How To Sleep Well When Traveling

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Medical Disclaimer: The following content should not be used as medical advice or as a recommendation for any specific supplement or medication. It is important to consult your healthcare provider prior to starting a new medication or altering your current dosage.

From reduced stress to a better mood, the benefits of sleeping well can improve any journey. Unfortunately, many people struggle to get a good night’s sleep while traveling. Whether you are traveling for business or pleasure, it is common to have trouble sleeping both in transit and at your destination.

Sleeping well can enhance your time away from home, while sleep disruptions caused by jet lag, travel fatigue, and changes in your environment can make it more difficult to enjoy your trip. Missing sleep can impair your alertness and attention and lead to uncomfortable symptoms like headaches, daytime sleepiness, and an upset stomach.

Fortunately, steps like getting comfortable on a long flight, adjusting your sleep schedule ahead of time, and choosing the right accommodations can enhance your trip and help you get in sync with the rhythm of life at your destination.

Why Is It Hard to Sleep While Traveling?

Although not everyone finds it challenging to sleep while traveling, there are a number of reasons why it may be harder to sleep when you are away from home. Common sleep disruptions that occur when traveling include jet lag, travel fatigue, sleeping in unfamiliar places, and changes to your routine or schedule.

Jet Lag

Jet lag is notorious for leaving travelers feeling tired and groggy on the first few days of a trip. The effects of jet lag are caused by changing time zones. Moving too quickly from one time zone to another can cause a misalignment between your body’s internal clock and the local time of day at your destination.

Jet lag typically occurs when you cross at least two time zones. Once exposed to light and other time cues at your destination, the body’s internal clock can catch up at a rate of 1 to 1.5 time zones each day. Depending on how long it takes for your internal clock to sync with the local time, symptoms of jet lag can last from a few days to several weeks.

Symptoms of jet lag can leave you feeling unwell and make it difficult to settle into your trip. Until your internal clock syncs with the local time, it may be hard to fall asleep and wake up on schedule.

While some amount of jet lag may be unavoidable if you are traversing several time zones, certain factors affect the risk of jet lag and the severity of symptoms:

  • Flying east: Travelers lose time when flying east through time zones. This means that they are exposed to less light and other cues to the time of day compared with traveling west. As a result, eastward travel is associated with more severe jet lag and a longer recovery period.
  • Arriving in the morning: When traveling eastward, arriving in the morning may cause more symptoms of jet lag than arriving in the afternoon.
  • Age: Although people of all ages experience jet lag, some research suggests it may take more time for older people to recover from jet lag.

Travel Fatigue

Travel fatigue may get less attention than jet lag, but it can be equally as frustrating during travel. Travel fatigue is a collection of symptoms caused by the stresses of travel, like sleep disruptions, dehydration, and the environment of aircraft cabins.

Unlike jet lag, travel fatigue can occur even when traveling north or south without crossing any time zones. Travel fatigue can cause headaches, feelings of being disoriented, and make it difficult to get enough sleep. Some research suggests that travel-related fatigue can even exacerbate certain medical problems.

Some people may be more susceptible to travel fatigue than others. Research suggests that people with a rigid sleep schedule may experience more severe travel fatigue than those with more flexible sleep habits.

Sleeping in Unfamiliar Places

Traveling often requires being open to new experiences. This can be one of the most exciting parts of being far from home, but it can also make it more difficult to relax. Many people find it harder to fall asleep in an unfamiliar place, like a hotel room, a vacation rental, or a friend or family member’s house.

It is common to have difficulties falling asleep in an unfamiliar place, especially during the first night. This is because part of the brain stays observant after you doze off, monitoring for unfamiliar sounds. New places also come with changes in your sleep environment that can keep you awake, like differences in temperature and humidity, new sounds, bedding and mattresses that have different textures, and changes in lighting.

Like jet lag and travel fatigue, some travelers have a harder time getting to sleep in a new environment than others. Research suggests that people who are morning types – people who naturally rise early and are most active in the morning – are more sensitive to their sleep environment and may sleep less when away from home. Business travelers are also more likely to experience sleep disturbances in unfamiliar places compared to people on vacation.

Schedule Changes

Having predictable bedtime routines and a regular sleep schedule are important steps for getting quality sleep. As any traveler knows, being away from home can make sticking to routines a challenge. Whether it is due to a major shift in time zones or a small shift in meal times or exercise routines, changes to routines may impair sleep quality.

Tips for Sleeping on a Plane, Train, or Bus

Sleeping while en route to your destination can help minimize the effects of sleep loss and help your body sync up to the local time at your destination. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to sleep while on a plane, train, or bus. The following tips may help you rest a little easier while traveling:

  • Bring a travel pillow: Supporting your head with a mini pillow or a curved pillow you wrap around your neck may help you relax and get to sleep when you are seated upright.
  • Turn off your devices: Although it is tempting to work or play games on your laptop as you travel, it is not always a good idea. Research has shown that the blue light emitted by these devices delays the release of melatonin, an important hormone for sleep.
  • Wear a sleep mask: Exposure to ambient light also suppresses melatonin. Blocking light may help you start to feel drowsy and get to sleep faster.
  • Wear earplugs or noise canceling headphones: Blocking environmental noise may make it easier for you to relax and fall asleep.
  • Keep your feet warm: Research has shown that having warm feet in a cool environment can help you get to sleep faster, sleep longer, and wake up less frequently.

