Long Reads

Stylist Sleep Diaries: How a simple routine helps me sleep on planes

How well do you sleep? In a series of diary entries from women across the UK, Stylist is exploring one of our most prolific obsessions…

Here, a flight service manager explains how a simple routine helps her drift off, no matter where she is in the world.

Name: Emma Armour

Age: 34

Profession: Flight service manager

Actual sleep: 7-8 hours

Ideal amount: 9-10 hours

3 words to describe sleep: Varied, disturbed, quality .

Sleep quality: 8/10 

I have always loved sleep. My job inevitably means I have to try and get it when I can – but I always try to make the most of it! I’ve been working at Virgin Atlantic for nearly 13 years now and over that time I’ve learned to sleep wherever I can – I can literally sleep upright if I need to.

When I first began working in cabin crew, it was totally different to anything I had ever done before. I had to learn how to go to sleep very quickly, because we would often be given a half an hour warning of, ‘right, you’re going to bed soon’. So you have to be able to get ready for bed really quickly, and switch off your mind.

My environment makes a big difference to how well I sleep. We usually have beds in certain areas of the aircraft, but if not, we have to make the most of a jump seat, which is where we sit for take-off and landing. We strap ourselves in with the harness and use pillows to try and make it comfortable, then draw the curtains around us so customers don’t see. I am always adapting and learning the best ways to sleep in different positions, and I try to pass on any tips to our customers, such as a good position to put your pillow in on a seat.

Emma in her uniform before catching a flight

I always encourage people to take their own blankets when they travel, because it’s a bit of home comfort when you’re away. There’s nothing like having a massive blanket to wrap up in when you’re trying to sleep on a plane. I’ve been using the same one for years; it’s huge, but it folds up really small, which is great when packing space is tight. I don’t just use it for work, it comes on holiday with me too – it really is an essential. You can ask any crew member the one thing they have in their bag for travelling and they will always say a blanket! Plus, I wouldn’t go anywhere without a neck pillow – mine is constantly in my bag.

My sleep routine is pretty similar whether I’m bedding down in an aircraft, sleeping in a hotel in a far-flung destination or drifting off in my own bed at home.

As I said, I always have my own blanket and pillow when I’m travelling on board, which I take with me whenever I’m resting in one of our crew beds. First of all I will spray the area with Bath and Body Works Aromatherapy Stress Relief room spray in eucalyptus and spearmint, which the crew loves as well – it fills the whole area with that lovely, relaxing smell. 

Then I will always try to have a quick cup of chamomile tea before going to sleep. I think it’s so important to be able to relax and switch off for a few minutes, if you have time.

I have to follow this little routine as quickly as possible, but I try to make sure I always do it as it helps me get to the point where I can switch off.

Sleeping on a flight

I always try to drink three litres of water before a flight, to keep me hydrated. I tend to drink the majority of my water before we take-off, and stop drinking it at all about an hour before I go to bed; there is nothing worse than needing the loo when you are trying to make the most of sleep.

An hour before bed I’ll try and have a little sit down and a few sips of a cup of chamomile tea, to help me relax. But we are on duty right up until we go to bed, so we have to weave our pre-sleep routines into our work. So I might sip my tea while I’m getting the cabin and our customers ready for bed, or if it’s a day service, I’ll have some sips while I get the cabin ready for breakfast.

Virgin is really good at giving us advice on how to drift off on board; they offer sleep training once a year. The expert always says that we should sleep for either 20 minutes or 90 minutes, and nothing in between, because these are the ideal times for our circadian rhythms. 

Emma’s baggage for a flight will always include a cosy blanket, a neck pillow and her favourite room spray

If I am on a shorter flight (anything less than seven hours) and only have 20 minutes, I might go upstairs for a rest, to close my eyes and have some time for myself, rather than sleeping. I might just sit and take some deep breaths, to switch off from what’s happening downstairs in the cabin, or I might read a book. I don’t have a specific type that I like to read, I just always go for the bestsellers that people tell me to try, such as The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.

If I’m on a longer flight (between eight and 10 hours) I get a 90 minute rest break, so I’ll definitely sleep. I make sure the room is in total darkness, and I like it to be quite cool, too. We can moderate the temperature in the room and I’ll always put it at either 18 or 19 degrees - there’s nothing worse than trying to sleep in a hot room. Then I’ll wrap up in my blanket, which is so cosy.

I always carry a little notebook with me on board, and no matter how much time I have to rest or sleep I will take a few moments to write down whatever is in my head, such as a list of things to do when I go back downstairs. Just the act of writing down these thoughts helps me to switch off.

When I’m on board, I wake up a lot during my 90 minutes of sleep, which I think is mainly due to me worrying how everyone is getting on at home. I worry if my husband and son are OK, and have got to wherever they need to be that day. So my sleep is often disturbed, but it is really good quality around those moments of waking up.

Napping after a flight

I’m an early bird, so I like to get my flights in the morning and land early, too. The worst time for me to try and sleep is any time after midday, so if we land in the afternoon, I try not to nap. Instead, I’ll keep myself busy through the day and then go to bed early. I just feel like the quality of sleep in the afternoon isn’t good enough, and then it messes up how well I sleep the following night, too. If we land in the morning, I’ll get into bed for two hours, where I’ll spend half an hour unwinding by reading or writing in my book, and 90 minutes sleeping.

I do feel horrible when the alarm goes off after a nap, but I force myself to get out of bed because I know I won’t sleep properly that night if I don’t.

Sleeping in a hotel or at home

Wherever I am in the world, the bed is the most important thing to me. Obviously in my home I picked my bed, and I love it; it’s my baby! Whenever I get home from a trip I have to have fresh bedding on the bed, and my husband knows to make sure that happen.

Then, no matter where I am or what time of day it is, I make sure I stick to my routine.

If I’m arriving home or at a hotel, I never go straight to bed; I like to take a couple of hours to unwind. If I’m at home I might put the washing on, or if I’m in a hotel I might go out and have a drink. I never go to bed without having a meal; it’s so important for me to know I’ve eaten before I go to sleep, although I leave an hour between food and bed to make sure I’ve digested it.

The beauty line-up in Emma’s skincare routine

I don’t feel like I can get into bed without taking my makeup off first. My skincare routine is really simple. I use the Liz Earle Hot Cloth Cleanser, followed by Elemis Pro-Collagen Marine Cream, which I really massage into my skin to help me relax for bed. Then I use Estee Lauder Advanced Night Repair eye cream, which is amazing.

It’s not essential for me to have blackout blinds when I’m not travelling and we don’t have them in my house, even though I’m sometimes sleeping during the day. I do like it when the hotels have them though, as I definitely sleep better with one to block out the light.

I would usually only ever get my nine to 10 hours of ideal sleep when I’m at home, and it’s hard to say how often I get that many hours, as my schedule varies so much.

I work part-time now and do two to three flights a month. We usually stay in a hotel for one or two nights, but I’ve mainly been doing one night stays since I had my son. I find it’s just enough time to have something to eat, do a bit of shopping or go to the beach. I find it’s really beneficial, as a working mum, to have that bit of time away, and be able to do things like put on a face mask before bed and have a long sleep. It’s a great job – I get some time to myself, then I get to go home and see my family.

Eye mask courtesy of Oliver Bonas