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Whether you’re a frequent flyer or going on that once-in-a-lifetime trip, we can all agree that long-haul flights deserve a special place in hell. When you’re on a 17-hour flight and there are still 8+ hours left, it can be a real morale killer. It’s almost enough to convince you not to visit that far flung exotic vacation. But there’s hope. Here are our best tips for sleeping on a plane for your long haul flight from New York to Sydney or wherever you want to go.
How Long is Long?
A fair way to start this piece is to address flight length. For some folks, a 4 hour flight is too long to be on an airplane. Others knock out a cross country “6er” every other week for work. These tips are geared toward long haul flights of 6 hours or more. It’s the kind of flight where you take a nap, wake up and still have time to be bored. And with kids? Well, let’s just say it’s “Mommy, are we there yet?” times a gajillion.
The Right Airplane Seat for a Long Flight
Picking the right seat can make a huge difference on a long haul flight. In a magical world, we’d all spring for business or first class and enjoy lie-flat seats. But in the real world, economy class is a reality for most folks.
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While different people have different preferences for seating, I try to avoid bulkhead/front row seating for any section. On many aircraft types, the armrests between those airplane seats do not go down. So even if you end up with the miracle of a whole row to yourself, you will not be able to lower the armrests and stretch out across the seats. The only reason to book these seats, in my opinion, is if you’re traveling with a baby and will be using one of the bassinets that hook up at the bulkhead. Knowing that, if you book near the front of each section, you raise your chances of being near a crying baby.
TravelingMom Tip: Another reason to reconsider the bulkhead: The tray tables and video in-flight entertainment system screens swing up from beneath the armrest. They need to be put down for landing, meaning, your movie may be cut short if you’re sitting there.
Aisle Seat vs. Window Seat
There are benefits to both. An aisle seat gives you easier access to get up to use the bathroom. It also makes walking and stretching to avoid deep vein thrombosis easier.
On the other hand, if you plan to pop a sleep aid and conk out for most of the ride, a window seat is the answer. Your seat mates won’t need to wake you when they need to get up to use the restroom or take a walk. Just remember to pull down that window shade when you take off.
I’m not even going to discuss middle seat here. Avoid them like the plague on international flights.
When flying with kids, it’s good to be familiar with airline seating policies. For example, Emirates Airlines guarantees that children 12 and under will be seated with an accompanying adult.
TravelingMom Tip: Check in as soon as possible on a long haul flight and don’t choose seats next to one another! Counter-intuitive, I know. But stick with me here. This is how I did it on a 17-hour flight with my 9-year-old: The middle section had 4 open seats, so I checked us in on every other seat. Worst case scenario? We would have switched seats with someone to sit next to one another. But we got the best case scenario: No one else booked those single seats so we had the whole row to ourselves. We took turns lying across three of the seats for naps.
Exit rows traditionally offer extra legroom. As such, they’re fairly popular for long haul flights that tend to be full. Better to catch some extra legroom than be cramped in a regular economy seat, right? But those arm rests don’t retract and the seats don’t recline. Plus, there are age restrictions on exit rows so unless you’re traveling with an older teen, you won’t be able to sit there with your kiddo.
Should You Upgrade?
It may seem like the right time to pay an extra $40 for that Economy Plus seat, but do your research first. An extra fee seat doesn’t necessarily mean extra leg room. On many flights, you’re just paying to sit closer to the front, which is great if you have a tight connection but won’t give you any extra room. Seats with actual extra room can cost much more than $40 on a long haul flight. Check out SeatGuru to look at seat maps of the exact aircraft you’ll be flying before spending the money.
Long Haul Flights with Babies
When flying internationally you will pay an infant fare for a baby. In very rare cases you may be able to get away with just paying taxes, but we recommend buying a seat. Having a lap child on a long flight is a LOT of work. Buy them a seat, research which carseat to bring, and order a bassinet for the baby to sleep in. You’ll thank me later when you were actually able to sleep on the plane!
