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PHD. MBA. MHS. Type rated on A350, A330, B777, B747-400, B747-200, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration. Fighting for Aviation Safety and Airline Employee Advocacy. Safety Culture and SMS change agent.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

How to Sleep Flying International

An International Pilot sent me a GREAT question....

How do you Sleep?

He said, "Seems like the optimal thing would be to stay on local time. If that works that's great but often it doesn't and it can be hard to sleep in the daytime too. I know some folks sleep when they're tired and other have specific plans for certain cities and others just sleep when its dark wherever they are... Thoughts?"

I have been playing with this forever! And come to realize that the best thing to do when you get in is go to bed and get as much sleep as possible. For me when I stay awake to shift around and go over that 24 hour period, my body wakes up and I never get that really good sleep. Accumulated fatigue is what gets you. That kind of makes layovers not as much fun... but....Since I've been in school, I have not gone out much.

Okay, an other option is, take a nap, get up and then try to sleep later. That kills me in Europe because I rarely can go back to sleep for the morning departure. If I try to schedule sleep, and I don't, then you get behind the power curve. So... I'm way fatigued in the morning and hard to catch up.  I really think sleep when you can get it is the best, and learn how to nap. I've always been a bad napper, but not doing caffeine helps.  If you can catch a couple hours before departure, it really helps. I've been asking everyone  this same thing, and yet to figure out for myself.


Pilot: "I've been experimenting. Last trip I tried to just stick with the time zone I was in and go to bed when it got dark, etc. I was pretty tired the whole trip. Slept well enough in the bunks but no more than about 4 hours at a time and probably not truly quality rest. On the trip I'm on now it works out perfectly that the flights are what would be mid-day pacific time so I'm trying to sleep about the same times I would at home. On the next trip I plan to try the "sleep when I'm tired, eat when I'm hungry" method. I will take notes on each and see what works best for me. Obviously everyone is different so it's not completely useful but it will be interesting to see what my personal results are..."

What are your tricks for sleeping?

Enjoy the Journey!! 
XOX Karlene

Thank you For Reading...

for your Amazon Comments too!


  1. I'd be very curious to learn more about the effects of caffeine. It seems like it helps me to stay awake or to perk up after a nap but I wonder how long it takes to dissipate enough to not affect your sleep.

    1. Daniel, this is a great question. And the use of caffeine is recommended by many. Not to drink all night, but to use strategically. However, caffeine impacts everyone differently. For me, one cup of coffee will prevent sleep for 12 hours. So, that becomes a challenge. Some people can drink and an hour later snooze. Test yourself and see.

  2. OTC sleeping pills. Half the stated dose helps me fall asleep, but doesn't make me drowsy on waking. On shorter trips I stay mostly on my home time zone (so when on West coast, you'll see me going to bed around 8:30 or 9). In Europe or Asia, I take a pill and sleep when it gets dark or I feel tired.

    1. Thanks DB! These pills long term are killing your liver. Especially if you combine alcohol. Using half helps to eliminate that. Not that I don't use them on occasion. But now that I know the effects, I am more cognizant of not taking them.
      Thank you so much for your comment!

  3. I'm not a pilot, but I work late-night in Operations at an airline. I use a sleep mask every morning. My curtains are always open in my bedroom because I love the light and with the sleep mask, I can easily sleep until 10 or 11am. The mask is also nice for the occasional treat when I can take an afternoon nap on a day off.

    1. Carol, this is a great idea and anyone can do. I am super sensitive to light. And... put shutters on all my windows at home. But the mask helps. I'm going to put ear plugs in and a mask on, and try to sleep as long as possible. Also... book coming soon!! Thank you for the comment!!

  4. This comment came via email... and is GREAT. So... here you go:

    Hi Karlene……

    Sleep. A difficult subject when flying long international trips, with multiple ocean crossings.

    Let’s talk about Europe vs the Orient.


    The first mistake some pilots make is commuting in the same day to fly their Europe trips. They show up ‘tired’, and never really recover for the entire trip. Much better to commute in the evening before the trip starts. Get a quiet hotel that allows you a late check out time. Stay up late and sleep in as long as possible on the day the trip departs. Most departures to Europe are in the late afternoon. Show up for your trip rested, and at the top of your game.

    The arrivals in Europe are generally early in the morning. Your bodies natural inclination is to fall into bed and sleep forever. That would be a mistake. Set your alarm and get a few hours sleep, but allow enough time to get up in the afternoon and take a walk. You will now be ready to have a nice dinner and will be able to get back to the hotel and go to sleep at a somewhat normal time depending on how early your departure is the following morning.


