Whether we are driving to a bed and breakfast one state over for a long weekend, striking out on an unstructured European adventure, or attending a 4-day work-related conference, traveling can be extraordinarily good for us. It takes us out of our day to day environment, exposes us to new surroundings, and usually boosts our mood. But when it comes to sleeping, there really is no place like home.
When you’re on the road, there are comforts associated with a good night’s sleep – like your own bed or a warm, head-encircling cat – that simply won’t make it through security or fit in the overhead bin. And the stresses of travel – particularly when it involves crossing time zones– can often mean you won’t sleep well even if you had those things.
It’s simply difficult to sleep well while traveling. So to help you get a good night’s sleep while on vacation in Europe, or even during a short business conference away from home, we’ve constructed this traveler’s guide to sleep which will:
- Help you understand the effects of travel on sleep
- Tell you how to prepare for sleeping well during the trip
- Provide tips for quality rest after you arrive at your destination
- Highlight some of our favorite products and resources for quality sleep when traveling
Source: The Huffington Post
The effects of travel on sleep
While we might want to blame poor sleep while traveling exclusively on not having our favorite pillow, there are some scientific reasons for less than high quality shuteye when we’re away from home.
When we are sleeping in a bed other than our own – or when we are in a new environment such as a hotel room – our brains are actually looking out for our safety, particularly on the first night or two. Studies conducted by Brown University and published in Current Biology show that the two sides of our brains sleep differently, something researchers have known about birds and sea mammals like dolphins for some time. While one side of our brain sleeps, the other is busy standing guard in these unfamiliar surroundings, so half of our brain gets less rest than the other half.
Sleep deprivation and poor sleep quality can have devastating effects on our health – effects that include fatigue, an inability to establish a normal sleep routine, and a weakening of our immune system and greater susceptibility to sickness – so it is critical that we work extra hard at making our sleeping environment while away from home as comfortable as possible.
Source: The Daily Mail
How to sleep well while traveling
Preparing for your trip
In order to sleep well while traveling, preparation needs to begin in advance of your trip with these steps:
- Choose your hotel rooms wisely. When making reservations, ask the hotel where you’ll be staying to book rooms that are away from elevators, ice dispensers, and vending machines, and ask about pillow options with different levels of firmness. It’s also best to request rooms that are above the third or fourth floor to escape the noise of nighttime banquets or events held on lower floors.
- Plan ahead. Waiting until the last minute to get ready to depart can create unnecessary stress. Pack your bags, locate your passport, confirm reservations, and print your boarding passes a day or two before you leave.
- Pack a sleep kit. Be sure to pack the things that will assist you in sleeping well. Earplugs, eye covers, and some of your favorite music will go a long way in aiding sleep in a strange environment (more on this later).
- Exercise and eat right. Hit the gym and eat healthy the day before you leave so that you get a good night’s rest prior to your departure.
- Reset your body clock. When you’re traveling to a different time zone, identify how many hours earlier or later it will be at your destination, then gradually push your schedule and alarm clock forward or back to give your body a chance to adjust. A good rule of thumb is 1 hour per week. If a time difference of several hours makes it impractical to change your schedule that much, then try to achieve a 2-3 hour change. (A great aid in resetting your body clock is the website Jet Lag Rooster, which will help you calculate all the necessary adjustments before your trip.)
Sleeping while traveling
Regardless of your mode of travel – car, bus, train, or plane – there are several things you can do to make sleeping while you travel more restful and more comfortable:
- Start by setting your watch to your destination time zone, which will allow your mind to begin adjusting to the change before you arrive.
- Prioritize comfort over fashion by dressing in cozy, loose-fitting layers that will allow you to adjust when it’s too warm or too cool.
- Avoid excessive amounts of alcohol and caffeine or abstain altogether. Alcohol may help you fall asleep, but it will disrupt sleep patterns and make you feel more tired when you wake up. And using caffeine to stay awake while traveling can make it much harder to sleep after you get to your destination.
- Eat regular light meals that are high in protein, and be sure to include some fruits and vegetables. It’s best to avoid bread and sugary foods if possible.
- Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water throughout the trip. You might also sip on herbal teas that are caffeine-free.
- On a plane, train, or bus, get up and move around from time to time. If traveling by car, stop occasionally to stretch your legs and keep your blood flowing.
Traveling by car
While it’s impossible to be as cozy as you would be at home when traveling by car, these strategies will help you fall asleep and stay asleep on the trip.
