flight
A long direct flight rather than two shorter ones will give you the longest period of uninterrupted sleep. Direct flights also have a smaller carbon footprint, helping you to be a more eco-friendly traveler.
Travel with friends or family
Traveling with someone you know will make it feel better to be in such close proximity. If your head happens to find its way to their shoulder it won’t be quite as embarrassing.
Avoid caffeine and alcohol
Avoid caffeine for at least 8 hours before your flight. Caffeine can actually continue to circulate in your bloodstream for up to 14 hours, disrupting your circadian clock. Caffeine is also a diuretic and can increase the number of times you need to get up and pee.
Avoid alcohol on the day of your trip. While you may think a nightcap will help you, alcohol can actually cause you to wake up more often, leading to poor sleep quality.
Eat light meals
On the day of your flight choose lighter meals to avoid an upset stomach that may disrupt your sleep schedule and make it harder to adjust sleep time.
Take a hot shower in an airport lounge
If you have a long layover or flight delays, take advantage and consider visiting an airport lounge for a hot, relaxing shower. If you do not have airline status or a credit card providing free lounge access, you can purchase a day pass or use miles to purchase a pass. Frequent travelers might consider joining programs like Priority Pass or Sanctify Club that give you lounge access.
You can also access showers at some airport gyms or dedicated airport shower facilities. Check out these airport guides to find out if there are showers available at your airports. You can also find out which lounges offer single-visit passes.
Sleep in the airport
If you know there is absolutely no way you will sleep sitting upright in the middle seat on the plane, consider planning a trip with a long-ish layover in an airport where you can take a nap. Check out Sleeping In Airports guide to find places you can sleep during your layover.
Walk around the airport to get some exercise before your flight
Getting 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity can improve your sleep quality that night. Try going to an airport gym. Resistance training in particular has been shown to decrease the number of times you wake up during sleep. Even a brisk walk around the airport before your flight will get your heart rate up and help you sleep better later on.
Get a chair massage at the airport
Many airports have chair massages on offer. Consider the small splurge to loosen your muscles and relax you for your flight, especially if you have flight delays. Check your airport website ahead of time to locate one near your gate.
Visit the restroom immediately before boarding your flight
Make sure to visit the laboratory before boarding long flights, especially if you plan to fall asleep right away.
Have a jet lag plan
Some people will find that adjusting their routine and bedtime ahead of departure can help ease them through jet lag and adjust to a new time zone. It takes 24 hours for our biological clocks to shift by one hour. Use this guideline to slowly adjust your internal clock closer to the time zone at your destination.
If you need more assistance, consider the Timeshifter app. The sleep experts at Timeshifter help you create a jet lag plan that includes notifications about when not to drink caffeine, when to get sunlight, when to take melatonin, and when to go to sleep and wake up in the days before and after a trip. They promise to help you adapt your sleep schedule to new time zones 3-4 times faster than normal.
Your first jet lag plan is free. If you are a United MileagePlus member you get an additional free Timeshifter plan. Premier 1K members get a free one-year Timeshifter subscription.
DURING THE FLIGHT: YOUR ACTION PLAN FOR SLEEPING IN THE MIDDLE SEAT
Put as much of your stuff in the overhead compartment as possible to leave extra legroom
Board the plane early to give yourself a better chance of storing the majority of your belongings overhead. Consider packing a small bag within your car-on that has only your seat essentials.
When you get to your seat you can easily pull out this smaller bag, your lumbar pillow, and your travel neck pillow without struggling in the aisle. Put things like your headphones, charger, snack, collapsible refillable water bottle, and other essentials in this smaller bag.
Alternatively, you can use your bag as a footrest to raise your legs and take some pressure off of your back.
Make friends with your seatmates
Remember that your seatmates may be dreading a long flight next to strangers too. Be kind, say hello, or make a joke to establish goodwill early on. They won’t display as much animosity when you ask to be let out to the bathroom later on.
Establish proper armrest etiquette with your seatmates
This is a tough one. Most people don’t actively negotiate the armrest territory. They just claim it. Really, the person in the middle seat should have priority to position their arms on the armrests but this is likely to be a silent battle.
Stay hydrated but in moderation
You should sip about 8 oz (1 cup) or 250mL of water for every hour you are in the air but if you drink too much too quickly you will be constantly going to the bathroom. Work on finding that happy balance.
Go to the bathroom right before you settle to sleep
Try to time your trip to the bathroom before the person in the window seat falls asleep. This will also give them the opportunity to get up and go at the same time, hopefully avoiding having them wake you up just as you fall asleep later on.
Do things that are a part of your usual bedtime routine
Tell your mind and body that it is time for bed. Wash your face, brush your teeth, apply face cream, whatever it is you do typically before you go to bed.
Do some small stretches in your seat or in the open areas near the bathroom or exit
Before you head back to your seat, do some inconspicuous stretches in the open area near the bathroom or exit. Stretching and moving along with compression socks can help prevent blood clots on long flights.
Avoid blue light in the hour prior to sleep time
Keep an eye on the time and plan your sleep schedule accordingly. The lights will likely be dimmed 1-2 hours into a transatlantic flight after the first meal service.
Try to avoid watching a television screen the hour before you plan to fall asleep.
Blue light emitted by screens can shift circadian rhythms in the wrong direction and suppress your body’s release of melatonin. Read a book or listen to music or a podcast instead of watching a screen. If you relax by watching TV then bring a pair of blue light-blocking glasses.
Buckle your seat belt on the outside of your blanket
Keeping your buckled seat belt visible will prevent the flight attendant from waking you to tell you to fasten it.
Try different sleeping positions
Some people are able to sleep better by leaning forward onto their memory foam travel pillow on the tray table.
Listen to sleep-inducing audio recordings recommended by sleep experts
“Pink noise,” as opposed to white noise, has sounds in which the intensity decreases as the frequency increases. Think waves on the beach, wind in the trees, and heavy rain. Pink noise has been found to decrease the amount of time needed to fall asleep by 38%.
You could also spend the hour before you plan to fall asleep listening to soothing music. Just make sure to prepare your sleep playlist ahead of time.
Do some mindfulness breathing exercises or meditate just prior to sleeping
Mindfulness breathing exercises have been shown to decrease insomnia and improve sleep. Headspace, a guided meditation app, partners with multiple airlines to provide meditation and breathing exercises to passengers. Search for the Headspace channel and audio guided meditations in your entertainment console. You can also find one of their recordings here or on Netflix.
If you find that you still can’t sleep or feel you haven’t slept enough, don’t stress
Flying basic economy without the extra legroom doesn’t have to be a nightmare. No matter what tools or techniques you use, recognize that it is normal to have trouble sleeping on a plane. It is also normal to have trouble adjusting in the first 1-2 days.
Don’t stress! The difficulty will pass. Instead of stressing about not sleeping, think about your trip and the things you will be doing. Visualize what having an amazing time will look like and what memories you will make. This final relaxation technique may be just what you need to drift off into blissful slumber.