A good night’s sleep on the road can make the difference between a fabulous vacation and a busted mess of a trip. This is true for any traveler, but so so so much more true for a traveler with pain or illness. But of course it’s always harder to sleep away from home. And to catch more than a furtive nap while in transit is a joke.
I’ve developed all sorts of methods to cope with sleep disturbances on the road. I mix and match whichever techniques I need most (and can manage physically) on any given trip. Overall, the best thing I (and you) can do is to try to recreate my home sleep environment as closely as possible. Failing that, I go for sensory deprivation–as quiet and dark as I can make the room.
1. Diminish Ambient Sound
I favor total silence when I sleep–not an easy commodity to come by in urban hotels, Interstate-side motels, hostels, or campgrounds. Also, I had a slight incident with a cockroach on a trip to Tahiti. So I use earplugs. Yes, they took getting used to, but they work. If you’re sensitive to sound when you sleep and you want to travel, I recommend starting trying out different kinds of earplugs to find your favorite.
Other folks prefer soothing noises–music, water sounds, chirping birds. If that’s your preference, download your favorite sounds to your iPod. If sleeping with earbuds doesn’t work, look into some sturdy mini-speakers. While a few high-end hotels now offer iPod docks, they’re far from ubiquitous, so it’s best to bring your own.
For a quieter atmosphere in general, ask for a room as far away from the street as possible in urban hotels. (These are popular rooms–you might not get your wish if you don’t make reservations well in advance.) In family-friendly motels, try to get a room that’s further away from the pool. This one’s easier–most families with kids want to be close to the water. And yes, I’m going to say it…for a quiet night’s rest, avoid hostels altogether.
2. Douse the light
Many people have trouble sleeping in well-lit places, me included. Which makes sleeping while traveling a challenge at times.
A sleep mask makes a handy portable room/cabin/airplane seat darkener. I don’t love ’em, but I tolerate them on airplanes and trains. If you’re particularly sensitive to light when sleeping, find one of those super-comfy silk sleep masks and start practicing wearing it at home. It’s the only sure way to get a dark place to sleep.
Some motels and hotels invest in blackout curtains. I don’t love these–they turn day into night, and mess up my circadian rhythms (such as they are). But they keep a room dark, if that’s what you need. About every room in Vegas (and every other casino city) has blackouts. If you like blackout curtains, ask whether your chosen motel or hotel stocks these in their bedrooms.
While you’re chatting about draperies, you might also ask for a room that’s away from exterior lights. This is a long shot–the desk clerk may have no clue which rooms lie window-on to the sun.
And again it’s gotta be said–if you prefer to sleep in the dark, or a certain light level, avoid hostels.
3. Enhance your comfort however you can
Whatever it takes to make yourself as comfortable as possible when you sleep, do it. Ask for more pillows. If you can, bring your own pillow from home (that trick only works on road trips, really). Adjust the temperature of your sleeping area to whatever works for you. Pile on more blankets if you like the weight or the warmth, or throw off the covers if you like it cool. Bring along your vaporizer if you’re accustomed to sleeping with one.
4. Keep time
Find yourself a regular schedule and stick to it, even if it’s not your usual schedule. I tend to be more active when I’m traveling (in my case, that means I get up earlier), but I keep to a rhythm. No matter how exciting your destination, remember how much sleep you usually need and get it. Need a nap? Take one–you’re on vacation! If you love the nightlife, go ahead and stay up until 2am. But plan to sleep in.
Healthy folks sometimes decide not to sleep much on vacation so they don’t miss anything. That doesn’t work too well with pain–miss sleep and you’ll miss everything afterward. Trust me.
Oh, and avoid hostels. Really–scheduled sleeping in a dorm environment is just this side of impossible.
5. Use chemical sleep aids advisedly
Got a ‘script for Ambien? A bottle of little-touched melatonin? Break that stuff out and don’t be afraid to use it early and often. On travel is not the place to get squeamish about sleep meds. It’s better to deal with the hangovers than to go for a night without sleep. That goes double if you’ve traveled far enough to have jet lag.
If you’ve ignored the ‘no hostels’ advice…bring a big bottle of sleep drugs. Just sayin’.
6. Jet lag…
sucks. If you can, sleep through it. All that advice that healthy people spout about staying up until the evening at your destination, no matter how tired it makes you, then getting up again early in the local morning time no matter how tired it makes you… It’s crap, it will make you feel terrible, and it will get your trip off to a bad start.
Instead, follow your body’s dictates for your first couple of days. If that means collapsing into bed at 3pm and sleeping till noon the next day–do it. If it means getting up at 4am…do that. Whatever works best for you, and gets you the rest you need. On average, I lose 12-24 hours at the beginning of every long-distance trip I take. Knowing that, I plan my activities accordingly.
The good news–when I finally emerge from my long sleep, I’m rested, refreshed, and physically and mentally ready to enjoy myself.