The Ancient Greeks called him Hypnos, the Romans called him Somnus, but most travellers call him Unreliable. The God of Sleep can be an elusive travel buddy, especially on that first night in a strange bed. Having trouble sleeping in a strange bed is a common problem for business travellers, especially when they’re tired from travelling and need to perform the next day. However, it isn’t a problem that you should lie in a hotel bed worrying about, as there are several ways to entice the sleep gods into a foreign bed.
Many people have trouble falling asleep, are wakeful, and experience less restorative sleep when they sleep in an unfamiliar environment, such as when they’re on holiday or on a business trip.
Scientists call this transient insomnia the “First-Night Effect” (FNE), and it is believed to come from a primal need to be vigilant in a new environment. Most people find that it goes away after the first night or two, but even so sleepless nights seem to last forever at the time and a good night’s sleep is what most travellers crave.
Overcoming the first-night effect
Aside from making people tired and irritable, FNE has been shown to impair memory function. So whether you’re creating holiday memories or need to be on top of your game for business meetings, minimising the power of FNE should be a key consideration when making travel plans.
There are a number of ways you can minimise the first-night effect. Different strategies will be more effective for some people than others, so be ready to try a few before giving up on the dream of a good night’s sleep.
Choosing your accommodation
Check out the hotel before you book. It may be “convenient”, but is it between a freeway and a railway and under a flight path? Remember that “hotel accommodation” can mean a five star hotel room or a room above the bar at the local pub. Traveller reviews can be very helpful, especially the most recent ones.
Once you’ve found a suitable hotel there are a few commonsense ways to securing a sleep-friendly room. Ask for a room a few floors up from common areas such as the dining room or the swimming pool. Check to see if there is any building work going on in the hotel, and if they do then avoid those nearby rooms. Ask for a non-smoking room if you are a non-smoker.
If you’re travelling to the same destination regularly and you find a hotel you like, don’t keep keep shopping around. When it comes to getting a good night’s sleep, familiarity is the path to contentment. If the hotel has rooms which are very different to each other, try and get the same room every time.
Packing for a good night’s sleep
Earplugs may be uncomfortable at first, but they’re less annoying than being kept up all night by noises around you. Earbuds and soothing music can also drown out those sounds and take your mind to more familiar places.
Bring an eye mask in case your room doesn’t have blackout curtains. These are especially useful if you are also trying to readjust to a new time zone.
Bringing your own sheets can help you sleep better. If that isn’t practical, bring your own pillowcase.
Scented candles or a fragrant spray can make your hotel room smell more like home. Lavender is also well-known for helping with insomnia, and may ameliorate the effects of FNE.
During the trip
At the hotel
Once you’re in your hotel room, try and make your before bed routine as much like home as possible.
Resist the urge to flop on the bed until bedtime. Many a quick siesta has destroyed a full night’s sleep.
Don’t overeat at dinner, as a full stomach can make getting to sleep uncomfortable and harder than it has to be.
If you need to use a laptop, work at the desk rather than on the bed and turn off the screen at least 90 minutes before bedtime to take your brain out of work mode.
If you normally have tea before bed, make yourself a cuppa before bed. Chamomile is believed to be a relaxing tea.
Ask for a Do Not Disturb Sign and for the front desk to take messages for you.
Take a bath to relax.
Adjust the thermostat to a comfortable setting for sleep.
If you can’t sleep, get out of bed. Read a book or listen to a podcast until you feel like falling asleep again. Don’t lie in bed wishing you were asleep, as that strategy seems to scare the sleep gods away.
Tip: If you’ve tried all these strategies and still suffer from FNE, consider arriving at your destination a day or two early. You’re more likely to sleep better the second night, and you’ll be feeling fresh and restored before the necessary business meetings.