Peaceful, restful sleep. For many travelers, it’s the stuff of dreams. But why is getting a good night’s sleep impossible for so many travelers? And what can you do to get a badly needed night’s rest in an unfamiliar place? Well, sleepyhead, we can show you how. Don’t worry — this blog is guaranteed to not have you nodding off.
Why Can’t You Sleep?
You’ve arrived at your hotel. Your room looks like it’s designed for a perfect night’s sleep: A comfy bed, thick drapes, lots of pillows, good air conditioning, and a location on a floor high enough not to hear the traffic. Yet you find yourself wide awake at 3 a.m. and worse, fighting to stay awake in an important meeting the next day. Why?
For many travelers, it’s a phenomenon known as the “First Night Effect” or as we call it, sleeping with one eye open. Sleep experts believe this trait once protected our ancestors against predators, and sleeping in new, unfamiliar surroundings can trigger this behavior. Add in a good dose of jet lag, which is caused by your body’s internal clock being out of sync with your destination’s time zone, and you have a perfect recipe for a sleepless night.
What Can You Do?
Plan ahead. Several days before your departure, try to gradually adjust your sleeping times to match your destination’s time zone. If you’re traveling east to west, stay up later in the nights before the start of your trip. If you’re traveling west to east, try the opposite; go to sleep and get up earlier. This can help you fall asleep and wake up in sync with your usual schedule in your destination time zone.
Do your homework. Before booking a hotel, research online. Check Google Maps to see if the hotel is on a busy street, adjacent to a crowded freeway, or close to a major airport runway. Investigate if any construction projects might be taking place in the neighborhood. When in doubt, call the hotel you’re thinking of booking and ask about noise nearby. To find quieter hotels, do a Google search for “quiet hotel” for the destination you plan to visit, and check reviews on websites like TripAdvisor or Expedia using a “quiet hotel” or “quiet hotel room” search term.
Kick the tires. When you first check-in to your room, put your bags down, stop and listen. Is your room’s air conditioner or heating system noisy? Test it. Does the sink or bathtub have a Chinese Water Torture-inducing nonstop drip? Is the toilet running a marathon of sound? You might not notice these sounds right now, but you definitely will at 2 a.m. So be sure to stop and listen.
Be assertive when reserving your hotel room and checking in. For a better night’s sleep, demand the following:
- A quiet room on a higher floor located away from traffic and other noise, including elevators, ice machines, kitchens, garbage dumpsters, and marching bands.
- A room away from families or groups like used car salesmen’s conventions.
- A non-connecting room if you’re traveling alone.
- A corner room often reduces sound exposure to neighboring rooms.
- If there’s a loud party in the room next door, call them directly. Tell them you are with hotel security, that there have been complaints, so please lower the TV, music, etc. That usually does the trick.
- Still noisy? Call downstairs and request to be moved. Don’t be shy.
Seize the day. The best way to help your body adjust to its new location is to step outside and take advantage of the sunlight. Go for a brisk morning walk or run. Sun exposure adjusts your body’s internal clock, suppresses your body’s melatonin production, and will help you recover from jet lag more quickly. Instead of sleeping in on the first day in your destination, try to get up when you normally would at home to get in sync. The result? You guessed it: a better night’s sleep.
If you are traveling east, expose yourself to sunlight early in the day. This helps advance your body clock so it will be in sync with the new time zone. If you’re traveling east to west, expose yourself to light at dusk, delaying your body clock so it will sync with your destination. For short-duration trips (one to two days), do the opposite of what you would for a long flight across the ocean. Keep your watch and schedule set to your home time zone. It might mean getting up an hour or two earlier during your trip, but you will be less affected by the change.
Follow good habits. Getting enough sleep is underrated, especially when traveling long distances and on business. Go to sleep early while on the road, or at least stick to your usual bedtime. You’re probably thinking, “Well, thank you, Captain Obvious. Duh!” But hey — it’s true. Travel is often a time when we break good habits.
When we’re away from home, we often stay up too late, party too much, skip exercise, drink coffee too late, and go to bed on a full stomach. Sound familiar? All that can lead to — get ready — lack of sleep. Eating light at night, taking a post-dinner walk, or light exercise can help relax and prepare you for a restful night.
