It’s tough to sleep well when you’re traveling. You’re away from your bed, in a different part of the world, and traveling among strangers who may be crying, sneezing or talking loudly.
There is a bright side, however. It is possible to sleep well while traveling.
Below we’ll explain how travel impacts your sleep, what causes jet lag, and how you can get a good night’s sleep on your next trip.
The Effects of Travel on Sleep
Fatigue, irregular sleep cycles, and weakened immune systems all impact your sleep. They all coincide with travel, too.
Business Travel and Sleep
Business trips often combine stress, over-booked schedules, and late nights with copious amounts of food and alcohol – the perfect recipe for a poor night’s sleep.
As a result, the most fatigued travelers tend to be those traveling for business.
Sleep deprivation is cumulative, so the longer you skip out on sleep, the stronger the effects. Your mood, attention span, and reaction times all worsen as you accumulate more sleep debt. Thus, you end up performing worse during a time when you need to be performing at your best.
In January 2004, Hilton Hotels recruited Mark Rosekind, former director of NASA’s Fatigue Countermeasures Program to conduct a study on business travelers. His team found the following::
Losing just a few hours of sleep significantly reduced performance.
Travelers thought they were performing 20% better than they actually were.
Half of the travelers who rated themselves so highly actually fell asleep by accident during their trip.
The Irregular Sleeping Patterns of Travel
Even if you’re not traveling for business, travel wreaks havoc on your sleep, in large part due to jet lag
We’ll dive more into jet lag below, but the gist is that when you travel across time zones, you end up in an area with different sunrise and sunset times than what your body is used to. A 2013 study, among others, proved that this messes with your internal circadian rhythm, or your “day-night cycle” in layman’s terms.
As a result, it’s more difficult to fall asleep when it’s “bedtime” where you’re currently staying.
Sickness and Travel
When you travel, your body comes into contact with a larger and more varied host of germs that you’re not used to. The confined space and recirculation of air on the plane create a breeding ground for the common cold, as one 2002 study found. Once you arrive at your destination, you’re sleeping in a hotel room that’s frequented by strangers, and you’re staying in a city that has its own unique combination of allergens or pollutants in the air.
Travel already tends to cause sleep debt, which weakens your immune system. If you get sick on top of that, a restful night’s sleep is even more out of reach.
How to Sleep Well While Traveling
Despite the obstacles travel presents, there are some pro tips you can follow to sleep well and enjoy your trip.
How to Sleep Before Your Trip
The preparation for a good night’s sleep begins before you’re even on your way.
Several days before you leave, gradually adjust your sleep and wake times to your destination’s time zone.
Try to match the timezone of your destination by turning on the lights in your house or opening the window shades accordingly.
Consider adjusting the clocks in your house to the timezone of your destination.
Exercise and eat well in the days before your trip (although you should do this anyway to enjoy great sleep year-round).
Pack ahead of time to reduce stress on the day of your trip.
Go to bed even earlier the night before you leave, so you’re well-rested.
How to Sleep While Traveling
While you’re traveling to your destination, there are some general how-to’s you should follow, as well as some tips specific to your form of travel.
General Tips for Sleeping While Traveling
Comfort is key. Wear loose clothing and layers. You want to be able to put on a sweater or take it off, so you can stay comfortably warm or cool no matter the temperature of whatever you’re traveling in. Wear shoes you can easily slip off, or loosen the laces.
Wear a sleep mask to block out light.
A nap longer than 30-45 minutes may put you into a deep sleep. Deep sleep is more difficult to wake from, so only sleep for longer than that if you’ll be traveling overnight or for several hours.
Bring earplugs or noise-canceling headphones to block out engine noise, crying babies, and loud conversation.
Stay hydrated – with water. This tip is especially important for air travelers, as the low humidity inside the cabin makes you more prone to dehydration. However, water helps all travelers stay healthy and prevent sickness. If you choose to drink alcohol, limit it to one glass so as not to interfere with your sleep.
Bring a neck pillow to help you sleep comfortably upright, and a blanket to give you extra padding if necessary.
Don’t cross your legs as it restricts blood flow.
Position your body for optimal sleep. You want to allow your muscles to relax, and to keep your spine as aligned if possible.
Set your watch to the timezone of your destination.
How to Sleep Well on an Airplane
If you can sleep on a plane, opt for a red-eye to avoid interrupting your normal sleep cycle. If you know you absolutely can’t fall asleep on a place, try to pick a flight that arrives in the early evening, so you can get to sleep as soon as possible after arriving to maintain your sleep cycle.
Choose a window-seat. This way you can lean against the side of the plane while you sleep, and you won’t be roused by other people in your row who get up to use the bathroom.