Timing is Everything
For a super long haul flight you can’t really pick the timeline as strategically. Either way you’re going to switch from day to night or vice versa. For a shorter long haul flight of 6-9 hours you can choose an overnight (red-eye) flight to maximize your natural sleep cycle.
Sleeping on a Plane: The Tips You Need
No one wants to arrive at their destination looking (and feeling) like a zombie on a bad day. There are several strategies to get better sleep on a plane.
Buy Business Class
Yes, I know this isn’t a feasible solution for everyone. A business class lie-flat seat can be your best friend on a long haul flight. Sometimes it’s worth waiting for an upgrade offer. On a recent 17+ hour flight we were offered business class upgrades for $1000, a small fraction of the ticket price. Decide what your upgrade number is and set that money aside or use credit card perks.
Use Sleep Aids
When faced with a long flight, it’s easy to get anxious. “Will I be able to sleep?” “Should I take something?” “What am I going to be like if I can’t sleep?” For this reason, lots of people turn to over-the-counter sleep aids. Be sure to research any possible side effects prior to flying. DO NOT try this for the first time on your flight. You want to know how your body will react to whatever you take. Options include sleeping pills such as Unisom, or a more natural choice such as melatonin (choose one with a 7 hour release to help you stay asleep).
Now, the kiddos. Should you give your kids an antihistamine like Benadryl to make them drowsy for the flight? First of all, don’t try this without discussing it with your doctor. Second, be aware that it actually makes some kids more hyper rather than sleepy. If your doc says it’s OK, give your kiddo a test dose before you fly to see how he responds.
TravelingMom Tip: Many kiddos have ear pain on flights. We swear by EarPlanes and always pack them, along with a few lollipops. Sucking or chewing can also help ear popping. These motion sickness suckers can solve two problems at once.
If at all possible, try to lie down across the seats. This is where booking creatively or asking a flight attendant if you can move to an empty row comes in handy. My daughter and I both were able to lie comfortably across a middle row of four seats on our last long flight.
Set Sleep Triggers
As a mom of four and frequent traveler, I strongly believe in the power of suggestive thought and rituals. We weren’t rigid with routines because we wanted the kids to be flexible. We were, however, devout believers in repetition. There was a specific nighttime stuffed animal, a special small blanket, and a soothing spray of lavender mist on the pillow.
These small repetitive nighttime rituals were easy to repeat on the road. It created a sleep-friendly atmosphere wherever we were. They also work on older kids and adults. It takes 21 days to form a habit. If you mist your face every evening at home with a lavender toner, over time you will associate it with sleep. Bring a travel-size when you fly and — boom — your body knows it’s bedtime.
On a Full Flight
If you’re in economy on a full flight, any sleep you get will be in the upright position. Consider buying a SeatSleeper. Yes, they look totally goofy. But they actually are comfortable and prevent head bounce. One of the main reasons people startle awake is because they’ve jerked their head around. These also work for long road trips. Feeling cheap? I once saw a businessman use his necktie in the same way on the headrest but I promise the actual product is less creepy.
What to Wear on a Long Flight
I’m not a leggings girl. Love the cute outfits others put together with them, but when I put on one? Well, I feel like I’m pretending to be cute and largely failing. However, a long flight is the time to dress for comfort. Leave the pj’s at home but definitely make sure you’re not wearing anything with a tight waistband. Shirts that shift in strange ways won’t do you any favors either. For littles, make sure the outfits are uncomplicated. There is no button struggle like a small airplane bathroom struggle with an “I need to pee NOW” toddler. (Before your flight with a toddler who hasn’t been potty trained, definitely read these tips for changing a diaper on a plane!)