- Take a blanket made of cotton or wool since these fabrics help your body regulate temperature more easily than polyester blankets.
- Wear loose-fitting, comfortable clothing, and shoes that slip off and on easily.
- Wear eye covers or a sleep mask to block out the light.
- Use earplugs or noise-canceling headphones to shut out noise.
- Position yourself so that your neck muscles can relax by using a small pillow and leaning your head against the car window.
If you’re taking a turn at driving, it’s critical that you ward off drowsiness and stay alert. Difficulty focusing, yawning often, or feeling restless are all signs it may be time for a break. If you feel truly sleepy, pull over for a brief nap of 20-30 minutes. And definitely don’t drive between midnight and 5 or 6 in the morning when, due to your body’s natural rhythms, sleepiness will be most intense.
Traveling by bus
Traveling by bus is a great way to save money while avoiding the stress of driving. However, it can make for a challenging journey. The suggestions for getting some sleep when traveling by bus are much the same as the ones for traveling by car, but there are a few additional tactics for making the trip relaxing and safe.
- Avoid the cheaper, overnight routes if possible since these usually involve less comfortable, older model buses.
- Choose your seat very carefully.
- If seats are assigned in advance, consider whether window or aisle is best for you. A window seat means you will have a place to lean but the aisle can provide more room to stretch out your legs.
- Remember, the further back you sit on the bus, the bumpier the ride! Seats in the middle are usually best.
- If seats are chosen randomly as you board, select a seat by a woman or teenager. Women tend to respect privacy more and teenagers usually occupy themselves with devices and won’t expect to have a conversation.
Traveling by train
Train travel was once considered the most glamorous way to get from point A to point B and is enjoying a resurgence of popularity in recent years. It’s also one of the modes of travel on which you are MOST likely to be able to drift off and rest. To ensure you are able to sleep on a train, keep these tips in mind.
- Trains can be very loud and bright when pulling into stations along the way, so definitely take along earplugs and a sleep mask.
- Conductors move through the cars to check tickets after the trip is underway, so make sure you place your ticket where it can be seen to avoid being awakened and asked to produce it (most train seats have a slot for the ticket).
- Because the temperatures on trains can fluctuate widely (warm while idling in stations and cold while moving), be sure to dress in layers that can allow you to adjust, and don’t forget a blanket.
If you plan a long trip by train, you might also consider a slightly more expensive sleeper car ticket so that you can lie down and have extra privacy.
Traveling by plane
Thanks to more competition among airlines and frequent specials on ticket rates, travel by airplane is now quite affordable and it’s certainly the only way – other than ocean liner or cruise ship – to reach overseas destinations. But air travel also presents some of the greatest challenges to sleeping while en route.
If you can afford it, absolutely move up to business class or first class which will mean more room and better seat positioning options. If you’re remaining in coach, remember:
- Seats in the back of the aircraft are quietest and give you the best chance of being undisturbed.
- For the most comfortable sleep, choose a window seat and use a small pillow to lean against the window so your neck muscles can relax.
- In aisle or middle seats, a c-shaped pillow is best since it keeps your neck supported.
- You should take off your shoes or at least loosen the laces for optimal circulation.
- Always keep your seatbelt visible so flight attendants will not have to wake you to check that it is buckled.
- Signal to seatmates that you are not in a talking mood by using headphones or a sleep mask.
Source: The Huffington Post
Sleeping once you arrive
When traveling fairly short distances involving no time zone change, the primary barrier to sleep will be your environment. Focus on making your hotel room or the guest bedroom at a family member’s home as comfortable as possible.
- Use your earplugs and sleep mask as you did on the plane or in the car.
- Bring along some favorite mellow tunes and play them as you unpack and settle in.
- Take warm showers right before going to bed.
- Keep the temperature fairly low. Our bodies rest best in an environment that is about 65 degrees.
If your travel takes you across 1-2 time zones, it will take you about a day to recover and adjust, but be sure to follow these guidelines so you don’t delay your recovery.
- Don’t work or read in bed – reserve the bed for sleeping only.
- Don’t eat large meals before bed since these interfere with sound sleep.
- Silence your cell phone, especially if your friends and family are in a different time zone.
- Hang the do not disturb sign to avoid housekeeping interruptions, especially on your first night at your destination.
Source: Meet Green
When traveling abroad or cross-country, it is likely you will cross 3 or more time zones. This sort of travel can wreak havoc on your circadian rhythms and internal clock since it usually takes one day to recover for every time zone crossed. You will need to be especially careful to get on a routine sleeping schedule after your arrival.
