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Dream Trips + Getting Some Shut-Eye in the Sky

Upgrade your travel experiences by following these 10 tips for getting premium sleep while away from home.

It its best, travel can be a thrilling adventure that reboots both body and mind. At its worst, it can wreak havoc with sleep, which will put a cranky damper on exploring your destination.

Long-term lack of sleep can make you look older; it can cause you to gain weight and experience more pain; and it can leave you more likely to engage in risky behavior or act unprofessionally in work settings. While chronic sleep deprivation may significantly compromise overall health and well-being, even brief periods of sleep loss can affect mood and memory. So if you want to etch the highlights of a trip into your recollections, getting quality slumber while traveling should be a priority, and it is easier than ever to do so.

The real issue when crossing time zones, says Dr. Rachel Salas, a neurologist at Johns Hopkins Medicine, is exposure to light. “Light, especially sunlight, is the biggest clock resetter we have,” she says. If we can reset our circadian clocks when we travel, then we are much more likely to enjoy the trip. Many top international hotels design their rooms for optimal sleep so you can be your best self.

Travel can also be tough on sleep because by its very nature it casts aside routines. A healthy sleep regimen, however, is one habit you will want to preserve during your trip. Dr. Param Dedhia—the director of sleep medicine at Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Ariz.—says ideal sleep hygiene includes keeping non-sleeping activities out of the bedroom. That’s challenging when your hotel room or flight cabin has to serve as a workspace. Nevertheless, you can still harmonize your external environment with your internal state by following these tips:

1. Reset before you even leave home.

You can begin adjusting your sleep clock to a new country’s time zone at home by wearing darkening glasses or visors, or by going to bed and waking earlier or later, says Salas. She also suggests using a light box to tell your brain to wake up, even if it’s dark outside, or drawing blackout curtains to bring on the night a little earlier.


2. Plan to arrive in a foreign country in the morning and sleep on the plane.

If you need help falling asleep, Salas suggests a 1 mg dose of melatonin, a hormone the body produces to signal the mind that sleep is around the corner. Take it 30 minutes to 1 hour before you want to sleep, she says, but don’t use it as a sleeping pill: “It’s not a very good one. In our clinic we use it as a circadian-rhythm anchor.”

3. Forgo the beverage-service nightcap.

The most commonly used sleep aid, Dedhia says, is alcohol. However, it’s a poor choice. Every serving of alcohol affects sleep for 2 hours, he says. Sedation levels increase for the first hour, but during the second hour arousal increases as the alcohol leaves the body.


4. Bring your own pillow.

Sleep posture can affect sleep quality, especially if you have pain or sleep apnea, says Nancy Davis, an expert on sleep posture at Canyon Ranch. Unless you have sleep apnea, sleeping on your back is best—and most first-class lie-flat airline seats now extend to 6.5 feet. Side sleeping is the second preferred position for good slumber, Davis says. Whatever your sleep position, you want a pillow that supports your neck. Davis notes that most down pillows can easily be stuffed into a carry-on. She suggests tugging the bottom corners of the pillow down toward the shoulders to make a nest for your head.

5. Get exposure to light early in the day and retire to a dark room at night.

When you change time zones, you’re really changing when your body is being exposed to light, which confuses the sleep/wake signals for the brain. “If you get light exposure at the same time every morning, that’s essentially when your brain is reset, like a stopwatch,” says Salas. When you alter that, you scramble the cues to the brain.

 6. Choose a hotel with a pillow menu, blackout curtains, and circadian lighting.

Most luxury hotels have made guests’ sleep a priority. MGM Grand, for instance, offers Stay Well suites in Las Vegas. They’re equipped with dawn-simulating alarm clocks, warm-hued lighting that won’t send the brain cues to wake more substantially during middle-of-the-night bathroom trips, and energizing light therapy for the morning. At Zurich’s Dolder Grand, the darkening shades can even be programmed to let light into the room gradually.


7. Embrace sleep-inducing technology.

Use downloadable dimmers for your computer and the night-shift function on your iPhone to switch over from brain-waking blue light to sleep-inducing warm-hued light. Consider using products like the new Genesis lamp from Lighting Science, which attunes to your circadian patterns and adjusts its light output accordingly.

8. Be mindful of sleep trackers.

These could backfire and cause anxiety if you discover you’re not getting enough sleep. But, Salas says, they can help by making sleep a priority.

9. Keep it cool.

To help restore cells, the body and brain’s temperature drops during sleep, says Dedhia. Travelers can fall asleep faster by mimicking this cooling process. Dedhia and Salas both suggest indulging in a hot bath or shower before bed. The subsequent cooling can help prompt sleep. And keeping your hotel room’s temperature between 64 and 69 degrees will help you sleep soundly.

10. Stick to your normal routines as much as possible.

The brain loves patterns—they help it understand when it’s time to wake or sleep. You can give it the same signals when you travel by sticking to that morning workout or after-dinner walk. Just avoid strenuous activity too close to bedtime, Salas advises, because it stimulates waking hormones and endorphins. “The mind and body respond to habits,” Dedhia says, so consistency of sleep and wake times might be even more important than the number of horizontal hours you log. 

11. Get comfy.

If you’re not flying privately, then choose first class or business class. You especially want to be well rested if you have to hit the ground running when you arrive at your destination. Try to book a lie-flat seat bed or premium cabin with sleep pods, such as those on British Airways, Qantas, and Korean Air airliners. Better still are the full-bed suites and “first apartments” offered by Singapore Airlines and Etihad Airways. “You can lower the light, block the noise, and control your sleep environment,” says Johns Hopkins’ Dr. Rachel Salas.