image of woman sleeping on plane

8 Travel Sleep Tips That Really Work

/ March 20, 2019

Welcome back to our regular series with certified sleep educator Terry Cralle, MS, RN. In this post, Cralle shares strategies for sleeping better while traveling, including what to do before going on a trip to keep your sleep schedule on track.

Whether your next trip is for business or pleasure, staying healthy will ensure that your travels are less stressful, more productive, and more enjoyable. Getting enough sleep is key. To help you stay well-rested before, during, and after a trip, I'm sharing my best travel sleep strategies.

Your pre-travel sleep game plan

Many travelers are functioning below par before they even step out the door—staying up late the nights before a trip, using time normally set aside for sleep to shop, pack, plan, or get last-minute work done. Accruing that kind of "sleep debt" takes a toll on your mood, immune system, and memory—the last thing you need before the demands of travel.

The good news is, a little planning can go a long way to ensure sufficient pre-trip sleep. Here's what I suggest doing:

  1. Prepare as much as possible a week in advance of your travel date to avoid last-minute late nights.
  2. Begin packing a few days before departure.
  3. Spread out extra work that needs to be done over several days pre-trip, so you're not scrambling to finish everything all at once.
  4. Say no to unnecessary activities if they'll mean you need to skimp on sleep time.

In the days before your departure, try to keep your sleep schedule consistent. To line up your sleeping hours with your destination, adjust your sleep schedule slightly a few days before a long trip. The more rested you are prior to traveling, the easier the adjustment to a new time zone will be. If you aren't able to avoid excessively early or late flights, extend your sleep time by taking naps prior to leaving or after arriving at your destination to minimize sleep debt.

How to sleep better while you're traveling

Travel messes with sleep in all sorts of ways, from changing time zones to sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings. And sleep loss, in turn, decreases your ability to handle the typical challenges of travel—traffic, long lines, tight connections, and jet lag. These strategies will help you avoid the vicious cycle and take disruptions in stride.

  1. Stick to your bedtime routine. Following the pre-sleep ritual, you use at home can provide the same relaxation benefits when you are on the road.
  2. Sleep on the go. The sleep stealers of travel—early morning flights, long drives, missed connections—make being "sleep ready" a proactive means of ensuring sufficient shuteye. Bring along a travel blanket and pillow, warm socks, noise-canceling headphones or earplugs, a white noise machine or app, a sleep mask, and soothing music. Lavender oil or lavender linen spray can also help.
  3. Snatch a nap. A 20-minute nap here and there can reduce stress and improve alertness and mood.
  4. Avoid the first-night effect. Unfamiliar environments can make falling asleep difficult. A simple way to offset the so-called "first-night effect" is to bring along reminders of your own bedroom. Setting out a family photo or favorite scented candle can make a big difference in your sleep quality.
  5. Hydrate. Dehydration worsens jet lag. Be sure to drink water before and during air travel. Also, be sure there's water within reach on the bedside table at your hotel. (Learn more about how drinking water can improve your sleep.)
  6. Catch some rays. Soaking up some early-morning sunlight while traveling will help your body reset its time clock to coincide with your new surroundings.
  7. Pack your sneakers. Moderate exercise—even just a walk around the block—will help ensure a good night's sleep. A 2003 study concluded that travel-related sleep loss is the primary reason for a decline in productivity during business trips. In this study, which focused on business travelers, exercise led to a 61% improvement in performance during their trip.
  8. Avoid overindulging. Whether traveling for business or pleasure, the temptation to treat yourself is often difficult to resist. Try to stop caffeine at lunchtime and don't use alcohol as a sleep enhancer. Don't eat a large meal within three hours of bedtime and limit your evening snacking to something light. Moderation is key for optimal sleep quality. (These are the 10 worst foods to eat before bedtime.)

Hotel sleep strategies

Check hotel reviews to ensure your hotel is “sleep-friendly." When booking a hotel, ask for a room away from the elevators, ice machines, the pool, bar, and restaurant, and make sure the hotel isn't undergoing renovations. A non-smoking room is key—for the non-smoker, the smell of cigarette smoke can interfere with falling and staying asleep.

Some hotels provide sleep amenities that can be effective in providing a good night's sleep: sleep masks, ear plugs, aromatherapy, night lights, blackout curtains, sound machines, and bedtime snacks. Drape clips will help to keep out early morning light. Use your Do Not Disturb sign as needed. And, of course, make sure the hotel alarm clock isn't set to go off at an inopportune time. Request a wake-up call as a backup and for peace of mind.

If you are a light sleeper and you don't have a sound machine or phone app, simply switch the room's thermostat fan to the ON position (instead of the AUTO position), or turn the bathroom's ventilation fan on while you sleep to create white noise. This will also help minimize the cycling noises of the room's heating and air conditioning system.

If your hotel mattress is unacceptably uncomfortable, ask for a different room—most hotels will be more than happy to change your room. Did you know that pillow menus are offered in many hotels? They are, so don't suffer from a pillow that causes a stiff neck. In a pinch, travel pillows for the plane will also double for sleeping in your hotel bed. Traveling with your favorite pillowcase can help make that travel pillow more comfortable. (Here are more strategies for sleeping better when you're away from home.)

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