Whether you travel for work or leisure, it can be challenging to get a good night’s sleep while you’re away from home. Between early morning wake-ups, long-haul flights, and time differences, traveling can take a serious toll on your quality of sleep.

In this article, we’ll cover a few of the most common questions around travel sleep, including how to sleep on a plane and why traveling makes you tired. Keep reading to get these answers, as well as tips and strategies for achieving better sleep traveling.

Why Does Traveling Make Us So Tired?

Before we offer our recommendations for better sleep on vacation, let’s explore some of the most common reasons why traveling can make us tired. 

Stress and anxiety

First, one of the biggest causes of travel-related fatigue is simply the mental stress and exhaustion of getting to another place. Basically, travel puts your brain and body on alert until you reach your destination.

For example, if you’re flying, you have to deal with all types of logistics, from getting to the airport to passing through security to boarding your plane on time. Even when you’re on board, you may worry about going through customs, collecting your luggage, and arranging transportation to your hotel. The same applies to road trips, train journeys, or any other type of travel.

Physical discomfort

Simply put, travel is often uncomfortable. From narrow airplane seats to cramped bus rides, the actual travel part of a vacation is hardly ever glamorous. When you’re sitting upright for hours at a time, this physical discomfort can make it difficult to sleep and contribute to your tiredness.

How Travel Interrupts Our Sleep

Even though traveling is known to make you tired, there’s a good chance that you’ll struggle to sleep when you get to your destination. Here are a few of the reasons why.

Jet lag and time zone changes

When you travel across several time zones, you’re likely to experience jet lag, which occurs when your body becomes out of sync with your current time zone. Traveling through multiple time zones disrupts your circadian rhythm (the internal clock that regulates your waking and sleeping hours). As a result, jet lag may cause you to feel disoriented or fatigued during the day. It may also lead to digestive problems for some people.

Disruptions to your schedule

At home, you’re probably on a fairly regular routine where you work, eat, and sleep at roughly the same time most days. When you’re on vacation (especially if you’re far from home), you could be eating breakfast when you’d usually be going to sleep—and vice versa. Unless you’re at your destination long enough to get used to these schedule adjustments, they may throw off your normal sleeping patterns.

Sleeping in an unfamiliar place

Have you ever woken up while on vacation and been confused about where you were? It’s a common sensation among travelers, especially during the first night of a trip. Sleeping in a new setting can worsen your sleep to the point where only half of your brain is getting a proper night’s rest. Similarly, if you’re sleeping on a cheap or uncomfortable mattress, you might experience sleeping problems for the duration of your stay.

How to Sleep Better on Vacation

Now that we’ve covered the facts behind travel sleep disruptions, let’s dive into some solutions for how to get better rest on vacation.

Get organized

Before you depart, get organized and figure out as many logistics as you can. You can make a spreadsheet with all of the critical details of your travel, including where you’re staying, what you need to pack, and how you’re getting from place to place. Try to book everything you can before you leave and document it in your spreadsheet to minimize the stress of “figuring things out” when you get there.

Shift your sleep schedule

A few days before you leave, start adjusting your nighttime routine, so it’s closer to the time zone in your destination—whether that means staying up later or going to bed earlier. If you start the transition earlier, it will be easier to sleep during travel and when you arrive at your destination.

Pack strategically

If you’re trying to sleep on a flight or in an unfamiliar place, there are a few basic items that can help. For example, you might find sleep traveling to be easier if you pack earplugs, an eye mask, a travel pillow, or comfortable clothing. Each of these items can help you block out surrounding noise and get into a more relaxed state.

Avoid alcohol and caffeine

If you find traveling stressful, it may be tempting to knock back a few glasses of wine to ease your nerves. Or maybe you’re trying to stay awake for a red-eye flight with a late-night cup of joe. Unfortunately, these are short-term strategies that can ultimately do more harm than good. Both alcohol and caffeine can prevent you from sleeping well during your travel, so if possible, try and save it for when you arrive.

Adapt to the local time zone

Once you’ve touched down, try to adjust to the local time. If you arrive in the morning, do your best to stay awake until bedtime in your new city. Or if you arrive at night, check in to your hotel and rest until the next morning. You should aim to eat your meals at the appropriate local times as well.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you sleep while traveling?

You can make sleep traveling easier by doing a few things, like shifting your sleep schedule before you leave, packing sleep accessories like a travel pillow and earplugs, and acclimating to your new time zone when you land.

Why do we sleep while traveling?

There are a few main reasons why traveling makes us tired. For the most part, it comes down to the mental stress and anxiety associated with travel, including worries about travel logistics, cramped transportation, and unfamiliar places.

What is travel insomnia?

Travel insomnia is when you have difficulty sleeping in a new place. According to research from Brown University, it occurs because your brain is half-awake and attempting to stay alert in case of danger in an unfamiliar place.

Can’t sleep after traveling?

If you’re struggling to sleep after traveling, try adjusting to your new time zone as much as possible to reset your internal clock. When it’s time for bed, make sure your room is cool and dark, turn off your electronic devices, and go through your typical nighttime routine. You can also talk to your doctor about taking melatonin before bed.