Sleep is important when traveling, yet it’s often something travelers struggle with when they hit the road. They don’t have to. Here’s why it’s so important to sleep well – even when traveling – and how to sleep better on your trips.
Sleep is far more important than it’s given credit. Deficiency in rest can have adverse effects on performance and general mood. The National Institute of Health says,
“Sleep deficiency can interfere with work, school, driving, and social functioning. You might have trouble learning, focusing, and reacting. Also, you might find it hard to judge other people’s emotions and reactions. Sleep deficiency also can make you feel frustrated, cranky, or worried in social situations.”
Whether traveling for work or for pleasure, sleep can make or break your trip. This is one reason why so many take sleep medicines to ensure they rest at the proper times or in sufficient quantities.
Lack of sleep can have dangerous consequences.
“Though not identical, drowsy driving and drunk driving bear some similarities and are considered equally dangerous. Both conditions slow reaction times and affect alertness and decision-making. In controlled studies where researchers were able to measure the amount of sleep deprivation, drunk and drowsy driving both result in a similar amount of crashes.”NIH
Why is it so hard to sleep while traveling?
Travelers often struggle sleeping on their trips. Why is this? Reasons for not sleeping vary by person and situation, but a few general reasons for not sleeping well on trips include:
- It’s not your normal bed
- It’s not your normal room
- You are excited about your trip
- You are in a different time zone
- You are fatigued / jet lagged from travel
Sure, hotel beds are usually comfortable, but they are different than your normal bed. The room is different, the lighting and temperature can be different. The pillow and sheets are different. Excitement about your trip can cause insomnia never mind the fact you are in a different time zone which can be a real problem for travelers. Sleeping on an uncomfortable plane can be hard too. And, of course, jet lag is a real problem that can result in poor quality sleep.
Habits and Effort are Important
Quality sleep is about establishing consistent habits and putting effort into rest. That might seem counter-intuitive, but carving out a good night’s sleep consistently can be tough. In fact, one of the reasons folks struggle to sleep well when traveling is they are breaking their sleep patterns and habits.
The MD Anderson Sleep Center recommends some basic principles to achieve consistent and meaningful sleep:
- Set a consistent sleep schedule. Go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time every day.
- Create regular bedtime rituals. Pre-sleep activity should be relaxing so your body knows when it’s time to go to sleep.
- Get regular exercise. Make sure you exercise at least two hours before bedtime though, or it may be difficult to fall asleep.
- Keep a healthy diet. Large meals right before bedtime may make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. Small snacks, however, can help.
- Limit caffeine and avoid nicotine.
- Avoid alcohol.
- Keep naps short. If you need to nap aim for 20 minutes, limit it to less than 30 minutes.
- Use your bedroom for sleep only.
It takes roughly 20 days to turn a repeated action into a habit so stay on top of it. And travel breaks into any patterns or habits you might have established.
How to sleep when traveling
Sleeping well at home on a normal schedule in a known environment is challenging enough, but traveling can add a further complication. Sleep problems can start because of so many irregularities in your habit that occur when out of your normal environment.
Keeping good sleep hygiene as a result of being away from a person’s normal environment is key to staying at the top of your game and getting the most out of your trip. Here are our steps for maintaining great sleep habits away from home:
- Keep as close to your sleep schedule as possible. If you go to bed let, aim to wake up at the same time regardless, instead of sleeping in. Maintaining a consistent circadian rhythm is important.
- Recreate your patterns from home. Remove light exposure (eye masks can help), if you sleep in pajamas, bring some along.
- Exercise patterns can suffer away from home, but a hearty walk or light jog a couple of hours before bed can help maintain sleep quality.
- Try to eat normally (but a little cheating on your diet is ok – it’s travel after all.)
- Continue to avoid nicotine and caffeine.
- Skip booze, but if this is difficult away from home, try to avoid drinking close to bedtime.
- Try to avoid naps when on the road and sleep at night to make evening rest more substantial.
- Don’t turn on the TV in your hotel room before bed; avoid becoming engrossed in something before sleep
- Use the blackout curtains and keep your phone (and its lights) away from your bedside table if possible.
- Make your room as cold as possible. People sleep better with a chill in the air and nice cozy blanket.
When traveling overseas or into a substantially different time zone, there is a method for adjusting your sleep patterns.
A few nights before your trip, begin adjusting to your new time zone. When traveling from the United States east coast to continental Europe, the time difference is usually six hours (daylight savings time can affect this.) Most people that go to sleep at 11 pm would struggle to fall asleep at 5 pm. But making small adjustments will make it easier when you arrive in your new time zone.
- You might be interested in seeing more tips on sleeping in a hotel room
Once a traveler arrives in their new time zone, they should immediately adopt it, making for a very tiresome first and second day, but mostly adjusted thereafter. Failure to strictly follow the new time zone will result in jet lag so bad that you’ll wonder if you have a sleep disorder and could ruin a trip.
Sleeping well is hard at home, sleeping well on the road is even more difficult due to strange environments, time zones and irregularities in patterns. Sleeping well can be the difference between a great trip and a terrible one, between a successful presentation and an utter failure. Being drowsy while driving is dangerous, and some drivers can be as impaired as they are when they are drunk. Whether at home or on the road, get some shut eye – it’s good for you.
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