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Your Guide to Preparing For (& Surviving!) a Red-Eye Flight

Travelers often have mixed emotions about red-eye flights. On the one hand, they can save money and negate the need for an overnight stay in a hotel. On the flip side, they can also interrupt your sleep patterns and leave you feeling groggy once you arrive at your destination.

Specifically, a red-eye flight refers to one that takes place late at night or, in some cases, entirely overnight. If you’re in the process of planning flights for an upcoming trip, you may have red-eye options available. In some cases, red-eyes may be all that’s available. By knowing how to prepare for and get through a red-eye flight, you can arrive at your destination ready to take on whatever lies ahead.

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Reasons to Take a Red-Eye Flight

Why would a traveler willingly fly overnight to his or her destination? There are actually a few benefits to taking red-eye flights. The biggest motivator for many is the money-saving potential; a red-eye flight tends to be significantly less expensive than a daytime flight for the precise reason that most travelers would prefer to avoid them. For those flying on a budget, then, a red-eye flight can help cut down on airfare costs. In some cases, a red-eye flight can also take the place of an overnight hotel stay, which saves even more money.

Red-eye flights also tend to be less crowded than their daytime counterparts, which may be welcome news to those who want a little more room to spread out. Not only may you have more room on the plane, but airport security lines also tend to be shorter at the airport overnight—so you may have an easier time getting through the airport to your gate as well.

Reasons to Avoid a Red-Eye Flight

Of course, there are plenty of potential drawbacks to taking a red-eye flight as well. Perhaps the biggest disadvantage is that you’re flying overnight and potentially losing out on sleep. Many people have a difficult time getting restful sleep on a plane—so you may very well arrive at your destination feeling groggy and disoriented. Furthermore, if your red-eye flight arrives at your destination early in the morning, you may have hours to kill before you can check into your hotel.

Preparing for a Red-Eye Flight

If you’ve booked a red-eye flight, there are some proactive steps you can take to avoid the struggles that come along with flying overnight. A little preparation can go a long way in making your flight more enjoyable (and restful!).

Reserve the Best Seat in the House

If you’re booking with an airline that allows you to reserve a specific seat, always opt for a window seat if one is available. When you have a window seat, you’ll have control of the shade so you can easily close it to block out any light if you want to sleep. Even if your flight is completely overnight, flashing lights from the wings of the airplane can create a distraction that may prevent you from sleeping. With a window seat, you’re also less likely to be disturbed by other passengers getting out of their seats or walking up and down the aisles to the lavatory.

If you’re flying with an airline that doesn’t offer reserved seating, try to get to your gate early or take other measures to get priority boarding. This way, you can improve your chances of being able to snag a window seat. If all the window seats are taken, your second-best bet is to choose a middle seat away from the aisle. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than being potentially nudged and woken up by other passengers or flight crew in the aisles. Fortunately, red-eye flights don’t tend to fill up easily, so finding a decent seat shouldn’t be too difficult.

Plan Around Your Usual Bedtime, If Possible

If you go to sleep around the same time each night, try to book a flight that is scheduled to take off around that time. This way, you’ll be getting tired just as the plane takes off and may have an easier time falling asleep. It may not always be possible to book a flight that leaves exactly around your bedtime, but booking one that leaves as close to that time as possible can make a big difference in your ability to fall (and stay) asleep on the plane.

Always Opt for a Direct Flight

There’s really nothing worse than having to wake up in the middle of the night to catch a connecting flight. If you want to get a good night’s rest on a red-eye flight, avoid layovers at all costs. Not only can these add stress to your trip, but catching another flight also means struggling to get comfortable and fall asleep on a plane twice. While avoiding layovers may not be possible for every flight, it’s always best to opt for a non-stop route whenever possible.

Dress Practically and Comfortably

While you probably shouldn’t show up to the airport in your robe and fuzzy slippers, you should dress comfortably for a red-eye flight so you can increase your chances of being able to fall asleep. A pair of casual pants or leggings, combined with a loose-fitting top and slip-on shoes will provide the comfort you need while still keeping you remotely presentable. You may also want to dress in a few layers so you can add or remove clothes as needed to stay warm/cool on the plane.

Pack Accessories to Help You Sleep

The right accessories and gadgets can go a long way in helping you catch some restful sleep aboard a red-eye flight. Invest in a quality pair of noise-canceling headphones or earplugs to block out noise, and don’t forget a quality sleep mask as well. Some other accessories to consider packing in your carry-on that could help you fall asleep include:

  • neck pillow
  • a large scarf or light blanket
  • a small, nutritious snack
  • a smartphone or tablet (for playing music or audiobooks)

Don’t Drink Alcohol or Caffeine

While it may seem like a no-brainer to avoid caffeine before a red-eye flight, you’ll also want to avoid making the common mistake of thinking a glass or two of wine before your flight will help you sleep. While it’s true that a small amount of alcohol may help you initially doze off, studies have shown that alcohol consumption leads to more restless sleep and poor overall sleep quality.

Instead of alcohol or caffeine, opt for water to keep you hydrated. Just don’t drink so much that you’re constantly making trips to the airplane lavatory instead of sleeping.

