Getting some shut-eye when travelling is a perennial problem for most, especially in the unfamiliar environment of a hotel. Add time zone changes, jet lag, beds that are not your own, strange lights and noises and even people who are good sleepers can become insomniacs. We’ve rounded up some expert tips and tricks to help lull you to sleep while on the road. 

A man wearing a sleep mask is sleeping on a plane
Over half of the people on earth are suffering from the effects of sleep deprivation © SolStock/Getty Images

Embrace the greatest performance-enhancing drug of all

According to Dr. Rebecca Robbins, author and sleep researcher at Harvard Medical School and sleep expert with the Benjamin Hotel in New York, the whole world needs to get more rest; we're experiencing a global sleep deprivation crisis. Today, a whopping 50 per cent of the earth's population is suffering from insomnia. 

Sleep is probably the greatest legal performance-enhancing ‘drug’ and yet, only two-thirds of adults in the developing world get the recommended 8-hours a night. Studies have also shown that disrupted sleep can lead to a multitude of problems, from risk of cancer to increased coronary heart disease and diabetes. 

“Sleep is a necessity not a luxury. But, while it would be lovely to be able to switch our brains off like an iPod, unfortunately it is out of our control,” says Robbins.

So what’s causing our global restlessness? “Sleep is a product of everything we do over a course of a day, from eating to exercise, stress levels and work – these issues affect us all but even more so when travelling,” she says.  

Tackle jet lag head on

Jet lag happens when we travel too fast for the brain to adjust. The travel industry is doing more to help people deal with it; a good night’s sleep is a growing business with airports, airlines and hotels embracing the latest circadian science and rolling out technology apps and products to help rest. 

Quantas passengers with access to the international transit lounge can avail of the body clock intervention light therapy in its bathrooms, which increases alertness while Air Canada’s new Boeing 737s have mood altering lighting systems.

Hotels, too, have taken the traditional ‘turn down service’ to a whole new level. The MGM Grand, Las Vegas, for example, has dawn-simulator alarm clocks while guests at the Kimpton Lorien Hotel, Washington can press the ‘dream’ button and be soothed to sleep with a host of relaxing ‘scents’.  

New York’s Benjamin Hotel has taken slumber a step further. They've retained Dr Robbins as their sleep expert, and offer services that include a pillow menu, lullaby music library and a work power-down call.

Amenities likes these can certainly help deliver quality sleep for hotel guests. But the key to getting a good night’s rest at home or abroad must start with what you can control, from stress levels and pre-bed routines to sight, sound, touch, smell, taste and temperature.  

A woman in bed with her eyes closed reaches for her alarm clock
Sticking to your normal routine will help you adjust to your new surroundings while travelling © Shutterstock

Maintain a routine

Consistency is key. You’re in a new environment but keeping to regular habits and sticking to your regular bedtime as much as you can certainly help.

London-based yoga teacher and nutritionist Sarah Hunt swears by a pre-travel plan.

“About five days before I fly, I adjust my sleep routines to an hour earlier or later depending on which direction I’m travelling,” she says. “I also stick to my pre-bed routine of a bath, some light yoga stretches, and gratitude list and I never leave home without my own pillow slip.”

Robbins, too, is a fan of making a hotel room feel as much like home as possible and always packs a picture of her family, her favourite pajamas and a candle from home: “You can trick your brain into familiarity to make things more comfortable in an unfamiliar environment.”  

Try to minimise travel-induced stress

Dr Megan Bell, chief science officer at Headspace, believes quality of sleep has a lot to do with what the mind is doing while we’re sleeping.

“A restful mind often results in a restful sleep. Difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep is often caused by too much stress throughout the day, so it’s important to build in mini moments of mindfulness such as taking deep breaths while you walk between things and getting our bodies and brains into relaxation mode before sleeping,” she says.  

Meditation is also an excellent way of keeping our brains busy and doesn’t require effort or trigger emotional responses. Headspace reports a reduction in stress levels in ten days that can often get to the root of a lot of sleep problems. If you’re new to Headspace or meditation she recommends starting with a small goal such as a three-or-five-minute breathing exercise and building up to something longer over time. 

“My days are pretty busy and I’ve always had a tendency towards insomnia,” notes Bell. “So morning meditation actually works better for me.” Our circadian rhythm is actually set by our morning routine not our evening one so, for e.g., sleeping in can throw your whole system out of whack. Establishing a regular morning rise time helps regulate your sleep and your clock.

“As someone who is used to travelling between Europe and California regularly, I’ve become pretty comfortable accepting that sleep either comes or it doesn’t and that frustration is the enemy of sleep.” 

