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8 Tips for Sleeping Better in a Hotel

by Jimmy Leonard | Updated 02 Jan 2024

Sueño Labs does not provide medical advice. See our terms and disclaimers.

A luxurious hotel room
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Hotels can be beautiful and luxurious — until it’s time for bed.

It seems like no matter how much a hotel spends on a top-of-the-line mattress or blackout curtains or weirdly small decorative throw pillows, it is humanly impossible to get a good night’s sleep. Maybe you’re traveling right now and reading this from your hotel room, hoping I’ll drop some sage advice. If that’s the case, I’ll say this: Run the shower with the door open and place a wet towel near the radiator. Your room is as dry as the Atacama, and the air will rub your throat raw unless you humidify stat. Also take the little shampoo bottle home with you because it’s perfect for an airplane carry-on.

But no matter where or when you’re traveling, getting enough sleep in a hotel is notoriously difficult. Some natural brain responses to spending the night away from home are unfortunately out of your control, but there’s also a list of little things you can do to drastically increase your chances of getting your beauty rest.

Here’s why you don’t sleep well in a hotel room and what to do about it.

How To Sleep Better in a Hotel

Understand Your Brain's Response

Bad news first: When it comes to sleeping in a hotel, the deck is truly stacked against you.

I don’t just mean the loud sounds that come from the hallway at ungodly hours of the night. Your brain actually stays awake on purpose as part of a “stranger danger” response to being in a new place. A sleep study at Brown University determined that a portion of the left brain hemisphere stays active during slow-wave deep sleep. Researchers called this the first-night effect because — you guessed it — the phenomenon is measurably stronger in the first night at a new place.

This first-night effect is in some ways comparable to the body’s fight-or-flight response. When you sense possible danger, your heart rate increases, you have more glucose in your blood, and your muscles are tense. It seems that we are instinctually wired to keep a similar kind of alertness when we’re lying down in an unfamiliar spot.

So what can be done? The best way to combat the first-night effect is to bring familiar items from your bed at home. It might sound a bit juvenile, like a toddler needing her special blanket and stuffed animal, but there’s a psychological reality here. Even as an adult, you will sleep better if you feel safe, and the best way to feel safe is for the room to feel familiar.

Bring Your Own Pillow (and Routine)

To that point, it’s well worth the effort to bring your pillow from home. Take it a step further and consider bringing other articles from your bedroom, whether it’s a diffuser, a quilt, or a sound machine. When my wife and I travel, we bring this white noise sound machine. It’s portable, works great, and — most importantly — reminds us of our room at home.

This is where some people overcompensate by trying to “force” a good night’s sleep. If you bring earplugs, a sleep mask, and a bottle of melatonin, but you don’t normally use those things at home, it’s not doing anything to make your brain feel safe. Sleep is a learned skill, and your body has subconsciously learned a certain routine that it’s best to follow.

Whatever you’d normally do in the 30 minutes before bed, try as hard as you can to keep that same routine in the hotel room. It will ultimately help you calm down and drift off to sleep.

Exercise and Stretch

This one’s tricky. Too much exercise right before bed, like too big of a bedtime snack, can backfire by waking your body up when it’s supposed to be winding down.

But it’s common for your first night in a hotel to come at the end of a long day of travel, particularly one spent mostly on your butt. If you’ve been sitting on a plane or sitting in a car for hours and then you suddenly try to go to bed, your muscles might be too stiff to relax. Instead, try light stretches that encourage blood flow.

Do a few jumping jacks or take a 10-minute walk around the hotel halls (quietly, of course, to respect the other guests). Remember to stretch your neck and shoulders, too. Many people carry a lot of tension in these areas, especially on travel days.

Humidity Up, Temperature Down

As mentioned, hotel rooms are often dry. Experts agree that dry air negatively impacts sleep, contributing to coughing, itchy skin, and congestion. Unless you happen to travel with a portable humidifier (you’re a boss if that’s the case), you may need to get creative. It really does work to put a wet towel near the radiator, so don’t be shy to try it.

Similarly, experts recommend dropping the temperature to around 66 degrees Fahrenheit (18.9 Celcius). When your body is too hot, it has to work harder to regulate its internal temperature, meaning it’s more difficult to slip into that all-important comatose-like deep sleep.

Turn Off Your Screens

There isn’t much to do in a hotel room besides watching the absurdly large television from bed, checking work emails on your laptop, or sending “I miss you” texts to your boo back home.

The problem is that all of these activities are terrible choices before bed. Bright screens make your body think it’s daytime. As much as possible, you want to limit your exposure to blue light. If you absolutely must work, dim the brightness on your screen or don a pair of blue-light-blocking glasses. You might even try reading a good old-fashioned book.

Mind Your Diet

You might not want to hear this, but junk food negatively affects your sleep. Studies show that highly processed foods loaded with sugar and saturated fat can shorten your deep sleep stage. As your body tries to process the unhealthy intake, it doesn’t get as much rest.

This matters because, as with the lack of exercise, you’re more likely to have a terrible diet on days you travel. A few drive-thru value meals here, a few airport kiosk snacks there — it’s often war on your gastronomy. As much as possible, pack familiar healthy snacks before you travel. The more you can eat what you usually would (assuming you eat better at home than on the road), the less your body will have to adjust at the hotel.

While we’re on the subject, if you order a nightcap, keep it to one drink. Too much alcohol can likewise cause problems with your sleep.

Calm Down Before Bed

Travel can be stressful. Maybe your plans were delayed, maybe you’re on a work trip or in a challenging family situation, or maybe you just stubbed your toe while trying to wheel the luggage cart into the elevator.

No matter what’s making you anxious, take a moment to meditate before bed. Consider journaling your thoughts on paper, listening to music, or completing a series of breathing exercises. While it won’t completely cure that dreaded first-night effect, calming your mind and spirit will help the body settle in, too.

Keep It in Perspective

If you’re like most people, you will have a less-than-spectacular night of sleep whenever you travel somewhere new. Remind yourself that this is normal and that it will only be rough for a night or two. (Even if you stay at the hotel longer, the first-night effect will wear off as your body adjusts to the new place.)

Perhaps you’ll even take the opportunity to practice your lucid dreaming.  Sleeping a little bit worse can mean your brain stays closer to conscious awareness, making it more likely you’ll remember your dreams.

No matter where you’re staying tonight, may your anxiety stay low and your room stay quiet.

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy is a marketing content strategist and copywriter who moonlights as the editor of Sueño Labs. He loves exploring new places, but he always brings his own pillow.

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