Tips for Overcoming Jet Lag

While some symptoms of jet lag may be unavoidable, there are steps you can take both before you travel and once you’ve reached your destination to minimize jet lag symptoms. The goal of these steps is to help sync your body’s internal clock to the local time at your destination.

Experts offer the following tips:

  • Pre-travel planning: Slowly shifting your sleep schedule prior to your trip can help reduce sleep problems after arrival. If you are traveling west, shift your bedtime later than usual. If you are traveling east, go to bed earlier.
  • Timed light exposure: Exposure to sunlight or bright artificial light helps to set your internal clock to your new environment and helps reduce jet lag symptoms. The timing of light exposure depends on which direction and how far you are traveling.
  • Exercise: Sticking to your usual exercise routines may help your internal body clock shift to match the local time.
  • Keep naps short: Naps can help alleviate some of the drowsiness caused by sleep loss. However, it is best to take short naps and avoid napping at least eight hours before bedtime.

For travelers who experience major jet lag, talking to a doctor may help. A doctor can help discuss specific steps to reduce sleep issues while traveling and discuss the risks and benefits of using medications.

Does Melatonin Help With Jet Lag?

Melatonin is a hormone made by the human body that plays an important role in regulating sleep. Darkness causes the body to produce melatonin, while light exposure suppresses the production of this hormone. Melatonin is also available as a dietary supplement.

Research studies suggest that taking melatonin can help minimize certain effects of jet lag, including daytime sleepiness and feeling alert at bedtime. In fact, several studies have found that using melatonin may help the body adjust to a new time zone three or four days faster. While melatonin may help with some symptoms of jet lag, it has not been shown to help people with jet lag fall asleep faster.

When you should take melatonin to reduce symptoms of jet lag depends on factors like your age and how far you are traveling. Experts suggest that adults who are traveling across seven or fewer time zones may benefit from starting melatonin at bedtime after arriving at their destination and taking an additional dose each night for up to five days. Adults traveling across more than seven time zones can start taking melatonin two or three days before their flight at the new bedtime they will be adjusting to at their destination.

Another common question is how much melatonin to take. No standard dosage has been established for treating jet lag, but dosages from 0.5 mg to 10 mg have been studied for the treatment of symptoms. If you are considering giving melatonin a try, it may be helpful to ask a health care provider for a recommendation about how much melatonin to take.

It is also important to consult with your health care provider or pharmacist to ensure that there are no potentially harmful interactions between melatonin supplements and prescription medications you take.

Tips for Sleeping in a Hotel Room

While you may not be able to completely eliminate the challenges of sleeping in an unfamiliar place, there are several steps you can take to get a better night’s rest in a hotel room or other travel lodging.

  • Pick the right hotel: Research has shown that the risk of travel-related insomnia is reduced when people are satisfied with their accommodations, so choose a place where you are most likely to feel comfortable.
  • Consider light and sound: Transportation noise caused by aircraft, trains, and busy streets can interfere with quality sleep. Also keep in mind that morning sun may be brighter in rooms on the east side of a building.
  • Stick to your routine: Try to engage in calming, relaxing activities as you approach bedtime in a hotel. If you usually prepare for bed by brushing your teeth and reading a book, do these things in the usual order to help you wind down.
  • Keep things quiet: Noise can make it harder to get to sleep and may have a negative impact on your sleep quality. Hotels, especially if they are near an airport, may be noisier than your bedroom at home, so you might want to pack a pair of earplugs or a white noise machine to create a peaceful soundscape.
  • Keep the temperature cool: Heat and humidity make it harder to get to sleep and impairs sleep quality. To improve your chances of quality sleep, try adjusting the thermostat or turning on the air conditioning to keep the room slightly cool.
  • Turn off the lights: Close the window shades and consider using a sleep mask to block out light. Additionally, avoid using your devices near bedtime because using electronics can have a negative impact on sleep.

Are Sleeping Pills Safe to Use When Traveling?

Around 8% of adults report using sleep aids a few times each week. When used appropriately, a number of medications have been found to help people fall asleep, including prescription drugs, over-the-counter products, and supplements.

Several of these medications have been studied for the treatment of jet lag. Interestingly, research has shown that some sleep aids may improve sleep quality in people traveling eastward across time zones. For people traveling west, these same sleep aids did not prove to be beneficial.

While many sleep aids are safe when used properly, experts suggest that the downsides of using medications for sleep often outweigh the benefits. Some sleep aids may be habit forming and others become less effective over time. Additionally, some of the short-term side effects, like grogginess, dizziness, and difficulties with balance, may interfere with travel plans.

If you are thinking about using medication to help you fall asleep more easily while traveling, ask your doctor whether a sleep aid is right for you.

Travel Resources

You may be interested in looking over the following travel-related resources:

  • Jet Lag and Arrival Times: Travelers exchange tips on how they manage jet lag in this community forum of travelers to Europe and beyond.
  • How to Sleep While Sitting Up: This wikiHow page includes step-by-step instructions on how to sleep while sitting up.
  • Travelers' Health: The CDC offers health information and notices for travelers, including the latest guidance related to COVID-19.

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