For many people, travel is one of the joys of life. For others, it’s a core part of their work. Regardless of why you travel, good sleep promotes wellness that lets you get the most out of any trip.

Despite the importance of quality rest, it’s common to struggle with sleep when traveling. Poor sleep on a trip can have many causes, but concrete steps can improve sleep both in transit and during the rest of your trip.

How Can Travel Disrupt Your Sleep?

While travel can lead to new and exciting experiences, it also brings potential downsides. Many people find that they can’t sleep when traveling, making it harder to fully enjoy their trip.

Travel Fatigue

Travel can bring both physical and mental stress, which may lead to travel fatigue . Symptoms of travel fatigue include exhaustion, headaches, sleep loss, and other types of discomfort.

Numerous aspects of a trip can contribute to travel fatigue:

  • Fear of flying or other types of travel.
  • Anxiety about problems arising during a trip.
  • Stress associated with packing, arriving on time, and other logistics.
  • Motion sickness.
  • Lengthy travel days.
  • Delays or interruptions to the itinerary.
  • Inability to sleep while traveling, such as while sitting upright in a plane, train, or car.
  • Pressurized airplane cabins that can contribute to dehydration , bloating, constipation , and respiratory tract infections.
  • Altered food and drink consumption while in transit, including increased intake of alcohol and caffeine.
  • Extended periods in a seated position, which can cause leg swelling, stiffness, and reduced physical activity.

Travel fatigue can occur during travel of almost any type and length, and it may exacerbate underlying health conditions.

Jet Lag

Jet lag is a sleep disorder that can occur after long-distance flights that cross three or more time zones. Upon arrival, a person’s circadian rhythm is still anchored in their home time zone, creating a misalignment with the local time at their destination.

Difficulty sleeping is a leading symptom of jet lag . Other symptoms include impaired physical or mental performance, daytime sleepiness and poor concentration, gastrointestinal problems, impaired immune function, and overall malaise, among others. Jet lag can ruin vacations and for business travelers, result in lost productivity and poor work performance.

Jet lag normally lasts for a few days but can persist for up to a few weeks until a person’s circadian rhythm becomes synchronized with local time. It takes about one day to shift by one time zone both on the way there and the
way back. For about 75% of people , jet lag is more severe when traveling east , but a quarter of people find it harder to travel west. The severity of jet lag increases with the number of time zones crossed.

Schedule Changes

Even without the circadian rhythm disruption of jet lag, alterations to a person’s daily schedule, including their bedtime, can contribute to sleep problems. Going to bed three hours later than normal causes the same problems as traveling across three time zones.

Interruptions to a normal sleep routine may make it harder to fall asleep or sleep through the night.

Especially on vacations and business trips, it’s common for people to want to overload their daily agenda and squeeze the most into each day. This may lead to overstimulation and/or insufficient time budgeted for sleep.

New or Uncomfortable Sleep Settings

Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that people tend to have worse sleep the first night that they spend in an unfamiliar environment. This was first detected in sleep clinics where researchers discovered a consistent “first-night effect.”

This effect does not appear to be limited to sleep clinics. Further research has found that first-night sleep quality was reduced even in an inviting setting like a spa resort. Some experts believe that this is an evolutionary survival strategy that keeps part of the brain active when initially sleeping in a new place.

Sleep usually improves after the first night, but this may not always be the case when traveling. If accommodations have an uncomfortable mattress or excess light or noise, it may be hard to get uninterrupted rest.

Changes to Diet and Exercise Routines

Travel is frequently treated as a welcome break from normal routines, but changes to established habits may play a role in sleep disruptions.

Travelers may be inclined to drink more alcohol or eat heavier meals than normal, both of which can have negative effects on sleep patterns. Regular exercise, which can contribute to consistent sleep , may also be reduced or modified while traveling.

What Are the Consequences of Disrupted Travel During Sleep?

Short-term lack of sleep can harm physical, mental, and emotional health. Sleep deprivation can slow your thinking, make you drowsy during the day, cause irritability, and decrease your energy level. Insufficient sleep can heighten the risk of accidents, which may be especially concerning during road trips.

These consequences detract from quality trips. Without enough sleep, business travelers and athletes may not perform optimally, and pleasure-seekers may get less enjoyment out of a vacation.

While travel-based sleep disturbances are normally a short-term concern, they may become chronic for people who are frequent travelers or who are otherwise at risk for sleeping problems. Long-term sleep loss and circadian disruption can increase the risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression and some cancers.

Vacation Travel

The summer is a key time for many families to travel. As COVID restrictions are relaxing across the United States, the demand for travel is surging to levels that near those prior to the pandemic. In fact, two-thirds of American adults are now comfortable returning to their normal routine and 62% feel comfortable taking a vacation. This is a significant increase from 2020, when the U.S. travel economy lost $645 billion because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thousands of airline workers were laid off during the pandemic, so airports might be feeling more chaotic than you remember. Additionally, wildfires in the West and severe weather in other parts of the country are resulting in delayed or cancelled flights.

Vacation travel can be particularly stressful, especially when done with small children. Follow some of our tips below to ease the stress of this travel.

