How to Sleep Well Away from Home

Get great rest while you travel, no matter where you land

Travel Sleep: Woman sitting in a hotel bedroom looking out the window.
Twenty20

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Anyone who’s traveled knows that getting a good night’s sleep in a new spot can be challenging — especially during a pandemic. There are a couple of big reasons why.

“The first obvious reason is jetlag,” says Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine, and fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “If you’re traveling through more than two or three time zones, your circadian rhythm is going to be thrown off. And certainly, that's going to have a dramatic effect on your ability to either fall asleep or stay asleep in your new destination."

The other reason? When we sleep in a new place, our bodies can become hyper-alert and overstimulated, which can lead to less total sleep time and less rapid eye movement (REM) sleep — the mentally restorative stage of our sleep. The experience can be so disruptive that there’s actually a name for it: “first-night effect.”

But that doesn’t mean future travel is out of the question if you want to get good sleep. Below, experts explain how to sleep well away from home.

1. If You’re Changing Time Zones, Adjust Your Sleep Schedule Before You Leave

Long-distance travel doesn’t have to be a recipe for disastrous sleep. You just need to sleep strategically before you depart to avoid jet lag.

If you’ll be travelling domestically across time zones and your trip will last longer than three days, then it’s worth trying to prepare your body for that new time zone in advance, says Dr. Joyce Lee-Iannotti, director of the Banner University Medical Center Sleep Disorder Center in Phoenix, Arizona.

A few days prior to your trip, begin moving (in 30-minute increments) your bedtime and wake-up time closer to the times you’ll be going to bed and waking up in your upcoming destination.

“In general, it takes about one day per time zone for your body to adjust,” says Dr. Lee-Iannotti. And generally speaking, West-to-East-coast travel is more difficult than East-to-West-Coast travel because you’ll be trying to go to sleep earlier than usual.

If you’ll be traveling internationally, the number of days you’ll want to start prepping in advance is equal to the number of time zones you’ll shift. For instance, if you’re flying from New York City to London, you’ll want to start adjusting your sleep schedule five days ahead of time since New York City is five hours behind London.

To help you adjust, both Breus and Dr. Lee-lannotti recommended the app Timeshifter, which advises you on how to use caffeine, napping, light, and melatonin to adjust to a new time zone. (Breus is an investor in the app.)

2. Pack a Sleep Travel Kit
woman wearing black silk sleep mask
The Swanwick silk sleep mask blocks light for sleeping while traveling.

Consider compiling some travel-friendly items that will help you feel comfortable while you’re away from home. Dr. Lee-Iannotti suggests packing a weighted blanket if you find them helpful.

You also could bring your own pillow or a book if it helps you drift off.

When Breus is on the road, his sleep travel kit includes the following:

  • An eye mask. “Light is the single biggest deterrent for sleep,” says Breus. Choose a version made from breathable, light-blocking fabric, like silk or Manta's cotton mask, with adjustable eye cups, to reduce pressure on your eyes.
  • Bose Sleepbuds. They work in conjunction with the Bose app to deliver white noise that can help you sleep.
  • EarPlanes. Breus prefers EarPlanes over regular earplugs because EarPlanes slow the shift of air pressure that enters your ear during takeoff and landing, which puts less stress on the eardrum, reducing discomfort.
3. Go to Bed at a Reasonable Time the Day You Arrive

You probably haven’t seen your family and friends in a while, and you’ll understandably want to catch up. Just try not to stay up too late chatting during that first night.

“That’s a double whammy because you're already jet-lagged, and you may not even know it, and then you stay up past your bedtime,” says Breus.

Try to “stick to” your normal bedtime on that first night. If you go to sleep around 10 p.m. every night, you’ll want to head to bed at that same time in your new destination. If you stay up too late that first night, you run the risk of making it even harder to adjust to the new time zone you’re in.

4. Create a Sleep-Friendly Hotel Room
Glass of water on a nightstand next to a hotel bed
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

If you’ll be staying in a hotel, there are a few things you can do to make your stay more conducive to getting a good night’s rest.

First, when you book your room, ask for the quietest room in the hotel. The rooms on the upper floors away from the street are usually best. Breus also recommends picking a room that faces west. The sun rises in the east, so you’ll avoid that early-morning sunlight.

