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Travel tips: how to sleep on the road

Travel tips: how to sleep on the road

Ever find it hard to sleep when you’re not in your own bed? No matter how comfortable the bed is or whether you’re staying in a hotel or at a friend’s place, you just can’t seem to get that quality sleep. You wake up the next day and go about your business not firing on as many cylinders as you’d like to, but you don’t really know why. The good news is, it’s not just you being a bit weird. It happens to a lot of people and there’s a very good, scientific reason for it.

According to research, the fact that we’re in new surroundings puts our brain on its guard. The left hemisphere remains in a state of wakefulness while the right one gets on with getting a bit of rest. It’s a somewhat instinctive, protective act of the brain because we’re vulnerable when we sleep. In general, the left hemisphere of the brain may be more vigilant than the right one, it seems. Researchers have also discovered that it has a larger response to high-pitched sounds than the right.

What can you do about it when you’re always out on the road?

How to sleep on the road - travel tips

This natural function of the brain poses problems for long-term travellers, who spend a lot of time on the move before they return to their own bed, if they do so at all. Let’s not forget some people leave it all behind and spend their life travelling (the lucky souls!). Does that mean you’ll go the rest of your time travelling without sleeping? Ridiculous. Impossible. Unsustainable. Here are a few tips so that if you’ve made a long-term commitment to seeing the world, you can and sleep well in the process, starting with….

Bringing a few personal objects from home

How to sleep while on the road

As mentioned, the brain is perceiving (correctly) that we’re in new surroundings and is ready for danger. Help to put the brain at ease and take the edge off this state of alertness by bringing a few small personal items from home. Make it feel like it’s at home.

Look for a pleasant scent to keep in your room

Sleeping while travelling - lavandar bag

Again, you can bring pleasing scents from home and mask any unpleasant odours in your accommodation. If you’re flying, remember that you’ll have to go through airport security, so you should stick to carrying a scent in a powdered or solid form.

When you’re out on the road for a long time, that might not be quite as easy, in which case you’ll have to keep an eye out for scents that soothe you or at least have a nice fragrance. Lavender, vanilla or sandalwood may all work well. You could look for a linen spray or just make your own. If you happen to be staying in a hotel, or even if you’re Couchsurfing and bunking down in someone’s spare room, you can give the linen a light spray to help you get off to sleep. Just be careful not to offend your host!

Take your own pillow

Sleeping while travelling

Never underestimate the power of having your own pillow to sleep better. If you have enough space in your rucksack, squeeze in your pillow; if you don’t, ask for an extra one at your accommodation, whether you’re at a hotel, a backpacker’s hostel or otherwise ― you never know unless you ask and they may be willing to afford you this minor luxury. The better the hotel, the more it will matter to them to have a satisfied guest.

What if you don’t have the room? Don’t panic. You can pack your own pillowcase and simply swap it when you arrive at your accommodation. Spraying it is optional, of course. While we’re on the subject of carrying your own bedding, you could also consider packing other bed linen if you have the space.

Have a sleep kit

Ear plugs - how to sleep on the road

It’s always handy to have a sleep kit when you’re travelling, which can consist of a sleep mask, earplugs and, if you have the room in your luggage, a white noise machine. A cheap, nylon mask would be better because the thicker ones, although they shut out the light, put pressure on your eyes and will make you sweat. The nylon masks feel slightly cooler across your face.

Earplugs are an essential part of the kit. You can use them when you’re in your accommodation or when you’re travelling to it. The alternative is to use a white noise machine or app. These can block out the noise by generating a calmer sound, like the sound of a fan or the sounds of nature, and make getting to sleep in a noisy location less of an ordeal. Some hotels will even provide a machine for you.

Observe a routine

Sleeping while travelling

If you’re visiting a place for just a couple of days, stick to your normal routine. That means if you get up early, continue to get up early; if you get up late, keep getting up late. You’re messing your body clock around too much if you change it and then revert to your regular routine again a couple of days later. It won’t know whether it’s coming or going.

If, however, you’re going to be in your destination longer, try to adapt your routine to the local time, especially when you land. Landing at night in your destination? Stay awake during the day and throughout the flight, so that you sleep easier when you arrive. Landing in the middle of the day? Then you should sleep overnight on the flight to keep your body in tune with the local time when you arrive.

Don’t forget, too, the importance of having a bedtime routine. Perhaps you like to shower before you go to bed. Maybe you like to read or to meditate. Whatever you do, give yourself plenty of time to relax before you go to sleep. Avoid working from bed. Make your bed a place for rest only.

When you’re out on the road and seeing the world, you want to pack in as much as possible into your visit. Sleep might be the last thing on your mind, but you need to know how to do it, even if you do feel odd sleeping in a bed that isn’t your own. Your brain might be on the lookout for danger, but don’t just accept this as part of travelling. Try these tips and calm your brain down a bit. Life on the road could be less tiring than it has to be then.

Ever since he was knee-high to a grasshopper Michael has always been a sucker for an adventure. As a kid he was lucky enough to live for many years in a handful of exotic far flung locations including Hong Kong, Pakistan, Kenya and Tanzania and since then he’s developed a taste for seeking out new cultures. So much in fact he now travels the world as a trading digital nomad, exploring sizzling street markets in Bangkok to random back alleys in Sri Lanka and everything in between! He also has a special fondness for Cohibas, street food, playing carrom, and fine wine and knows his clarets from his chiantis. He counts Cuba, Amsterdam, Laos, Cambodia and Italy as his favourite destinations.


  • Mart Bandee

    18 July, 2019 at 12:12 pm

    Sleeping away from your normal place or home is a problem many people face. Anxiety and the need to discover might keep you awake a lot. However, that much needed rest and sleep is quite important. Nice read, should try having a few personal objects and maintaining a bedtime routine.


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