Sleep Lost While Traveling
How much sleep do Americans lose while traveling and how long does it take to get back to a normal sleep routine?
May 21st, 2021 •
Whether you travel for business or pleasure, your health can take a hit when on the road – especially when it comes to sleep. From jet lag to the jerk making noise in the hotel room next door, there are plenty of reasons to feel fatigued when traveling. But what price do we really pay when it comes to rest on the road? Could certain modes of travel or sleep-inducing techniques spare us from exhaustion?
We set out to determine the toll travel takes on Americans’ sleep by surveying over 1,000 individuals who recently made journeys for work or leisure. We asked them about their experience getting shut-eye while away from home, and the methods they used to combat sleep disruption. Our respondents also shared how long it took them to restore a healthy sleep cycle once home, another measure of travel’s impact on our rest. Read on to learn how the average traveler’s sleep suffers and how they deal with that deficit.
Sleepy From the Journey
Of all the ways to travel, a trip by plane is most likely to cost you precious sleep. This was particularly true on the day before departure when flyers lost almost twice as much sleep as other travelers. Plane trips also cost travelers 1.1 hours of lost sleep the day before returning home, relative to .5 hours for road trips and .4 hours for cruises. The hassle of getting to the airport the next day or cutting sleep short to make early flights could be the main drivers for this statistic.
Using the single day figures above, we projected how much sleep might be lost on more extended trips of each kind. Cruisers would still experience only slight sleep debt over extended trips, losing approximately 1.9 hours over a trip of seven days according to our calculations. People on road trips would lose approximately three hours over a week of traveling – although perhaps dozing in the passenger seat helps counteract long hours on the road. Those traveling by plane faced much steeper sleep costs, however, losing 5.7 hours on seven-day trips by our figures.
The Struggle for Sleep
Although trips can rob travelers of valuable rest, some folks choose to combat fatigue along their journeys. Alcohol was a particularly popular method of preventing sleep loss on cruises – would you expect anything less from an industry that offers “all-you-can-drink” alcohol packages? At least 13 percent of road trip travelers and nearly 18 percent of flyers employed alcohol to solve sleep problems on their journeys as well.
Reading was the top method for those making their journeys by plane or car, with at least a quarter of each group choosing to hit the books to combat sleep loss. Nearly 23 percent of cruisers also chose to read, although many opted for sexual rather than textual methods. Over 14 percent of cruise travelers reported getting it on to achieve a healthy amount of sleep – and we can’t fault them for making the most of their cabin accommodations. Other travelers ignored their sleep debt entirely, with almost 21 percent of people on road trips and about 15 percent of plane travelers choosing to do nothing about it.
Sleep loss can linger after travelers return home, often for days after they’re reunited with their own beds. On average, road trip and cruise travelers needed between one and two days to get back to their typical sleep cycles after an excursion. Flyers took slightly longer, needing 2.1 days on average to get their sleep back in order. This could result from higher rates of sleep loss during their trips or the tricky nature of time zones. Plane travelers are more likely to be returning from far-flung destinations and suffering jet lag that could shake up their sleep schedules.
For people on road trips and plane travelers, a rough rule holds true: The longer the trip, the more time needed to get back to one’s typical sleep patterns. But cruisers were outliers in this respect. Those on trips for over 14 days needed less time to recover, on average, than those who took trips between 4 and 14 days long. Perhaps spending more than two weeks in the leisurely environment of a cruise ship lets travelers achieve something close to their normal sleep habits before setting foot back on their local shore.
By design, business trips are more demanding than vacations: Often, they’re packed with a grueling schedule of meetings to maximize the traveler’s productivity. On average, people traveling for business lost a bit more than an hour of sleep for each day of their trip, and slightly more on the night before traveling and the night before coming home. These sleep sacrifices could really add up on extended journeys for work. For trips lasting approximately seven days, business travelers would lose an average of 9.5 hours by our projections – or more than a full night’s sleep by most standards.
Perhaps this sleep deficit accounts for other unhealthy habits common among frequent business travelers. According to one recent survey, 54 percent of professionals were less likely to work out when they were on a work trip, and 44 percent were more likely to indulge in junk food. Major health advocacy organizations have expressed grave concerns about the well-being of these roaming representatives, reporting health problems ranging from weight gain to viruses and – you guessed it – insomnia.
Pro Tips for Work Trips
Of course, many who frequently fly for work pride themselves on their resilience on the road. Accordingly, nearly all business travelers reported using some method to prevent sleep disruption on their trips. The majority elected to read to drift off to sleep more easily – whether it be a novel or the latest report from corporate. More than 28 percent turned to alcohol to doze off when necessary, a finding that resonates with other recent research into business travelers’ habits. One 2017 report found 16 percent of people traveling for work were more likely to get tipsy than when they were at home.
More than 1 in 5 business travelers reported using melatonin, a sleep hormone supplement, while abroad. This strategy accords well with standard medical advice regarding this substance, as melatonin is typically helpful as a short-term sleep aid. Some travelers rely on more powerful alternatives, such as Tylenol PM or even Ambien. But whatever you take, doing a test run at home is probably a good way to avert unintended consequences – such as falling asleep in your first meeting of the morning.
Getting Back to the Grind
For even the most seasoned work travelers, it can take quite a while to bounce back to a normal sleep schedule after a long trip. While it took 1.6 days on average for their sleep patterns to normalize, employees could feel off for much longer if their journey lasted several days. For those who were away from home for 8 to 14 days, for instance, it took an average of 2.7 days for their sleep patterns to normalize.
For those with even longer trips, recovery time skyrocketed. After journeys of over two weeks, business travelers needed an average of six days to return to their typical sleep cycles. Research has consistently shown tired workers are significantly less productive: One study found fatigued staff cost the average Fortune 500 company $80 million annually.
There’s No Sleep Like Home
Whether you’re traveling for work or vacationing to get away from it, our findings show traveling to a distant location can seriously alter your sleep habits. This sleep deficit can prove problematic on any journey – and you may be feeling consequences long after you arrive home. So the next time you travel for any purpose, create a healthy plan to protect your sleep. Whether that means staying up to align with the local time zone or trying out other remedies to doze off, the rest of your trip will be better for it.
While sleep is an important concern when traveling, it’s even more crucial to sleep well in your own home. For those who refuse to compromise on the quality of their rest, Mattress Advisor is the perfect source for expert advice. With dozens of comprehensive reviews and tips for better sleep, you’ll be sure to find a routine, and a mattress, you can’t wait to get back to.
We surveyed 1,018 Americans on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. 55.2% of participants were female, and 44.6% were male. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 73, with a mean of 35.6 and a standard deviation of 11.3. We weighted the data to the 2017 U.S. census for age and gender.
No statistical testing was performed, so the claims listed above are based on means alone. As such, this content is purely exploratory, and future research should approach this topic in a more rigorous way.
The data we are presenting rely on self-reporting. There are many issues with self-reported data. These issues include but are not limited to: selective memory, telescoping, attribution, and exaggeration.
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