How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep on the Road: A Guide for Traveling Insomniacs

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.

Hotel Issues

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.

Medications

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.

84 Replies to “How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep on the Road: A Guide for Traveling Insomniacs”

  1. I keep a couple of movies that I know well downloaded to my phone. It’s sound, but a comfortable, familiar sound that allows me to drop right off (similar to hearing my parent’s muffled voices in the front seat at night on family roadtrips).

    1. Yep, for sure. Nothing lulls me to sleep like a familiar old movie…it’s like slipping into your comfiest pair of socks.

      1. Hi Cameron: thank you for the good tips on getting enough sleep while traveling. I’ve used a lot of them. A nice walk before bedtime works for me. I’m usually so excited about seeing the sights that it’s difficult to calm down.
        Also, I wonder where I could find some tips on visiting The Imperial War Museum at Duxford, UK. Any suggestions would be helpful. Thanks, RMC

        1. Good tips on travel and sleeping, I’ll try a couple of them. Check their website for information on Duxford. Getting there we took the train and then a cab to the airfield. If you arrive before it opens there’s a coffee shop down the road that is/was an officers sleeping quarters. A tremendous historical visit!

  2. This is excellent. I find listening to podcasts is helpful. It has to be something light – no current events or murder stories – and not too funny, either! I look for soothing voices and interesting but not gripping subject matter. Keeps my mind from racing. It’s also reassuring; I used to think I got no sleep at all, but I’ll realize I missed half or more of the show bc I drifted off!

    1. Podcasts work great for some people; for me, listening to people talking makes it hard to turn my brain off. However, there are a few (relatively new) apps and other services that offer “sleep stories” designed to lull the listener to sleep. There’s talking, yes, but it gets slooooower and quieter as the story goes on, with longer and longer pauses…like someone telling a bedtime story as they’re falling asleep. The ones I know about are the Insight Timer app, which has several free ones; and the Calm app, which has higher production values and several celebrity readers (they have only a few free samples, with lots more available to subscribers). Any other favorite bedtime meditation/sleep stories resources out there?

      1. Yep I have a great bedtime sleep story that I created myself. It takes place in Germany near the Elbe river during the Middle Ages. I never manage to get beyond a certain point in the story and off I go!

      2. I love the Sleep With Me podcast. It’s just interesting enough to distract me from my thoughts, but yet with sleepy rambling dulcet tones to put me out. It’s probably not for every insomniac, but works for me.

  3. Excellent advice! I will add two caveats:

    1. If you consistently have insomnia and wake tired and are overweight, snore, or have hypertension or diabetes, ask you physician about sleep apnea and GET tested. One sign of Sleep apnea is waking in the middle of the night and it can occur at all ages!
    2. Ask for help with your sleep. Physicians may note always ask you how you sleep. So tell them. Good CBT does help.

    Nancy Brewer
    RPSGT/ Sleep Educator

    1. Great tip, Nancy. Absolutely right: All of the above is irrelevant if it’s apnea that’s waking you up. (My doctor did a sleep test to rule that out.)

    2. What is the difference between CBT and CBD? Also, I am confused about how much to take. The ratios make it confusing too.
      It is hard to find someone that is really educated on this matter. It sounds like, as a sleep educator” you would have more knowledge on the right thing to take.
      Thank you so much
      Sue

  4. “(If you are a great sleeper who has never had this problem…I hate you. Also, why are you still reading?)”

    Love it! I’m right there with you, Cameron.

  5. all such great advice. i thought i was the only one who sleeps horribly on any vacation. i especially like the white noise app suggestion…going to add that one!

  6. All great suggestions.
    I’ll add one more, related to the sleep routine bit: Consider adding a white noise app to your bedtime routine, even at home. When we hit the hay at home, the white noise/sleep sounds app goes on. When we travel, it’s on the phone, so we have it there too, as another cue to the brain that it’s time to sleep.

  7. I don’t have anything to add. I have all the same issues and appreciate knowing there are others with the same issues, although I’m sorry that you do. Thank you for advice from someone who really gets it.

  8. Thank you for these great tips, many of which were not intuitive to this frequent traveler. I find that reading a (paper) book is my best sleep-inducing elixir.

  9. I love Emergen-zzz, which helps my immune system and helps me sleep: Melatonin, magnesium, and Vitamins D and C.

  10. I find magnesium and my second dose of calcium for the day a
    Good remedy to sleepless issues My PA recommended when I started Menopause and have used off and on since then..

