How Much Does the Mattress Matter When You’re Traveling?

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Written by Ashley Lauretta

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At a Glance:

  • 27.6% of U.S. adults factor mattress type into their decision-making when finding somewhere to sleep when traveling, according to a survey. 
  • These travelers also sleep an hour more than average each night when traveling.
  • Males are 35.9% more likely to factor mattress type and material into their lodging decisions than females are.
  • On average, adults travel 3 weeks each year — and their most common travel-sleep accessory is a pillow (21.6% of respondents).
  • Pillows are the most useful sleep-travel accessory for females (26.8%). The top choice for males is headphones (28.5%).

Studies show that travel can balance our sleep: If we sleep less than average at home, we get more on the road — and vice versa. So we often scrounge for ways to optimize or improve our sleep when we travel, from packing our own pillows to scrutinizing hotel mattresses.

Meanwhile, hotels know that the better we sleep there, the more satisfied we are with our stay. Luxury chains down to Airbnb owners are promoting their top-of-the-line mattresses, pillow-selection menus, and other ways their rooms are just as good as what we have at home, if not even better.

But does any of it really matter?

Just 27.6% of U.S. adults say they factor in the type of mattress in a room when selecting lodging for travel, according to a February 2023 survey from The Sleep Doctor. But those travelers say they sleep a full hour more each night when they’re away from home. They’re also 26.2% more likely than average to rate their sleep as “excellent,” also averaging more sleep than normal no matter where they sleep.

Travel mattress

Frequent traveler Marshall Morris is among them. The 40-year-old veteran and entrepreneur from Anaheim, California, reviews photos from online listings when he travels to decide if a place has beds and amenities worthy of his family’s stay. 

“There is nothing worse than not being able to enjoy where you are because you wake up in pain or can’t sleep because of poor pillows, mattresses, or bedding,” he says.

That’s a significant risk to avoid, considering survey respondents average three weeks of travel a year. Here’s a look at how we sleep when we travel and how successful our strategies and accessories are at helping us cope.

Why Mattresses May Matter When Traveling

“Any time you are sleeping in a new environment, your brain doesn’t ever fully fall asleep,” says Dr. Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., of The Sleep Doctor. This is called the first-night effect, the result of sleeping in an unfamiliar place. “About half of your brain is asleep, and the other half is scanning for problems,” he says.

This can stress us out, which can show in numerous ways. Adults who choose lodging based on the type of mattress or the similarity of that mattress to theirs at home are 12.7% more likely to feel anxiety when traveling, according to The Sleep Doctor survey. 

Exhausted businessman resting on mattress after a long jouney

Speaking of those people who seek a mattress similar to what they have at home: They comprise 15.5% of respondents. But they also sleep 46 minutes more each night, on average, when traveling. Considering they average 29 travel days a year, that adds up to 22 hours of gained sleep — nearly a full day. 

Those with latex mattresses at home are most likely to factor in mattress type when deciding where to stay (40.6%), followed by those who sleep on foam mattresses (32.8%), hybrid mattresses (27.7%), and innerspring (20%). 

What other factors can bump up the comfort level for optimizing sleep? If you are staying at a hotel, Dr. Breus suggests requesting the newest, firmest bed before you arrive.

“If [the mattress] is still too firm, then call housekeeping and ask for two to three comforters to soften it up,” Dr. Breus says. “It is hard to make a bed firm and easier to make it soft.”

“There is nothing worse than not being able to enjoy where you are because you wake up in pain or can’t sleep because of poor pillows, mattresses, or bedding.” — Marshall Morris, frequent traveler

Of course, not all hotels or other places of lodging allow for a choice in mattresses. Travelers such as Morris and his family search online for room amenities, and 25.4% of survey respondents use online bed information as a primary criterion when selecting a room.

“We know that specific hotel chains are consistent in providing quality mattresses and sleeping arrangements,” Morris says. “If we can’t get an understanding of how we will physically sleep [with] no mention of a bed or mattress or clear pictures that it will be comfortable, we will choose a hotel [versus a vacation rental].”

