Red-eye flights always sound like a good idea in theory.
Sleep on the plane, then wake up at my destination?
The thing is, there’s a reason overnight flights aren’t called “bright-eye” or “fresh face” flights.
“Red-eye” pretty accurately sums up how you feel (and look) after spending the night cramped in an economy seat at 35,000 feet.
Unfortunately, sometimes overnight travel is a necessary evil. When you have a morning meeting on the opposite coast, often the only way to make it happen—without missing more work or paying for an extra hotel stay—is to take a red-eye.
Overnight flights would be fine if only it were easy to sleep on planes. But the ability to get quality rest on a red-eye seems to be a unicorn-level rarity among humans.
Fortunately, there are some tricks that can make night flights less painful. In this post, I share 7 tips on how you can survive a red-eye flight.
Watch the video below, or continue reading.
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1. Choose your Seat Carefully
There’s a lot you can do BEFORE your overnight flight to make it more bearable. Not surprisingly, choosing the right seat is critical.
Just like with buying a house, the first consideration is location, location, location. TravelandLeisure.com suggests strategically selecting an area of the cabin away from places where people might congregate.
That means avoiding the lavatories, for sure (I mean, you get the hordes of people and the smell!). And as attractive as the extra leg room seems now, that also means staying away from that front seat by the door.
Now for your actual seat selection…
Some people often go for an aisle seat so they can easily get up during the flight and stretch their legs, but this has some drawbacks on red-eyes.
While you are able to move around more easily, you’re also more likely to get disturbed throughout the flight, which is going to make sleep difficult. Nothing ruins a lovely dream like the drink cart slamming into your shoulder at high speed—or getting nudged by a careless passenger’s hip as they lumber down the aisle.
The window seat can help you avoid all that. But it also has another huge advantage since it gives you somewhere to rest your head.
One final tip: if you’re a side-sleeper, think about what side you sleep on at home. If you can choose a seat on that side you’ll be one degree closer to comfortable sleep.
2. Pre-Adjust Your Sleep Schedule to Your Destination
Besides the lack of sleep, there’s also another challenge with red-eyes:
When you arrive in the morning, you’re even more out of sorts because you’re in a different time zone. You walk around in a fog like you’re in some bad acid trip.
Wouldn’t it be easier if you could already be in the time zone of your destination?
As an article by The Points Guy mentions, some experts believe that it takes approximately one day to shift your circadian rhythms by one hour. That means if you’re in the US flying from one coast to the other, you need to start shifting your body clock 3 days earlier. And of course, you’d need even more transition international flights bigger time differences.
By planning ahead, you can gradually shift your sleep schedule so that when you arrive, you’ll be in a slightly better headspace—or at least not feel the added disorientation of conflicting time zones.
Once you get on the plane, you should also immediately set your watch to the new time zone so you can help psychologically complete the transition.
3. Wear Comfortable Clothes
Ok, so what should you wear on an overnight flight?
You might be taking a red-eye for work because you have an early meeting shortly after the flight, so you may be tempted to dress in business attire. You are on a business trip, after all…
This is a terrible idea.
First of all, your slacks and shirt are going to get all wrinkly and funky from you being cooped up on the flight. Second, you’re going to be miserable. When you think of “comfy sleepy-time clothes” khakis and a starched Oxford cloth button down aren’t exactly high on the list.
Rather than try to dress like a “business traveler,” you’re much better off optimizing your outfit for comfort.
For your pants, think comfortable cotton chinos or jeans (or even sweatpants if you have a decent pair you can wear in public). For your upper half, think layers that are comfortable but can easily be shed or put back on: a quality undershirt or t-shirt, and a zip-up fleece, sweater, or sweatshirt.
Our sponsor AtmosWear makes some extremely high-quality undershirts that are great for high-performance situations like travel.
Their undershirts are made from nylon, which is breathable and fast-drying. So it helps wick away sweat to keep you cool and dry, even if you’re sitting on a long flight.
It’s funny, we often think of nylon as something just for sportswear or for non-garment items like bags. But the fabric is really soft and silky. In fact, when nylon was first invented, it was actually marketed as a substitute for silk.
And unlike some other fabrics, some evidence suggests that nylon doesn’t foster the growth odor-causing bacteria. That means you can wear these undershirts longer before they start to smell. So AtmosWear undershirts are a perfect base layer on an overnight flight, where you might be cooped up for hours without having a chance to shower.
That way you don’t have to completely change, you can just throw a clean shirt over the top and you’re ready to roll.
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4. Be Careful About What You Consume
Overnight flights are an endurance sport, so you have to treat your body like an athlete…or a temple, or…well, you just have to be kind to it.
Some people like to down a few stiff drinks before a red-eye to help them sleep. But for most people alcohol is a bad idea.