Next, after checking in, consider making some, or all, of these changes:

  • Confirm the alarm clock is not set to go off earlier than you’d like.
  • Move any furniture that could block your path to the bathroom in case you have to use it in the middle of the night.
  • Clip the curtains together to prevent light from seeping through. Breus travels with a chip clip for this reason but a hanger with clips could work as well.
  • Wear blue light blocking glasses at night. Reducing your evening exposure to blue light, which many electronic device screens emit, can help your body manufacture the sleep hormone melatonin.
  • Adjust the thermostat. Sixty-five to 70-degrees Fahrenheit is an ideal temperature for sleep, says Breus. “If you get above 72 to 75 degrees, the body starts to sweat, and you don't go into deep sleep. And if you go below 65, the body starts to shiver, and you can't go into REM sleep,” he says.
  • Try some aromatherapy. Breus sometimes uses a lavender-scented pillow spray.
  • Place a glass of room-temperature water beside the bed in case you wake up thirsty in the middle of the night. "Sleep in and of itself is a dehydrative event,” says Breus. “Throughout the evening, from the humidity and your breath, you lose approximately a liter of water.” Having easy access to room-temperature — not cold — water will help keep you hydrated without shocking the body. “Your body just doesn't function well when it’s dehydrated,” adds Breus.
5. Optimize Your Sleep Space in Someone Else’s Home

You may not have as much control over where you sleep when you’re staying with friends and family versus in a hotel room, but there are ways you can make your stay more comfortable:

  • Ask when your hosts and/or their animals wake up. That way, you can gradually start training yourself for an earlier wake-up time if the family gets up earlier than you usually do, suggests Breus.
  • Consider bringing your own pillow. “Anytime I travel for longer than three days, I bring my own pillow,” says Breus. “Pillows are critical for avoiding neck strain.”
  • If you tend to get cold at night, Dr. Lee-Iannotti recommends bringing flannel pajamas or a blanket, especially if you find weighted blankets helpful as your host may be less likely to have one on hand.
6. Exercise
Woman exercising for good travel sleep.
Photo Credit: Unsplash

Incorporating exercise into your stay is a great way to get good sleep — with one small caveat.

“Previously, it was thought that exercise too close to bedtime would disrupt sleep,” says Dr. Lee-lannotti. However, “In more recent studies, it has been shown that exercise at any time of the day actually helps sleep.”

In 2013, a National Sleep Foundation poll found that 83 percent of Americans reported better sleep when they exercised, including those who exercised late at night, compared to those who abstained from exercise.

“However, it may still be best to avoid adrenaline-pumping exercise right before bed to help [your body] wind down,” says Dr. Lee-Iannotti. “Most sleep experts would likely agree that picking yoga over running on the treadmill within an hour of bedtime is the wise pick.”

7. Avoid Alcohol Before Bed

Sleep experts do not advise clients to use alcohol as a sleep aid. It has been linked to poor sleep quality and duration and may actually worsen sleep over the long run.

"Initially, it may feel like it helps one fall asleep faster, but those effects are short-lived,” says Dr. Lee-lannotti. “Your body quickly builds a tolerance and dependence to that effect and you will have to consume more to get the same results. It has also been shown to increase the risk of sleep apnea and decrease REM sleep, the most restorative stage of sleep.”

If you do imbibe, consider stopping well before you head to bed.

“Generally, I do not recommend alcohol consumption four hours before bedtime,” says Dr. Lee-lannotti. “That’s considered good sleep hygiene, per the National Sleep Foundation guidelines.”

8. Accept the Fact That You May Not Get Optimal Sleep

Try not to stress out if you don’t sleep well while out of town.

“Travel is disruptive,” says Dr. Lee-Iannotti. “Just enjoy it when it's leisure travel. When it's business travel, stay focused on the purpose of traveling.”

Just because you may not be sleeping quite as well as you would at home, doesn’t mean you can’t have a fun and memorable trip.

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Teresa K. Traverse is a freelance writer, editor and traveler based in Phoenix, Arizona. She writes about a variety of topics including health, fitness, travel and food. She's the managing editor of Sedona Monthly magazine. Her work has appeared in Weight Watchers, Bust and Parenting magazines in addition to sites like Rachael Ray Every Day, Bustle, Racked, PetMD, Meredith's Daily Paws, Refinery29, The Daily Meal, USA Today and Fast Company. See her clips at teresaktraverse.com. She's also a proud dog mom to two long-haired Chihuahuas, Autumn and Rocket.