Combating Vacation Travel Stress

  • If you’re traveling with your family, it is important to keep your children on a consistent sleep schedule, despite the disrupted schedule.
  • It can be tempting to order beer or wine during your flight, but altitude can worsen the effects of alcohol, and make it harder to overcome travel fatigue or jet lag.
  • If you’re traveling to a wildfire-heavy area during wildfire season, take the protective measures necessary to ensure your sleep isn’t affected by toxic particles in the air. Ensure the room where you’ll be sleeping is also at an appropriate temperature.
  • Count on spending more time in the airport than usual. In the wake of the pandemic, summer vacation travelers are experiencing increased lines and more delays due to short-staffing and a sudden spike in demand for travel. Be sure to account for a few extra hours of lost sleep during travel, and have a plan for when you arrive in order to achieve adequate sleep.

How to Sleep Better When Traveling

No matter whether you’re traveling for work or play, sleeping well can help you have a more successful and enjoyable trip. While there’s no foolproof plan that works for everyone, there are many steps you can take before and during travel to reduce sleep disruptions.

Minimizing Pre-Travel Stress

Anxiety in the lead-up to a trip can weigh on both your sleep and peace of mind. Try to plan far enough ahead that you aren’t scrambling at the last minute to pack, prepare your itinerary, or get to the airport.

Sleeping on Planes, Trains, and Buses

Some people easily doze off on planes, trains, and buses, but for other people, it’s a serious challenge.

If sleeping in-transit doesn’t come naturally to you, try to avoid making travel plans that depend on sleeping on board. A redeye flight or overnight train might seem like a good way to save time or money, but if you can’t sleep on board, it can backfire.

If you find that you want or need to get some shut-eye on a plane, train, or bus, focus on getting as comfortable as possible:

  • Wear loose-fitting and breathable clothing, and bring an extra layer in case it’s chilly.
  • Recline if you can, as studies have found it improves both the quantity and quality of sleep .
  • Block out your surroundings with headphones or earplugs and something to cover your eyes like a jacket or sleep mask.
  • Carry a travel pillow or a small bag of clothes that you can use to support your head.

If possible, travel at off-peak times when there will be less commotion and a better chance of having extra space to stretch out and sleep.

Preventing and Overcoming Travel Fatigue

A long travel day can be exhausting, but quality rest allows you to quickly recover. Don’t over-schedule the first few days of your trip and budget plenty of time for sleep.

Drink water before, during, and after your travel day to help stay hydrated. Frequently wash your hands or use sanitizing gel since you may be exposed to germs on board. This is especially important for air travel as it can make you more vulnerable to respiratory illness.

Practicing Healthy Habits

It’s natural to want to splurge during a vacation, but you can still benefit from adhering, as much as possible, to some healthy habits:

  • Eat wisely: Eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, and be especially wary of heavy meals on travel days when it’s harder to be physically active. Keep yourself hydrated with water and avoid sweetened drinks.
  • Consume alcohol and caffeine in moderation: Alcohol can throw off your stages of sleep, and caffeine is a stimulant that can keep you up at night if you drink it too late in the day.
  • Get daily exercise: You don’t need to go all-out with workouts, but try to go for a walk or get another type of meaningful physical activity every day.
  • Utilize relaxation techniques: Methods like deep breathing and mindfulness meditation can calm your body and mind, reducing stress and often making it easier to fall asleep.

Dealing With Jet Lag

Realigning your circadian rhythm with your new time zone is critical to getting over jet lag. Exposure to light and melatonin supplements can be beneficial, but it’s important to have the proper timing in order to avoid further desynchronizing your internal clock. Seeing bright light or sleeping at the wrong time can make your jet lag worse.

Talk with your doctor about a plan for overcoming jet lag if it is affecting your day-to-day. They may be able to help you develop a schedule for sleep, light exposure, caffeine use, and the option of taking melatonin to reset your circadian clock more quickly.

What Travel Accessories Can Help With Sleep?

Depending on your budget, there are a range of accessories and tools that can make it easier to sleep and feel well when traveling:

  • Compact or inflatable travel pillow.
  • Sleep mask.
  • Earplugs or noise-canceling headphones.
  • Pajamas or other comfy clothes.
  • Machine or app that produces white noise.
  • Audio recordings or an app for meditation.
  • Water bottle to stay hydrated.
  • Snacks that are healthy and easy to carry.
  • Sleeping bag liner to avoid scratchy sheets.

Can Sleeping Pills Help With Sleep While Traveling?

Sleeping pills can be prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, or dietary supplements. Almost all formulations make you feel drowsy, which may help you sleep when in transit or at your destination.

While sleep aids may be appealing, it’s important to consider their downsides. They can provoke significant grogginess that may be problematic when traveling, especially if you need to drive. On long-distance flights, sedatives may keep you seated for too long, raising the risk of blood clots.

Sleeping pills do not reset the circadian clock or address the underlying cause of jet lag. While they may help you sleep, they will not help with the other symptoms and may make your jet lag worse if you sleep at a time when you should be seeing light to reset your clock.

Effects of sleep aids can carry over to the next day, slowing your thinking and reaction time. Drowsiness from sleep aids can make falls or other accidents more likely.

The best way to evaluate the benefits and risks of sleep aids is to talk with your doctor who can review which, if any, type of sleeping pills are appropriate for you.

Should You Take Naps When Traveling?

Napping can be refreshing if you’re short on sleep while traveling, but it’s important not to go overboard with naps. If you nap for too long, you may wake up even groggier. Long naps or naps in the late afternoon or evening can also throw off your sleep schedule.

In order to get the benefits of naps without many downsides, try to nap for less than 30 minutes and a maximum of 60 minutes. Naps later in the day should be avoided.

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