  11. Great article. It is true that each person is different and some tips work better than others. Now if, in addition to sleep issues, you can solve the dilemma of sharing a room with my husband who needs about 2 more hours of sleep each night in quiet and darkness than I do, it would be really wonderful. So many hours trying to read a book or e-reader in darkness without the sound of turning a page or clicking a soft button has meant lots of time in the bathroom or closet.

    1. Especially in a hotel room when you can’t escape to another room. It’s a bonus if the bathroom is large enough to accommodate a chair.

    2. I go to bed at least 2 hours before my wife and when we travel she sits in the bedroom with an excellent, small reading light that clips onto her reading material that does not disturb me at all.

  12. For me a hot shower about thirty minutes before bed relaxes me enough that I can sleep through the night without waking, if the room is quiet and dark enough. My wife is the opposite. She takes her shower a couple of hours before bed, or she’s like an owl… eyes open staring at the ceiling. Each person is different.

    When traveling, I carry binder clips with me, and a small roll of duct tape for those unruly curtains that leak light. Seems silly, but it works. The tape also blots out the inevitable array of LED points of light. You know, the one on the tv, the smoke detector, the multiport power supply, etc.

    1. I was going to suggest binder clips for the same reason! I usually put a towel under the door too as the hallway lights are often bright in a traditional hotel. Painter’s tape might work well for those lights and be easier to pull off afterward. I’ve also found that having a journal to write in so I’m not tempted by electronic devices helps me since I’m pretty light-sensitive.

  13. I’ve read that taking a hot shower or bath at night might help. It’s not so much the hot shower or bath as the transition to a colder room that tells your brain that it’s time to sleep. It a vestige of some hibernation sequence, is the theory.

  14. Thank you these are all great tips. I have tinnitus coupled with insomnia and use Bose Noise Masking Sleepbuds. They are a bit pricey but they’ve helped me so much. You can have the white noise without bothering anyone.

  15. My biggest problem sleeping in hotels is the hard beds. I even travel with rolled up foam, a small piece, for under hips and shoulders, but it is not enough.

    1. I know exactly what you mean. I take a small square of foam that likewise runs from shoulder to hip and end up sacrificing clothes I’d have otherwise packed. If anyone has any alternatives I’d love to hear them.

  16. This all sounds familiar to me. I wear earplugs, but does anyone know of earbuds that block noise and also allow one to listen to one of the sleep podcasts (or something else?)
    I take clothes pins to close the hotel curtains, and bring an eye mask. Even little red lights on TVs or microwaves bother me.

    1. Hi LEC, I bought a cheap pair of plug in earbuds specifically for sleep positions where I roll onto left or right ear and they are still comfy. Brand is maxrock. Nice thing too is that the plug does not easily plug out with all your movements through the night. My mom always told me I move around too much in bed. And now in my 60s still do that! My podcasts and sleep apps are so helpful for me.

    2. BOSE makes small noise cancelling EarPods that plug into your cellphone/computer so you can listen to podcasts, books, etc.

  17. I’ve always been an insomniac. I download podcasts of Aaron Manke’s ‘Lore“ and others he produces, and I fall asleep instantly (set the cutoff for one hour). Also, I’ve learned to wear Bose noise canceling head sets. I’m not sure this is good for my health, but it cancels out noises, and with the podcasts, I sleep well even in narrow European beds.

  18. I had trouble staying asleep for 10-15 years. Along with many of your ideas Cameron, I found these two things made the difference for me:
    1. I don’t look at the clock when I wake up. If I have a 6:30 or 7:00 wake up time ——and the clock tells me it’s 5:00 or 5:30, I tend to stay awake. But if it isn’t light yet, my mind says it could be 2 or 3 …….maybe? If I don’t know the time I’m not so stressed about being tired the next day and can get back to sleep easier.
    2. I found TIME RELEASE melatonin. It releases some melatonin all night so I’m still getting the benefit at 3:00- my usual insomnia time. This alone has improved my sleep 75%.

    Thank you for the great ideas Cameron! You spent a lot of time on it. Thank you!!

  19. I use a dark T-shirt over my eyes and head instead of a sleep mask. It keeps my head warm and cozy and does not need a strap.

