How to Sleep in a Hotel: 11 Ways to Sleep Better while Traveling

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Whether they're there for business or pleasure, most people aim for high-quality sleep when they stay at hotels. After all, that's pretty much the entire purpose of booking a room. Many hotel rooms can be made to cooperate with the occupant's desire for optimum Z's, the trick is knowing what conditions are most likely to lead to successful snoozing.

1. Keep it dark. A wealth of research over the years has shown that light influences our sleep schedule. Animal studies have shown that sleeping bathed in even a small amount of light (equal to what's found in urban areas at night) can alter natural sleep clocks. Many hotels these days are equipped with blackout curtains, so people can create the sleep cave of their dreams at any hour. If checking ahead for this feature seems like a step too far, consider packing an eye mask for instant, portable darkness. A person who finds total darkness unsettling may consider turning on the bathroom light and using the door to regulate the amount of light that comes out, suggests Dr. David Claman, director of the UCSF Sleep Disorders Center.

2. Make it quiet. The World Health Organization has serious concerns about the impact of sound on work, health, and sleep. They say that bedroom should be no louder than 30 decibels, about the level of a whisper, and that anything over 40 decibels could lead to adverse health effects. That's less than the volume of a bird call and about equal to sound levels in a library. To combat unwanted noise, some hotels offer white noise machines by request or have sound machine/alarm clock combos in the room. Just in case, smart travelers might want to bring along earplugs to deal with unpredictable sound, such as raucous neighbors.

3. Lower the temperature. The National Sleep Foundation recommends sleeping in a room that is between 60 and 67 degrees. There is limited research on this topic, but most experts seem to agree that high temperatures can make it difficult to fall asleep, potentially because they disrupt the drop in core temperature that occurs when people drift off. Recent research published in Current Biology suggests that having a variance in temperatures may be important as well. This research surveyed people in hunter-gatherer and hunter-horticulturist societies and found that that they consistently slept while temperatures declined and woke when they hit their lowest point. The researchers suggested that modern preferences for temperatures stability throughout the day and night might actually be messing up our sleep cycles. Hotel rooms may not provide thermostats that can mimic the temperature fluctuations of nature, but setting them a little lower during sleep might make settling in easier.

4. Experiment with options. Even with bedrooms at home, it often takes significant time and effort to figure out the ideal sleep environment. Knowing what features of a hotel best suit your sleep style will likely take some time too. "In general, the most important factor is what's comfortable for each, individual person," says Claman. Some hotels offer a variety of pillows to choose from or feature aromatherapy turn-down service by-request. Even if a firm pillow and the smell of lavender aren't what you're used to, consider taking advantage of opportunities to try out something new — it could be just what you need.

5. Find a familiar place. A recent study published in Current Biology observed 35 people for two nights in a previously unknown setting and saw that the left side of people's brains slept more lightly than the right side on the first night. This asymmetry was related to difficulty falling asleep and the researchers said it could be our brain working as a vigilant "night watch" in an unknown environment. However, the strength of this effect may be dulled outside of the lab. "The idea of a first-night effect, usually we apply it specifically to the sleep lab environment, where people have 12 to 16 electrode sensors taped to their head, their scalp, near their eyes, and their chin," says Claman. "It's very different than sleeping in a comfy hotel bed with just worrying about getting up in time the next morning." He still recommends finding a go-to hotel when possible because the fewer surprises and unknowns a person deals with, the less likely an unexpected stress will pop-up.

6. Take a hot shower. This tip can be exactly what some people need to wind down but it isn't for everyone. Claman says this is his personal method of relaxation when traveling, particularly after long plane rides or rushing around. However, he warns that showers can actually make some people more awake. Although there isn't solid scientific support of the shower-then-sleep combination, it's possible that a hot shower or bath before bed beneficially emphasizes the drop in body temperature that seems to help us fall asleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

7. Move your meeting. Not everyone has this option but Claman says that avoiding morning meetings while traveling can help improve sleep. This straightforward change can reduce late-night stress over potential oversleeping and (when moving eastward through time zones) the effects of jet lag. "If possible, if you’re flying from the west coast, try not to have a 7 a.m. breakfast meeting in New York," says Claman, "because it really exaggerates the challenges of getting up." Claman says that the biggest obstacles to successful sleep in hotels are more likely to be psychological than physical. So, although a later start time might seem like a big ask, it could be well worth it.

8. Avoid napping. There is a lot of back and forth about whether napping is healthy. Power naps have been praised for improving mood and performance but the need to nap may also be an indicator of poor health. A survey published in the American Journal of Epidemiology looked at more than 16,000 people in Britain and found that participants who napped for less an hour on average were 14 percent more likely to die over the 13-year survey when compared to non-nappers. Daily naps that lasted longer than an hour were associated with a 32 percent increased risk. Regardless of whether it has benefits, Claman says people should avoid napping if they think they may struggle with falling asleep at night. Even on an early flight, he says that people moving ahead in time zones should not nap if they are at all concerned about going to sleep that night.

9. Don't depend on caffeine — or warm milk. Keeping away from caffeine right before bed time seems like a no-brainer, but people should cut out coffee far sooner than they likely expect. "Be really careful about caffeinated drinks, which can stay in your system for 6 to 8 hours," says Claman. On the flip side, some hotels offer up warm milk as a sleep aid. This is a fun perk but research has yet to back up its sleep-inducing reputation.

10. Embrace your routine. There are plenty of lists telling people the best setup for sleep. These can help us create our optimum snoozing environment but what works for one person doesn't work for everyone. "The basic thing I think is if you get to a hotel and you're not tired, whatever relaxes you is what you need to use," says Claman. He even says that watching TV or reading a book before bed — categorized as pre-sleep sins by many experts — can be just what some people need to relax and have a good night's rest, especially when you're on the road.

11. Consider some snooze-friendly hotels. Beyond extreme situations, such as being roomed next to a freeway or a clunky elevator, hotel selection may not have a predictable impact on how someone sleeps. Psychology and personal preference are simply too powerful to be overcome by an alarm clock that offers whale songs. But if you think some added focus on sleep aids or options could help you zero in on what works for you, consider these hotels, which make guests' rest a top priority.

  • The Four Seasons, all locations: The Four Seasons is so confident in their Signature Sleep program that you can buy their beds online. All rooms have blackout curtains and they've selected extra-quiet light switches. Four Seasons Singapore even has a sleep-inducing music list and delivers counting sheep cookies.
  • The Wilcox in Aiken, South Carolina: This hotel offers three different sleep packages. A meditation DVD and pillow, in-room aromatherapy treatment, and candle-lit bath with chamomile tea are just a few of the options available from their sleep concierge.
  • The Montcalm, London: This luxury hotel caters to sleep with a pillow menu, aromatherapy and bath oils, and a selection of bedtime treats, such as tea, milk, and  a fruit salad. All of these options are part of their sleep concierge service.
  • The Benjamin, New York: This hotel is known for its special sleep services. They have an extensive "Rest & Renew" menu, which lists a power nap package (aromatherapy, eye mask, bottle of water, turndown, and a wake-up call) and light snacks from Iron Chef Geoffrey Zakarian's The National. The also have a special experience for children that includes a child-size pillow and bathrobe. Claman has stayed at The Benjamin, intrigued by their marketing but unconvinced their methods could do much to guarantee better sleep. "To be honest, I thought it was a bit of a fun idea," he says, "but what it taught me more than anything as a sleep professional is how many different kinds of pillow designs there really are." For the record, there are ten different pillows available.