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.
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.
Numerous aspects of a trip can contribute to travel fatigue:
Travel fatigue can occur during travel of almost any type and length, and it may exacerbate underlying health conditions.
Jet lag is a short-term 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, gastrointestinal problems, and overall malaise.
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. Jet lag is usually more severe when traveling east and over many time zones.
Even without the circadian rhythm disruption of jet lag, alterations to a person’s daily schedule, including their bedtime, can contribute to sleep problems. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
Realigning your circadian rhythm with your new time zone is critical to getting over jet lag. Exposure to natural 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.
Talk with your doctor about a plan for overcoming jet lag or try a program like Jet Lag Rooster or the Timeshifter app to develop a schedule for sleep, light exposure, and taking melatonin that can help reduce jet lag.
Depending on your budget, there are a range of accessories and tools that can make it easier to sleep and feel well when 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.
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.
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. The best time to nap is usually shortly after lunch, and naps later in the day should be avoided.