Travel for the Sleep-Deprived: 15 Things You Can Do to Trick Your Body into Sleep on the Road

If you’re one of between 50 and 70 million American adults who chronically suffer from some sleep or wakefulness disorder, travel makes the prospect of sleep even more elusive. And understandably so: you will find yourself far away from your comfortable bed, in an unfamiliar corner of the world, and you’ll be exposed to noises, smells, and surfaces over which you have little control. 

But there’s hope. You can learn how travel affects your sleep, how to offset its rousing effects, and—most importantly—how you can get a good night’s sleep even when your body is being hurled through space.  

The Traveling Non-Mercies

Fatigue, anxiety, jet leg, and weakened immune systems all have an effect on your sleep. They are all exacerbated by travel, too. 

If you’re a business traveler, it is likely that when you’re away from home your stress level is high, your meals are unhealthy, and your intake of alcohol is higher than usual. Your sleep suffers as you focus on work while you traverse great distances, with crying babies and snoring passengers near you as you desperately try to sleep. Your mood, attention span, and reaction times all suffer as your sleep debt increases. Sleep deprivation studies show that “lack of sleep before a task has been shown to compromise molecular processes involved in memory formation.” But travelers don’t necessarily realize that. 

In January 2004, Hilton Hotels asked Mark Rosekind, former director of NASA’s Fatigue Countermeasures Program, to conduct a study of business travelers. His team found that the loss of just a few hours of slumber markedly affected performance; that travelers thought they were performing 20 percent better than they actually were; and that half of the travelers who rated themselves highly actually fell asleep by accident during their trip.

Whether you are traveling on business or for pleasure, travel messes with your sleep schedule if you travel across time zones. The sudden change of sunrise and sunset times upsets your circadian rhythm. Jet lag, or desynchronosis, is the mismatch that occurs when crossing multiple time zones puts your internal clock out of sync with your destination. For this reason, and because the recirculated air on the plan means you are exposed to germs you are not used to, you are more likely to get sick. 

15 Solutions for the Weary Traveler

Sleep while traveling is not unattainable. There are things you can do to take control of the factors that disorient you and keep you up. The following are 15 solutions that can soothe even the lightest of sleepers. 

  1. If you you need to cross more than two time zones, try to choose a red-eye so you can keep up with your normal sleep rhythm. Use the Jet Lag Rooster to figure out how to adjust your sleep. 
  2. Try to travel during off-peak times. It will increase your chances of getting a whole row of seats to yourself. 
  3. Start planning to offset jet lag a few nights before travel. If you’re crossing more than two time zones, adjust your sleep by one hour each of the five nights in the lead up to your arrival in a new time zone. 
  4. A common mistake before travel is inviting more stress. We are so busy packing and making last-minute arrangements that we step onto the train, get behind the wheel, or board an airplane with a preexisting sleep debt. Avoid avoidable anxiety. Plan ahead by resolving to have your bags packed two days prior to travel and establishing a place for your important documents and money—purse, pouch, pocket, etc. Plan to get lots of rest before travel. 
  5. Consider taking melatonin or another sleep aid, after consulting your doctor. 
  6. Do not reach for alcohol in lieu of a sleeping pill, even if someone hands it to you for free. “Falling asleep faster is the only real benefit of alcohol for sleep,” says Shawn R. Currie, a professor at the University of Calgary who coauthored a study of alcoholics and sleep. “The more prevalent, disruptive effects include more frequent awakenings, worse sleep quality; reduction of deep sleep, and earlier-than-usual waking times, leading people to feel they did not get enough sleep.” In fact, some alcoholics report that they became addicted after using alcohol to fall asleep. 
  7. Pick a seat where you are least likely to be disturbed—a window seat on a plane and on a bus and, if you can afford it, a sleeping car on the train. This way, you won’t be roused by fellow seatmates getting up to use the bathroom, you can shut the window blinds, and lean against the window wall. If you are traveling by car, have a companion who can alternate driving and allow the non-driving partners to doze off. If you are on the train, remember to display your ticket in the special holder so that the conductor does not have to wake you. 
  8. Avoid sitting near the front. This is often where parents with children will travel. 
  9. Recline the seat and travel in loose-fitting clothing. These measures will protect you against blood clots, first described in 1977 as “the economy class syndrome.” People who fly frequently are 3.65 more likely to develop deep-vein thrombosis. Before reclining your seat, give a heads-up to the passenger behind you. 
  10. When you are awake, make sure to stretch. If you’re in a car, pull over and consider taking a quick run. If you’re in a confined space, like an airplane, perform exercises in the aisle. Travelers who exercise during their trips perform 61 percent better the next day than the people who do not. 
  11. Plan to get comfortable. Bring an inflatable pillow with you to avoid kinks in your neck and wear layers or use a blanket in order to stay warm. Wear shoes that you can easily slip on and off. 
  12. Darken your environment with a sleep mask or an item of clothing. Blocking out the light will promote sleep. 
  13. Use earplugs or noise-canceling headphones to shut out crying babies, conversation, and engine noise. If you’re traveling by train, look for the quiet car, where cell phone conversation is not allowed. 
  14. If it’s in your budget and you are traveling by plane, pay for extra leg room. Stretching your legs will help you sleep better. 
  15. When you get uncomfortable and want to switch sleeping positions, do so. 

Agnes Green is a researcher for the sleep science hub Tuck Sleep. She holds two graduate degrees in the social sciences from the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. She sleeps most soundly after a kettlebell workout and on a medium-firm mattress in Portland, Oregon.