I’m a professional traveler…and an inveterate insomniac. It’s hard to imagine a worse malady for a travel writer. (Xenophobia, maybe?) While I sleep well enough in my own bed, I’ve struggled with getting a solid night’s sleep while on the road. After doing much research on the topic — including consulting with more than one medical professional — I’ve assembled this list of tips and strategies that have helped me, at least somewhat, overcome my insomnia. At one time, waking up feeling well-rested was a rare treat in my travels. But since I’ve made a concerted effort to conquer sleeplessness, I’m happy to be sleeping much easier.
I am not any kind of expert. Please don’t mistake this post as authoritative. Of all the things I’ve done to fight sleeplessness, nothing had more impact than one brief session with a physician who specializes in sleep medicine and could tailor his treatment to my specific situation. Every person is different, and what helps one insomniac may not work at all for another. If you have serious sleep problems, talk to your doctor.
One more note: This is not a post about overcoming jet lag. This is about the insomnia that comes with any kind of travel, even long after you’ve adjusted to your new time zone. (For strategies specific to jet lag, check out Rick’s tips.) Since my beat is Europe, most of my examples are from there — but this advice can help any traveler, international or domestic. If you’re one of those people who can fall asleep anywhere, anytime, all of this will seem outrageously high-maintenance…but as my fellow light sleepers can testify, this is no small matter.
With those caveats in mind, here is one insomniac traveler’s roundup of what might be helpful in achieving that elusive good night’s sleep.
Choose quiet hotels. Painfully obvious, I know — but the hard part is how. Once I’ve narrowed down my options, I scour online reviews. Most big booking sites (TripAdvisor, Booking.com, Airbnb) let you search their reviews for keywords such as “noise” and “quiet.” Usually, a strong pattern for one or the other quickly emerges. If there are no comments about noise, I usually take it as a bad sign. Maybe past guests like the hotel — or the people who run it — and don’t have the heart to mention the all-hours nightclub next door.
Of course, reviews only tell part of the story. And I’ve learned the hard way that the quietest hotel in town has a room that’s noisy, and the noisiest hotel in town has a room that’s quiet.
So once you book, ask for a quiet room — early, often, and as insistently as possible while still being polite. For this reason, I prefer to book direct — even if I’ve done my research on a booking site — so I can be clear and specific about my need for a quiet room.
And when you’re making your request, realize many cultures — ahem, Spain, ahem — have a different (or nonexistent) understanding of “quiet.” People live their lives against a steady soundtrack of buzzing motor scooters and rumbling buses and late-night revelers, to the point where they just don’t hear it anymore. I’ll never forget the time I checked into a downtown Lisbon hotel where the clerk offered me two room choices, while clearly prodding me toward his idea of the better option: the one with the view. I took the keys up and checked them both out. The view room had a nice vista over a bustling street — but every time a bus went by, the windows rattled. The second room was facing an interior courtyard, with a view of ugly HVAC venting, but blessedly silent. When I told him my choice, the receptionist was mystified. I explained that the buses would keep me awake, and he said, “Wow. It must be very quiet where you live!”
Because of this cultural difference, it’s worth running the risk of over-explaining: “I would like your quietest room, ideally on a higher floor and away from street noise or elevators.” In Europe, many hotels surround a courtyard, which is usually drastically quieter than street-facing rooms. I’ll sacrifice a view for a courtyard-facing room every single time (which has frequently mystified a hotelier who was trying to schmooze me).
And speaking of elevators: Those are the silent killers of a good night’s sleep. If your room adjoins an elevator shaft, you may assume it’s no problem when you check in mid-afternoon — when nobody is using it. But when the breakfast room opens at 6 a.m., every early bird in the hotel will be riding up and down. And only then do you realize that the gears haven’t been oiled since Franco was in power. (Vibrations through the walls and floor can be worse than the actual noise — and earplugs do nothing against vibrations.) If I’m assigned a room near an elevator, I’ll give it a test-run: Hit the “lobby” button, then dash into my room to see if I can hear it rumbling up and down the shaft. If I suspect it’ll keep me awake, that’s the time to ask for a different room….not at midnight, when everyone’s coming back from dinner.
