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The One Thing You Need to Do on a Red-Eye Flight

If you’ve ever traveled a long way on a tight budget, you probably know the old backpacker’s tip: Book a red-eye flight or overnight train in the place of a night of accommodation to save money. But the problem with that seemingly sound advice, of course, is that packed plane cabins and rumbling train cars aren’t exactly conducive to a night’s sleep.

Red-eye flights can save you money, but they can also leave you exhausted upon arrival. There is a way to reconcile those two things and get some rest, however. One simple change to your plane habits can go a long way.

I personally loathed red-eye flights until recently, but kept booking them when they could save me money. Now, I can tolerate red-eye flights thanks to a friend who told me her secret to getting some overnight sleep on the plane: following your nighttime routine as if you were at home.

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The One Rule to Follow on a Red-Eye Flight

Follow your nighttime routine. It seems like pretty ordinary advice—but for me it was revolutionary. Instead of getting on the plane antsy about whether I’d sleep or just end up binge-watching movies, I’d have a plan to settle into the flight. That also meant making sure I made it to the bathroom in the first hour of flight (while everyone is still awake), rather than sitting for the entire flight in fear of waking up an aisle-seat mate.

The beauty of this rule is that it is different for everybody and depends on what your personal before-bed routine looks like. Here’s what works best for me.

Eat Dinner: If you’re not picky about plane food and it’s being served on your flight, great—enjoy one of the few things airlines still give out for free. If not, enjoy a healthy meal at home or bring some food with you. Contrary to what lots of people seem to believe about packing a meal for the flight or terminal, the TSA does allow food through security (though it’s subject to the usual liquid and gel restrictions). An added bonus of eating your own food or a healthy to-go option is that plane meals are typically loaded with salt that can make you bloat or dehydrate you. If you’re flying internationally, be sure to eat or throw away anything customs might require you to declare when you arrive, like fruit or veggies.

Brush Your Teeth: Whatever you’ve eaten for dinner, brushing your teeth should always be a priority before bed—even on the plane. Now that I do it before sleeping on the plane I find it hard to believe I ever skipped it—it’s basic hygiene, and it can help you feel instinctively like it’s almost time for bed. Here’s how to do it in flight: Bring a disposable, pre-pasted toothbrush in your carry-on so you don’t have to worry about dirtying one in the lavatory, and use your reusable water bottle (never the plane tap water) to brush and rinse.

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Wash Up: Makeup-removing or simple cleansing face wipes make a world of difference when you’re on a germy plane surrounded by people. Washing up is also probably a typical bedtime routine that will help you feel like you’re more ready to fall asleep. Planes are dirty places, so washing up in flight should always mean using disposable face wipes. To feel extra fresh, I usually follow up with a travel-sized toning spritz like Beekman 1802 Facial Mist. Pack travel-sized versions of whatever you use nightly and replicate the motions and smells of your bedtime routine—it’s surprisingly helpful.

Unwind: Do whatever else you typically do before bed: read, watch a show, pack some sleepy-time tea (ask a flight attendant for hot water), or even order a small glass of wine if that’ll help you relax. Research suggests that looking at blue light makes it harder to fall asleep, so I opt for reading on something low-light like my Kindle before going to sleep—both at home and on red-eye flights.

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Get Cozy: While it will never be the same as your bed, your plane seat will feel a lot cozier with the help of a few simple travel accessories. Try a supportive neck pillow, a soft cardigan, fuzzy socks to replace your tight shoes, and a big scarf that can double as a blanket. Even though the cabin lights will be off, an eye mask and earplugs can help you temporarily forget that you’re actually in a cramped plane cabin—so you can rest up for your destination without worrying what everyone around you is doing.

For more advice on getting comfortable and sleeping better, see 10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight.

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SmarterTravel Editor Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her on Instagram @shanmcmahon.

By Shannon McMahon

Editor Shannon McMahon is always planning her next trip and often writing in her travel journal. Follow her on Twitter @shanmcmahon_ and on Instagram @shanmcmahon.

Shannon joined SmarterTravel in 2015. A former news reporter, she's lived in the south of Spain, spotted elephants in Sri Lanka, gone spelunking in the Caribbean, hiked Jordan's Petra Basin, interviewed Sao Paulo's Michelin-Star chefs, and explored China via bullet train. Travel trends, news oddities, and her visits to up-and-coming destinations are some of her favorite things to write about.

Her stories have also appeared online on USA Today, The Sun, Huffington Post, Business Insider, blog.TripAdvisor.com, Boston.com, and more. Her educational background is in journalism, art history, gender studies, Spanish, and film. She's been quoted as an expert travel source by CNBC, People.com, MarketWatch, The Washington Post, USA Today, and more.

The Handy Item I Always Pack: "Plenty of extra thick hair elastics. They tame my frizzy curls and come in handy in a surprising number of packing and hotel dilemmas."

Ultimate Bucket List Experience: "Climbing (yes, climbing, it's steep!) the Great Wall of China before it's gone."

Travel Motto: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." - Mark Twain

Aisle, Window, or Middle Seat: "Window, of course."

Email Shannon at smcmahon@smartertravel.com.

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