A woman in exercise gear stretches out in front of a window
Exercise is extremely helpful in promoting healthy sleep patterns © Roman Kosolapov/Shutterstock

Do some exercise

Research also shows that people who exercise regularly have better quality sleep but be mindful of exercising late in the evening, which can arouse the nervous system. Hunt recommends upbeat yoga sequences in the morning, followed by relaxing yoga poses before bed.

“Evening yoga should be done sitting or lying down and when you focus on staying with the poses and the breath, yoga will help you let go of the stresses of your day," she adds.

“Yoga is all about being present. It can be challenging at first but eventually, the mind will calm down and we go to bed feeling more relaxed and sleepy.” 

Avoid bright lights

“Any light that reaches our photoreceptors in the retina (a tissue at the back of the eye) creates signals in our brain that eventually lead to switching off production of melatonin making it difficult for us to fall asleep,” explains Bell.

In other words: avoid the temptation to pick up your iPhone or laptop before bed. 

According to Robbins we should be avoiding any blue light about 90 minutes prior to bedtime. If you have to, dim the brightness way down, try blue light glasses or an app such as f.lux, which changes the colour of the screen to a warm light.

Hotels have a few point sources of light that your eyes are drawn to: cracks in curtains or under doors, indicator lights on cable boxes, TVs or alarm clocks. Robbins recommends throwing a towel over bright lights or along the bottom of a door and using an eye mask.

You can go a step further with a Bluetooth eye mask, which adds soothing music while you sleep. 

A group of men and women are enjoying a meal outside by the sea at dusk
A large meal three to four hours before bed will help you doze off later that night © Johner Images/Getty Images

Watch what you eat and drink

Those chocolates on your pillow, while tempting, might be the reason you aren’t sleeping well. Stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol and stress are the three biggest disruptors of sleep, with alcohol being the worst. Hunt suggests eating your biggest meal at lunchtime.

“If you eat close to bedtime your body will still be on high alert because it has to break down the food. This sends a signal to the body that you’re awake and it can feel like an uphill battle to fall asleep. Eating a big meal at lunchtime and a light meal about three hours before bed is much more conducive to a good night’s sleep.”

And, there’s always happy hour for those who want an (early) ‘nightcap’. 

Keep things quiet

For some, a monotonous noise such as a dripping tap or a rattling radiator can create a subtle soundscape over which to fall asleep. Others prefer a soothing voice, perhaps a recording of whispers to stop them thinking about their to-do lists.

Failing that there’s always earplugs. Robbins recommends high quality foam plugs that block 60 decibels or above. And don’t forget to put your phone on airport mode or switch it off altogether if you don’t want annoying email alerts waking you during the night. 

Be cognizant of the temperature

Considering we spend 30-odd years on average in bed, comfort is key and much of that is down to the right bedding, pajamas and blankets and the temperature of your room and body.

Temperature can have a bigger impact on our sleep than light and for the best night’s sleep we need to be thermo-neutral, neither too hot or cold with an optimal room temperature of 65-68 degrees – relatively cool to allow our core temperature to drop.

A cosy blanket can help you fall asleep, but it can also raise your body temperature. Instead, Robbins swears by sleepwear brand Dagsmejan, made from fine natural fabrics that help regulate your body temperature ­and avoid those nasty night sweats.  

A field is filled with lavender flowers on a sunny day
The smell of lavender is extremely soothing and may help with sleep © JFFotografie/Shutterstock

Find a soothing scent

If you’re staying at a four seasons hotel you can expect to be lulled to sleep with a luxury ultrasonic aroma diffuser which releases calming scents, proving that your nose is as important for a good rest as anything.

While not a cure for insomnia, having scented pillows, candles or oils in your room might help you drift off, lavender in particular, being a popular sleep-friendly scent.

Dr Robbins' sleep essentials 

  1. Ear plugs
  2. Eye mask
  3. Binacht skincare
  4. A picture from home
  5. The right sleepwear

Top sleep apps 

  1. White Noise Deep Sleep Sounds – calming sounds from nature
  2. Timeshifter – helps you adjust to jet lag
  3. Insight Timer –  over 30,000 meditations
  4. Sleep With Me – dull bedtime stories to put you to sleep
  5. Chronoshift – ideal sleep-wake schedules for the days before your trip  

You might also like: 
Travel gear reviews: kit to help you sleep anywhere 
Mobile travel apps that will guarantee a smoother trip
20 tips on travelling solo from people who have done it

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