  20. I can sympathize, and so funny you sound a lot like me. I also figured out I need to stop working and writing and chill out watching a half hour show before going to bed. I travel with the Macks earplugs, eye mask, white noise app on my phone, clip for the drapes, duct tape for the lit TV button, melatonin and also valerian root, tylenol and advil PM, lavender and chamomile tea. And – YES – there are some people (snoring) who need to go see a doctor!

  21. Thanks, Cameron. I share the middle of the night challenge. A solution for me has been listening to a Yoga Nidra meditation.

  22. I have found that journalling my fears about not sleeping has been very helpful for me. If I express my anxiety about sleep before going to bed then my anxious thoughts have been purged from my brain and I won’t ruminate about sleep throughout the night.

  23. If you don’t have an app for white noise and your hotel room has its own AC unit, change the fan setting to continuous or ‘on’. Works great.

  24. Thank you! I feel so validated. Just returned from two weeks in Rome and I had my sleep kit with me for emergency help. I needed it! Ambulance or polizia zooming down the street every ten minutes.

  25. The app “Calm” has delightful bedtime stories recorded. They help me a great deal. Yes, you pay for the app….for me, it was worth it!

  26. A quiet hotel room doesn’t help if the noise-maker is one’s traveling partner. ;-D

    My Leonard Cohen playlist works about 90% of the time (*if* combined with a comfortable-enough pair of earbuds) to block out noise and lull me to sleep. Also, for those who practice it, praying can be a great sleep aid. Either I eventually doze off, or at the very least, I’ve gotten in some otherwise-elusive prayer time, so . . . win/win.

    Thanks for taking the time to write and post this helpful article.

  27. Mr. Cameron.
    Enjoyed article on sleep. One of things I like about your folk’s tours, you are always giving away free stuff which adds value to the tours. Some people may not take advantage but just want you to know I try to every change I get to do so.
    Learned a lot from your article and think it would be a hard life for a travel writer with Xenophobia but life is tough. Also will write down, “If there are no comments about noise, I usually take it as a bad sign.”
    Never thought about, “the quietest hotel in town has a room that’s noisy, and the noisiest hotel in town has a room that’s quiet.” I understand, depends on day of week and season of year Everything is situational, it depends.
    I will ask for courtyard-facing room for now on if there is an option. Thought earplugs are earplugs. Will look into Macks next time I go travel shopping. And use them.
    I have heard of White Noise some use positive affirmation downloaded on phones, hypnosis, think we are talking same thing.
    Had a family member who had a bottle of cough medicine on bed stand but was a long time ago. Got to thinking what you said about sleep aids. I take something somewhat stronger for those with RLS, wish someone else had it. Part of reason I am still solo traveler.
    Thank you very much for all the free stuff.

    1. Another thing I was going to say but forgot was about edema. Walking seems to be the best relief to pump circulation back up thru the body. Have a rough time sleeping with edema.

  28. Thank you for the myNoise recommendation. I had downloaded “Calm” before but this free app seems like a better (and cheaper) fit.

    I’ve done most everything you’ve suggested and, it’s weird to say it but, I’m glad I’m not the only one wiht this issue. My family knows me so well now that they wait for me to “approve” any hotel rooms we walk into before they can use the bathrooms, etc.

    One other trick to mention…There are a lot of hotels with doors that leave a pretty large gap to the hallway. (If you can see the light coming in, then sound will come in too.) So I’ve been known to take a bath towel (damp works better) and roll it up next to the bottom of the entry door. Helps a bit.

    And if persistent noise is coming from the rooms next to you, there’s nothing wrong with letting them know they are noisy. This can be difficult in a foreign country though, as I’m embarrassed to be called out as an “ugly American” so I usually involved the front desk clerk. Would you handle it yourself or go through the front desk?
    (The most difficult call to make is where the neighbors are being amorous…I can handle that for a little while but not if they decide they want to try to set an endurance record….)

    1. Great tips! And yes, I also fear the under-door gap. Most important: You are not alone! Many travelers have trouble sleeping. But you can still have wonderful travels!

  29. Great post thanks. My #1 tip:

    Order the MyPillows and they’ll send you two small pillows free ( alongside your big pillow) Those have saved our lives since Europeans don’t believe in pillows.

    They’re on the airplane so we carry them in our backpacks, Then we use them every night under our necks on top of the European pillows.