And don’t be afraid to ask to change rooms. It’s really OK. They may not be able to accommodate your request, but often there’s a way — and it’s well worth the hassle of repacking.
Also, don’t rule out switching hotels entirely if that’s what it takes to get a good night’s sleep. On a recent trip, I toughed out three noisy, sleepless nights in a crummy hotel. I moved on to the next town, determined to change my luck. But that night, I stepped in the door of my guesthouse around midnight and heard the loudest snoring I’ve ever heard in my life. The banshee-howl echoed throughout the linoleum-lined hallways, all the way to the front door. As I curled around the corridor to my room, the noise got louder and — unbelievably — louder still, until I realized it was coming from the room next to mine. Lying in bed, I could hear the snoring through the wall; I could hear the snoring echoing out through the halls and back through my flimsy door; and I could even hear the snoring bouncing around the courtyard and back through my window. I was surrounded on all sides…and earplugs were useless.
Waking up the next morning (after a scant few hours of sleep), I found a dead-quiet Hilton down the street and splurged on their last available room. When I explained the situation to the guesthouse owner, he said, “Yeah, I don’t blame you one bit. I have never heard anything like that. Those people need a doctor.”
Sometimes, you’re stuck with the room you’ve got. But even a borderline room can be salvaged. Adjust your room for both noise and light. Close windows and blinds. If the bathroom has an exterior window, close the bathroom door so that the light and noise of daybreak won’t awaken you. I like to turn up the fan on the air-conditioning unit to maximum, and/or flip on the fan in the bathroom, because the white noise can help mask bumps in the night. And finding a suitable temperature is important, too; research suggests that cold is more conducive to sleep than warmth.
Gear for Good Sleep
Equip yourself. I carry a little “sleep kit” in a zip-loc bag that goes on my nightstand: a variety of earplugs, an eye mask, noise-cancelling headphones, and medications. It’s all at my fingertips, in case I need it.
A word on earplugs: Use them. They are your single most effective weapon against hotel noise. If you find them uncomfortable, maybe you’re using the hard, scratchy styrofoam cheapies that some hotels hand out to assuage their guilt for skimping on decent windows. Try several varieties and find one that works for you. I like Mack’s, which go in soft but expand robustly. If you’re bothered by the sensation of something in your ear, give it a couple of nights; you’ll be surprised how quickly you adjust. If you just can’t get over the feeling of something inside your ear, try over-ear silicone putty earplugs, which can be very nearly as effective.
By the way, I wear earplugs even when going to bed in what seems to be a very quiet room. You never know what early-morning noises might erupt well before your alarm clock…like that time in Berlin when my room adjoined the housekeeping closet.
All of that said, I have stayed in more than my share of hotels where earplugs were almost, but not quite, effective against noise or vibrations — often due to the rumble of traffic outside, noisy plumbing, or thin walls and doors. (Fellow light sleepers know what I’m talking about.) Earplugs are my front line, but I also have a few emergency counter-measures on hand.
I also travel with noise-cancelling headphones. If you can sleep while wearing them, this can be a great alternative to earplugs. But for me, the best use for noise-cancelling headphones is to wear them before bed. If I’m in my hotel room working in the evening, and there’s a lot of bustle outside, I might start to focus on the noise and worry that it’s going to keep me up — which, of course, increases the odds of exactly that. So instead, I pop on my noise-cancelling headphones and listen to music while I work. By the time I’m ready to take off the headphones and go to bed, things are usually much quieter.
White noise works for many insomniacs. I have a free app on my phone (myNoise) that has a variety of white-noise soundtracks (I like the gentle raindrops). You can put your phone on the nightstand and hit play, or you can wear headphones, or you can get a speaker designed to place under your pillow. One thing to keep in mind is that if you can hear your neighbors, they can hear your white noise — so be considerate of those who don’t want to hear raindrops all night long. (Or, again, just flip on the fan.)