If you can afford it, upgrade to business or first-class seats. Many airlines now offer seats with extra legroom (such as an exit row) for an additional price. Having the extra space to stretch your legs and recline the seat will help you sleep better.
If you have trouble sleeping upright, do the opposite. Lean forward and use your tray table instead.
To prevent a well-meaning flight attendant from waking you up, keep your seat belt visibly buckled over your clothes or blanket.
How to Sleep Well in a Train
Conductors routinely walk trains to check tickets. Avoid being woken up by placing your ticket in the slot or holder of the seatback in front of you, or by wearing it around your neck using a luggage tag holder.
Many trains have sleeper cars or “quiet” cars. The sleeper cars typically require a dedicated ticket because they include privacy, an actual bed, and a higher price tag. Alternately, find the “quiet” car on the train. It’s usually designated as such with a sign, and passengers are barred from using cell phones on that car.
How to Sleep Well in a Car
Adjust the seat to a reclined position. The flatter you can lie, the easier it will be for you to sleep, and the better for your back.
You have more room to yourself if you’re driving in a car versus another vehicle, so take advantage of it. Bring pillows and blankets so you can position them against the window or behind your head. If the car allows for it, flatten the back seats while the car is stopped and sleep there.
If it doesn’t block the driver’s vision, consider getting blinds for the windows. Wear a hat and sunglasses to help block out the sun.
If you are sleeping overnight in a car, do not keep the car running! In some places it’s against the law to leave your keys in the ignition if you are sleeping, so turn it off. If it’s very cold outside, set an alarm to wake up periodically and turn the car on for a few minutes (and then turn it back off before going back to sleep).
Whenever the driver stops for gas, take some time to use the restroom, stretch, and walk around for a bit.
How to Sleep Well on a Bus
If you travel during off-peak times, you’re likelier to get a whole row to yourself, or at minimum a quieter, less crowded bus. Early morning and late night tend to be the off-peak times for bus travel.
If you travel at night, it may be easier for you to fall asleep as it will be dark outside, during your normal sleep time, and a smoother ride without stop-and-go traffic.
How to Sleep Once You’ve Arrived
Once you’ve arrived at your destination, you’ll probably need to play catch up on your sleep. Here are some tips to get you feeling back to normal:
If you arrive early in the day and are tired, take a nap, but for no longer than two hours. Sleep any longer than that, and you’ll just worsen the effects of jet lag. If you arrive later in the evening, wait a bit and then go to sleep early.
As soon as you get up in the morning the next day, or from your nap, take a one-hour walk outside. Being in the daylight will help reset your body clock.
Stay social. Seeing and being with other people who are partaking in social activities at normal hours will help reset your body clock to local time.
If you’re having trouble adjusting, consider taking a low dose of melatonin several hours before you want to go to sleep. If you’re flying eastward, you might take melatonin a few days ahead of time, too, also at nighttime.
Continue practicing the other tips you followed during the flight to avoid getting sick – drink lots of water, eat healthy food, and exercise if possible. The study cited earlier by Rosekind found that travelers who exercise during their trip performed 61% better than their non-exercising counterparts.
How to Reduce Jet Lag
The rule of thumb for getting rid of jet lag is to adjust your bedtime over the course of a few days, by one to two hours every day until you catch up to the local timezone.
Here’s what to do, based on how many time zones you traveled:
No time zone change: Take a short nap upon arrival if needed (less than two hours).
1-2 time zone change: Adjust your sleep by 1 hour each day for up to 2 days.
Multiple time zone change: Adjust your sleep by 1 hour each day for as many time zones as you traveled.
Traveling abroad: Adjust your sleep by 1 hour each day for up to 5 days.
Be aware that the direction you traveled also affects how easily you may get over jet lag. Traveling west is often easier to adjust to than east because it’s typically easier to stay up later than to wake up earlier.
What Is Jet Lag?
Speaking of jet lag, what exactly is it, and how do you know if you have it?
Essentially jet lag is caused when you move rapidly among time zones. Typically, the fastest way across time zones is via plane, hence the “jet” in “jet lag.” However, you can still experience jet lag even if you didn’t fly.
When you move across time zones, your body’s circadian rhythms (your body’s 24-hour internal clock that lets you know when it’s time to sleep and when to wake) are out of sync with the physical environment around you, where the sun sets or rises sooner or later than where you came from.
Symptoms typically last up for up to a few days while you adjust to your destination’s time zone, and may include drowsiness, difficulty getting to sleep, poor mood, and decreased alertness and performance.
Top Ten Tips for Getting a Good Night’s Sleep While Traveling
In no particular order, here are our top ten tips for sleeping well on your next vacation or business trip.