Wind down. Business trips and vacations can be hyperactive. You know the drill: dashing through airports, racing from meeting to meeting, the busy business dinners or nights out. All that stimulation can interfere with getting to sleep. Schedule at least one to two hours at the end of the day to de-stimulate your brain when you’re traveling. Get away from sights, sounds, and social media. Put your day’s stress and worries aside. Stretch or do yoga. Do something quiet. That will give your brain the time it needs to relax and prepare for a good night’s sleep.
Unplug. At least 30 minutes before going to sleep, turn off your computer, mobile phone, iPad, or TV. The blue tint of device screens stimulates your brain, making it harder for your body to shut down. (When your eyes see blue light, your brain is programmed to think it’s daytime, not night.)
Get comfy. To sleep better, get your room’s temperature in the “Goldilocks” zone — not too hot, not too cold. Ideally, keep your room’s temperature between 54°F (12°C) and 75°F (24°C). This YouTube video will show you how to override your hotel room thermostat and set the temperature where you like it. You’re welcome.
Pack an eye mask, foam or silicone earplugs, and a white noise app on your phone. White noise apps provide the soothing sounds of softly falling raindrops, ocean tides, and our personal favorite, government bureaucrats from the Department of Redundancy Department discussing forensic legal points on alfalfa regulation. (Okay. We made up that last one.)
Embrace the dark side. Keep your room dark. Frustratingly, many hotel room curtains don’t quite close, making sleep more difficult. Our solution: Pack some binder clips from your office, clothes pins, or big safety pins to keep your room’s drapes shut tight. In a pinch, a slacks hanger from your hotel room closet can work as well. To block hallway light and noise from blasting your room, roll up a towel and squeeze it under the door. Tape over the security spy hole in your door to prevent light from streaking in. And cover your room’s alarm clock (if you didn’t unplug it) with a towel, or tip it downward.
Some other sleep tricks to try (or avoid):
- Drink warm milk can help (assuming you’re not lactose intolerant). Milk contains tryptophan, which stimulates the brain chemical serotonin, believed to play a role in inducing sleep. Tryptophan is also present in foods like turkey (hence, the “Thanksgiving effect”). You could also try taking some tryptophan, beginning with about two grams per hour before bedtime.
- A hot bath is better than a shower for making you sleepy. We love a good shower, but they tend to invigorate rather than make you drowsy.
- Avoid caffeine later in the day, and especially at night. As much as we love our espresso or a good cappuccino, caffeine makes you hyperactive. And for sleep, that’s a bozo no-no.
- Skip vitamin D at night. We’re big fans of vitamin D. But think about it: Taking vitamin D is like giving your body a jolt of sunlight, and that’s the last thing you need just before bedtime.
- Say no to tyrosine-rich foods after lunchtime. Examples include fermented cheeses like cheddar, ripe avocados, some imported beers, and meats like bologna, pepperoni, and salami. They’re not exactly great for your waistline either.
- Knocking back a couple of glasses of red wine might sound like a perfect way to snooze. But red wine contains — you guessed it — tyrosine. Especially Chianti. Sure, alcohol can help you fall asleep. But drinking gives you shallow and disturbed sleep, abnormal dream periods, and frequent early morning awakening. Hangovers aside, you just won’t feel great the next day. And if you must give an all-important presentation, you will hate yourself.
- Sleeping pills might seem like a good idea, but many commonly prescribed sleeping pills can keep you wide awake instead of giving you a restful night. Sleeping pill-induced side effects include insomnia, disturbed sleep patterns, short-term amnesia, and impaired motor skills that night or the next day. Like when you’re driving. Or having to defuse a thermonuclear weapon. Not good. For us, melatonin is a much safer and more effective choice.
Is it too darned much to ask for a little frickin’ peace and quiet? Finding a quiet hotel room is one of travelers’ biggest requests. It’s a rare commodity in a noisy urban world. Slowly, that’s changing. For example, Crowne Plaza Hotels (part of InterContinental Hotels) is rolling out its Sleep Advantage initiative, offering quiet-zone rooms on select floors with premium bedding and sound-muting materials, no housekeeping or maintenance projects between 9 p.m. and 10 a.m., with no children or leisure groups allowed. Other hotels are starting to follow suit.
With a little preparation, sleepless nights on the road can be a thing of the past. Sweet dreams!