Brian Kelly is the type of traveller almost unheard of among frequent flyers – a rare breed who actually enjoys sleeping at 30,000 feet.
Kelly, also known as The Points Guy, is an influential New York-based blogger who quit Wall Street to write about airline points programmes. He clocks up about 300,000 miles in the air every year – many of those on the long-haul flights most travellers dread.
“I get great sleep on planes. I like travelling first class to Asia and Australia because I can get a full sleep-cycle in, I will sleep for eight or nine hours,” says Kelly. While he does sometimes travel in economy for domestic US flights, he flies internationally in first or business class.
People pay for first class to get total privacy, Kelly says. “You are in your own cocoon rather than in an open-air seat where the cabin is much louder, and people near you get in your space. The new phase of luxury sleeping on aeroplanes is not seeing anyone else.”
For most though, flying economy class involves jostling for elbow room and trying to get some shuteye against the sound of a roaring jet engine. Even so, there are some tips and tricks from the experts to help you sleep like you’re one of the privileged few at the front of the plane.
The difference between economy and luxury flying is vast – and it’s not all about legroom, says Jamie Zeitzer, an associate psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor at Stanford University and an expert in circadian rhythms.
“It’s not just that the seats lie flat – which definitely helps – it’s that there is nobody touching you. There’s no one sitting right next to you. The psychological aspect of it is really quite considerable when you can physically stretch out your body and your mind, it makes a big difference,” he says.
But what if this “lie-flat” experience is just a pipedream? What makes sleeping on a plane so much harder than on land?
For most travellers, a lack of privacy and personal space; dry, recycled air; turbulence and noise are a few factors that make it really hard to fall sleep. But Zeitzer says two big barriers to sleep are actually within our control: stress and anxiety.
“There’s the social stress: you have no space, and there’s the physical stress: you are physically compressed into your seat,” he says.
It’s the pressure to fall asleep that keep most people awake - Jamie Zeitzer
The causes of anxiety vary person to person, but fear of flying aside, it’s the pressure to fall asleep that keeps most people wide awake, Zeitzer says. Sleep is unique and there is no universal method for dozing off. But Zeitzer has two strategies that can at least help lessen the disruption.
The first thing, he says, is try not to think about it.
“When you worry about falling asleep, you won’t fall asleep, it just won’t happen. “So, it’s easier said than done, but if you can find a way to not worry about falling asleep, that’s the easiest thing to fix,” he says.
The second thing is to mitigate the anxiety by zoning out and imagining yourself elsewhere.
“It's about taking yourself out of that stressful claustrophobic positioning that you have in the plane.”
Zeitzer recommends getting some real or imagined breathing room. “An eye mask with noise-cancelling headphones and some music can block out a lot of the world,” he says.
There are all manner of solutions to these problems. Some bring special pillows or headphones. Others swear by melatonin supplements, a naturally- occurring hormone involved in sleep cycles widely thought of as gentle sleep aid. However, Zeitzer advises caution; since it is an unregulated substance there are few reliable studies on its effects.
I’ve seen grown men lie down on the floor and stick their head in the aisle – Betty Thesky
Finally, plenty of people still drink enough alcohol to blot out their surroundings, and many opt for sleeping pills. Some combine the two – but it’s a risky move, warns Betty Thesky, a flight attendant with 30 years experience. She says: "I’ve seen grown men lie down on the floor and stick their head in the aisle. It’s dark in the cabin; someone is going to step on your face! I see that all the time.”
“People end up in jail, they take their clothes off, they try to get into seats with strangers, they do all kinds of crazy things so I really do think it’s dangerous.”
For Thesky, thinking ahead and a sharp eye are a better option. She’s always surprised by people sitting crammed next to each other at the front of the economy-class cabin when there are often seats free further back.
“When I’m a passenger, I’ve got eyes everywhere looking to see if there’s a place that I can hurry up and scoot into, and you need to move quickly because the good seats will get taken fast.”
She also brings a blanket, travel pillow, essential oils “and I will have a drink or two, which I do think helps – but don’t do too much! I will watch movies and tell myself I’m going to do something else to get my mind off of sleeping.”
Kelly says it also helps to find out which type of plane you are flying on ahead of time.
“The A380 is my favorite,” he says, “it’s the quietest plane in the sky, the newer aircraft are quieter and easier to sleep on.”
He advises a window seat in the middle of the cabin away from the engine, galley and bathrooms for optimal quietness.
Spending thousands of dollars on the most premium seats won’t change the fact that you are hurtling through the sky with hundreds of other people. But if you can create a feeling of privacy and space around you and stop stressing about getting to sleep, you might just get some shuteye after all.
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