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Sleep Tips

8 Simple Tips to Get Better Sleep When You’re Away From Home

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Sleeping well when you’re away from home can seem more elusive than a complimentary first-class upgrade on a long-haul flight. Whether you’re suffering jet lag, aches and pains of transit, travel stress or just the unsettling feeling of an unfamiliar sleep space, sleeping away from your familiar bed can often be less restful than you’d like.

The good news? You’re not doomed to toss and turn every time you hit the road. With a few best practices, you can boost your odds of a sound snooze when you’re away from home, no matter where you shut your eyes.

How Does Traveling Affect Sleep: Common Disruptors

One of the most frequently cited sources of sleep problems for long-haul travelers is jet lag. But though you may feel exhausted even after a short journey, jet lag is more likely to happen when you fly through more than three time zones on a trip, since you could experience a mismatch between your body’s circadian rhythm and the current time of day at your vacation destination, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That can lead you to wake up earlier than you want, have trouble falling asleep at bedtime and experience sleep disruptions throughout the night.

Regardless of how far you travel, simply sleeping in a new environment can throw off your slumber. The first night of trying to sleep away from home can be so fraught with sleep problems, scientists have coined it “first-night effect.” The unfamiliar environment causes half your brain to stay on guard throughout the night, resulting in shorter sleep time and other problems. People can usually sleep better the following night, but still might not get the same quality of rest they’re used to at home.

“Your bed, lighting, the smells—everything is different than it is at home,” explains Dr. Chris Winter, author of “The Sleep Solution” and a sleep neurologist. “Disruptions to the sleep cues we’re familiar with at home cause sleep issues.”

Your habits while traveling can also affect your sleep. Travel can throw off your mealtimes—you sometimes have to grab a bite at the least convenient times, scrounging for a snack when you finally make it to your destination. But research shows that eating or drinking within an hour of bedtime can increase the likelihood of waking up throughout the night.

Roughly half of Americans reported that they drank while traveling, which, depending on when your flight is, can wreak havoc on your sleep. And like alcohol, caffeine is another sleep disruptor, so an early evening coffee on a road trip might not be the best idea if you want sound shut-eye.

There’s also dehydration to contend with. Researchers have found that people who don’t drink enough water tend to have shorter sleep durations than those who are adequately hydrated.

What’s more, being cramped up in the car or plane for hours on end can leave your body achy, making it even hard to get sleep away from home. Research suggests that pain might be closely linked with our circadian rhythm, often intensifying during the night.

In other words, it’s hard to blame travel-related sleep troubles on any single sleep disruptor—there are just too many to contend with.

Tips to Sleep Better While Traveling

While travel and sleep problems often go hand-in-hand, there are some things you can do to set yourself up for a successful sleep away from home. Here are some expert-approved tips for sleeping better while traveling.

Prepare for Jet Lag

You can reduce the impact of jet lag by adjusting to your new time zone gradually before you ever leave home. One option is to take a DIY approach to this by moving your bedtime and wake time by 15-minute increments toward the time zone of your destination in the days leading up to your trip. Another option is using an app, such as Timeshifter, which will provide a personalized jet-lag-prevention plan based on where you’re going.

“Timeshifter will tell you when to have caffeine, take melatonin, wake up and go to bed a few days before you travel,” says Shelby Harris, author of “The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia” and a clinical psychologist specializing in behavioral sleep medicine. “If you don’t do anything in advance, it will generally take you about a day for each time zone you cross to adjust.”

Bring Comforts from Home

Making your “home away from home” feel more familiar can help you sleep better on your trip, says Winter. Taking some of your home-sleep setup with you can be as simple as bringing a favorite nighttime item. A lot of travelers opt to bring their favorite blanket, pillow or their go-to pillowcase when they’re on the road.

A familiar scent can also be a cue to help your body drift off to sleep in a new environment. If your bedroom normally smells like lavender, spritz lavender spray on your linens.

“The sense of smell is most strongly tied to memory. It can trick your brain into thinking you’re home,” Winter says. “I even tell the baseball players I work with to bring a shirt worn by their partner for a few days when they’re away from home. The smell of a person you love is really comforting.”

If you have extra space, consider packing a mini fan or white noise machine. That can help you mask distracting sounds that might otherwise disrupt your sleep.

Pack a Sleep Kit

Tucking a few nighttime essentials into your suitcase can come in handy when you’re in a new environment. Items that can help you sleep well away from home include:

  • eye mask
  • earplugs
  • travel pillow
  • room spray in a relaxing scent
  • warm socks
  • sleep aids (like melatonin or medications recommended by your doctor)

Tailor Your Hotel Room

Even within the same hotel, certain rooms can be better for sleep than others. “I always ask for a room that is high up, so I don’t have to deal with as much street noise, and far from an elevator,” says Harris.

Sunlight is another factor in how well you might sleep in a hotel room. Winter suggests that travelers request a room that doesn’t face eastward. “That way you don’t have sun pouring into your window first thing in the morning,” he explains.

Block Out Light

Darkness is critical for sleeping well. Unfortunately, hotel rooms often have lots of stray light you don’t notice until bedtime, but there are some tricks you can try to make the space darker.

Roll up a towel and place it at the bottom of the door to block light from the hallway. Use a trouser hanger on its side to clip the window drapes shut.

Harris brings her own supplies. “I pack black construction garbage bags and painter’s tape to black out the light from windows,” she explains.

That tape can also come in handy if the LEDs on the phone, TV and other electronics keep you up at night. Simply rip off a little strip and tape it over the offending light. You can remove it the next morning without a trace. If you’re worried about light, pack an eye mask in your sleep kit.

Cool Down Your Hotel Room

The temperature of your room can help your body know when it’s time to sleep. People tend to sleep better in slightly cooler rooms compared to warmer environments, per the CDC. “Set the thermostat to 65 to 67°F in the evening,” notes Winter. “It mimics the sun going down and temperature dropping in the environment.”

Cooling the room down might be especially helpful in a hotel room, when you’re already on edge due to the “first-night effect.” It can help create a dip in body temperature, which accompanies sleep for all mammals.

Plus, the gentle murmur of the fan or air conditioner running throughout the night does double-duty as a white noise machine that can block out sleep-disrupting sounds.

Stick to Your Routine

Traveling is often a welcome break from our day-to-day routines, but if you want to sleep well away from home, it’s worth sticking to your regular bedtime habits as much as possible. For Winter, that means sipping a cup of chamomile tea when he’s winding down.

“It’s warm, it smells good, and I’m drinking it at the same time I usually do at home, which pulls consistency into my schedule,” he notes.

Stretching, listening to a guided meditation, reading a novel, or any other activity that helps you relax at home will also help you sleep better while traveling.

Schedule Time to Rest

When traveling to a new place, it can be tempting to jam-pack your itinerary with sightseeing and other things to do. But if you’re not leaving enough room in your schedule for sleep at night and some downtime during the day, you won’t feel energized enough to enjoy the activities you have planned.

Winter recommends building “down” time into your travel itinerary—even if that means cutting out a couple of activities.

“If you’re sleeping better and getting enough rest, you’ll enjoy yourself 150% more than if you were staggering through it and feeling exhausted,” says Winter.

Try Not to Stress About Sleeping Well While Away

Setting a cooler room temperature, bringing comfortable items from home, and sticking to your bedtime routine can make it easier to get sleep when you’re away from home. But if you’re still having trouble sleeping through the night when you travel, try not to stress out about it. A few restless nights isn’t the end of the world, and you can get your sleep schedule back on track once you’re home.

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