- Immediately set your watch to local time.
- Since the sun is the body’s natural regulator and signals the brain to be alert, try to be in sunlight when you arrive if you need to delay sleeping.
- Stay on local time. Even if it’s midnight in your hometown, force yourself to stay on your destination’s clock. This means no napping or sleeping until it’s bedtime locally.
- Eat foods that contain tryptophan (turkey, milk) close to bedtime since tryptophan induces sleep.
- Avoid excessive caffeine since this will disrupt sleep when bedtime arrives.
- If you must take a nap when you first arrive, make it a brief one of 20-30 minutes, then get active until local bedtime.
Jet lag is a fairly simple sleep disorder that we bring on ourselves by traveling across multiple time zones. The condition arises from a basic conflict between our internal biological clock – which knows what time it is regardless of what is showing on our watches – and a new time zone. When we arrive at our destination, our body and mind are still at home as far as the clock is concerned, making it hard to adjust and function well.
Eastward travel (or going to later time zones) is more difficult than westward travel (going to earlier time zones) because it is easier for us to delay sleep and wait awhile to go to bed than it is to advance sleep by trying to go to bed and rest when our bodies know it’s not bedtime yet.
- Disturbed sleep, early waking, or excessive sleepiness
- Daytime fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating or functioning
- Stomach problems
- Generally not feeling well
Source: Design Taxi
While jet lag cannot be prevented, there are effective ways to recover when you arrive at your destination. After all, no one wants to be grumpy and half asleep while visiting a historic landmark or hiking through beautiful countryside.
In addition to our tips in the previous section, follow these guidelines to be sure you fall asleep fast in order to bounce back from jet lag as quickly as possible.
- Drink lots of water as soon you arrive, and stay hydrated throughout your trip.
- Make your room feel as much like home as possible with a favorite photo, candle, or spray scent.
- If the shades or blinds don’t close completely, ask to be moved to another room so you can fully control how much light comes in from outside.
- Ask for different pillows – or more pillows – if the ones on your bed are too small, too soft, or not quite right.
- Make sure the alarm clock is not still set to go off from a previous room guest.
- Stick to your routines – if you enjoy a cup of decaf tea before bedtime, order one up from room service.
- Consider taking a natural sleep aid such as melatonin (beginning a few days in advance of your trip).
- Use lavender scent on your pillow (many hotels will now provide this) since it is shown to slow down heart rates and put you in a relaxed state.
Sleep while traveling with kids
It is difficult enough to get kids to bed on time or down for a nap when at home. If you’re taking that long-awaited trip to Disney World or planning a long weekend at Grandma’s house, it can become almost impossible. These tips should help your kids get quality rest while on the go.
- Plan your travel time around their sleep time. Coordinating your departure and arrival with nap and bedtimes is essential. Try not to disrupt their nighttime sleep to catch an early flight or train and, if possible, depart after their usual morning or afternoon nap time.
- Prepare for a change in sleeping conditions. Crowding a family of five in a single hotel room can be disastrous for everyone. If you can, splurge on a suite. If you’re on a tight budget, make sure the hotel can provide pull out beds or cribs.
- Pack the accessories that can help them sleep well. In addition to their own pillows, consider taking:
- Black plastic bags and painter’s tape to shut out light in hotel rooms.
- Their favorite toy or stuffed animal to comfort them while traveling or in a strange bed.
- Their sheets to give them a familiar feel and smell.
- Stick to bedtime routines by taking baths, reading books, or singing songs that are part of their nighttime ritual at home.
- Make time for naps whenever possible.
Source: Sleeping in Airports
Top 10 tips for sleep while traveling
Here are the 10 most important sleep tips for travelers to make sure you enjoy every minute of your travels:
- Reset your body clock. The most important preparation prior to travel is getting a jump start on resetting your body clock. When you’re traveling to a different time zone, adjust your sleep and wake times earlier or later by 1 hour per week to get as close to your destination time zone as possible.
- Choose your hotel rooms wisely. Ask the hotel where you’ll be staying for rooms that are in the quietest areas possible and ask about pillow options before you arrive.
- Choose the highest class of travel possible. If the budget allows, opt for the sleeper car, or for business class or first class on the plane, and always choose your seat wisely.
- Pack a sleep kit. Be sure to pack earplugs, eye covers, and your favorite music or DVDs to help relax you and prepare you for sleep in a strange environment.
