Can you get a good night’s sleep on an overnight flight? I recently had the opportunity to find out. I booked one of the worst red-eye flights imaginable: an overnight itinerary from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, to Cape Town, South Africa, with a midnight stopover in Doha, Qatar.
Are we doomed to ending every overnight flight with bloodshot eyes? That’s something travelers want to know with summer travel season approaching and more Americans likely to travel farther than they have since the pandemic started.
In the United States, the Transportation Security Administration’s mask mandate is set to expire April 18, but most international carriers will still require face coverings. Some airlines, such as TAP Air Portugal, say they will continue to require masks even if they’re no longer mandated by health authorities.
I’ve spoken with many travelers who say the same: They’ll keep wearing masks on planes whether they’re required or not.
But will they sleep? “Overnight flights for passengers in economy class will be a challenge,” says Mahmood Khan, a professor in Virginia Tech’s hospitality and tourism management department. “You have to sleep with a mask on while sitting.”
Bob Bacheler, managing director of Flying Angels, an emergency medical transportation service, says it’s “nearly impossible” to sleep while wearing an N95 mask. The masks aren’t designed for comfort, of course, or to be worn on marathon flights. “The key to sleeping with a mask is to find one that’s comfortable to wear,” he says.
Kathy Johnston likes KF94 masks, referred to as the South Korean equivalent of the N95. “They sit a little further away from the mouth and nose, allowing for more natural breathing,” she says. “It’s more relaxing and easier to wear for long periods.”
As the chief chocolate officer for Mirzam Chocolate Makers in Dubai, Johnston is frequently on long-haul flights. Her pro tip for surviving an overnight flight during the pandemic: Pack a selection of masks in case one gets uncomfortable or breaks.
It’s important to note that you may not have a mask choice. When I recently flew from Lisbon to Frankfurt, Germany, on Lufthansa, the flight attendants told me that my cloth mask didn’t provide sufficient protection and gave me a surgical mask to wear instead. (Of course, context is everything. When I rode the world’s fastest roller coaster, Abu Dhabi’s Formula Rossa, earlier this year, the ride attendants asked me to wear a cloth mask, because looser-fitting surgical masks tend to come off at 149 mph.)
Sleeping with a mask is not entirely impossible. On the first leg of my journey, a one-hour flight from Abu Dhabi to Doha, I kept my mask snugly over my nose and mouth. A flight attendant patrolled the aircraft to ensure no one was cheating. But on the long flight from Doha to Cape Town, I added an eye mask. After a few hours of fitful sleep, I awakened to find that my face mask had slipped below my nose.
Of course, there’s one obvious way to sleep more comfortably, masked or not: You can get a better seat. I asked a gate agent in Doha if I could sit with my sons. (All of us are 6-foot-1.) The agent seated us in an exit row with plenty of legroom.
Maria LaDuca, who owns the travel agency called Agency Chic, upgraded her January flight from New York to Dubai on Emirates to business class. “You get a toiletry bag filled with essential items, an eye mask, socks, blanket and pillow for your journey.” Most important, she says, were the lie-flat seats.
Experienced red-eye passengers say it is particularly difficult to use an eye mask, a face mask and a neck pillow together.
“Your mask could get in the way of your favorite eye mask,” says Nicole Gustas, a veteran of many international overnight flights. “My face mask prevents my eye mask from sliding fully over my eyes, and instead, I have to wrap my eyes with a T-shirt.”
Gustas, the marketing director for International Insurance, an insurance company for expatriates, says her neck pillow has also been a problem. It pushes her mask up and into her face.
Her advice? “Try it all on before you fly,” she says.
There are many time-tested strategies for sleeping on overnight flights, pandemic or not. Eating the right foods, avoiding caffeine and alcohol, and staying hydrated can all improve your rest. Jeffrey Durmer, chief medical officer for sleep-focused health-care company Nox Health, recommends five-minute breath-focused meditations before trying to sleep.
“Taking your focus away from the environment and placing it on something entirely in your control — the breath — helps the mind to settle and become calm,” Durmer says.
As a yoga practitioner, I tried to follow Durmer’s advice on my overnight flight, but the Qatar Airways flight attendant nixed doing a sukhasana pose in an exit row. She ordered me to return to my seat, where I obediently remained for the duration of the flight.
In the end, my best advice for surviving overnight flights is to avoid them entirely. They might be bearable if you can afford an upgrade to business class. Those lie-flat seats on Qatar Airways sure looked nice, and the passengers leaving the plane appeared to be less sleep-deprived.
But I don’t have a few thousand extra dollars lying around. If I have to take an overnight flight again, I think I can get through it with the right mask and eyeshade. And maybe a dress rehearsal before I take off.