5 Sleep Tricks for Frequent Travelers, According to Sleep Psychologists
Though I love to travel, I’m a terribly light sleeper. No matter where I am, getting enough z's is a difficult task — so much so that when I was given the opportunity to travel the world for 12 months via Remote Year, I put “sleep” on my pros and cons list before making the decision.
Remarkably though, after now having lived in 10 countries — transitioning from the single beds of Kyoto, Japan to the split-queens throughout Europe — I’ve been able to become more flexible about where I can nod off. And I’ve developed strategies for getting quality rest, which is more essential to my work than any other habit. With side trips included, I’ve slept in a total of 71 beds (couches, vans, planes, trains) over the past year. I had to figure it out or I’d be a walking, nomadic zombie by now.
While there is no specific scientific reason why some people can fall asleep anywhere and others can’t, you can improve your sleep quality with practice — whether you’re at home or country-hopping. It isn’t just the shift in time zones that disrupts rest. Sleep has a lot to do with routine, so when everything changes, it makes it harder to get the recommended seven to nine hours.
As Clinical Psychologist and Fellow at The American Academy of Sleep Medicine Dr. Michael J. Breus explained, new environments, unpredictable schedules, and a lack of consistency or comfort can all contribute to poor sleep hygiene, making it essential to implement some important practices. He’s right — to be able to sleep easier over the past year, I found workarounds that somehow led to seven hours of sleep nearly every night. Here, a few I swear by as a sensitive sleeper.
Keep a consistent bedtime and morning routine.
Living in a new city for a month at a time isn’t always a smooth process, and every destination has its own customs that interfere with your routine. In Japan, the streets are almost always dead quiet. In Buenos Aires, dinner reservations don’t begin until 9 p.m., while in Sydney, you can expect most bars to shut down on the weekdays around 11 p.m. This means my bedtime and morning alarm might shift with each new destination, but I try to maintain it depending on where I am. Though I give myself permission to stay out later or call it an early night when I need it, at least four nights a week, I tuck myself in around the same time. And I almost always get up and get to work at the same time, no matter how much or how little sleep I received overnight. Dr. Breus said this is a smart move, explaining that when sleep has a regular rhythm, our biological clocks will be in sync and our bodies will continue to operate normally.
Before I started traveling, I was a fitness addict — boxing, running, and bootcamp-ing at least six days a week. Once I packed my bags and headed out to meet the world though, my dedication wavered quite a bit. But even if I’m not working out in the traditional sense, most days are filled with long walks, city tours, renting bikes, exploring downtowns, the list goes on. In other words: I’m nearly always on my feet for several hours each and every single day. Activity in any sense is healthy for sleep, according to Dr. Benjamin Smarr, National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley and Reverie sleep advisory board member. “The first part of sleep is mostly about refreshing your body. If your body didn’t get much use, it won’t generate much sleep pressure, and falling asleep will be more difficult,” he said.
Invest in sleep accessories.
As much as I’d love to be one of those effortless sleepers who can snooze through the rock concert that's physically shaking the bar outside their window, every tiny distraction has the ability to keep me awake. Light peeking in from underneath a door, the sound of a friend shuffling in the bed next to me, the light murmur of technology that should be set to silent. Truth be told: I’m an annoying person to share a room with (sorry, future husband), but I do have a few key accessories that help.
I swear by earplugs (amazon.com, $4) and a solid eye mask (amazon.com, $10) to drown out sensory distractions. Dr. Smarr explains that for light sleepers, setting yourself up for success with these buys is a smart tactic. “A sleep mask doesn't have to be fancy, but it should be comfy and dark. Most bedrooms get a lot of light pollution, and you want to minimize that to convince your brain it's the night time,” he explained. “Moldable, squishy earplugs help cancel noise pollution, creating a good sleep environment.”
Admittedly, I still haven’t figured out how to sleep on a plane. While I’ll rest my eyes and relax, I never actually fall completely into dreamland at a 90-degree angle. However, one way I’ve managed to feel more rested in the sky is when I use noise-cancelling headphones to drown out everyone around me. They’re expensive, but nothing quite compares to Bose headphones (amazon.com, $349) which work some sort of magic on the murmur of snores, baby cries, and chit-chat around you.
Use a sound machine, app, or Spotify.
Thanks to my travels, my Spotify will never be the same, since my “top song” of the year is ”Box Fan — Medium Speed.” When I lived in Manhattan prior to becoming a location-independent journalist, I had a large, loud air conditioner that took out any noise from the chaos below me. But in the 12 apartments of my past year, very few had a fan of any sort. This made the silence deafening, so I came up with a solution: a downloaded hour-long loop of white noise that I could play as I got used to a new place. Over time, I discovered the Sleep Melodies app, which I found helpful, too. I also considered packing a travel-size sound machine (amazon.com, $31), but ultimately decided against it for space.
Give yourself a break.
Even with all of these strategies, sometimes, I still spend a sleepless night, wishing I had a quieter brain. And though the next morning generally requires a few extra shots of espresso, what helps me most is giving myself a break. If I’m not sleeping, I’m keeping my eyes shut and reminding myself I’ll be just fine. When I stop stressing myself out over the fear of not sleeping, more often than not, I manage to squeeze in at least a few hours.