  30. I have a before-sleep ritual of doing some or all of a not-too-hard crossword, in a crossword book. It’s a way of stopping my train of thoughts and getting sleepy. And for the times that nothing else works, Zolpidem.

  31. So many great suggestions, including in the comments section. I spend a few months leisurely traveling in Europe every year and always use a White Noise iPhone App (I choose the fan sound, “pink noise”) to block noise such as traffic, or (especially) generators outside windows that I find irritating, And I never leave home without melatonin, Theanine, a herbal concoction (Allmax LightsOut Sleep), and Tylenol PM. I alternate as needed…Lifelong night owl insomniac here!

    Rock hard beds is another issue. Ask if a foam topper is available if you find your bed too hard. I’ve asked at quite a few different hotels throughout Europe and more often than not, they’ve had them available. I recently had a 4 week stay in Malta where the bed was like a brick and would have been torture for a long stay. I asked about a foam topper and housekeeping showed up immediately with one and put in on the mattress. Made a huge difference! ….I’m still dreaming about the comfy, luxurious beds in Switzerland, where I’ve never had problems.

  32. Thank you for writing this. These are issues I have struggled with my entire life. I have used a white noise machine for years. (When I was young, I would turn on the dryer in the laundry room and sleep on the floor) I found a compact, portable sound machine from HoMedics a few years ago. DC or 4 aaa’s. It is always in my travel bag.

  33. My children’s author friend writes a series of “Night Night” books. I’ve forgotten the name of the first one. She was having a hard time getting her rambunctious son to go to sleep — no luck with reading to him, singing to him, back rubs, warm milk, etc. Exasperated, she looked out the window and said, “Night Night tree,” “Night Night stars,” “Night Night moon,” “Night Night doggie,” etc., and she found that her son was fast asleep. Now, my problem is I fall asleep almost every time I sit down. I have Sleep Apnea, but I sit down to read or play a game, and I fall asleep in my chair beginning around 8:00-8:30 and sometimes sleep there all night.

  34. In pre-Industrial Revolution times, before the advent of electrical lighting, sleep time (esp. in winter) occurred during a 14-hour period. This lead to what was known as the “first sleep” of 4-5 hours followed by a wake period of 1-2 hours, then a “second sleep” of another 4-5 hours. This biphasic sleep mode is observed in many mammalian species. In modern cultures we now try to sleep for 6-8 hours straight, which might not be a reasonable expectation for adults, especially as we get older. When I became post-menopausal, I started having difficulties getting to sleep and staying asleep, despite following all of the tips that Cameron has mentioned–except I don’t take medications other than a 12 oz. beer or a glass of wine before bed. Many of the sleep medications such as Ambient are problematic for women, especially older women, so I try to avoid them. I also discovered the joys of reading books on a Kindle Paperwhite e-Reader, with the light set at the lowest possible level (~8). If I awake in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep within 10-15 minutes, I accept this as a normal phenomenon and go back to reading, and will fall asleep again within an hour or so. Reading something that isn’t too thrilling, upsetting or amusing helps to relax me and unwind from the stress of work and other worries, and if I become addicted to reading to get me to sleep, I consider it a good addiction to have. The e-Reader is a portable godsend for travel.

    1. Yes, my doctor told me Ambien is bad for women and can in fact lead to Alzheimer’s. For me, it didn’t work, anyway.

  35. One other thing: when I wake up in the middle of the night, I use EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) or “tapping” to quell the anxiety. It sounds a little crazy, but it works for me. There are YouTube videos on how to do it. It’s related to acupressure.I use the mantra: “Even though I can’t sleep, I completely love and accept myself.”

    1. Yes! I use EFT all the time if anything, big or small is bothering me! It is a life saver. Also I learned the choices method where first round is whats bothering me, second round is what I want to feel, (peace), then 3rd round alternates always starting and ending with positive! I’m usually groggy with sleepiness after all of that!!!

  36. What about those soft hotel mattresses that give me a back ache? Is there any travel device I can buy that fold up small and that I can put on top of a soft mattress to turn it into a very firm mattress?

    Thank you!