- Dress comfortably for the trip. Wear clothes that are cozy and loose-fitting and dress in layers that will allow you to adjust when it’s too hot or too cold.
- Make your room feel like home. Take along a favorite photo, candle, or spray scent.
- Avoid excess caffeine and alcohol. Avoid these not only the night before departing, but also while traveling and once there.
- Stay awake and on local time. When you arrive, even if it’s midnight in your hometown, force yourself to stay on your destination’s clock. That means no napping or sleeping until it’s bedtime locally.
- Exercise. Be active each day while on your trip – even if only briefly – and, if possible, do it outside so you get some sun.
- Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water throughout the trip.
Source: Standard Register
Our favorite travel sleep products
If you’re not a seasoned road-warrior, you may need to nab a few essentials before your upcoming trip. The products below are some of our favorites and will help you sleep well while you’re getting to your destination and after you arrive.
- The Therm-a-Rest Compressible Pillow makes it easy to get comfortable. Made of soft foam, it packs down to 1/5 its normal size and comes with its own cover.
- It may get you some strange looks because of its odd shape, but the Ostrich Pillow serves as a pillow, earplugs, and eye mask all at once. It can be worn as a neck support or as a sleeping cocoon that covers your ears and eyes while cushioning your head.
- If a traditional sleep mask is more your style, then try the Earth Therapeutics Dream Zone Sleep Mask. It’s covered in a comfortable cotton/silk blend fabric and conforms to all head shapes. Best of all, it sells in most places for $6 – $8.
- To shut out all the noise and cover your eyes at the same time, consider headband headphones like AcousticSheep Sleep Phones.
- For the low-tech among us, there is always the simple earplug. Our favorites are disposable Mack’s Ultra Soft Foam Earplugs. They have a noise reduction rate of 32 decibels and come in a very small jar perfect for a carry-on that contains 50 pairs of them.
- Once you arrive at your destination, you are going to want to have the Cowshed Sleepy Cow Travel Set on hand. It is small in size but contains bath salts, aromatherapy body butter, sleep-inducing pillow mist, and chamomile tea.
- If you want the ultimate device to muffle all distractions, use the Marpac Dohm All-Natural Sound Machine to create sleep-inducing white noise that masks other sounds.
Resources for sleep while traveling
In case you want to explore sleep apps for your smartphones or dig a little deeper online into the topic of sleeping well while traveling, these resources should help.
- The Sleep Genius app, developed by neuroscientists for astronauts, actually helps you fall asleep with pink noise (a softer version of white noise) which triggers a sensation in your brain that is like a baby being rocked to sleep.
- A great white noise app to help block out all irritating sounds is SimplyNoise, which offers versions for both iPhone and Android.
- If you like variety in your white noise, try the Sleep Machine app, which features professionally mastered ambient sounds, music, and tones.
- Or download the fully customizable White Noise app that allows you to combine sounds like ocean waves, rain, birds, or wind with its multi-sound mixer.
For more great sleep apps, check out our Top 100 Sleep Apps.
Sleep websites and guides
- For specific information related to jet lag, go to WebMD, the Sleep Foundation, or to Travel and Leisure Magazine. You’ll find facts and tips about preparing for multi-time zone travel as well as fighting the effects of jet lag once you arrive at your destination.
- Two renowned organizations that have resources and tools for anyone wanting to learn more about getting to sleep even in the most challenging environments are the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the National Sleep Foundation. Both have large online resource libraries that are easily searchable by keywords.
- Sleep Education, another online resource provided by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, has great information about sleeping well while traveling.
- HelpGuide, a collaboration with Harvard Health Publications, offers articles and information about everything sleep-related.
- If you’re someone who travels often for business, WebMD features several articles specifically for the business traveler who takes shorter trips and who is focused less on relaxing and more on work.
- And if you’re doing most of your traveling by car, the Sleep Foundation has information specifically related to this form of travel that can help whether you’re a passenger trying to sleep or a driver who needs to make the most of napping opportunities.
How to sleep in airport terminals, bus stations, and other odd places
- Sleeping In Airports has wonderful tips and tricks for resting while you’re waiting for your flight or if you suddenly find yourself delayed in an airport.
- Smarter Travel is a great resource for tips and guidance about sleeping in bus stations, train stations, highway rest areas, or airports, and doing it safely.
- 16 Ways to Sleep Absolutely Anywhere has helpful and hilarious advice for those times when a comfy hotel room is not anywhere to be found.