Whether it’s unfamiliar surroundings, a raucous hostel dorm or pothole ridden night bus journey, the act of travel is peppered with endless sleep-inhibiting obstacles. But, with the 2019 Global Sleep Survey reporting that over 50% of adults consider a good night’s sleep to be essential for their mental wellbeing, it seems that appeasing our circadian rhythms when on the road could be the key to a more enjoyable trip.
With this in mind, we’ve sought expert advice to produce the definitive guide on how best to shut out the distractions of a new environment and power down for a restorative night – wherever you may lay your head.
How to sleep in unfamiliar surroundings
You know that feeling, when you’ve arrived fresh off the plane somewhere, full of enthusiasm and anticipation, and then… you just can’t seem to switch off? Well, there is actually a scientific name for this phenomenon – the ‘first night effect’. The science is simple: being in a new place means that sleep-hindering factors like noises, sounds and smells that you’ve learnt to filter out at home are now front-and-centre of your brain, making it difficult to power down as you normally would.
The key to tackling this is to filter out as many unusual stimuli as possible, and create yourself a mini sleep-haven that mimics your nighttime conditions at home.
‘Bringing along your own pillow is really worth considering,’ advises Dr Johan Newell, MD specialising in sleep disorders at Brussels’ Brugmann University. If you can squeeze it into your luggage, having the familiar feel, texture and smell of your own pillow can trick your brain into thinking you’re not in unusual surroundings at all.
If you’re affected by noise, the obvious solution is earplugs. Preferences vary from person to person, so try a few different types before you travel. If you find earplugs a pain to sleep in, a great alternative is to use a white noise app. Start listening to white noise as you get ready for bed. This way, you’ll begin filtering out any other intrusive sounds, ready to focus solely on your personal soundtrack when it’s time to finally sleep.
Excess light can be even more of a sleep-distraction than noise, so try as much as possible to block it out. If your room has blinds and curtains, make use of both. Cover any electronics emitting light (e.g. routers, LCD displays) as best you can. For full light protection, consider wearing an eye mask, or even bringing portable black-out blinds (genuine actual thing) with you – extreme, but effective.
It’s also important not to let yourself associate the bed with anything other than sleep. If you use it as a base for tapping away at your laptop, storing your belongings or watching high-octane dramas in your travel downtime, your brain won’t register it as a place of restorative rest.
Lastly, try to regulate the temperature as much as you can. Scientists estimate the ideal temperature for a good night’s sleep to be 16 -18°C, so if you have air-con, adjust it accordingly. If your accommodation provides extra blankets, consider using a few of them instead of a duvet, as this way you can add or remove as required.
How to sleep in hostels (and other shared accommodation)
Hostels are noisy. Fact. If your rest is affected by noise, it’s possible that the sleep deficit a shared room could cause you might outweigh the money it saves.
Additionally, according to Dr Newell, ‘the older you get, the more likely it will be that an unfamiliar and noisy sleep environment might affect your sleep pattern.’ Older travellers, therefore, are likely to find shared rooms harder to cope with.
However, if you do choose to stay in shared accommodation, there are plenty of ways you can minimise the effect of – let’s face it – other people’s annoying habits.
When booking, search for accommodation situated in ‘quiet’, ‘secluded’ and ‘sleepy’ neighbourhoods, and steer clear of anything described as a ‘party hostel’. That way, even if your roommates aren’t the most considerate, you won’t be disturbed by additional noise. Earplug use is also strongly advised.
If you have a choice of beds when you check in, pick the one furthest from the door. Here, you’re less likely to be disturbed by the sound of creaking hinges, light from outside, and people coming in and out. Bunk beds are often the enemy of a restful night, particularly when shared with a stranger. Try and nab the top bunk if you can – you’ll be further from the floor, which is where all that sleep-hampering shuffling, bag packing/unpacking and general chatting takes place.
The ambient temperature of a shared room is not likely to be within your control, so layer up instead. Light, loose pyjamas, a sweatshirt/hoodie and a pair of socks will do wonders, and allow you to add or remove items during the night. Equally, there won’t be an easy way for you to ensure ideal light conditions in a shared room, so try shutting everything out with a high quality eye mask.
How to sleep on buses, trains and planes
On any long-haul trip, you’ll inevitably have to sleep whilst aboard some form of transport. There’s no point pretending that sitting upright, listening to the soundtrack of traffic noise, engines and other passengers, and using a bundled-up sweatshirt as a pillow is ever going to emulate dozing off in a proper bed, but there are ways to make an on-the-road sleep more restorative.
If you’re travelling overnight, wear your PJs, and, if possible, use your own pillow. Since your brain associates both of these with sleep, it’ll be lulled into a more restful state. Try as much as you can to mimic your usual bedtime routine – brush your teeth when you usually would (tricky on a bus or train, but not impossible!) read a calming book, moisturise, listen to a podcast, crack out the lavender oil... whatever helps you nod off at home.
Earplugs and eye masks are possibly more useful in this scenario than any other, as sound and light conditions on buses, trains and planes are beyond your control. Alternatively, listen to white noise or a soothing podcast/audiobook/playlist as you try and get to sleep.
In some circumstances, when getting some shut eye on the move is crucial, sleep aids can be a godsend – ‘the temporary use (a few days only) of over-the-counter medication such as phytotherapy or melatonin supplements might also be considered, as long as you have tried this medication before leaving,’ advises Dr Newell.
How to sleep in airports and bus stations
Unscheduled delays, adverse weather conditions, missed connections… there are myriad reasons for having to catch a few Zs while attempting to journey from A to B. Bedding down in a bus terminal or airport is never a recipe for restful sleep (and is ideally avoided), but the key to catching 40 winks is working with what you have to hand.
Firstly, scout out the optimal sleep location – this may well be in a different part of the bus station, or different terminal of the airport. Ensure your selected spot isn’t an area that’ll close whilst you're snoozin' – domestic airport terminals, for example, often shut overnight. Also try to ensure you won't be distrubed by any regular loudspeaker announcements or cleaning staff. If you're in an airport, it's worth checking to see if there are any passenger lounges or VIP areas that let economy passengers in for a small fee. Some hotel airports also rent out rooms by the hour.
As much as those rows of departure lounge chairs may look more tempting than the cold, hard floor, you'll almost definitely sleep better if you lay flat.
'Most people prefer sleeping in a reclined or, if possible, horizontal position, enabling them to wake up without cramps or headaches,' says Dr Newell – though admittedly dosing upright in a waiting room chair looks less conspicuous than sprawling out across the floor.
Remember to wrap warm and keep your belongings close – and don’t drift off too deeply, you don’t want to miss your connection.
Still anxious about on-the-road insomnia? Check out our list of the best travel gear to help you sleep anywhere.
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