Getting a good night’s sleep while traveling is challenging for most sleepers, but if you have a bit of insomnia back home, sleeping while traveling can be even more difficult. While laying awake in your own comfy bed back home is unpleasant, laying in a hostel dorm staring at the bunk above you and listening to people snore for hours on end can feel like torture. As a quasi-professional traveler, diagnosed insomniac, and sleep hygiene educator, I’ve spent both many sleepless nights in faraway countries and done extensive research on sleep, falling asleep, and sleep quality. Here are my tips for sleeping well while traveling- no matter your age or travel style.
If you can’t sleep, get up
Sleep researchers have found that one of the best ways to fall asleep is to get out of bed! Really! Getting out of bed and doing something calming but active for 30 minutes tends to be more effective at putting us to sleep than lying awake in bed for those 30 minutes.
What to do if you are in a hostel dorm and can’t get up without disturbing someone else? Step outside. Spend some time quietly reading or putting together a puzzle in a common area of the hostel outside of the dorms, or– if it is safe to do so in your location– step outside or go for a walk (if you leave your hostel in the night, leave a quick note on your bed or tell someone at reception which way you headed and when you plan to be back)
How to sleep better in hotels and dorms- Bring your own pillowcase
Part of the reason that we don’t sleep well in hotels, hostels, and Airbnbs is a lack of comfort. Although our sleeping spaces back home are carefully curated with mattresses that feel good, soft linens, and a couple of pillows that are “just right,” when we pay for lodging we often get poor quality or worn-out bedding that just isn’t comfortable.
One way to sleep better in hotels, dorms, and airbnbs is to bring your own sleep-related comfort objects to help you get a good nights sleep anywhere. Bringing a pillowcase from home is one of my best travel hacks: it can serve a number of purposes on the road (laundry bag, packing cube, etc) and always ensures that you’ll have a comfortable, familiar, and clean pillowcase to sleep on. When you get to a new location, just slip your pillowcase over the bed pillow that is provided. Alternately, if I find myself in an air B&B without sufficient pillows, I stuff my pillowcase with throw pillows or even clean clothes so I have an extra pillow.
If you have sensitive skin or struggle with acne, packing your own pillowcase extra benefit: ensuring that you have a clean pillowcase that hasn’t been washed with harsh or heavily perfumed detergents. By picking a pillowcase with a texture that is soft on your skin (some acne sufferers swear by a silk pillowcase) you can help keep your skin clear during your travel.
My Travel Sleep Kit
A few times I’ve traveled abroad for a few weeks with my older brother as a companion. As siblings, we’re comfortable saving money by doubling up in one room, but as light sleepers and both occasional snorers, we were both forced to learn creative ways to sleep in strange places.
Here’s my list of 5 Products I pack on every trip that almost guarantee I can sleep through anything. These are not paid placements, but are actually products I recommend. (Some of the links are, however, affiliate links that help keep my blog online.
Clockwise from top, my favorite sleep aids are: 1. SleepPhones 2. Benadryl & Melatonin 3. A (really good) Eye Mask 4. Noise-Cancelling Headphones 5. WhiteNoise App (Not Pictured).
Here’s why these lifesavers made my list:
Wireless Sleep Head Phones – Slap on the back to the inventor who created a fleece headband style set of earphones with speakers that are *actually* flat. Similar products seem to be just regular earbuds inside a fleece band, but these are the real deal. These soft fleece headphones are the best way to block light ambient noise and play sleep inducing sound without disturbing your partner or roommate. The flat speaker design inside the fleece band means none of the issues of trying to sleep or fall asleep wearing headphones.
Benadryl & Melatonin – You won’t create a chemical dependency in one vacation, and the health benefits of sleep far outweigh any health risks (for most people) of these over the counter medications. Be sure and pick up Benadryl (Diphenhydramine) at a wholesale club or from Amazon because corner markets and sometimes even larger chain drugstores charge up to 20X as much for Benadryl. For Melatonin, I’m partial to the Source Naturals brand, because they offer smaller doses and dissolve-under-the-tongue tablets, which act faster than my brain can reach the frustrated-and-I-can’t-sleep point of trying to go to sleep in a strange bed.
Contoured Eye Mask – A good sleep mask is essential. Avoid sleep masks from big box stores and purchase a sleep mask designed by a company that makes sleeping well their business. Good materials and good design really matter on something you will wear on your face for 7-10 hours each day of your trip! Shown is my Alaska Bear Silk Sleep Mask, which I like a lot, but I prefer this contoured eye mask because it takes the material’s pressure off of my eyelids. Fair warning: I washed my contoured eye mask in a machine washer once and it began to deteriorate! Hand wash only.
