Sleeping on an airplane often requires more effort than it does relaxation, but it is absolutely worth it. Late night flights are called "red eyes" for a reason and no matter how energetic or fit you may be, muscling through your day on minimal sleep is never a good idea. That said, late night flights are also an extremely practical way to get more bang for your vacation buck. The key is to have a system for getting some shuteye between runways. Here's a few tips that can make nodding off considerably easier.
Choose Your Itinerary Wisely
When overnight travel is inevitable, nothing is more important than choosing the right itinerary. Pick the nonstop every time and, if one isn't available, choose the itinerary with the longest single leg. You'll have more uninterrupted time to nap, wake up, and try to doze off again. Late departures are especially helpful unless you plan to work during the trip.
Next, consider the seat type and location. Use the restroom before you board and pick a window seat. It provides more space to lean against the window and no one will climb over you. Seats near the front of the cabin tend to be quieter, but avoid anything near a lavatory or galley.
Save frequent flyer miles for long-haul international flights that have lie-flat seats in first or business class. Carriers known for exceptionally high standards – including Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and Emirates – have extra-wide seats similar to a real bed. Others pack in business class passengers like sardines or use seats that recline at an angle. Use SeatGuru or Routehappy to learn more about the options on your flight.
Prepare Your Body
Some people swear by prescription sleep aids, but always consult a physician before attempting to use medication to get better sleep. And you'll want to avoid alcohol, which, coupled with the dry air, may cause dehydration and make waking up a nightmare. Stay hydrated during the day so you can avoid eating or drinking anything during the flight and restroom breaks. The most dedicated travelers will gradually adjust their alarm clocks up to three hours earlier than normal. You're not getting quality sleep so there is some virtue in at least getting a jump on handling jet lag – especially if you're headed west and will be going to be earlier than usual.
Finally, bring some high quality earplugs and a facemask to keep out unwanted sound and light. Don't rely on the cheap freebies provided, which are scratchy at best. Loose clothing will help avoid the stuffy feeling that comes from recirculated air. Untuck your shirt before you shut your eyes.
Recover from the Ordeal
A problem with most red-eye flights is that you arrive exhausted in the morning. In order to wake up, head to the lounge or your hotel and submerge your face in the nearest sink. Your body's reflex is to lower your heart rate when your head is submerged. You'll feel calmer and, a cup of coffee later, ready to face the day.
Next, find food. Some protein and fiber will provide more lasting energy than the sugar rush from a doughnut. Snacks, like showers, can be found at many airport lounges, so either buy a day pass or purchase a membership if you regularly take overnight flights. Nuts are a good call. Eat more of them than you were offered on the plane.