The ticking of a clock can keep me awake all night. So can a plastic mattress pad, top sheets that are too short, greasy cooking smells, a leaky faucet. At home, I can control such annoyances. In hotels, I'm the princess struggling with that pea.
I remember a few sleepless nights on the road as vividly as I recall the shower scene in Hitchcock's "Psycho," the agony of tossing and turning and the way my thoughts cycled: "I'm going to sleep now. I can't sleep. I'll have a horrible day tomorrow."
"I'll sleep when I'm dead," rock musician Warren Zevon once said. But I need to get to sleep sooner than that to be alert, amiable and receptive to joy, especially when traveling. Travel insomnia isn't just a matter of jet lag, a disruption of sleeping and waking routines caused by crossing multiple time zones. It can hit whenever people try to sleep in an unfamiliar bedroom, whether it's 30 or 3,000 miles from home.
"When you take people out of the home environment and put them in another place, sleep is often miserable," says Mark Rosekind, a Bay Area sleep researcher who directed the Fatigue Countermeasures program for NASA. Sleep is lighter, people wake more often in the middle of the night and they take longer to fall asleep, he says.
Several factors, including noise, temperature and light, affect sleep on the road. Obviously, travel insomniacs need to seek out quiet hotel rooms that are neither too hot nor too cold, with covered windows and comfortable beds.
But sometimes sleep deterrents aren't apparent until you get into bed and start counting the passing hours by the banging of elevator doors, the rumble of ice dispensers, the voices of people in the hall.
At the landmark Chateau Laurier hotel in Ottawa, Canadian sleep disorders specialist Meir Kryger once stayed in a handsome room overlooking the Parliament Hill clock tower. But the clock chimed on the quarter hour, forcing Kryger to change rooms at 3 a.m.
As people started traveling more in the last decade, some hotels, like Tokyo's Okura, introduced anti-jet lag programs including massages, therapy with lights, and special diets formulated to help induce sleep. In 1996 Hilton introduced 80 "Sleep-Tight Rooms" in major U.S. cities, equipped with soothing sound machines and light boxes. Both initiatives have been discontinued because, the companies said, they wanted to go in a different direction.
I doubt there's a traveler who hasn't had one of those awful sleepless nights. My worst were in a windowless lower-deck cabin on a Caribbean cruise, a tent at Zion National Park in Utah and a tiny, stuffy Madrid hotel room where I battled jet lag for three nights and almost lost.
I have learned to pack a sleep mask and earplugs, which help induce sleep in even the most incommodious places. I put these on the bedside table, together with a glass of water, tissues, my alarm, a book and sleeping pills.
"There's nothing wrong with taking a medication, especially if you have something important going on the next day," says Canadian specialist Kryger. I rarely take them, but just knowing they're there usually gives me the reassurance I need to fall asleep.
Worry about oversleeping can sometimes keep me awake, so I set my own travel alarm as a backup in case the one in the room doesn't work or the hotel forgets my wake-up call. When I wake in the middle of the night, I try not to look at the clock because it makes matters worse to find myself wide awake at 4 a.m. Instead I open a book--usually a travel guide, without a plot to keep me turning the pages.
Paying attention to details like these that familiarize an unfamiliar place and recall established bedtime routines is more important than most travel insomniacs realize, sleep specialist Rosekind says. He doesn't laugh when he sees teenage travelers with pillows and stuffed animals from home. "Anything you can do to make a strange new environment familiar could help you get to sleep," he says.
Conversely, doing things differently on the road can keep you awake. For instance, if you don't watch TV in bed at home, you shouldn't when traveling, and you certainly shouldn't start a two-hour movie when it's time to go to sleep. Moreover, Rosekind warns troubled sleepers to avoid activities with negative connotations, like watching the often-disturbing late news or trying to solve a difficult work problem.
Eating wisely also can help travelers avoid sleeplessness. "Ideally, you should finish dinner three hours before you go to bed, so you're sleeping, not digesting," says Kimberly Mathai, a registered dietitian in Seattle. Starches like rice, potatoes and pasta have a calming effect, as do turkey, bananas, whole-grain crackers, figs and dates, which contain the amino acid tryptophan. There's no scientific evidence that hot milk induces sleep, although chamomile and lemon balm tea can be soothing. "In general, hot drinks help," Mathai says.
Insomnia sometimes strikes even when the hotel room is comfy, you have followed your usual bedtime routine and you're wearing your favorite jammies. Then Rosekind suggests the "30-minute toss-and-turn rule": If you struggle to get to sleep for more than half an hour, get out of bed and read a book, meditate, do yoga.
Rosekind has found that people's perceptions of how long it takes them to get to sleep and how long they have slept are usually way off the mark. "It's probably not as bad as we think," he says.
Next time I sleep poorly before trying to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro or touring Angkor Wat, I'll keep that in mind and push on.