1. Adjust to local time.
If you’re traveling across time zones, prepare ahead of time by gradually adjusting your sleep cycle over the course of a few days. Take it to the next level by adjusting the clocks, blinds, and lighting in your house to match the timezone of your destination. Once you arrive, adjust in reverse if you’re not synced up yet, by about 1 hour per day.
2. Be strategic.
Not all travel options are equal when it comes to sleeping well. Opt for off-peak (read: less crowded) times to travel, such as overnight or early morning. It will be easier for you to sleep since you’re not interrupting your regular sleep cycle and fewer passengers means a quieter trip. If possible, choose a window seat so you can lean against the side of the plane or vehicle, and not have to getup to let another passenger go to the bathroom.
3. Eat well.
Foods low in sodium are best. For help falling asleep, try foods rich in tryptophan or carbohydrates that make good portable snacks like cheese, nuts, and breads.
4. Stay hydrated.
If you’re flying to your destination, staying hydrated is especially important because the decreased humidity on the plane can lead to dehydration. Limit the caffeine and alcohol to one glass, and opt for water instead.
5. Layer up.
Wear loose clothing with multiple layers, so you can take things off to stay comfortable while traveling. Whatever you take off turns into extra “bedding.” Wear shoes you can slip off for comfort, but don’t forget the socks. You don’t want your feet to come into contact with the dirty floor of a plane or bus.
6. Stay cool.
Research has shown that cooler temperatures lend themselves to higher quality sleep, with an ideal temperature being between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit. Adjust the air conditioning in the plane or car if you’re able to. Once you arrive, change your hotel thermostat to a comfortably cool temperature in the 60s an hour before bedtime.
7. Get some sun.
Once you arrive, it’s important to stay on local time. You can allow yourself a short nap of two hours or less upon arrival, but once you wake up, take yourself out for an hour-long walk in the sun. Seeing the sun will remind your body that it’s daytime, making it easier for you to stay awake.
8. Stay in shape.
Exercise gets the blood moving and boosts your energy. Whether it’s a brisk morning walk (see tip above) or a workout in the hotel gym, getting exercise during your trip will help you stay awake during the day, sleep better at night, and counteract any heavy meals or drinking.
9. Make a home away from home.
Stick to as much of your normal pre-bedtime routine as possible, and try to make your hotel room feel like your bedroom at home. Consider bringing your own pillows and sheets, and don’t be embarrassed about bringing your teddy bear along. Besides brushing your teeth and washing your face, continue your other bedtime habits, whether that’s lighting a candle or writing in a diary before bed.
10. Try some sleep aids.
From playing white noise on your smartphone to using earplugs, there are plenty of products and apps that promote a restful night’s sleep. We review popular options in the section below.
Our Favorite Travel Sleep Products
Travelers use a variety of products to help them sleep on the way to their destination. Here are the four most popular items.
Inflatable Travel Pillows
Inflatable pillows are perfect for travel because you can adjust their fullness for ideal comfort. When you’re finished, they easily roll or fold up to fit back into your backpack or suitcase.
Noise-cancelling headphones help block out engine noise and loud passengers. They’re available in traditional, over-ear or in-ear versions.
If you don’t plan on listening to music or white noise through your headphones during your trip, try earplugs instead. They don’t block out as much noise as noise-cancelling headphones, but they’re a great option for those packing light. You can bring just as many as you’ll need, and drop them in the trash when you’re done.
Sleep masks block out light. If possible, try one on before purchasing so you can make sure the headband or strap is comfortable for your preferred sleeping position. You’ll also want to make sure it fits over your headphones or earplugs.
Resources for a Good Night's Sleep While Traveling
If you’re looking for more information on sleep and travel, check out the resources below based on your area of interest.
Learn more about what causes jet lag, and how you (and your hotel) can help you recover from it in our comprehensive overview.
Jet Lag Rooster helps you determine how to adjust your sleep when traveling multiple time zones. You answer a few simple questions about your time zone and your typical sleep and wake times, then the tool will spit out a custom jet lag plan for your upcoming trip.
Sleep Aids and Products:
Consumer Reports lists their 30 top items for summer travel, including apps, travel pillows, portable cell phone chargers, and more.
Create a playlist of sleep podcasts or music to play during your trip. You can choose from white noise, sounds of nature, meditation, bedtimes stories, or quiet music. Search iTunes for sleep podcasts, or find sleep playlists on Spotify or Pandora.
If you plan on using melatonin as a sleep aid during your trip, make sure you understand how melatonin interacts with food and wine. It will help you determine whether you may need to adjust your dose based on your travel eating and drinking habits.