“A good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures for anything.”
So says a famous Irish proverb. When you’re on the road, whether it be for business or pleasure, you want to feel at your best so you can make the most of your travels. And indeed, sleep is a crucial part of the equation.
Experts recommend that adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night for good health. And according to the National Institutes of Health, quality sleep improves your brain performance, mood, and health — critical features for performing well in meetings, enjoying exciting adventures, and battling off new germs, to list but a few common travel experiences.
But ironically, the very act of being away from home can make catching your z’s a real challenge. A different pillow and mattress (or sleeping bag, depending on your style), strange noises, unexpected light streaming in, perhaps a change (or two) in time zone. All of these factors can combine to make trying to sleep… well, a real nightmare.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take both before and during your trip to help ensure restful slumber that will leave you feeling energized and ready to greet each new day on the road.
Common challenges of sleeping away from home
Whether you’re snoozing in a five-star hotel in the city or in a cozy bed-and-breakfast in the countryside, there are certain challenges common to the sleep experience.
According to the Sleep Foundation, noise at night can wake you up, leading to fragmented, less-refreshing sleep. And even sounds that don’t awaken you can impact sleep by altering the amount of time spent in various sleep stages. Noise can also increase the production of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol and can lead to elevated heart rate and blood pressure.
When you’re traveling, you’re likely to be dealing with noises that aren’t familiar, such as airplanes, sirens, traffic, slamming hotel room doors, noisy appliances, and animals. So, what can you do to lessen the impact of these loud sounds?
First, before choosing your accommodations, be sure to read reviews online. Search for keywords like “noise,” “sleep,” and “soundproof windows,” and see what others have had to say about their experiences. Select lodgings that don’t have a lot of negative reviews about noisy environs.
Once at your destination, request a room away from any restaurants, ballrooms, or meeting rooms, says the American Thoracic Society, and away from the elevators and street. Use a pair of quality earplugs or comfortable, noise-canceling headphones to block out unwanted sounds. Turn off any unneeded electronic devices to ensure alarms and notification sounds aren’t going off throughout the night. And consider bringing a travel white noise machine or using your phone (with or without noise-canceling headphones) to play relaxing sounds such as rain, ocean waves, the aforementioned white noise, or your favorite music. In a pinch, an air conditioning unit or fan can also provide a steady sound to block intrusive noises.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, light suppresses the release of melatonin (a hormone that promotes sleep) and can interfere with the circadian rhythm (the internal clock that regulates sleep and wakefulness). A type of light known as blue light can have a major impact on sleep. One significant source of blue light? Electronic devices. As an important first step to mitigating the effects of light on sleep, Harvard Medical School suggests avoiding the light from bright screens two to three hours before bed and exposing yourself to plenty of bright light during the day (natural sunlight is best), which helps boost your ability to sleep at night.
Once you’re in your room, seek out sources of light that may be distracting at night (such as power lights on television sets) and unplug the devices, if safe and practical, or cover up the lights. Be sure the window curtains are fully drawn before you retire. A handy tip for dealing with curtains that don’t meet in the middle? Use one of the hotel hangers with clips to clip the curtains together in the middle.
It’s also worth investing in an eye mask to help block out artificial lights you overlook or can’t turn off and to prevent sunlight from hitting your eyes during your designated sleep time.
Let’s face it — sleeping away from home can often cause some anxiety, at least for a night or two. Whether you’re still wired from the stress of traveling to your destination, feel uncomfortable or skittish in an unfamiliar place, or are not used to sleeping alone (or with others), it can be hard to relax and drift off.
First, ensure you leave enough time to get all your travel to-dos completed at a comfortable pace so that you’re not starting your trip off in a frantic state of mind. Allow ample time to get to and from your travel hub (the airport, train station, or the like), and leave enough time in your itinerary to get everything accomplished without rushing. This calm state and peace of mind will carry over into the night.
To help provide some feelings of comfort in the new setting, experts recommend bringing along a small memento from home, such as a photo or lucky charm, a comfortable pair of pajamas, or even a favorite scent. Engaging in some simple breathing exercises before bed, such as focusing your attention on your in- and out-breaths for a few minutes, can also help with relaxation. Also, avoid caffeine for about 8 hours before bed to ensure the stimulant doesn’t leave you feeling wired when you should be hitting the hay.
Comfort and hygiene
At home, you can fine-tune many aspects of your sleep environment to your liking. In a novel place such as a hotel, guest room, or campground, this can be a bit more challenging, but there are ways to make your accommodations a bit cleaner and more comfortable.
Pillow and mattress
Having a comfortable pillow and mattress is foundational for getting a good night’s sleep. If your back hurts from a hard bed or your neck is still from a lumpy pillow, it will be hard to rest. Here, as with choosing lodgings that are quiet, it pays to do some research beforehand. Check out the reviews of accommodations at your destination, searching in particular for keywords such as “bed,” “mattress,” and “pillow.” Go with an option that has good reviews for comfort.
With regard to pillows, extras are sometimes stored on the top shelf of the closet, or you can ask for another from the concierge (although your request may be denied if inventory is limited). Another option is to invest in your own travel pillow. These pillows are compact for portability and can be found in a range of options, from down-filled to memory foam.
Leery about laying on communal sheets? Also consider purchasing a “sleep sack.” Something like a sleeping bag liner, these sheets envelop you and your pillow, keeping you from touching hotel sheets that may be made of abrasive material (or less hygienic than you’d like).
If you’ll be sleeping in an RV or van, space considerations will play a big factor in your mattress selection.
