When you go on vacation, ideally you're free from work- or school-related stress. Whether on a beach, on a trail, or in a new country, it should be a time to relax. Why, then, is it so hard to get a good night's sleep when traveling?
The mixture of jet lag, unfamiliar surroundings and apprehensive excitement can leave you more tired on the road than you usually are at home. But there are methods for avoiding sleep disruptions so your vacation has the rejuvenating effect you desire.
1. On naps and sleep schedules
Forcing yourself to overcome jet lag doesn't sound like a very "vacation" thing to do, but more than a few experienced travelers, and even some scientists, say this is the best strategy. David Hamer, director of Boston Medical Center Travel Clinic, told the New York Times that his advice, as well as the strategy he applies himself, is to push to stay awake until the local bed time (except for a short post-landing nap), and to adjust eating and exercise schedules to the new time zone. Some commercial airline staff members say they will allow themselves a short nap if they arrive before noon, but never after.
This is a trade-off, obviously. You go through discomfort on the first day or two, but you'll enjoy more-settled biorhythms for the remainder of your trip. Hamer also suggests that you start adjusting your sleep schedules to your destination before you leave. This might not make a difference on trans-ocean trips, but it could be effective for time-zone changes of a few hours.
The website Thrillist, in interviews with military personnel, found that some tried to adjust their sleep schedules in the week before international travel to take away some of the shock of jet lag.
2. There are no miracle cures, but…
From eye masks to weighted blankets to noise-cancelling headphones to MP3s of whale sounds, lots of products claim to help you sleep while you travel. Ear plugs and a blackout mask may work for some people but may be bothersome to others who aren't used to them.
In fact, familiarity might matter more than the product benefit. The National Sleep Foundation recommends using a lightweight blanket during your travels, and they suggest "breaking it in" at home so that it provides a familiar feeling on the road. It's a grown-up version of a child's comfort blanket, but you don't have to confess that to whomever you sit next to on the plane.
3. Eat like you're already there
Another strategy is to use food to help adjust your body clock. Start before you leave by eating a light meal to mimic breakfast when it's morning in the time zone you will be visiting. This could mean bringing your own food on the plane and skipping airline food. (You're probably not missing anything.)
On the first day in your new destination, start by eating a protein-heavy breakfast and lunch at the correct local meal times. This sends additional signals to your body that it needs to adjust.
4. Choose a familiar hotel
Big-name hotels strive for brand unity, which means they tend to use the same mattresses, blankets and decor in all their hotels. That familiarity can help you adjust to your new surroundings more quickly. (Photo: TippaPatt/Shutterstock)
A hotel's loyalty program might be one reason to stay with the same brand when you travel. The other reason: familiarity. Most big-name hotels strive for brand unity, even when owned by different franchisees or companies. This means they tend to use the same mattresses, blankets and decor in all their hotels. Familiarity can help you adjust to your new surroundings more quickly.
Smarter Travel suggests bringing your own pillowcase from home and even bringing a spray-able scent or scented candle to give your hotel room a familiar smell. If you're especially sensitive, you may want to bring your own sheets from home. Even if you don't make the bed with them, you can lay them over hotel sheets.
Finally, the best condition for sleep is a cool, dark and quiet room. Mid-range hotels and high-end properties should have blackout curtains and should be able to move you to a quieter room if needed. If the curtains are lacking, ask for a north- or west-facing room (if you're above the equator). Setting the thermostat for a cool temperature (in the mid-60s is usually best) can also aid sleep.
5. What about meditation?
Yoga, meditation and exercise are ways to help you relax and, ultimately, to sleep. On the surface, these holistic practices seem like a better choice than spending your vacation mornings in a sleeping-pill fog, but there is a catch: Meditation or any other relaxation practice requires, well, practice. You can't simply pick up meditation on your vacation and expect it to be an effective cure for jet lag and sleepless hotel nights. It may take a few weeks to start seeing calming benefits of yoga or meditation.
Sleeping well while traveling is about trying different ideas until you find ones that work for you. The common theme in all well-rested travel philosophies is preparation. Whether that means practicing nighttime yoga for a month before departure, breaking in a blanket or adjusting your meal times for a new time zone, the key to a good night sleep is planning ahead.