  37. Thanks for this, it is a great article with lots of really helpful information and tips. However, the fan you put on to help you sleep just might keep your neighbour awake…..we had this experience recently and my husband had to finally go out into the hall, bang on the door of the next room and beg them to turn off the fan so we could get some sleep. But other than that, all your tips are extremely helpful! (We once requested a quiet room when arriving overseas in Milan…..tried for an afternoon nap, but it didn’t work due to the jackhammer working on the room next to us…..literally the adjacent wall. But we probably shouldn’t have been trying to sleep in the afternoon anyway!) Thanks for a great article!

  38. Thanks for the post. We have very similar approaches to sleep routine. I hardly have jetlag, and found that a combination of 20mg of melatonin plus GABA and thiamin helps to reset my natural sleep pattern. I also use binaural beats – Theta waves for 10 minutes followed by Delta waves. Binaural beats works much better than white noise, since it helps the natural brain waves cycle – from alertness to sleep. I use noice cancelling headphones, like Bose.

  39. Waking with mild body aching is my problem. Total body stretching my solution. It can be caused by exercise or long sitting. If I take the time to do my stretches, I sleep much better and longer. A little partner back massage can be a great help, too.
    Hi, Cam. Thanks for all for the ideas.

  40. Thanks for the post. I was one of the lucky few who could sleep deeply a full 8 or 9 hours nightly, but six is about all I get nowadays mostly due to racing thoughts but also to aging. I console myself that I have any thoughts at all until I discovered gamma aminobutyric acid or simply, GABA. This is also a naturally occurring substance like melatonin. I don’t take it often because once, during those unwanted ” brain active” times, seems to work for me over a longer period than melatonin. Once I regulate my sleep with going to bed and rising at the same time, I resume my 7 or 8 hours per night. I don’t exercise much – but try to do stretching exercises 20 minutes daily before breakfast. Hope this comment helps those out there, like me, who continually try finding what works for them.

  41. Hi Cameron,
    Great article!
    My husband and I took the Rick Steves Switzerland tour in the summer of 2017. Since that wonderful trip, both of us have found a new and easy way to fall asleep. We think about the heavenly afternoon we spent in Mürren, drinking Ticino Merlot on our Hotel Alpenruh balcony. Visualizing the breath-taking beauty and the peacefulness we felt there is enough to bring sleep most nights. Hope to return in person some day!

  42. Mack’s offers so many options. Very confusing and difficult to decide on ‘the one’.
    My major problem is staying asleep–besides the issue of having to visit the bathroom during the night. Then I must wonder if I will ever get back to sleeping.

  43. All good advice.
    A few things: in summer once, I got a room in Paris facing a courtyard and was up all night because everyone had their windows open and their voices echoed loudly in the courtyard.
    I’ve found the best earplugs are from Boots in Europe–the softish wax kind. but you have to be willing to press the deep into your ears. They block out my husband’s snoring.
    Ambien, Lunesta, melotonin, Tylenol PM–none of that works for me. But for some reason, two ibuprofen does work, usually for about 4-5 straight hours, which is a miracle for me.
    I always use a loud noise app and no one has ever complained.
    I always watch TV before bed for at least a half hour, and if I don’t, I can’t fall asleep at all.
    Cool rooms are important to me, but in hotels, those comforters are always way too hot, no matter the season, and I’ve found that I can’t turn the thermostat down far enough to really cool off the room.
    I always travel with my own pillow, which helps somewhat.

  44. Cameron does good job describing some aspects of the psychology of sleep – another tip is to emulate your regular nighttime routine as much as possible. There have been studies about how it helps to have a set routine to help your brain get ready to transition to sleep. So if you do A-B-C before going to bed at home, try to repeat that as much as possible in your hotel room. Another tip for people using a white noise app – bring along a small bluetooth speaker to amplify the noise.

  45. Great info! I used to have a real hard time falling asleep and staying asleep. I’ve tried many remedies, but what works for me now is Magnesium before bed. :) And, I stay away from the computer and phone before bed. I usually read before bed until I cannot keep my eyes open.

  46. Thank you Cameron for your insightful review. Anyone interested in learning more about the latest research into sleeping should consider reading “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker. It is absolutely fascinating.

  47. A breathing technique works well for me to go back to sleep when I wake up and have trouble dozing off again. A deep breath to a count of 4, followed by holding the breath to a count of 7, then exhaling to a count of 8 has been very helpful. The 4-7-8 count is some kind of yogic technique that seems to be effective.
    In addition, Pro cortisol balance, an over the counter supplement has also been helpful to quiet the mind and go back to sleep.
    Great article, Cameron, thanks!

