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How to get a good night's sleep when you're away from home

Hack the pull-out couch with these expert tips.
Image: The glow of an alarm clock in the middle of the night.
If you’re traveling through time zones but not staying more than a few days, you may fare better to stay on your own time zone.John Brecher / for NBC News

Staying with family over the holidays can be stressful for a multitude of reasons, but there’s one common issue that isn’t much discussed: the uncomfortable sleeping arrangements. We’re often relegated to sinking air mattresses, creaky sofa beds (if not just the couch itself) and rumpled sleeping bags on the floor. A recent survey from air bed and mattress manufacturer Intex found that 52 percent of Americans invented excuses to relatives in order to avoid sleeping over.

How might we weary travelers get a good night’s rest in these non-ideal conditions? We consulted a few experts to find out.

1. Pre-game your sleep by logging some zzz's now

A certain amount of sleep disruption over the holidays may be unavoidable, but you can take off the edge by storing up sleep ahead of your travels.

“Get an extra 30 to 60 minutes for the two to three nights before you go to your relatives,” says Dr. Jeff Durmer, a neurologist and the chief medical office of FusionHealth. “It's called sleep banking, and it's basically pre-gaming for sleep deprivation. The army does it before combat. You will deal with the deprivation better and reduce the anxiety around it.”

2. Work on your plank and cat-cow pose

When patients ask Dr. Charla Fischer, a spine surgeon at NYU Langone Health how they can make their recovery smooth, she recommends that they get as strong as possible ahead of surgery. She has the same advice for those of us prepping for holiday neck kinks and back spasms.

Plank pose is great because it engages so many muscles,” says Dr. Fischer. “The stronger your core muscles, the less likely you are to injure them.”

A Better Plank

April 10, 201700:27

Fischer also recommends that we don’t wait to feel any aches or pains before we do our stretching the morning after poor sleep.

“One of the best stretches to do as soon as you wake up is cat/cow as it loosens everything up. Do it 10 times to wake up the body.”

3. Bring your own pillow

Bringing your own pillow is highly recommended both for catching zzz's while in transit, and for when you set up fort abroad.

“Everyone's pillows are slightly different in terms of firm and height,” says Dr. Fischer. While there’s various research about what’s the best type of pillow, Fischer maintains that there’s no science involved here, unless you count the science of habit. “It's about what you're used to. If you have a really flat pillow, then a really thick pillow that can throw you off, and vice versa.”

4. Pile on the blankets … beneath you

Dreading the infamous sofa bed bar? Try thickening the mattress up.

“Sofa beds are constantly compressed when not in use so they'll lose any thickness they had to begin with,” says Fischer, who recommends piling on spare comforters, blankets, quilts and anything else you can to thicken the mattress padding.

5. Take control with white noise apps, earplugs and masks

One stressor when sleeping in a foreign place is the fact that we don’t have the control we have at home. Joseph Chandler, assistant professor of psychology at Birmingham-Southern College insists there are ways to own your space come bedtime.

“A sleep mask, ear plugs, and a white noise machine (such as a small fan) are three of the best investments you can make,” says Chandler. “This is especially true when traveling, as noise and light control are key to achieving the relaxation necessary to make the transition into non-REM sleep at the beginning of the night.”

If a fan isn’t feasible, download a white noise app on your phone.

6. Change time zones only if you stay for a while

If you’re traveling through time zones but not staying more than a few days, you may fare better to stay on your own time zone.

“You may be going to bed earlier or later than others, but it will help when you get home. If you're going to be for an extended stay — longer than a couple days — it’s fine to move to that other schedule,” says Dr. Durmer.

7. Skip the late-night leftovers, and up the activity in the morning

For the sake of your sleep you should skip the midnight snacking. “Food stimulates the gut, so avoid eating much at night,” says Dr. Durmer.

You should also try and get in exercise. If you can’t fit in an official workout, Dr. Durmer recommends doing “anything physical” during the day — even shopping to improve your sleep. If you can, get an outdoor walk in as soon as you get up.

“If you get a lot of light during the morning it creates an activity level in your circadian system that [activates] your sleep drive,” says Durmer.

8. Allow time for kids to wind down

If you’re traveling with kids, make sure to plan for their own sleeping adjustments.

“Remember that your kids are excited and that excitement can lead to meltdowns at bedtime,” says Dr. Daniel Lewin, associate director of sleep medicine at Children’s National Health System. “As much as possible, maintain the same bedtime routines you use at home. It can also be helpful to allow a longer calm/wind-down period after all of the holiday excitement. Younger kids will tend to wake up very early when excited, and older kids will stay up late and sleep in late.”

Also be sure to bring with you anything you already use for your sleep health, whether it’s a bite guard, a CPAP mask or just some bags of chamomile tea.

Holiday Survival Guide

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