My personal favorites are loose boyfriend fit jeans, low wrinkle linen flowy pants and, every once in a while, some exercise leggings (pockets!) with a long tunic t-shirt. Layers are key. Don’t wear a sweatshirt or sweater without something underneath in case the plane is warm. For shoes, wear ones that are odor-free and easy to remove. Feet can swell on long flights so be sure the pair you choose has a little give. I am a Tieks fanatic and wear them on all my flights. The elastic in the ballet flat edging accommodates any swelling and still looks cute.
Packing List for Long-Distance Flights
It is super important to hydrate on long flights. Flight attendants will come around several times to offer those little cups of water. But you should drink more than a few little cup’s worth of water during the flight! Fill your water bottle often while waiting for the plane to take off and make sure everyone’s bottles are full before you board. This one is my favorite because it fits in cup holders but also has a great clipping spot on the top so it can be clipped onto something and carried hands-free.
Especially during flu season, pack a few medical face masks. You’re going to be stuck in that metal tube with these folks for a few time zones. FYI wearing a mask won’t necessarily prevent coronavirus if that’s what you’re concerned about, but it’s a good call if you’re seated next to a hacking Typhoid Mary when you can’t be moved.
Interested in learning more about the germiest spots on a plane and how to avoid them? We wrote about it.
This is by far my favorite item for a long haul flight. I’m short. If I recline my seat, I can’t always touch the floor. My kids can’t either. Having my feet just hanging during the flight increases the swelling in my feet and ankles. These foot hammocks come 2 in a pack for less than $10 on Amazon and hang on the seat back tray table whether it’s open or closed. It does not pull on the person in front of you. It made a HUGE difference to be able to rest my feet and adjust the height they were at throughout the flight. I have also successfully rigged them on car seats to give a toddler a place to rest his feet.
Common recommendations are earplugs, eye sleep masks, and travel pillows and blankets. If you have one of these that you love, by all means, bring it. But many airlines hand out earbuds, travel pillows and blankets for long-haul flights. You may want to ask before you fly to avoid packing duplicates in your carry-on that you really don’t need.
If you do bring your own items make sure you buy washable ones and put them through the laundry when you get home. I’m a bit of a germaphobe so I run a sanitary cycle or add a laundry sanitizer.
Most airlines still offer small travel pillows on long haul flights. If you feel particularly attached to your neck pillow, pack it. But when you’re traveling with kids, there is already a lot of stuff to carry. That is multiplied if everyone brings their own neck pillow.
If you do purchase a neck pillow, don’t buy a black one. That makes it so much easier to leave in a rental car trunk. We like this neck pillow because it comes with an eye mask, ear plugs, and carry case for under $15. Bonus: The cover can be washed so you don’t have to store airplane germs at home.
The risk of blood clots on long flights is real. Consider packing a pair of these especially if you already are at risk of DVT. Be sure to check the sizing on the packs. It’s no good to find out over the Atlantic that your socks are an XL while you’re a petite XS. This 3 pack is a great deal at under $15.
Many long haul flights operated by international airlines will have outlets to charge your devices so don’t forget to pack the chargers. I try to bring USB type chargers if possible so that I don’t need to worry about plug compatibility.
Usually wear contacts? Not a good idea for long haul flights. Contact lenses draw moisture from your eyes and a 12+ hour flight is a long time to have them in your eyes. Even contact lens manufacturers recommend switching to glasses for long flights. It’s also great if your glasses have blue light protection since you’ll be staring at screens.
Packing a toothbrush and toothpaste so you can brush away that morning breath can help you feel fresh. Likewise, plan to bring deodorant and any makeup you need so it’s easy to freshen up before you land. Don’t forget makeup removal wipes if you want to clean up before sleeping on the plane. A travel tube of lotion is a must. Airplane air is super drying. A facial mist can be super refreshing to pack. As a 90s child, I love my Clinique Moisture Surge but these empty travel size misters allow you to bring your favorite.
A Change of Clothes
Bringing a change of clothes can be the difference in your mood once you hit the ground. Whether you freshen up on board or in an airport bathroom, a new outfit makes everything better. You’ll avoid spending the day in plane germ clothes and you won’t look like a wrinkly, “I slept in this” mess. Plus, if your luggage doesn’t arrive when you do, you’ve got at least one clean outfit at your destination.