  48. I know every day doesn’t present the opportunity but for when an itinerary permits, here’s my experience: In recent years I’ve discovered there is a direct correlation between days I get 10,000 or more steps and how deeply and quickly I fall asleep, no matter what my surroundings. My magic number is at least 10,000. Less doesn’t work. As a life long insomniac this discovery has been such a help, I look for every chance to take a brisk walk even at airport layovers or waiting for a flight, etc. If my body is exhausted my mind doesn’t overrule it. Oh, and oddly enough, plenty of water throughout the day somehow helps maintain the energy. I don’t really know why these things work but, for me, I’ve discovered they really have made a huge difference.

  49. If I wake up in the middle of the night, sometimes it helps me to “try” to stay awake and keep my eyes open while still in bed. Often, just trying to focus on staying awake will put me to sleep. Another trick that others have mentioned is to turn the sleep timer on the tv (if available) and watch something on Netflix that I’ve seen numerous times and find that I am asleep in minutes.

    Last spring I made reservations for a small hotel in Sydney with very good reviews. On the request and in correspondence with the hotel, I requested a “quiet room”. When I got to the hotel, my room looked nothing like the photos and was not well maintained (including water pouring out on to the bathroom floor from holes in the pipes when the faucet was turned on). I asked to be moved to the type of room that I had paid for and was told that because I had requested a “quiet” room (despite paying a higher price for an upgraded room), that this is what they gave me. After a bit of discussion, they reluctantly let me move in to a room which was the type that I had reserved and it wasn’t much louder at all. I am now a bit reluctant to request a “quiet” room and will instead request one away from the elevator and the breakfast area.

  50. I often use audio books to help me quiet the squirrels in my brain. I find that audio versions of books I’ve already read work best. I’m not so tied up in wondering what comes next in the story and can relax and give in to sleep. If on my own, I just use my phone’s speaker. If travelling with someone, I use earbuds so I don’t disturb them. I’ve found I can fall asleep with the earbuds in. I usually set the audio book timer to 30 minutes, which is usually enough for me.

  51. My Cocoon brand travel blanket has been a life saver on many occasions. It’s super-lightweight, but adds just enough extra if the room is cold or the blankets are too flimsy. Conversely, if the room has only a heavy duvet (no sheets) it can be used in place of it for light coverage. I’ve also been known to pull it over my head to block light or an A/C breeze, or just feel more snuggled.

    Thank you for a great article, and to all commenters for an abundance of ideas to try.

  52. This is a great article, thank you Tom. I have lived in a lot of noisy places and traveled much in developing countries. Noisy air conditioners are a misery. My apartment near a major University confronted me with a new jolt: the outside noise of drunk young women. Somewhere in the Y chromosome there must be a gene for a wake up alarm linked to the voices of women shrieking. (No doubt, Hitchcock knew this.) The most effective white noise for my wife and me is a small mostly plastic oscillating white fan– it works very well for us and the light air movement is welcome.

  53. I’m coming around to the idea that larger, chain hotels generally give me better odds of a good night’s sleep than the alternatives. With a chain hotel (e.g. Ibis styles, Holiday in express), I know that they can usually move me to another room and that most rooms are constructed well. In my most recent trip to Italy—where I stayed in smaller hotels and Airbnb’s—I had many troubled nights. (The deceiving writeups on sites like TripAdvisor! Ugh)

    I know Rick Steves prefers those smaller places, but don’t you think they are more of a crapshoot than the established chains?

  54. After initially settling into your room, go for a relaxing stroll outside if your hotel is in a safe or scenic location. Even sitting on an outdoor bench on the hotel’s patio and gazing at the night sky or simply take in your different surroundings gives your mind and body a chance to relax and catch up with the journey you’ve had that day, being transported from one culture to another. Walking a bit without luggage in tow also feels good/liberating.
    If you can’t go outside, take a little tour of your hotel. Are there special features to check out ~ a roof top view, a library, the breakfast or dining room, a fireplace or sauna, etc. Walking the full length of a long corridor with arms outstretched, skipping, smiling brings a bit of gratitude for the pains of the day that it has taken to arrive safely at your destination. Then perhaps you can return to your room to enjoy a little nightcap of liqueur you secreted away in your ziplock baggie of travel-size liquids (save a few mini liquor bottles and reuse). Enjoy sweet dreams.

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