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 shut-eye between runways. Here are 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.
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 bed earlier than usual.
Find a Decent Seat
Avoid the last row (too close to bathroom), exit row (seats often do not recline), and bulkhead row (armrests that can't be raised). Frequent flyers usually opt for the window seat so they have something to lean against, but if you think you'll need to frequent the bathroom, choose an aisle seat. By all means recline, and don't think twice about it.
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.
Often folks dress for the tundra when flying, only to find the cabin temperature far too warm. There's no way you'll sleep if you're overheated. Layer with light, casual clothing and wear footwear that you can easily slip on and off. Put a fresh pair of socks on before your flight and your neighbors will thank you.
Buy Noise-Cancelling Headphones and Other Essential Accessories
These sometimes pricey headphones are worth every penny. Create a soothing playlist on your iPod specifically for flying, so Led Zeppelin's "Achilles Last Stand" doesn't jar you awake at 2 a.m. You can also by 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.
Watch Your Caffeine and Sugar Intake
Avoid caffeine and sugar. Drink sips of water, not too much that you'll be running to the restroom every hour.
Roll With the Flight
Sometimes, you draw the short straw while traveling. Stay calm and deal with it. If you're stuck with a middle seat, try sleeping on the tray table in front of you instead of squeezing out space on the recline. If you simply can't sleep, don't sweat it. Watch a flick and try to catch some shut-eye from 4 to 6 p.m. that same day, before dinner.
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, and 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.