Anyone who’s taken a long flight and forgotten to bring lip balm (or a water bottle) knows that airplane cabin air is extremely dry. Combine that with the diuretic properties of alcohol, and you’re just asking to feel like crap when you land at zero-dark-early the next day.
Avoid the temptation to sip down a few beers, cocktails (or whatever your poison) before boarding. Same goes for caffeine—try to cut off your coffee intake by noon if you can. Instead, spend the hours leading up to your flight proactively hydrating.
And be sure to drink plenty of water once you get on the plane.
Surprisingly, I’ve seen some travel tips that suggest you should limit the amount water you drink just so you’re not getting up in the middle of the night to go pee. That’s ridiculous. Given what we know about airplane cabins, that is just asking for trouble.
As Frommers points out, the air in an airplane is literally dryer than a desert. The average humidity on a plane is usually 10-20%, but sometimes as low as 1%. And the Sahara desert? 25%!
Beyond staying hydrated, one thing you should do in moderation is eating. Avoid heavy or rich meals, and avoid any spicy food or dishes that might otherwise upset your stomach.
5. Recreate Your Bedtime Routine
It’s not surprising that sleeping on planes is hard. I mean, it can’t help that you’re stuck in a loud, throbbing metal tube crammed in alongside 200 other passengers.
But another reason getting good rest can be challenging is that sleeping on a plane is so different from how you normally sleep.
As an article by SmarterTravel suggested, you can lay the groundwork for better sleep if you “recreate at least a few aspects of your usual bedtime routine.”
Whatever you normally do to wind down at night may help provide cues that it’s time for night-night:
- Wash your face and brush your teeth
- Remove extra accessories like your watch, glasses or jewelry
- Take off your shoes and tuck yourself in with a blanket
- Read a few pages in a fiction book (I usually avoid non-fiction or “businessy” books before bed)
Beyond this, there are other basic cues ways to tell your body it’s time to sleep:
- Limit blue light from TV screens and devices a few hours ahead of time. Blue light can interrupt our natural body clocks and screw with our sleep/wake cycles
- Watch your temperature: Sometimes being colder can help you sleep better. Research suggests that a drop in body temperature can help signal that it’s time to go to bed
- Invest in a quality neck pillow so you can stay comfortable and avoid a stiff neck
- Wear a comfortable eye mask and a set of earplugs to block out light and noise
6. Keep “Freshening Up” Supplies Easily Accessible
One of the worst things about a red-eye is that, after sitting in a tiny cramped seat for several hours, you have to get up and “face the day.” But you’re tired, you’re cranky, you’ve got mega-morning mouth (made worse by that drier-than-desert air), and you’ve been sitting in your own funk for several hours.
Keeping some basic toiletries at the top of your carry-on bag for quick access can help take the edge off.
When you have all of these items handy, sometimes a quick trip to the lavatory shortly before landing can help you look and feel less like a stinky zombie walking up the jetway.
You won’t feel completely human yet—you certainly aren’t ready to stride into that business meeting. But at least you’ll feel presentable enough to stumble through the terminal and interact with your Uber driver without having a total meltdown.
7. After a Red-eye, Give Yourself a Morning Reset
Even if you managed to catch some shut-eye on the plane, your daily rhythm is still extremely disrupted. Flying all night, you lose that sense of one day ending and the next beginning, which is really disorienting. The days seem to blur together like a surreal and foggy dream.
That’s why you should try to simulate the “reset” of a new day.
- Go to the hotel, and ditch your bag. Your room won’t be ready yet, but at least you can have the bellboy hold onto your suitcase so you don’t have to roll that thing around with you
- Take out those “freshening up supplies” we talked about a moment ago and give yourself another primp in the hotel bathroom, if needed. Wash your face, comb your hair, assess whether your underarms need a quick paper-towel-cleanse
- Put on a new dress shirt and pants and lace up your dress shoes
- Grab a real breakfast, preferably something with a little protein. And resist the urge to grab that quick pastry; yes it’s convenient and tasty now, but that subsequent sugar crash is only going to compound your feeling like crap
- Use caffeine sparingly. Your coffee should be a gentle encouragement for your body to wake up; it should not be your only fuel…otherwise, you’re just asking to collapse later
- Take a brisk walk out in the fresh air. Getting your limbs moving will help get your blood going, and that exposure to morning light will help signal to your brain that it’s a brand new day, and it’s time for you to go kick some ass
It may not be as good as 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep, but all of these little things combined may help you feel a little more recharged.
While red-eye flights should probably be avoided whenever possible, sometimes they are a necessary evil—especially when you travel for work.
So when you do find yourself on that overnight flight, don’t worry. Just relax, and use some of the tips above to make the best of it.
What other tips have helped you get through red-eye flights? Share your thoughts in the comments.