Travel news and advice

The secret to sleeping on ultra-long-haul flights and how to arrive feeling refreshed

With the advent of flights lasting as long as 17 hours, getting enough sleep is vital. From alcohol to exercise, here are some experts’ hacks to ensure you reach your destination feeling fresh

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 April, 2018, 7:48am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 April, 2018, 8:56am

Could you sleep through a 17-hour flight? March saw the inaugural flight of the historic non-stop Qantas flight between Perth and London on a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, which left Australia at 7pm and landed in London at 5am. In advance, the airline opened a new International Transit Lounge at Perth Airport featuring soft lighting and even preflight stretching classes, though it’s predictably only for those travelling business class and above.

What about those in economy who want to sleep? “For me it’s all about the preparation you do on the ground before you fly,” says Chris Zeiher, Asia-Pacific spokesman for Lonely Planet, who thinks that what you take on-board can help.

“Noise cancelling headphones are a must – I prefer the ones with ear buds,” he says. “If you turn them on just before you want to sleep you’ll block out all the on-board noise so it creates a beautiful silent vacuum,” he says.

Noise-cancelling headphones use a microphone to measure ambient noise, then produce sound waves that is the opposite phase of that external noise. They’re much more effective at blocking out engine noise than earplugs.

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Qantas claims that meal timings on the Perth-London service have been adjusted to encourage sleep, but the tendency for airline staff to switch on the lights in the entire cabin during service can be annoying, and can wake you up just as you have managed to doze off.

If you’re at the back of the plane (which is the quietest place to be), it can mean waiting over an hour for a meal when you could have continued to sleep. Zeiher recommends using a quilted eye-mask. “Due to the quilting this style of mask blocks out more light, and they’re much more comfortable,” he says.

Once I arrive at the destination I’m fully rested and ready to go, while the guy sitting next to me had a full night’s sleep before he left and he is now exhausted
Chad Carey, co-founder Chimu Adventure

You will have a better chance of sleeping in cramped economy seat if you’ve already used up any excess energy. If you’re on an ultra long-haul flight, try getting some decent exercise before you get to the airport.

“Exercise delivers oxygen and nutrients to your tissues and helps your cardiovascular system work more efficiently,” says Nick Gray, founder of Museum Hack, who recently flew long-haul between the US and Hong Kong. If you’re flying during the day, make yourself tired the day before.

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“It may seem ridiculous, but exhaust yourself before you get on the flight,” says Chad Carey, co-founder of Australian-owned Chimu Adventure, and a frequent flier to Latin America. He regularly stays up late chatting to friends the night before a flight – as late as he can, in fact – so he is tired enough to sleep the entire journey. “Once I arrive at the destination I’m fully rested and ready to go, while the guy sitting next to me had a full night’s sleep before he left and he is now exhausted,” says Carey.

Drinking those small bottles of wine and cans of beer to help you sleep is not a wise move at 10,000 metres, or 35,000 feet; alcohol can make you dehydrated much faster than on the ground, which won’t help you sleep at all.

And if you’re on an ultra-long flight, forget the short-acting sleeping pill – unless you have the luxury of lying flat in a business or first class seat. Save it instead for the first night after you land, which is when jet-lag really catches up with you – particularly if you’ve been flying ultra-long haul, as your body clock will be upside-down.

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How long you have to wait until your first night’s sleep in your new destination will of course depend on the timing of your flight. Flight timings are something few frequent fliers think about, but they can make all the difference. Scheduling a very early morning flight out can work well.

“Not only will you be asleep before take-off, early flights typically have less turbulence and are less likely to be delayed,” says Gray.

Your arrival time is also worth considering, however. If you’ve flown for 15+ hours and then land at your destination early in the morning, fighting the urge to snooze until bedtime (the best way to get rid of jet-lag) can be difficult.