After sound, light is the second big killer of solid sleep. There are two kinds of people in this world: People who need it completely dark to sleep, and people who can sleep in broad daylight. And both types of people run hotels. While I’m not nearly as light-sensitive as I am noise-sensitive, I marvel at otherwise great hotels that simply don’t bother to fully black out their windows. My favorite are hotels with those amazing European blackout blinds: Pull on the rope, and interlocking blinds cascade down, stacking on top of each other until all light is obliterated. But many hotels have gauzy drapes that gape open stubbornly. I’ve been known to prop a chair against a gappy drape to keep it closed — or even to tape a drape to the wall. (And don’t get me started on skylights without shades.)
To be prepared for any eventuality, travel with an eye mask. After trying several (including freebies from the airplane trip over), I find the Rick Steves Travel Dreams Sleep Mask the most comfortable — soft and cushy, with a wide strap that keeps it firmly in place.
If you have serious sleep problems, sleep medications can help. Talk to your doctor — again, I am not qualified to give advice on sleeping meds. But I can tell you what has worked for me.
The most popular non-prescription sleep aid for travelers is melatonin, a naturally produced hormone associated with calibrating your body clock. While doctors aren’t in total agreement about how useful melatonin is (some suggest it’s mainly a placebo effect), it’s often recommended for two reasons: First, it has a mild sedating effect, which can help you fall asleep without the wallop of prescription sleep meds. And second — particularly relevant if you’re traveling across many time zones — it can help reset your natural body clock and more quickly. (Because the sale of supplements like melatonin is restricted in parts of Europe, I bring a supply from home.)
Given my history of sleep problems, I have a prescription for zolpidem (the generic version of Ambien; eszopiclone/Lunesta is similar, but longer-lasting). For me, zolpidem is the nuclear option: my last-ditch strategy for aggressively forcing myself to fall asleep, in cases where nothing else works. Zolpidem is serious stuff — it requires a prescription, it can be habit-forming, it makes some users feel groggy and clumsy the next morning (and can increase the risk of falls), and the jury’s out on its long-term effects. But it’s effective — sometimes comically effective. I can be wide awake, convinced I’ll never get to sleep. I’ll pop a half-tablet of zolpidem and wait the 20 to 30 minutes for it to kick in — the entire time convinced there’s no way it’ll work. And then, suddenly, like flipping a light switch, I get a little dizzy…and then I wake up, several hours later. That’s far preferable to lying awake in bed from 2 to 5 a.m. on my first couple of nights in Europe.
There are other sedatives and sleep aids out there: Sominex and Valium have both been used as sleep aids for generations, and Tylenol PM is popular with some. But some users report that those meds leave them feeling groggy the next day, and reduce the quality of sleep. (I haven’t tried them.)
Sleep Hygiene and Psychology
Fortunately, there are ample non-medicinal strategies that also work. In clinical studies, insomniacs treated with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) saw better long-term results than those who took medications. That tells you that psychology plays a huge role in sleep. While medicines can be a useful tool, I’ve found that the most effective treatment for my insomnia has been an attitude adjustment, combined with some specific behavioral changes. This is sometimes called “sleep hygiene” — developing effective habits around your sleep routine.
Associate the bed only with sleep. Think about it: If you’re sitting up in bed on a laptop working, or watching an exciting sports match, and then suddenly you try to sleep in that same place, it’s confusing to your body. Wait…is this is a place for work, or for sleep? This sounds elementary — even primal — but it’s powerful. Because I understand this rule of thumb, I do my computer work sitting in a chair, and shift to the bed only when I’m ready to sleep.
This ties into the next tip: Get into a very specific bedtime routine, and stick to it — even if you’re traveling, and everything else in your life is different every day. I used to work on writing up my guidebook research until 1 or even 2 in the morning, then went straight to bed…and wondered why I couldn’t fall asleep (as my mind was spinning full-tilt about all the work I’d just done, and what I had left to do tomorrow). Now I force myself to stop working at the same time every night — whether I’m “done” working or not. I brush my teeth and settle in to watch one 30-minute TV show, then lights out. Habits are extremely powerful, and good sleep habits can compensate for an awful lot.
