It’s a cruel paradox that right when you need sleep the most -- when you’re jet lagged or weary from a day of sightseeing -- is exactly when it proves to be so illusive. In a hotel, you snap to attention with every hallway murmur, passing car, and rumble of the elevator. And what was that whirring noise? Is that the air-conditioning switching off? Or are your neighbors actually making pina coladas in their room?
How do you put these thoughts -- and yourself -- to bed?
The truth is, we’re biologically wired to stay on alert in new environments, something called the “first night effect.” That defense mechanism makes getting a solid eight hours of shut-eye in a hotel room rather tricky. But these nine tips will give you the best shot at waking up refreshed and ready to explore.
Hotels in this story
1. Choose your room wisely.
There are plenty of important factors to consider when selecting a hotel room: space, views, or even monogrammed bathrobes, if that’s your thing. But light sleepers should focus on three things: location, location, location. Where your room is located accounts for a lot of the noise it may pick up. As a rule, rooms on higher floor facing the rear or interior of the building will get the least amount of street-level noise. Also request a room away from the elevator and the ice machine, both create a clamor on their own, and they can be gathering points for people to chat late into the night. Another thing to avoid is rooms facing the pool; those summery views can also come with loud splashing around at all hours.
2. Keep it fresh and cool.
Stuffy rooms are sleepy-time kryptonite. Once you’ve set your bags down, get the air moving in your room. Fling open your windows or switch on the fan. When you get closer to bedtime, switch on the air-conditioning and turn down the temps to something between 60 to 67 degrees. It may feel a little chilly when you’re not under the covers, but according to the National Sleep Foundation, that’s the temperature that naturally fosters sleep. Your body temperature drops when you’re falling asleep, and dialing down the thermostat can kick off that cycle.
3. B.Y.O. earplugs.
Selecting a room away from noise is a good start, but frankly there’s no location that can solve the problem of thin walls. A good, cheapie pair of earplugs should be your first line of defense, and really there’s no excuse not to pack them: They’re practically weightless, totally inexpensive, and take up less room in your luggage than travel-sized sunscreen. And don’t assume you’ll get a set from the airline or hotel. Far better to B.Y.O. and be sure.
4. Pack your pillow or pillowcase.
New environments will trigger your brain into staying awake, scanning for every little disruption. But you can trick your mind into trusting a hotel room, by making it as familiar as possible. One easy way is to pack your pillow from home. Not only will this have the desired fluff-to-firm ratio that you’re used to, it will feel soothing and homey. If your pillow is too bulky to fit into your luggage, settle for your pillowcase. That will still have the surface texture you’re used to and even the subtle scent of the laundry detergent you use at home.
5. Take a pre-sleep bath or shower.
You now know to crank up the AC before bunking down for the night to foster that dip in body temperature that will help you catch your Zs. But another way to get that temperature down is to take a pre-sleep bath or shower. This tip is a twofer: You’ll relax any tense muscles from travel that need to be eased, and when you get out of the water, your body will come down in temp, too. Bonus points for using lavender in your bath, which has been proven to boost sedative effects.
6. Switch off the devices.
This one is easier said than done, but once you’re winding down for sleep, resist looking at your phone, tablet, or laptop. As the National Sleep Foundation has reported, the light they cast out can disrupt your circadian rhythm (something that’s already taken a hit if you’re jet lagged). But every little email ping, app notification, or text buzz also stirs our sense of novelty, basically sending the message to your brain that something exciting is going to happen. It’s layers of stimulation. Do yourself a favor: Flip your device to airplane mode and stuff it in your bag out of sight.
7. Keep it really, really—no really!—dark.
Once you’ve tucked away the devices, it’s time to hunt down every little source of light and kill it. Grab a few towels from the bathroom to drape them over the glow from the alarm clock, the phone, or the little power light from the TV. Feel free to stuff it under the door to the hallway, if light leaks in there. Investigate the drapes and make sure they’re blackout style and close completely. You might consider packing some clothes pins to pin shut any gaps. If you forget these, you can always use the clips from the pants/skirt hangers to bind them shut. And for the ultimate in darkness, throw on an eye mask.
8. Get the white noise going.
Your earplugs should do the trick to blanket out any noise. But if you forgot to bring a pair, or there’s still some commotion that you can’t block, white noise can save the day. Plenty of hotel alarm clocks have a white noise function that emits anything from the sound of waves and rainfall to static fuzz. If your hotel isn’t that tech-savvy, get on your phone or laptop. Loads of apps and websites offer white noise on demand. Even YouTube channels have easy-access to rainstorms or crackling fireplaces—just make sure to flip your screen off. See #6 and #7.
9. Raid the minibar for a small snack—but avoid the booze.
A rumbling belly will keep you up, so go ahead and raid the minibar for a small snack that will take the edge off any hunger until the continental breakfast is set out the next day. But a word of warning: Avoid the booze. While a little nightcap sounds like the ideal way to nod off, it’s a buy-now-pay-later situation when it comes to sleep. As the National Sleep Foundation explains, the depressant qualities of alcohol can make you drop into sleep, but it’ll also jerk around your circadian rhythms, making you wake in the middle of the night and then struggle to recapture your sleepy state. It’ll also trigger sleep-disrupting bathroom breaks. Instead of a nightcap, treat yourself to a morning mimosa — after you’ve clocked in your shut-eye.
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