Chocolate or Candy
Have a grumpy morning person with you? My daughter took a solid 6 hour nap toward the tail end of our 17+ hour flight from Sri Lanka by way of Dubai. I woke her about an hour before we were due to land. Most people were still sleeping and I wanted to make sure she had time to use the restroom, freshen up and walk around a little before everyone else started lining up for the lavatory. Did she thank me for my considerate plan? Nope. There was a lot of grumbling and a bit of attitude as she hissed “You should have let me sleep. Why did you wake me up?”
The girl responds to chocolate though. I may have bribed her with a piece to smooth over her wrong-side-of-the-airplane-seat wakeup. You can never go wrong by packing emergency chocolate.
White Noise Machine
Sometimes it’s nice to zone out on a long flight. Then there are times that you want to sleep but there’s too much activity in the background. This portable white noise machine for less than $22 includes a USB (plug into seat) or can run on battery power. It also has a headphone jack so you don’t irritate anyone else on board. My son has been sleeping with a white noise machine since birth so the noise helps indicate to him that it’s bedtime. We bring one and these foldable toddler-friendly headphones. Bring an audio splitter so kids can all plug into the same sound machine. It’s also convenient for sharing movie screens. No fighting!
How to Pack Your Carry-On
You know what you want to carry on board. HOW you carry it on can make all the difference. You want items easily accessible. I tend to veer toward backpacks as a carry-on for longer flights. Multiple pockets makes it easy to split everything up. I also bring a small purse and an extra folding bag that can hang from the tray table.
My extra outfit, toiletries, emergency snacks, paperwork copies, first aid kit and backup entertainment go in the overhead in a backpack. The purse slides under the seat in front of me with my laptop.
Kids stuff, sleep aids, eye masks, headphones, gum, and kids’ lollipops go in the extra folding bag that hangs from the tray table. I use a nylon bag with a long strap that can be tied to the right length and works whether the tray table is up or down. Like the foot hammock, it doesn’t pull on or disrupt the person in front of me. This makes it easy to access the things I know we’ll need throughout the flight and none of that stuff gets tucked into the germ-infested seatback pocket where I know the last passenger tucked his use Kleenex. My clippable water bottle hangs from the strap.
If you’re looking to procure the Swiss Army knife of backpacks I wholeheartedly recommend the Cotopaxi Allpa. My family loved our first set so much that we bought a second. The carryon sized 35L is my favorite travel bag and is the perfect size to fit everything I need for a week. My purse of choice is North Carolina based Buffalo Jackson’s leather tote. It fits a laptop great and looks stylish even when packed to the brim. The company routinely has great sales, so sign up for the email list to watch for deals.
Items We Love to Keep Kids Busy
These fun “coloring books” come with a little brush that you fill with water. When your kiddo runs the brush across the page, colors appear. It’s painting without the mess. The best part is when the pics, dry the color disappears! They can be used over and over.
TravelingMom Tip: Keep the brush in a little Ziploc bag. They tend to leak a little bit.
Let kids doodle away, then wipe it clean with a wet tissue or baby wipe.
Scrape away the black top to reveal rainbow colors as your kids create their own designs.
This is a fun busy toy for slime happy preteens without all the slimy mess. It’s magnetic!
With a 10 hour battery life and kid-proof case, this bundle is a great deal. We love this for the access to audio books and the fact that there are more than 1000 Spanish language books and movies available.
We’d be remiss to not mention bringing some good books. My 9-year-old read a fat Harry Potter book on our long flight. Plan to bring a few that your child won’t mind leaving behind on the trip. I highly recommend scouting out Little Free Library locations to trade out books. Leave the ones you’ve finished and grab some new ones for the return flight!
What are your best long flight travel tips? What will you try on your next flight? Share below!