Getting Through a Red-Eye Flight

Now that you’ve taken all the steps to prepare and pack for your red-eye flight, there are a few more things you’ll want to keep in mind as you get ready for take-off.

Follow Your Usual Routine

Whenever possible, follow your usual bedtime routine; this will help your body ease into sleep mode naturally. If you usually brush your teeth, drink a glass of water, and read a few chapters of a book before you fall asleep, this should be pretty easy to recreate on a plane. If you drink a cup of tea before bed, don’t hesitate to bring some aboard; you can ask a flight attendant for a glass of hot water to make it from the comfort of your seat.

While some aspects of your bedtime routine may not be possible to recreate on a plane, many of them should be feasible.

Block Out Cabin Lights and Noises

While cabin lights are automatically turned off by the flight crew on a red-eye flight, passengers may still illuminate their overhead lights to read. Meanwhile, blue light from other passengers’ phones and tablet screens could also become a distraction to your sleep efforts. You can block all this out by donning your sleep mask. Drown out distracting noises that would otherwise keep you up by putting on noise-canceling Bluetooth headphones. Some prefer to listen to music or white noise as they fall asleep. Meanwhile, earplugs may be a more suitable option for those who don’t want their movement restricted by bulky headphones.

Consider Melatonin or Essential Oils

Incorporating a melatonin supplement or a light spritz of calming essential oils (such as lavender) may also help you lull into dreamland. Just be sure to ease into taking a melatonin supplement by opting for the lowest dose and only increase it as needed. Do a little research before you decide to use melatonin to help you sleep on a red-eye flight.

Give Aisle-Mates a Heads-Up

Reduce the risk of being woken up by any other passengers sitting in your aisle by letting them know you intend to sleep through as much of the flight as possible. This way, they’ll know not to wake you if the beverage cart rolls around or for any other reason. You may also want to buckle your seatbelt over your clothes so that flight attendants don’t have to wake you to make sure your seatbelt is fastened during times of turbulence.

Set an Alarm to Wake You

If you don’t want to be jostled awake when it’s time to land, consider setting an alarm that will wake you up gradually and gently before your flight is scheduled to land. This could be 10 minutes before your scheduled arrival time or even 30-45 minutes, depending on how long you’ll need to reorient yourself and get ready for the day.

If you have time before you land, head to the bathroom lavatory and freshen up. Splash some water on your face, brush your teeth, and drink some water. You might even put your headphones on and listen to some energizing music to help you wake up and feel ready to take on the day ahead.

After You Land

Even if you slept relatively well on the plane, waking up after a red-eye flight can leave you feeling a little disoriented. The scramble to get off the plane, retrieve your suitcases from the luggage carousel, and make your way to your hotel (or any other destination) can be overwhelming. With this in mind, there are a few things you may want to do right after you land from a fast plane flight to help ease you into a new day.

Get Ready For The Day ASAP

Help “trick” your body into beginning the morning anew by changing out of whatever comfy clothes you wore on the plane and into something a little more put-together. If you have a business meeting to attend early in the morning or mid-afternoon, go ahead and get changed into your business attire in the airport restroom. This is also a good opportunity to use a little dry shampoo, deodorant, and/or body spray to refresh until you have an opportunity to shower.

Fight Jet Lag With Light Exercise

While it may feel like the last thing you want to do after a red-eye flight, some light physical activity can make a world of difference when it comes to waking up and energizing yourself. This doesn’t mean you need to head straight to your hotel gym for a vigorous treadmill workout; even a quick power-walk around the airport terminal, followed by some light stretching or yoga, can get your day off to the right start.

Reward Yourself With Caffeine

Remember all the caffeine you purposely avoided before your red-eye flight? Now is the time to reward yourself with a glorious cup of coffee, espresso, energy drink, or any other caffeinated beverage that will help kickstart your day. Just be careful not to go overboard, as too much caffeine will inevitably give you the jitters and lead to a mid-afternoon crash.

Power Through Until Bedtime

As tempting as it may be to take a nap at the hotel once you get the opportunity (especially if you didn’t sleep that well on the flight), your best bet is to stay awake until your regular bedtime. Otherwise, a nap could throw off your sleep schedule and make it even harder to fall asleep at night. Keeping yourself busy throughout the day following a red-eye flight can help you avoid dozing off before your regular bedtime; and once the time arrives, you can sink into your cozy hotel bed and snooze the night away.

Red-Eye Flights: The Bottom Line

While red-eye flights may not be the most desirable option for all travelers, they can be a practical choice if you’re looking to save money and don’t mind sleeping on a plane. And of course, with a little planning and preparation, you can maximize your chances of catching some restful sleep on an overnight flight. Ultimately, the best piece of advice you can follow is to try to stick to your routine as much as possible. From booking a flight that takes off around your typical bedtime to sticking with your bedtime routine on the plane, a little familiarity can go a long way.

Once you arrive at your destination, do your best to stay up until bedtime so you can stick to your schedule and wake up the following day feeling totally refreshed. From there, you’ll be ready to enjoy the rest of your travels.

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