Audio-Technica QuietPoint Active Noise-Cancelling Headphones – The best. Seriously. The best. I don’t travel by bus, plane, or train without these headphones and they are largely responsible for most of my papers written in coffee shops and libraries during grad school. Paired with the WhiteNoise app (below) these can drown out 80% of ambient sound at any volume. I don’t sleep with these unless I have to (i.e. bunking with a loud snorer) but 90% of the time these can do the job alone. If you want to find yourself in sheer ambient white noise silence- pair these with SleepPhones and silence even the loudest snorer. By allowing me to sleep, these might have saved my roommate’s life in Germany once.
WhiteNoise App – Because for $1.99, 1,800 amazon reviews can’t be wrong. Anytime I need to concentrate in a space with background noise, this is my go-to app. This app paired with QuietPoint Headphones can make you absolutely forget you in the back row of an airplane, a crowded coffee shop, or in a room with a partner not quite ready to turn off the Late Show and go to bed.
These 5 (ok, 6ish) products have saved my sleep and my sanity during many travel adventures. Getting great sleep is so important to fully enjoying your vacation and experiencing what your days hold. Now that I live in Seattle with 4:30 am summer sunrises and downtown nightlife noise lasting long past midnight, these are products I use every day and am glad to share.
Where should you sleep when traveling?
There are all kinds of debates within travel communities about where the best place to sleep during a trip is. There are some who argue that the friends made during staying in a hostel far outweigh the lower quality of sleep the most people get in a dorm, however, this will hinge heavily on your own sleep patterns: after all, if you are a light sleeper with insomnia, you won’t be able to make or enjoy new friends if you haven’t slept in days!
Is it hard to sleep in hostels?
Most hostels are very difficult to sleep in, but it depends on your personal sleep habits and biology. Some of us are wired to be more reactive to background noise, our brains dedicating more resources to scanning for sounds that might indicate a threat. While this may have helped us survive in prehistoric times, individuals that are hyperreactive to sound during sleep (or while falling asleep) probably aren’t great candidates to stay in hostels during travel.
Thankfully, there are many options for places to sleep during travel. 20 years ago the lodging choices for travelers were mostly limited to expensive hotel rooms or cheap (and often sketchy) hostel dorms. As travel has exploded in popularity, so have the options for traveling. Today travelers can choose from a whole gamut of sleeping options and prices, ranging from hostel dorms (sometimes as low as $10-$15 a night), private rooms in hostels (often about $35-50, depending on location), private rooms in air B&B homes (often cheaper- and quieter- than private rooms in hostels), entire air B&B apartments, and hotel beds ranging from budget rooms to luxury suites. While it is hard for most of us to sleep in hostels, thankfully there are many alternate sleeping arrangements available for today’s travelers.
What do you wear to sleep in a hostel?
You can pack typical pajamas for staying in a hostel, but for one bag travelers it’s best to try and find sleep garments that can also be worn as day clothing. A popular pajama choice for female travelers is a pair of shorts from a swimsuit bottom (this pair is available from size SM-3X) Not only are these dual-use, as they can also be used for a swimsuit, but they tick all the boxes for comfortable sleepwear that won’t expose body parts you’d like to keep private. Shorts from a two-piece swimsuit have lots of stretch in every direction making them comfortable to sleep in. They also have built-in underwear that is designed to keep you covered up, and, if well fit, won’t slip awkwardly during sleep.
How to fall asleep in a hostel
Secure your stuff
You won’t sleep if you are worried about security of your valuables. Lock it up, invest in renting a locker or buying a lock if you don’t have one (consider good sleep your return on investment!) or stuff valuables inside your pillow, bedding, or clothing.
Take a cool shower
Sleep researchers have found that people sleep best in a cool room. If you can’t control the room temperature, lower your body temperature with a cool shower.
Listen to a sleep story podcast
Sleep story podcasts are relaxing, meditative type stories with no drama or cliffhangers, meant to help you relax and fall asleep
If you can’t sleep, make a list or take a walk
If you can’t sleep, you may want to get out of bed for a bit. Go to an area where you won’t bother others, and travel journal for a bit or make a list of worries to think about tomorrow.
Artist, digital nomad, and highly sensitive person, Lynli started traveling full time as a digital nomad in 2018. Writer and Illustrator by day, remote-destination explorer by other-days, Lynli is passionate about pushing the boundaries of her own comfort zone, exploring the world as a female, fat, one-bag traveler, and journalling it all on WanderBig.com