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How to Sleep Better While Traveling / On a Road Trip

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on September 04, 2021

Whether you are traveling for your job or traveling for fun, it is never preferable to sleep poorly. Trying to sleep on a road trip or an overnight flight can be a surefire way to wake up feeling groggy, drained, and cranky. However, it doesn’t have to be. Read more to discover tips to help you sleep well while traveling.

What Are the Factors That Affect Sleep During Travel?

Travel Fatigue‌

Even if you are on vacation, traveling can provide stress physically and mentally. You may experience something called travel fatigue. Travel fatigue might make you feel exhausted, give you headaches, lead to lost sleep, and otherwise generate discomfort. 

Here are some things that can lead to travel fatigue:

  • Fear of flying or traveling
  • Stress over travel details like packing, timing, and logistics
  • Paranoia over random problems coming up during the trip
  • Car sickness or nausea on planes
  • Long term travel 
  • Travel delays
  • Inability to sleep in planes, trains, or cars
  • Dehydration, bloating, constipation, and respiratory conditions caused by pressurized airplane cabins
  • Interruptions to your food or water cycle during travel 
  • Stiffness and pain caused by sitting for long periods of time

Jet Lag‌

Jet lag is a sleep disorder that happens when you travel between three or more time zones. When you arrive at your destination, you may find that your circadian rhythm is still working on the time zone you started out at. This can lead to feeling out of synch with your current time zone. Usually, this takes place when you fly long distances; however, it can also take place through car or train travel if you travel fast enough.

The most common symptoms of jet lag are fatigue, fogginess, gastrointestinal problems, and a general feeling of malaise. Usually, jet lag goes away in a couple of days but can last for a few weeks. It is worse when you travel from west to east or over many time zones.

Changes to Your Schedule‌

Changing your regular schedule can cause you to have sleep problems. For example, simply changing when you eat or sleep can be immensely disruptive to your body and mind. This is especially difficult on business trips or vacations when you want to feel fully rested and present.

New Settings‌

Simply being in a new environment or bed can disrupt your sleep and relaxation. You may relate to this anecdotally, but it has also been proven in sleep studies. Unfamiliar environments can have a negative impact on your sleep even if the unfamiliar place is, on the surface, very comfortable, like a spa or resort.

Usually, this will start to feel better within the first night of being in a new place.

How to Sleep Better While Traveling

Every person is different, as is every trip. Perhaps some things that work for you in one scenario may not work in another. Also, some people may be more sensitive to certain things than others. Take all of this advice with a grain of salt and edit it to your needs and the situation at hand.

Here are some tips for sleeping better during travel:

  • Try to reduce stress beforehand. Attempt to prepare for the trip in a compressed yet stress-free manner. Anxiety about your trip can make you lose sleep and undermine your trip before it even begins. Anxiety during your trip due to lack of preparation can also make you lose sleep. 
  • Plan to make sure you get to sleep. If you know that you can’t sleep in busses, trains, planes, or cars, then sleep around them. If you need to make a multi-day journey, plan a stay at a hotel or with relatives. While red-eye travel can save money, it might not be worth the hit to your energy level the following day.
  • Dress for the occasion. Wear loose-fitting clothing that you can move in. Make sure to take some layers in case it gets cold and you need to cozy up. 
  • Find a good position to relax in. Depending on where you are trying to sleep, you may not have much control over your posture. However, if you do, try to make sure you’re as reclined as possible. Avoid positions that bunch up your body and create further tension. 
  • Bring things that help you sleep. Packing items like sleep masks, headphones, earplugs, and blankets to block out the lights and noises around you can make a huge difference. 
  • Pack a pillow or makeshift pillow. Be sure to bring along a travel pillow or clothing that you can roll up to make a pillow for yourself. Supporting your head will help you relax a great deal. 
  • Stay hydrated. Drink water before, during, and after you travel. It will help your body remain resilient through the various transitions of traveling. 
  • Eat well. Eat foods that nourish and fuel you. Try to avoid heavy foods that will weigh you down and make you feel fatigued.
  • Watch your alcohol and caffeine intake. Both alcohol and caffeine can knock your sleep off track. Try not to drink too much of either so that you can rest when you need to. 
  • Move your body. Make an effort to move, stretch, or lightly exercise when possible. Most travel methods require a long period of inactivity, which can hurt your body and throw off your sleep cycle. 
WebMD Feature

Sources

SOURCES: Mayo Clinic: "Jet lag disorder."

Sleep.org: “How to Sleep Better During Road Trips.”

Sleep Foundation: “Travel and Sleep.”

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