Whether you’re traveling for business, pleasure, or both, a restful night’s sleep is the best way to start the first official day of your trip.
However, plenty of travelers have difficulty sleeping in hotels, particularly on the first night of travel. Sleeping away from home—and from the familiar comfort of your bed—can be challenging. Not getting the sleep you need, whether it’s from noise, jet lag, or an uncomfortable mattress, is a surefire way to ruin your vacation or stumble through your important business meeting.
Many different factors play into your struggle to fall asleep. Some have to do with brain chemistry. Others have to do with the external environment you’re sleeping in.
Let’s dive into why you might have trouble sleeping away from home and how to sleep better in hotels.
Why Can’t I Fall Asleep at a Hotel?
Sleeping away from home, in general, can take some getting used to. Hotel rooms are just the tip of the iceberg. Travelers might also be staying at an Airbnb or with friends and family. There is a scientific reason you have trouble sleeping away from home, and it all has to do with the brain.
The First Night Effect
The First Night Effect, or FNE, is a phenomenon that occurs in the left hemisphere of your brain on the first night away from home. When away from home, especially when getting ready for bed, your brain recognizes that you’re in an unfamiliar environment.
While it may seem silly to worry about being attacked by a wild animal while sleeping at the Four Seasons, these primal survival instincts remain as a way to keep us safe from harm.
That’s why you’re more sensitive to sound and movement, and sudden noises will wake you easier than they would at home. Sleep researchers found that FNE hinders your ability to stay in REM sleep (the dream stage), which might be one of the reasons you toss and turn while sleeping in a hotel bed.
The first-night effect, as the name suggests, only affects you on the first night. Researchers found that the brain underwent normal activity the next night, now familiar with the environment you’re sleeping in.
So, if you’re struggling to sleep on the first night away from home, don’t worry. You’ll likely still have plenty of restful sleep throughout your vacation.
What Else Is Keeping Me Up?
While the FNE is out of your control, there are plenty of other factors that may be preventing you from having a good night’s sleep.
The obvious one is jet lag, which is experienced when traveling between time zones. One or two time zones might not make a difference, but traveling across the ocean can throw off your circadian rhythm for longer than you hope. While jet lag isn’t fully out of your control, it can have a negative effect on your first night of travel, leaving you sleep-deprived and groggy the next day.
So, what is in your control?
For starters, the room you’re staying in and its amenities are vital to getting good sleep when traveling. Many travelers complain about uncomfortable beds and tough pillows.
Plus, a hotel room is only as quiet as its surrounding area. A street-side room on the lower floor of a metropolitan area hotel is going to be loud. Bright street lights might shine in through the windows too. Something as trivial as the ding of an arriving elevator or someone using the ice machines might be enough to wake you in the middle of the night.
10 Tips for Sleeping Better in Hotels
So, you’ve established that sleeping in hotels is not your strong suit. What can you do to make sure you have the best night’s sleep possible when traveling? Here are some helpful tips for what to do when you can’t sleep at a hotel. You can use some of these tips on the spot. Others will require some pre-trip planning.
1. Ask for Blackout Curtains or Bring an Eye Mask
It’s important to be in as dark an environment as possible when trying to fall asleep. However, street lights and neighboring buildings might find their way into your room at night. Make sure the hotel you’re staying at comes with blackout curtains. If not, invest in a comfortable eye mask to keep unwanted light out of your eyes.
2. Use a White Noise Machine or Earplugs
Not only should you be sleeping in a dark room, but a quiet room is also necessary for a restful night’s sleep. However, many people choose to use a white noise device to help them fall asleep. If you’re one of those people, make sure to bring a small fan to keep next to your hotel bed. The room’s alarm clock may also have a white noise setting. If not, there are plenty of white noise apps on your phone to use as well, even ones as simple as a fan simulator. If you need absolute silence to sleep, you can find earplugs at any pharmacy or music store.
3. Pack a Memento From Home
A picture of loved ones or even a stuffed animal can be enough to make your hotel room feel like home. Don’t bring something irreplaceable, though. It would be a shame to lose it in another country.
4. Bring Your Own Pillow
Have you ever felt uncomfortable sleeping on a hotel pillow? If you have enough room in your luggage, try bringing your own. Not only does this ensure that you’ll have a comfortable place to lay your head, bringing your own pillow also works similarly to packing a memento from home. Your head is used to it, and you’ll have an easier time settling into your temporary home away from home.
5. Research Your Hotel’s Mattress Quality
Most hotel mattresses come with a medium firmness which is pretty universally comfortable. However, heavier individuals might find it too soft, and lightweight people may find it too firm. Finding a mattress that resembles the one you have at home will make falling asleep much easier, so be sure to read the reviews prior to booking your stay.
6. Research the Area
You may be able to dig some reviews up from the hotel website as far as the surrounding area is concerned. Keep an eye on events going on in the city or town and plan accordingly. Find out if your room overlooks the street, and see if you might be able to change to something less noisy.
7. Melatonin or Other Sleep Aids
While prescription sleep aids need to be taken with caution, an over-the-counter melatonin tablet or gummy will help you fall asleep as you’re winding down for the evening. Just make sure to stick to low-light nighttime activities that require little brain function, such as reading or meditating. Watching TV or playing video games will only keep you up.
8. Maintain a Optimal Sleep Temperature
Set the room thermostat between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit, the ideal temperature range for a comfortable night’s sleep. Whether you set it to the upper or lower temperature in that range depends on your preference and where you’re traveling to. A July vacation in Miami will be much warmer than a Spring getaway in Seattle.
9. Prevent Jet Lag
Keeping your circadian rhythm (your sleep-wake cycle) consistent will help when sleeping away from home, especially when traveling to a different time zone. A few days before your trip, start going to bed a few hours earlier if heading East and later if heading West. However, once the time difference exceeds six hours, you’ll just have to adjust to the first day. Load up on activities and avoid taking a nap. Increasing your exposure to sunlight can also help.
10. Maintain Your Nighttime Routine
Try your best to do everything you usually do at home before going to bed. Start winding down around the same time you normally do and turn off electronics an hour before bed.
Sleep Soundly at Your Home Away From Home
While there’s not much you can do to combat FNE, there is plenty you can do to get the best night’s sleep possible in a hotel room. Remember, the front desk is there to help you. Don’t be afraid to ask for new pillows or even a full room change if your current one isn’t working out.