    If you are a commuter, consider arriving at the departure city the day ‘before’ the trip departs. Sleep in at the hotel, and show up for work well rested. If you ‘know’ that you are senior enough to get the first break, being well rested is not as important, but without fail, the time you show up really tired will also be the day that you will find a check pilot waiting for you at the departure gate.

    The rule of thumb is: “West is easy, east is hard”. That is, it is easier to lengthen your day by flying west bound, when compared to shortening your day by flying east bound. When returning from the orient, it’s a great plan to get up early enough that you will be able to take a long nap before your wake up call.

    Consider sleep on international trips in the same way you view money in the bank. More is better. Naps are absolutely required when you are several days into a long international rotation.

    A couple of other ideas:

    …… Limit your use of alcohol on the road. It degrades the quality of your sleep.

    ….. Use ear plugs. They allow for at least an extra hour or two of sleep per night.

    I love your blog,


    1. Troy, great information! The only concern I would have is that 9 out of 10 airline pilots will not commute in early if they don't have to. People bring up that pay or including commute in "work time" would help but many pilots if given the option will always come in last minute in order to get maximum time at home.

    2. I'm thinking maybe 10. I always planned to with best intentions and something always came up. I like the pay to get to work idea. Maybe a day of rest before flight... technically you're preparing for flight. Thanks for the comment!

    3. Troy, Thank you so much for the comment!!! I appreciate all the suggestions, and discussion points.

  5. I don't know how you do it! The only hints I have are sleep mask and ear plugs. As for coffee, they will pry it from my cold dead hands, but even I can't have it past noon.

    1. Plugs and mask are awesome! Yes, the caffeine after noon is an eye opener, at the very least.

  6. Karlene,

    This is the constant discussion among the pilot group that I work with, night hub turns for a cargo airline. My company flies round the world, round the clock. I don’t do that, all I do is week on week off. I don’t do international flying now, I have in the past though so that if for what it is worth.

    First, I live on the east coast so that really helps as far as staging for a trip. Secondly, I try to stay within the same time zone when I bid on my trips. I have several friends that live on the west coast and do east coast flying so they can take advantage of the time change. I know it is cheating, but if you are not cheating, you are not trying.

    When at home, I try really hard to stay on a 2AM -10AM sleep schedule. It doesn’t always happen but that is where I set my body clock. From there, I can stretch my body clock 4-6 hours later when it is a work week. I don’t normally take a nap when at home but I do drink tea or coke during the day. On the weeks that I work, I try to get right to sleep in the morning. Sometimes I might stay up for a little bit because of the caffeine from the night. I like to sleep until 2-3 in the afternoon, get out for a little walk and early dinner. Then I like a nap from 5-7 PM before going to work. I don’t nap at night because I don’t wake up well. I have found that I go hard to sleep on a midnight nap and just can’t get going again. I have also found that if I can exercise my mind, I am more alert for the outbound leg. I used to watch a movie but that just makes me tired. When I started writing, I found that my mind was running on speed when I walked back out the airplane. It is amazing how an active mind can keep you going during the critical sleep period.

    My international buddies say that they sleep until they are hungry and eat until they are tired. Guess that works for them. My problem is that I have a 52 minute butt and I can’t see sitting in an airplane for 16 hours. I don’t care how great the party is when you get there. By the way, drugs are just a bad idea as a sleep aid. Some are legal and some aren’t, but they all have some type of side effect. In my opinion, it is better to just go without caffeine all day prior to a needed sleep period, rather than to so it and then take a pill. It you have got to have something to sleep, I think you are better off with a shot or two of whiskey. Beer alcohol content is so low that you have to get up to relieve yourself and risk the chance of not getting back to sleep. Yes, I know guys who swear by that sleep aid and no I am not one of them.
    Everyone is different so it all comes down to works for you and if it is working, then don’t change a thing.

    1. Rob, Thanks for the great comment. Yes, this is the most challenging of all conundrums on the to sleep. Europe is a killer. I found my bed when I hit Amsterdam at 11...slept until 530 and I could not go back to sleep. That's the challenge. Mumbai I slept 10 hours, but was awake another 24, and then AMS.... not more than a couple four hour naps. I agree, the alcohol is not the way to sleep, and caffeine keeps your body awake. Those prescription drugs are not the answer either. But, for those who fly around the world, we can't stay on the same time zone... so we must figure something out. When the perfect answer arrives, I'm writing the book! :)

  7. For the passengers as well as pilot it is very hard to bear the noise of the plane So, they usually prefer earplugs which helps in bearing unwanted noise.

    1. I normally don't post links to sales...but since you are selling earplugs and the better they work the better the rest... you're golden!! Thanks for the comment and the link to sleeping success!


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