Picks

How to Sleep Well (or at Least Better) While Traveling

Even people who usually have no trouble sleeping can become insomniacs away from home.

woman sleeping on a couch
Photo: Kyle Fitzgerald

By Christine Ryan
Wirecutter Staff

Time-zone changes, jet lag, strange noises, beds that are simply different from what you’re used to—even people who usually have no trouble sleeping can become insomniacs away from home. Here, our sleep team and travel editors share the gear they use to cope with restless nights on the road, vetted through hours of testing and years of personal experience.

Essentials

First, ensure that you have the most important elements: darkness, quiet, warmth, and head support, especially if you’re on a plane or in a car.

Sleep mask

At home, you’d be able to install blackout curtains or blinds. On the road, covering your eyes is often your only option for blocking out light. A mask can also help you cope with a partner who likes to read in bed.

Feels like it’s not there

Nidra Deep Rest Eye Mask

Lightweight and contoured, this mask fits comfortably and blocks light well for a wide variety of face shapes (though it’s best for those who sleep on their back). Its deep eyecups allow your eyes to flutter during sleep.

Flat and soft

Alaska Bear

A silken exterior material, a flat design, and an adjustable strap make this a fit for almost any face, but it puts pressure on the eyes while you sleep.

Noise-cancelling earbuds (and earplugs)

If you’re on a plane (or train or automobile), wearing earbuds that actively block the sound of the engines and your fellow passengers is worth the mild annoyance of having things in your ears while you’re trying to sleep.

The best Bluetooth earbuds

Jabra Elite 65t

The Elite 65t earbuds are comfortable, great-sounding, and equipped with all the controls and features to reduce ambient noise.

The best noise-cancelling earbuds

1More Dual Driver BT ANC

The ideal travel companion, this pair effectively cancels airplane noise, coils up for easy transport, and allows you to listen via Bluetooth or an included cable.

Best budget noise-cancelling headphones

TaoTronics TT-BH042

The wireless TT-BH042 offers good sound and okay noise cancelling at an amazingly low price.

The cheapest way to block out noise

Mack’s Slim Fit Soft Foam Earplugs

These blocked the most noise in our controlled testing and got the most votes from our subjective sleep panel.

Sleep headphones

These headphone-headband hybrids don’t actively cancel noise, so they’re not great for loud planes. For hotels and other terrestrial locations, though, they’re the most comfortable way to listen to whatever music or sounds soothe you.

Headphones you can’t feel

SleepPhones Effortless

These Bluetooth headphones are encased in machine-washable fabric and have no hard plastic pieces that can smash into your head while you sleep. You can download white noise or play whatever music you like.

White noise

Studies show that random, electronic white noise works better than rainfall or other natural sounds to mask aural clutter. Apps are the most convenient way to create it, but the most effective option is a machine—and some are surprisingly portable.

The best white noise machine

LectroFan

With its electronically generated sounds, the LectroFan masks shrill noises (such as screeching cats) better than other machines, and it takes up less space on a nightstand.

A customizable app

myNoise

myNoise offers better customization than any app we’ve found, allowing you to mix 10 white noise frequencies to create unique sounds.

Blanket

A packable blanket or throw serves two useful purposes for the traveler: providing extra warmth when the plane or hotel’s industrial-strength AC kicks in, and offering a modicum of privacy in any situation where you’re trying to sleep in public.

Warmth and comfort for car or hotel

Rumpl Down Puffy Throw

This blanket offers the greatest warmth and durability for the lowest relative weight, price, and size.

Best for the plane

Garnet Hill Wool & Cashmere Throw

This throw is elegant, super soft, and thin (but not flimsy). It’s one of our favorite throws for draping over a sofa or chair.

Travel pillow

A travel pillow—also known as a neck pillow—may seem like a waste of packing space, especially given that it won’t be much use at your destination. But starting off your trip in a somewhat well-rested state is worth bringing the extra gear.

The most supportive pillow

Travelrest Nest Ultimate Memory Foam Travel Pillow

Its tall memory-foam walls let it offer more support than any other pillow we tested. It’s also shaped to sit flush against a headrest, and it compresses to a manageable size.