What about when you wake up in the middle of the night? (This is my big problem.) Specialists prescribe a very specific approach: Try to get back to sleep for 10 or 15 minutes. If you can’t sleep, get out of bed, go into another room, do something that’s not too engaging, and only return to the bed when you’re ready to try sleeping again. If you begin to associate the bed with frustrated sleeplessness, it aggravates the negative spiral. This sounds impractical in a tight hotel room, but it can be done. For example, on a recent stay in a tiny hotel room, I couldn’t get back to sleep at 3 a.m. So I got up and sat up on the foot of the bed, watching videos until I was ready to get back to sleep. And I did.
Yes, I admitted that I was using my phone in the middle of the night. (Gasp!) This is a huge taboo in the sleep science world. Your phone, tablet, or laptop screen emits light. And if you’re directing that light straight into your eyes just before bed, you’re sending your body mixed messages. Strict sleep specialists will tell you, simply, no screen time for a few hours before bed, period. In my case, I find watching videos very soothing. I’ve found I can get away with breaking this rule, but I am very careful to turn the brightness all the way down. (These days, most phones have a built-in feature to automatically dampen the brightness of your phone after a certain time — check your phone’s settings.)
If you’re trying to sleep and your mind is racing, try some deep, diaphragmatic breathing. “Diaphragmatic” means that you’re breathing deeply, from your diaphragm, not just shallowly in your chest. Breathe in a way that your belly extends. There’s a world of apps out there designed to teach basic meditation techniques, focusing on your breathing in a way that lets the thoughts buzzing inside your head fade into the background. (I’ve found the book Mindfulness, by Mark Williams and Danny Penman.)
Accept your natural sleeping patterns. The fact is, just like people are left-handed or right-handed, or introverted or extroverted, some people are night owls and some are early birds. You probably already know which one you are. Now lean into it: Larks shouldn’t try to stay up late, and owls shouldn’t set an early alarm. Being true to your nature facilitates better sleep. My sleep doctor told me not to go to bed until I’m so tired I can’t keep my eyes open. Since I lean toward being a night owl, that means going to bed later than I might think I “should.” But, anecdotally, he’s seen how forcing an unnaturally early bedtime can make things much worse for insomniacs.
Another “attitude adjustment” that has revolutionized my thinking about sleep is the concept of “sleep effort.” This is based on the downward spiral that tortures all insomniacs: The worse you sleep, the more you begin to obsess about not sleeping. But ironically, the more effort you put into worrying about sleep — the worse you’ll sleep. (If you are a great sleeper who has never had this problem…I hate you. Also, why are you still reading?)
Break out of this negative pattern. Resist the urge to scour reviews of upcoming hotels for signs of noise. And have confidence in your ability to sleep. If you wake up at 5 a.m. even though your alarm is set for 7, it’s natural — for those of us who suffer insomnia — to immediately think, “Oh, rats. That’s it. I’m never getting back to sleep!” That is, obviously, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Challenge those assumptions. Remind yourself of the many times when you woke up in similar circumstances and did get back to sleep.
Don’t catastrophize about not sleeping. If you have one or two wakeful nights, remind yourself that it’s not the end of the world. I’ve had some amazing travel experiences after even four or five nights in a row of not enough sleep. I’ll remember what I did long after I’ve forgotten how tired I was. You may be cranky and less sharp, but you can still enjoy your travels. Cut yourself some slack — especially when you’re jet lagged.
Just like athletes are at the best when they’re “playing loose,” poor sleepers sleep better if they can stop thinking about sleeping all the time. Sleep loose!
The Final Word
Hopefully some combination of these strategies will help you sleep easier on your next trip. But if you’re truly having trouble sleeping, consult a doctor — either an M.D. who specializes in sleep medicine (usually a pulmonologist), or a psychologist who specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I). A physician can give you a sleep test to rule out sleep apnea as a cause for your insomnia (or to diagnose it and treat it). A CBT-I specialist can train you in specific behavioral approaches to target your sleeplessness. And either one can tailor their treatment to your circumstances…far better than a travel blog post ever could.
Well, it’s getting late. I could go on about this forever…but it’s bedtime, and sleep comes first.