Whether you're in a hotel on holidays or staying with friends, sleeping in an unfamiliar bed takes getting used to. We sat down with a sleep expert to come up with some tips for a great night's sleep, no matter where you are or what bed you're in.
Most of us manage to get a good night's rest after one or two nights in an unfamiliar bed. Whether you're trying to get used to the too-soft pillows and too-tight sheets of a hotel bed, the uncomfortable firmness of a friend's daybed, or the whole "sleeping in your childhood bed" thing when you're visiting family, there are plenty of ways to make even the first night comfortable.
Set the Stage: Book Smart or Scope Out the Room
Whether you're staying in a hotel or spending the night on a friend's couch, a little preparation goes a long way. We've talked about how to get better sleep so you need less of it overall, and many of those tips carry over here.
If you're staying in a hotel, check out photos of the guest rooms before you leave. Look at the hotel website and check out its TripAdvisor or Yelp pages. See if your hotel is under renovation, if there's construction nearby, or if it's close to a busy street or noisy airport. You can always ask for a room away from that busy street, along a hallway, away from construction, or in some cases on a "concierge level" or "suite level", which are usually higher up and often quieter.
If you're staying with family or crashing on the couch, obviously you can't change where the bed is going to be. However, you've probably visited before, so the key will be to pack smart and prepare in advance. If you can ask your host to add an extra blanket so you're not cold, toss on an extra pillow if you're always short, or let you know when they plan to get up the next morning, you can be ready. You can't change location, but a little forewarning is useful, and that knowledge will help you pack smart for your trip.
Pack Smart: Bring a Mask, Earplugs and Other Sleep-Friendly Gear
Everyone should have a sleep mask. My sleep mask goes with me everywhere, and when I wear one out, I hit a discount store and pick up another one. You can get big, thick ones that rest firmly against your face and block out all the light, but they can put pressure on your eyes and make you sweat. The simple, cheap nylon ones are easy to pack, just padded enough to block out light, and cool your face when you put them on. They're essential on aeroplanes, in hotels, and just about anywhere else I need a good night's sleep. Consider a travel pillow as well -- one made of a similar cooling fabric -- that you can slip in a carry-on. Use it on the plane, then use again when you get to your hotel or friend's couch.
If noise will be problem, consider a white noise app to help block it out. SimplyNoise has iOS and Android apps that work well. If you like variety, previously mentioned Sleep Machine (iOS) or Lightning Bug (Android) play noise along with other natural sounds. Some hotels even have white noise machines available -- you just have to ask. I recently stayed in one that had one built into the room, but often I'll just turn on the fan in the bathroom or on the AC unit. Or just pack a pair of earplugs; they're better than nothing.
Rebecca Robbins, sleep researcher and co-author of Sleep for Success, never leaves home without her earplugs, and suggests making your away-from-home bed as home-like as possible in this interview with CN Traveller:
I pack a picture of my family in my wallet, cashmere socks, and a travel pillow. My co-author and I worked with a company to design a pillow that has silver thread, and it keeps your head cool at night. Little tricks like that can help you feel comfortable in an unfamiliar environment.
... I always have a set of high-quality earplugs -- get the foam earplugs that block about 60 decibels or above. They're not that expensive but really do the trick. I always pack an eye mask to block out any unwanted light. And a pre-bed routine is really important, too: Start to power your computer down about 90 minutes before bed, and do something relaxing. Another component is taking a warm shower. If you take a nice, warm shower and cool off your room -- 65 degrees is the best temperature for good sleep at night -- that transition helps with sleep onset.
Robbins' tips apply to more than just hotel rooms. You may not be able to change the thermostat at your friends' place, but you can take a warm shower. Finally, as she mentions, don't forget to follow your evening routine. Stick to it wherever you are and you'll fall asleep easier, even if you're across the globe from your bed.
Pack Movies and Music You Enjoy At Home
The things you do before bed and right after waking make a huge impact on how much energy you have the next day. If you usually wind down with a few episodes of your favourite TV show, or love falling asleep to music, bring those things with you.
Dr Nitun Verma, MD, a specialist in sleep medicine (and friend of Lifehacker), explains doing so helps you stick to your sleep routine:
This is huge for me, I always bring a phone/tablet with my favourite shows (especially important for international travel where the TV programming is different.) Is there a typical show you watch just before sleep? Bring the same show so you keep your home routine. This is also important to treat sleep disorders.
While we're certainly not fans of taking your electronics to bed, winding down with your favourite show before you hit the sack isn't a bad idea either. Just limit how much screen time you get overall, and if you can, watch before you curl up in bed.
