How to Optimize Sleep When You’re Not in Your Own Bed


Suitcases with travel CPAP machines

When you head out of town, you know there’s one thing you can count on: A less-than-adequate night of sleep. Whether you’re staying with family or in a hotel, sleeping in a bed that’s not your own might make for poor sleep. 

Thankfully, scientists have now figured out why this occurs. Take a look at the reasons for poor sleep when not in your own bed, as well as steps you can take to optimize sleep when you’re away from home.

Why Is it Hard to Sleep in a Different Bed?

Researchers at the Laboratory for Cognitive and Perceptual Learning at Brown University discovered the answer to this question in 2016 when they studied the brain activity of healthy people sleeping in an unfamiliar bed and an unfamiliar place. The left hemisphere of the brain, it turns out, stays partly awake during the first night in a new environment.

By staying alert, the brain is acting as a sort of security guard. Your brain acts as a surveillance system, trying to protect you from your new environment.

Humans are not alone in this first-night wakefulness. Other species, notably dolphins and whales, also show signs of wakefulness in one hemisphere of their brains while they sleep, and many bird species do the same thing.

Optimizing Your Sleep Habits When Away From Home

At home, you probably stick to a regular routine that helps your body know when to start winding down for sleep. Traveling often disrupts that routine — and your sleep feels the disruption. 

Try to maintain as much of your routine as possible (if you’ve already been having trouble sleeping in your own bed, there are also lots of different ways to improve your sleep). Among the sleep habits that can help you avoid issues while traveling are the following:

  • Stick to your normal bedtime. It can be tempting to stay out late when you’re out of town, but going to bed at your typical time can help you get better rest. Maintaining bad sleeping habits can also be what causes sleeplessness
  • Plan ahead to minimize jet lag. The combination of jet lag and sleeping in a bed that’s not your own can destroy your attempts to get healthy sleep while traveling. Consider Harvard Medical School’s method for beating jet lag: Using fasting before you fly and eating a good breakfast your first morning in the new time zone to reset your circadian rhythm.
  • Put down your phone. Watching a screen of any size during the hour or so before bedtime can wreak havoc with your sleep. Recharge your phone away from your nightstand to minimize temptation and shut off your computer and TV well before bedtime.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol. Both these stimulants can mess with your ability to get a good night’s sleep, so avoid them when adjusting to a new sleep environment.
  • Avoid naps. That afternoon nap that gives you a boost of energy at the end of the workday can make it harder to get to sleep at bedtime.
  • Don’t work on the bed. At home, you probably already practice good sleep hygiene. On the road, however, it can be tempting to prop up the pillows and spread your work out on the bed. Use the hotel desk instead, or go down to the lobby to get work done so your brain continues to associate your bed with sleep.

Optimizing Your Sleep Environment When Away From Home

At home, it’s easy to arrange your sleep environment just the way you want. But when you’re traveling, you have to work a bit harder. Try these techniques to make your bed-away-from-bed comfortable enough to let you sleep well.

  • Ask your hotel about options. Some hotels offer pillow menus so you can get just the right kind to help you sleep comfortably. In addition, many hotel chains offer beds so comfortable that you can actually buy the mattresses to use at home. When you find one you like, stick with that hotel chain.
  • Take your own pillow. If you’re on a road trip, taking your pillow with you may help your mind relax when it’s time for bed.
  • Set the temperature to your liking. Most people sleep better in cooler temperatures of around 65° F. Set the hotel temperature to match what you use at home, or what’s most comfortable.
  • Block out noise. Start by asking for a room that’s nowhere near the elevator or ice machine. Make sure you have earplugs in your travel kit, and if you have room, bring along a white noise machine to drown out all those unfamiliar sounds.
  • Block out light. Most hotels make this easy by providing blackout curtains — but tuck an eyeshade into your toiletries kit just in case.
  • Try aromatherapy. If you sleep with a certain scent perfuming your room at home, bring it along when traveling for the aroma of familiarity.
  • Say yes to turndown service. If your hotel offers this service, which consists of housekeeping coming in to get the bed ready for sleep (sometimes with a chocolate on the pillow), accept the offer. Climbing into a bed that’s freshly made and welcoming starts your good night’s sleep well.

Have these tips worked for you? What other tips or sleep secrets have helped you sleep better in a different bed? Comment below and let us know!

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