If you don’t know what brand of mattresses that hotels or vacation rentals have, you can contact them to ask. It also may be wise to inquire about mattress age.

“You may end up in a king-size bed that [looks] like a taco,” Dr. Breus says.

What Travel Accessory Helps Us Sleep the Most?

Back to the part about “scanning for problems” when sleeping during travel: One helpful item literally may be a security blanket.

According to The Sleep Doctor survey, blankets are the No. 1 accessory in helping travelers sleep the most compared to other travel accessories. People who bring an extra blanket when traveling sleep an hour more than average, compared to 27.2 minutes for pillows — the most popular sleep-travel accessory (21.6% of respondents). 

Travel mattress

Chris Dimond of Anchorage, Alaska, uses extra blankets when he travels. Dimond, 48, works with a carpenters union and spends roughly five days a month in hotel rooms. He says hotel covers are usually too light, making it much different from his bed at home. 

“Heavier blankets help me sleep at home, so I started trying it in hotels,” he says. “It doesn’t cure my sleep issues in hotels; it just makes for a little better sleep.” 

Pillows are the travel accessory rated most effective at getting good sleep, with 26.5% of all respondents. They were also No. 1 among females, though headphones ranked higher among males, at 28.5%.

Meanwhile, males were 35.6% more likely than females to want the ability to select their own type of pillow and 21.6% more likely to be choosy about the pillow filling. They’re also 35.9% more likely to care about the type of mattress in a room.

Dr. Breus says that travel pillows, the ones in a “U” or “C” shape, can add more support to what’s in your hotel room or vacation rental. That’s what he recommends if you’re traveling for more than three days. Or grab a hand towel.

“Lay it out horizontally and then roll it up,” Dr. Breus says. “You can slide it along the bottom of the pillow, and that is sometimes enough to give you more neck support.”

What ranked lowest among travel accessories? The wedge, which only 1.6% of respondents rated as effective. Its users also were the only group to report getting less sleep than average when traveling (-7.5 minutes). That could be the result of why people use wedges to begin with, to minimize issues such as snoring and reflux. Wedge users were also far and away the most prolific travelers that The Sleep Doctor surveyed, averaging about two months of business travel per year and 26.3 days of personal travel.

How to Improve Your Sleep When Traveling

Packing other accessories may also help improve your lodging’s sleep environment. Dr. Breus suggests packing a sleep kit to help control the darkness, sounds and smells that may be unfamiliar in your room.

“Any time you are sleeping in a new environment, your brain doesn’t ever fully fall asleep.” — Dr. Michael J. Breus, The Sleep Doctor

“In a sleep kit, you will want to have an eye mask, some ear plugs, and even some aromatherapy, like a pillow spray,” he says. “This can be very helpful to get those external stimuli to calm down. That way you have an opportunity to get the best night of sleep that you can.” 

Privacy (54.3%) and noise (44.4%) were the top two factors for adults when selecting a place to sleep when traveling. To address these, Dr. Breus suggests asking for a room in a specific part of the hotel, such as a west-facing corner room at least four floors up or one far from elevators. This can help eliminate external stimuli such as noise and sunlight. 

Methodology

The survey commissioned by The Sleep Doctor was conducted on the online survey platform Pollfish on Feb. 27, 2023. Results are from 1,250 survey participants in the United States who were ages 18 or older at the time of the survey and whose travels included at least one overnight stay outside the home in the prior 365 days. All respondents attested to answering the survey questions truthfully and accurately.

References

About The Author

Ashley Lauretta

Contributing Writer


Ashley Lauretta is a freelance writer and journalist based in Central Florida. She is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and her work appears in WIRED, The Atlantic, SELF, Elle, Men’s Journal, Health, and more.

  • POSITION: Side sleeper
  • TEMPERATURE: Cold Sleeper
  • CHRONOTYPE: Bear

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