How to Survive a Red Eye Flight

view from an airplane during a nighttime flight
by Anisa // 0 Comments

I used to always say, “I don’t do red-eye flights.” I wouldn’t be able to get enough sleep during the night to be able to function the next day. When I am tired, I am grouchy so if I had to take an overnight flight, I would need to allow a day to recover.

Soon I realized this wasn’t realistic. Once Russell and I started our transatlantic relationship, red eye flights became the norm. With limited vacation time, I couldn’t keep taking a day off to recover.

After countless overnight flights, I think I have learned how to survive a red eye flight. I have gotten to the point, I don’t even mind them anymore. Let me share my tips for a red eye flight.

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What is a Red Eye Flight?

A red-eye is a flight scheduled to depart at night and arrive the next morning. The name “red eye” comes from passengers being so tired after the flight that their eyes look red. You will typically find red eye flights when traveling east. For example from Los Angeles to New York JFK or from Newark Airport to London’s Heathrow.

view inside a flight
Spending the night on a plane, won’t be as bad as you might think.

Why Would You Take A Red Eye Flight?

I know it doesn’t sound appealing to take a red eye flight, but in some cases, it can be the best option. You will be able to save time, vacation days, and sometimes you can even save money. It isn’t as bad as you might think.

Let’s look at flying from NYC to London. It’s approximately a 7-hour flight (from gate to gate) plus a 5 hour time difference. If you take one of the daytime flights that leave around 8 am EST, you don’t get to London until 8 pm GMT. The flight took the whole day. Compare this to the red-eye flight option that leaves at 8 pm EST and arrives at 8 am GMT. Now the whole day is ahead of you.

Traveling overnight can also save vacation days (if you go into work the next day). For example, it’s possible to still experience a full day in San Francisco and then be in the office in New York the next day. Without the overnight flight, you would spend most of the day traveling and either sacrifice time on vacation or paid time off.

Taking a red eye flight can also save money. In many cases, it may be the cheapest flight option. Additionally, it can save a night of hotel expenses. For example, if you need to be back on Monday, you could either pay for a place to stay on Sunday night and leave Monday morning or fly overnight on Sunday.

When Not to Take a Red Eye Flight

Overnight flights are not for everyone. If possible please avoid taking a red eye flight when traveling with young children unless you know they will be able to sleep on the plane. Fellow passengers are less understanding about noise when it is a nighttime flight. Additionally, if your child doesn’t sleep, most likely, you won’t sleep. An exhausted parent and child make everything more difficult.

14 Tips for Surviving a Red Eye Flight

After countless overnight journeys, I can finally say that I don’t mind red eye flights. It took a lot of practice and trial and error but now I have developed strategies that work for me. Let me share a few tips for red eye flights that might help you too.

Book the Latest Possible Flight

Not all red eye flights are equal. A trip scheduled to leave after 9 pm is going to be the better option. If a flight leaves before that (for example 6 pm), it won’t feel like bedtime for your body. It may take a few hours before you can get into a deep sleep. Additionally, the earlier a flight lands the harder it will be to stay awake all day and adjust to the new time zone.

When I would fly from New York to London, I would try to take the 10 pm flight. This way I would be ready to go to bed soon after we took off. Then I would wake up as we start the descent around 9 am GMT (which would be 4 am NY Time). I would still feel tired the next day, but it was manageable. I was excited to be in England (and with Russell), so my adrenaline would get me through the day.

If you have work or another commitment you may not be able to take a later flight and in some cases, there may only be one flight option. Still try to book a later flight if possible.

Eat dinner before you board

Airplane food is always hit or miss. When you take a red eye flight it is better to eat dinner before boarding. If you have a late flight and wait to eat until they serve you on the plane it could be close to midnight before you have dinner.

meal served on airplane
Airplane food has come along way, but still leaves a bit to be desired.

If your flight is late enough, eat before heading to the airport. Alternatively, bring your own food or grab a bite in the terminal. Then once you get on the plane you can focus on getting to sleep and not worry about how long it will take the flight attendants to bring out food.

Get a Window Seat

We all know to avoid the middle seat if at all possible, but there is a fierce debate over whether it is better to get a window or aisle seat on the plane. When it comes to a nighttime flight, I think the window is the clear winner.

If you sit on the aisle there is always the chance that one of the people in your row will need to get up and then have to wake you up. You don’t have to worry about that when sitting by the window, and you can also lean against the plane wall to sleep.  There is also the chance you could catch a sunset or sunrise.

sunrise through the window of an airplane on a red eye flight
You might be able to catch the sunrise if you get a window seat.

Try to Catch Up on Sleep Before You Fly

You are going to be tired after your red eye flight. It will be easier to recover from the flight if you are well-rested before the journey. I know it’s not always possible and life sometimes gets in the way, but if you can try to get a good night’s sleep the night before it will help.

I learned this lesson the hard way. Many years ago, a friend advised me not to sleep the night before my overnight flight so that I would be so tired that I would sleep on the plane. This backfired as I was tired and then not able to sleep during the flight. By the time we landed, I felt like a zombie.