If you prefer music while you sleep, just fire up your favourite media player while your phone charges at night. Make sure to keep your phone upside down with the screen off so you don't get bothered by notifications. Verma says he brings lots of music with him everywhere he goes:
I often bring a short stereo-to-stereo audio cable because you can always plug your phone into the bedside alarm. Did you know that hotel TVs also have these plugs? Look behind the TV. Crappy TV speakers are often better than the crappy bedside alarm clock/iphone docks in my opinion.
If you're sleeping with someone else or where other people might hear, consider a pair of SleepPhones.
Bring Your Own Pillows or Pillowcases (or Ask the Hotel for Ones You'd Like)
We mentioned bringing a travel pillow, but if you have room in your bags for your favourite pillow or body pillow from home, bring it with you. Sure, most of us won't want to pack or check an extra bag just for a pillow, but don't underestimate how much better you'll sleep in a strange place if you have it. If that won't work, consider bringing your own pillowcases instead. It makes any pillow you rest your head against feel more like your pillows at home, and pillowcases don't take up a lot of luggage space.
Independent Traveller suggests you also pack your own sheets. Between that and your own pillows or pillowcases, you can transform any bed you stay in into your home bed easily as soon as you arrive. Of course, these options aren't for everyone or every destination, but they can go a long way.
If you're in a hotel, consider asking the concierge for extra pillows, or to swap out their standard soft pillows with firmer ones if they're available. Some hotels even have body pillows -- all you have to do is ask. Verma explained that the better the hotel you're staying in, the more options they will have and the happier they will be to help you get a good night's sleep. He also noted that if you're in a hotel rewards program or frequent flyer club, you can lock in your bedding preferences there -- your hotel will know what you like before you even arrive.
Bring a Scent that Relaxes You
For many people, scents and fragrance are important. An annoying or overbearing smell, whether it's general funk or an unfamiliar detergent, can throw you off and make it difficult to sleep. Verma suggests bringing a little piece of home in that case:
This is optional, of course. Some people are especially sensitive to smells, and most hotels have a signature scent. Bring your own to bring a small piece of home with you. Keep it solid or powder to be airport friendly.
Independent Traveller agrees, and suggests bringing along a small bottle of linen spray that you like, or something you know soothes you. Personally, lavender, vanilla or wood scents like sandalwood generally make me drop my shoulders after a long day. Linen spray is cheap, but you can make your own very easily and bring it along in a small travel bottle. Best of all, it will work anywhere -- your friends' couch, your old childhood bedroom, or a fancy hotel.
Give Yourself Plenty of Time to Sleep
If you have the time to start your evening routine early, do it. You want to make sure you give yourself as much time as possible to sleep, even if that means you go to bed earlier than you normally would. This is most important on that first night, when it's typically the hardest to sleep in a strange bed.
If you generally get a workout in before bed, make sure you stick to it and do some light exercise. If you wind down with a cup of hot tea, or know warm milk puts you right out, get some. We're sure your friends or family won't mind giving you a cup of milk to help you sleep. Robbins noted that a pre-bed snack can also do a world of good in an unfamiliar place, and I can vouch for the idea:
I'm a big proponent of a pre-bed snack -- that's another thing we've worked on at the Benjamin, designing pre-bed bites that are about 200 calories each. Typically the best advice is to avoid proteins before bed, but milk is the one exception. So many of our mothers made us warm milk before bed, so that's an example where whatever is relaxing to you is the best thing.
Perhaps most importantly, don't work from where you'll be sleeping. If you're staying at a hotel, it might be tempting since hotel desks are notoriously uncomfortable, but don't work from bed. Try not to eat or do anything in bed that will keep you awake -- you want your body to associate bed with sleep. You also want to give yourself plenty of time to relax, get acclimated, and drift off. Plus, if you do have trouble sleeping, you can get up, walk around, stretch a bit, or read a book with the lights down low. That extra cushion of time means you won't head out on your first day of vacation worn out, or doze through your family get-together.
Don't Forget the Creature Comforts
Finally, while we've discussed bringing little bits of home to help you relax, don't forget the creature comforts that help you feel at home either. If you hate walking barefoot on cold floors, pack your favourite slippers. If you enjoy a cup of tea before bed every night in your favourite mug, bring it along. Do you sleep with a stuffed animal? Bring them along for the trip. Anything that makes you feel more at-home will make sure that every night you spend in any part of the globe will be a more rewarding night's rest.
Dr Nitun Verma, MD is a specialist in sleep medicine and the Medical Director of the Washington Township Center for Sleep Disorders in Fremont. He has offered his tipsfor better sleep here before, and he graciously volunteered his expertise for this piece as well. You can follow him on Twitter at @nitunverma.