These Are the 2 Biggest Factors That Affect Sleep When You Travel, Says an Insomnia Specialist

Updated: Aug. 01, 2023

Vacation days are too precious to spend your time tossing and turning through the night. Here's why travel can screw with your snooze, and how to catch high-quality sleep away from the comfort of home, according to experts in sleep health.

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Why can’t I sleep when I travel?

Nothing can put a damper on your travel plans like a poor night’s sleep. And yet, vacation insomnia is extremely common—a 2019 survey conducted by IHG Hotels & Resorts found that four out of five people say they have trouble sleeping when away from home. (And that was before pandemic re-entry travel anxiety became such a thing.)

Dr. Kent Smith, D-ABDSM, ASBA, former president of the American Sleep and Breathing Academy and the founding director of Sleep Dallas, tells The Healthy @Reader’s Digest: “Studies have shown repeatedly that people tend to get less quality sleep than normal during the first night they are in an unfamiliar environment.”

One study published in Current Biology demonstrated a reason that’s often the case, as the researchers found that a change in your environment can trigger an evolutionary response. Half of your brain might remain in an active state as you snooze to keep a lookout for potential dangers—which is why even if you sleep through the night, you may be groggier than usual in the morning. Dr. Smith adds that changes in time zone, temperature, mattresses, and light exposure exacerbate sleep difficulties even more.

Meanwhile, Bruce D. Forman, PhD, a psychologist specializing in treating insomnia, says even after that first night away, changes to your normal routine can have a lingering effect on our sleep cycle. “We are creatures of habit,” Dr. Forman says—adding that a sudden shift in your daily ritual and diet confuses the body, which can prompt challenges at bedtime and frequent nighttime awakenings.

Still, while this frustrating disturbance in quality sleep is normal, it’s not unavoidable. Sleep experts share their advice on how to get a better night’s rest during your next getaway.

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How to sleep better when traveling

“It’s important to stick to your normal bedtime routine as much as you can in order to maintain good sleep hygiene when away from home,” Dr. Smith says. The experts also point to these strategies to make your nights away from home even dreamier.

Happy millennial woman lying in bed with sleeping mask and phone in a white bed
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Turn your hotel room into a sleep sanctuary

“There are two processes that regulate sleep: light and temperature,” Dr. Forman says, adding that we get our best rest in a cool, dark environment.

If you’re unsure of your accommodation’s setup before traveling, consider bringing a sleep mask to help eliminate any ambient light. As for temperature control, Dr. Smith says to aim for 60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s between around 16 and 19 degrees celsius, if you’re outside the U.S.)

And if there’s no air conditioning where you’re staying, a study published in the journal SLEEP suggested applying a cold pack to your head may help ease you into a restorative sleep.

young woman drinking tea on a hotel room bed
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Add a touch of home where you can

Whatever helps you sleep at home—such as calming scents, tea, a specific pillow, or a white noise machine—bring it with you on your trip. These simple familiarities can help ground your brain, sending signals that this new environment doesn’t require overnight vigilance. Plus, they’ll help you stick to your usual habits as much as possible, encouraging relaxation, says Dr. Carl Bazil, professor of neurology and director of the Sleep Disorder Center at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

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Try a melatonin supplement

Melatonin is the hormone our body produces to let the brain know it’s time to shut down and sleep. Changes to what you’re eating and drinking, the stress of travel (or the excitement of what’s on tomorrow’s itinerary,) and late-night physical activity can all interfere with your natural melatonin production. Traveling across time zones can cause an even greater disruption.

This is because jet lag throws off your body’s internal clock, interrupting its natural melatonin production. Dr. Bazil recommends using a melatonin supplement an hour before bedtime to help your body realign to its natural cycle. He says getting sunlight exposure as soon as possible after waking up helps get your body clock back on track, too.

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Plan around jet lag

“Try to find a flight that arrives in the daytime,” says Dr. Smith—and resist the urge to take a nap when you land, instead powering through to an early bedtime in an effort to wake up relatively close to morning, local time.

You can also gradually adjust your bedtime to align with a new time zone in the days leading up to your trip in an effort to make the change less jarring on your system.

Man drinking water from plastic cup in airplane
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Stay hydrated

Bad news about that in-flight cocktail. Research published in Pharmacy and Therapeutics says alcohol’s dehydrating effects can worsen jet lag symptoms. Also, Dr. Smith advises keeping caffeine to a minimum, too. “It’s critical to stay hydrated,” he says.

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Set an alarm

As tempting as it is to sleep in on vacation, Dr. Forman says, “The single best piece of advice I can give is to get up at the same time every day, no matter what time you went to bed.”

A fixed wake-up time strengthens our body’s internal clock, making it easier to fall asleep, wake up, and can even result in better physical and mental health, according to 2017 research published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

Mid adult African businessman fresh out of bad getting up for work in the morning, he stretching and yawning.
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Don’t panic

“One of the worst things you can do is ruminate or worry about not being able to sleep,” Dr. Forman explains.

If you get insufficient sleep one night, you’ll likely recoup the rest the next night because sleep is self-regulating, he says. “And you can remember the thing we joke about but is indeed serious: losing a little sleep is nothing to lose sleep over.”

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