Conditions that are too hot or cold can make dozing off difficult. To keep things at an ideal sleep temperature (between 60°F and 68°F for most people, according to the Sleep Foundation), make use of thermostats, fans, air conditioners, and heaters in your accommodations. Also take full stock of the available blankets and layer them as needed. For more rugged settings like vans or tents, be sure to choose a sleeping bag with the season in mind and to wear (or remove) layers of clothing as the setting dictates.
Bed bug prevention
Bed bugs. The words alone are enough to strike fear in the heart of many a seasoned traveler. These small, wingless insects feed on blood, primarily during the night. Although they are not known to spread any diseases to humans, their bites can cause itchy, uncomfortable rashes. And what’s worse, they can hitch a ride in your luggage, spreading an infestation from your hotel room back to your home.
Fortunately, you can reduce the risk of bringing one of these unwanted hitchhikers back with you by inspecting your accommodations prior to unpacking and bedding down for the night. Here are some tips from Catseye Pest control:
- Storing your luggage: Until you have had the chance to thoroughly inspect your room, store your luggage in the bathtub, rather than on a chair or spare bed. The bugs frequently hide in the crevices of furniture, as opposed to on bare tile, which would leave them exposed.
- Inspecting the bed: Pull back the linens and, using a flashlight, inspect the mattress, box spring, and headboards. Be alert for blood stains, bed bug feces (which look like black pepper or mold), and small, oval, reddish-brown bugs. Pay special attention to corners and seams, where the bugs like to hide.
- Inspecting the rest of the room: Once you have given the bed the all-clear, check other areas of the room, including seat cushions, seams of soft furniture, and carpeted closet floors. During your stay, store your luggage on table tops, dressers, or luggage racks rather than on the floor.
- Post-trip precautions: After you have returned home, wash any clothing you brought with you in hot water (even if you didn’t wear it) or bring it to the dry cleaner. Also vacuum out your suitcase.
Do not switch to an adjacent room if you find evidence of bed bugs, as they can easily spread from one room to another.
Safety and security while sleeping
If you’ll be sleeping alone in a new environment, feelings of vulnerability can make it difficult to doze off. But there are proactive steps you can take before you lie down to keep you safe while you’re in dreamland.
As with other aspects of ensuring a good night’s rest, research is key here as well. Before selecting lodgings, look at reviews and websites of different places you’re considering staying. See whether there are any complaints of safety issues and whether they offer features such as gate access, guards, and 24-hour reception. Look into the crime rates in the area and stay away from high-crime locations.
If you’ll be staying in a hotel, experts recommend staying in a room between the third and the sixth floors. This way, you’ll be high enough to avoid break-ins, but low enough to escape quickly in the event of a fire or other emergency.
According to the U.S. Department of State, once you have arrived in your room, look behind the curtains, under the bed, and anywhere else someone could hide to ensure it is safe. Confirm that the doors work and that all external windows and doors have working locks. Keep an eye out for suspicious-looking electronics that could indicate the presence of hidden cameras. And double check that there are working fire alarms, carbon monoxide detectors, and fire extinguishers. Report any issues to the front desk immediately.
As they say, when in Rome… One of the chief pleasures of travel is experiencing different cultures, and this is no different when it comes to sleep. From siestas in Spain to communal sleeping setups seen in many rural communities across the globe, sleeping practices differ from culture to culture. Sleep furniture differs from place to place as well, from futons in Japan to hammocks in various parts of South America. Try embracing the sleep customs of your destination — you may find there are some you’d like to adopt back home!
Combating jet lag and maintaining sleep hygiene
Traveling to a far-flung location can be a magical experience. Indeed, getting out of your comfort zone and experiencing completely new sights, sounds, cuisines, and cultures is one of the most exciting aspects of going on an adventure. But it does come with a price to pay: jet lag.
If you’ll be traveling to a different time zone, the Sleep Foundation suggests taking some pre-trip steps to help avoid jet lag. First off, try gradually shifting your circadian rhythm in the day or two prior to your flight so that you’ll be closer to the time zone at your destination upon arrival. This can be accomplished through changes to your sleep schedule, strategically timed light exposure, and (with your doctor’s feedback and OK), melatonin supplementation.
Also do your best to sleep well in the nights leading up to your trip, avoid over-scheduling your first day to allow time for recovery and relaxation, stay well hydrated, and limit or avoid caffeine and alcohol, which can affect sleep quality.
Once at your destination, get exposure to natural light, which can help reset your circadian rhythm to the new time zone. Exercising outdoors can be particularly beneficial for getting you on track in your new time zone. (Just be sure to avoid exercising at times when it’s night at your home location for the first few days in your new destination, says the Sleep Foundation.)
And try to set and maintain a specific sleep schedule, going to bed at the same time each night and waking up at the same time every morning. According to the Mayo Clinic, this can help reinforce your body’s sleep-wake cycle, making it easier to fall asleep at the appointed time. Having a set bedtime routine — taking a warm bath, listening to some relaxing music, reading a good book, or stretching, for example — can help create a habit and let your brain know when it’s time for bed, says the Sleep Foundation.
As we’ve navigated through the land of nod and beyond, remember that the secret to enjoying your travels is largely influenced by how well you can catch those elusive z’s. Whether you’re dreaming in a deluxe suite or dozing off in a snug bed-and-breakfast, the right preparation can make all the difference between a restful slumber and a wide-awake nightmare.
So, don’t let sleep be the last item on your packing list. Embrace these tips and tricks, and you’ll be sleeping like a log, no matter where your travels take you. And who knows? With a little practice, you might just find yourself sleeping so soundly that you’ll be left dreaming of your next adventure before the first one even ends. Sweet dreams and happy trails!
Disclaimer of Medical Advice: This information does not constitute medical advice or recommendation of any kind, and you should not rely on any information contained in such posts or comments to replace consultations with your qualified healthcare professionals to meet your individual needs.