A pillow you can get at the airport

Cabeau Evolution Classic Pillow

It offers a lot of support and is highly adjustable, but without a contoured back it can’t quite sit flush with a headrest. It’s available at many airport stores, though.

A pillow for side-sleepers and space savers

Trtl Pillow

It’s a fleece scarf with a built-in plastic brace—like a one-sided neck brace but softer and cozier. However, it’s not so great if you tend to shift position while you sleep.

Nice-to-haves

Encouraging better sleep habits and setting the right mood can help too.

Sleep-tracking app

These apps include smart alarms, which you can set to wake you up when you’re in a light sleep mode, helping to avoid grogginess. Some apps offer advice on how to improve your sleep, too.

The most useful sleep app

SleepScore

It was the most intuitive and convenient app we tested, and the only one that gave detailed recommendations for improving sleep.

Basic sleep info for Android

Sleep Cycle

A good choice for people who simply want to see sleep patterns and how they correlate with diet and exercise. But it doesn’t offer sleep-improvement advice and tracks less data.

Pillows

For many of us, the thing we miss most about not being in our own beds is our own pillow. Bringing a beloved one might relax you and make you more likely to drop off.

For back- and side-sleepers

Xtreme Comforts Shredded Memory Foam Pillow

Moldable and adjustable, with excellent support for back-, side-, and some stomach-sleepers, this is also one of the most affordable pillows we tested.

Between a regular pillow and a travel one

Therm-A-Rest Compressible Pillow

This firm and supportive pillow packs down to 50 percent of its expanded size.

Meditation app

Along with teaching you the tools to cope with churning monkey mind, these apps include guided sleep meditations meant to help you wind down at night.

A meditation app for beginners

Headspace

This app offers the widest variety of meditations, with the best guided sessions for beginners as well as less-structured programming for pros. Its easy-to-use interface is also the most streamlined.

Calm

This app offers more open-ended sessions that we think may appeal to experienced meditators who aren’t looking for that much guidance. It also offers bonus perks like ambient music and sleep guidance.

Pajamas

Even if pajamas aren’t your thing at home, wearing them when you’re sleeping in a strange place can make you feel just a bit more secure. And not having to scramble for clothes when the fire alarm goes off—it’s happened to us—is a plus.

A set of PJs for women

Scotch Plaid Flannel Pajamas

These classic and comfy plaid flannel pajamas are the warmest set we recommend, and they come in one of the widest size ranges we tested. Plus, they have pockets.

PJ bottoms for guys

L.L.Bean Men’s Scotch Plaid Flannel Sleep Pants

These flannel pants are the softest we tried and feel almost weightless—they’re lighter and better for sleep than similar jersey styles. The plaid prints are classic for winter.

PJs for the kids

Hanna Andersson Organic Cotton Long John Pajamas

These soft, thick 100 percent cotton jammies stand up to years of wear. They come in many striped varieties, as well as shorty versions that are perfect for hot summer nights. Kids sizes start at 0 to 3 months and go up to 14/16.

Night-light

Although many people would say that too much ambient light gets in the way of their sleep, some others (and not all of them are children) find a warm, flickering light to be a reassuring presence in a new place.

Risk-free candlelight

Candle Impressions Flameless Candles 6 inch

These LED candles provide a flickering glow with no worries of actually lighting anything on fire. And because the outside is made with wax, they smell and look more like real candles than others we’ve seen.

Herbal tea

Having a hot drink after dinner can serve as a calming transition to bedtime, but coffee and regular caffeinated tea pose the obvious, jittery problems, and not everyone can stomach warm milk. Herbal teas are the perfect compromise.

Our favorite relaxing tea

Things to avoid

Alcoholic drinks: As tempting as a nightcap might be, resist if you’re concerned about getting a good night’s rest. A few drinks might make you drowsy, but research has shown that alcohol disrupts restorative REM sleep—and the more you imbibe, the worse the effects.

Tablets: Or at least reduce the time you spend using your tablet close to bedtime, even if yours has a “night” mode that shifts the display away from the melatonin-blocking blue end of the spectrum. To read yourself to sleep, bring a book.

Blue-light glasses: For $200 or so, you can buy glasses to help you change time zones. The science behind them is legit in that the blue/green light they emit can help reset your clock. But sunlight works almost as well, and it’s free—just take a walk after you land.