Bring a Neck Pillow

Traveling with a neck pillow has made a huge difference in my ability to sleep on the plane. I used to think it would be the same as using the side flaps that you find on some airplane seats, but it is a big improvement. It makes sense that if you are more comfortable it will be easier to sleep.

It doesn’t need to be anything fancy.  The neck pillow also eliminates the strain on my neck that I used to feel before, anytime I napped on the plane without it.  Some people also like to wear eye masks, but I have not found that necessary.

Don’t Take a Prescription Sleep Aid

I don’t have anything against taking prescription drugs to help you sleep, but taking a strong sleep aid like Ambien on the plane is not a good idea. The label states that you need to be able to devote at least 8 hours to sleep. That won’t be possible if the flight isn’t that long. If you don’t allow yourself the required amount of rest, you will wake up feeling very groggy.

Even if your flight is longer than eight hours, I don’t think it’s a good idea to take something that will make you sleep that long. It’s best to get up at least occasionally to help prevent blood clots. A prescription sleep medicine puts you into a deep sleep and makes it hard to wake up early. While an emergency during a flight is rare, you don’t want to be totally out of it, if that happens. This is especially important when flying alone.

Stay Hydrated

The air on the plane will be dry. It is important to be hydrated for any flight that you take. Drink as much water before the flight as you can without overdoing it. Bring a reusable water bottle and fill it up after security if you want to be environmentally responsible and avoid the excessive prices for bottled water in the airport.

Don’t Forget Your Headphones

Anytime I fly I try to make sure I remember my headphones (there was that one time I forgot them!). It is nice to be able to listen to music, a podcast, or even the in-flight entertainment to help get to sleep. The ones that the airline gives out are not reliable. If you want to make sure that random noises don’t disturb you, consider investing in noise-canceling headphones.

Pack Your Portable Charger

While most planes have USB ports where you can charge your phone, not all do. I don’t want to risk arriving at my destination with no battery charge, so I always carry along a portable charger. It doesn’t take up much space and it’s better to bring it and not use it than to need it and not have it.

Wear Compression Socks

It’s a good idea to wear compression socks anytime you are going to be seated for a while like a long flight or road trip. It is even more important on a red eye flight because you won’t be getting up as much to go to the bathroom because you will be sleeping (hopefully). Compression socks will reduce the risk of getting blood clots and also will help your body feel better after the flight.

Dress in Comfortable (and Warm Clothes)

You will want to wear clothes that feel comfortable. It will be easier to sleep that way. A casual dress or yoga pants are ideal. The plane can also get chilly, so it’s a good idea to bring a sweater or extra layer to put on. If you need to go straight into the office the next day, bring clothes to change into at the airport.

Try to Sleep as Much as You Can on the Plane

I know it’s not easy but try to sleep on the plane if you can. Put your headphones on, play something relaxing, and close your eyes. I just tell myself the more sleep I can get during the flight the less tired I will feel when I land. The less tired I am, the more I will enjoy the day.

Have Something Planned When You Arrive

I find that I am able to get back to normal fastest when I force myself to adjust to the new time zone and stay awake the whole day. The easiest way to stay awake is to be doing something. In some cases, I would spend the day working, then come home and go to bed a little early.

If you don’t have to go to work, it’s a good idea to plan something to do. You don’t want to be figuring this out after the flight when you are tired. I wouldn’t plan anything too intense, but try to choose something enjoyable that doesn’t take too much energy. This is not the time to be running a marathon or embarking on a 20-mile hike, but having a day’s activity that will keep you occupied and stop you focusing on how tired you are will be a good thing.

Avoid Checking Bags if Possible

I am the worst when it comes to traveling with carryon only. It is rare that I am able to do it especially with all the photography equipment we use. If you can manage to minimize what you bring on a red eye flight it will make things easier. No standing waiting for bags after the flight when you are exhausted.

baggage claim area at Heathrow Airport
You don’t want to be standing around waiting for luggage after your red eye flight if you can avoid it!

Red Eye Flights Are Not As Bad As You Might Think

It took me a while to get used to overnight flights. I went from avoiding red eye flights at all costs to actually seeking them out at times. Having the option for nighttime flights has made it easier for me to travel more.

If I can handle a red eye flight, I know you can too. It won’t always be easy but it will be worth it!

Have you gone on a red eye flight? If not, what is holding you back?


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sunrise from plane window with text overlay "how to survive red eye flights"

Expert Tips for Red Eye Flights

  • Look at overnight flights as a way to save time and money.
  • Make sure to bring along red eye flight essentials like a neck pillow, headphones, charger, and compression socks.
  • The more sleep you can get on the flight, the easier the next day will be.
  • Plan to be active the day after your red eye flight.

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About the Author

Anisa is an experienced international traveler with extra pages in her passport and stamps from 41 different countries across 5 continents (and counting). She was born and raised in Texas. After a 13 year stint in NYC, she moved to England to live with her husband.