How to get better sleep onboard a cruise ship

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Sleep. Peaceful, relaxing, calm, soothing sleep. Sometimes it can be so elusive, especially when you are trying to sleep on a cruise ship that has so many unfamiliar stimuli. Your stateroom has a different bed to the one you have at home. Maybe it’s firmer, perhaps softer. The ship is going to be rocking, at least gently, but it could be rougher, and if so, it is probably rolling as well.

Perhaps you can hear creaking as your abode moans and groans in the dark. You are almost asleep too, but you hear movement somewhere. Footsteps maybe? What was that sound? Is it music or the chatter of voices through the walls, floor or ceiling?

Then there are the coat hangers gently tapping the cupboard door and wall every time the ship tips one way or another. You might even be unfortunate enough to be feeling the effects of motion sickness. Ugh. All you want is to sleep well on your holiday, and to keep your dinner down,

Peaceful, restful sleep.

P&O Pacific Explorer Interior Stateroom Bed

Hopefully, I haven’t turned you off cruising yet! I promise it’s so relaxing and enjoyable. I love sleeping with the gentle rocking of the ship as it rises and falls with the waves. Then there is the sound of the ocean. We’ve had an ocean view stateroom right at the bow on Explorer of the Seas and hearing the waves all night was like sleeping in a beach house.

However, in spite of all the things I love about cruising and sleeping on a cruise ship, sleep is one of those things that can be impacted and might take a bit of adjusting. Never fear, there are several things you can do to help you get the best sleep possible while you are cruising.

Make time for the sunset

On a cruise ship, light doesn’t work the way it does outside. The sun goes down in the evening, but inside the walls of a cruise ship, the lights remain the same. If you didn’t check the time, you could walk into a corridor and would have no way of knowing if it is 12 pm or 12 am. Although there might be fewer people around at midnight!

Sunset at Lautoka, Fiji from Voyager of the Seas

Yes, we have lights at home too, but most of the time we live in spaces that have windows. Most buildings these days are designed around capturing natural light and bringing it inside the structure. As a result, you always have some sense of the time of day, even inside, and when it gets dark, you can see that.

Cruise ship designers (or are they architects?) do try to bring in natural light. It isn’t always practical or possible to have outside-facing windows, especially in larger vessels. Without windows, you can easily miss the natural light dimming and disappearing outside as the day draws to a close and the moon rises to rule the night.

Sunset over Sydney, Australia on Pacific Explorer

If you have an interior room, this can be both a blessing and a curse. Since you have no windows and your lighting is always artificial it can really throw off your senses. However, when it comes to bedtime, interior staterooms get you the most darkness. More on this in the next section.

To try and keep your body clock in tune, make time to catch the sunset. If you are seated in the main dining room near the windows and your dinner time is around dusk, this might be enough. If not try and put yourself somewhere that has windows, or even better, outside in the sea breeze.

Sunset at Sea on Radiance of the Seas

Other ideas to see the natural change in light might include:

  • Go for a swim
  • Chill in the hot tub
  • Watch an outdoor movie
  • Read a book
  • Work out in the gym
  • Do a few laps of the walking track
Watching an outdoor movie in the evening on Golden Princess

If you wanted to put yourself out there, you could find a good seat and take 20 minutes to watch the sun go to sleep for the day. Sunset at sea can be gorgeous!

Qatar Airways

Seek out the darkness

Make the room as dark as possible – this is easy in an interior stateroom, but for ocean view, balcony and suite rooms, close the block out curtains tightly before you go to bed. Next, ensure all the lights are off and cover lights that you can’t turn off. One example is the peephole in the door. These let in a remarkable amount of light.

Ocean View Stateroom Curtains Closed on Explorer of the Seas

If the peephole is missing its cover, I usually stick a magnet over ours. It’s remarkable how often lights outside our door are situated such that they shine straight through the peephole and into my face in bed.

Looking through a Stateroom peephole on Radiance of the Seas

Another example that I find particularly annoying is the power LED on the stateroom television. The red ones don’t bother me as much, but the blue ones can be bothersome. Blue light is known to disrupt sleep, so try to get rid of or block these if you can.

Most Royal Caribbean ships have partial curtains to help block some of the TV light if someone (hopefully someone that has your permission to be in your stateroom) is watching it while you are sleeping. Making sure this curtain is extended is often enough to get the blue light away from sleeping eyes. Otherwise, unplug the TV (if it’s practical to do so).

Radiance of the Seas Room 4525

Cruise ships are terrible at emitting unfiltered blue light everywhere. So, once you do retire to your room, drop the light levels as low as you (safely) can as you are getting ready for bed. This can help signal to your body that it is time to sleep.

What if you need to get up in the night? Well…if you can manage in the dark that is awesome – I always try to as much as possible, but it isn’t always safe or practical on a moving ship. If you need to use some light, I would suggest the screen of a smartphone with night mode turned on and the brightness down. This keeps the light to a minimum and reduces the amount of blue light, so it should be the least disruptive to your sleep. Otherwise, the bedside lamps are usually dimmer with more orange light than others around the room.

Mimic natural temperature variations

In the real world, also known as your home, there are natural temperature fluctuations throughout the day and night. I’m sure you’ve noticed at least the ones in the morning. Typically, even on a scorching summer’s day, it won’t be as hot in the morning. The temperature will increase throughout the day to around 1 pm.

Once the sun starts to make its descent in the afternoon, the temperature slowly begins to drop. After the sun dips below the horizon altogether, the temperature falls further and continues throughout the night until dawn (most of the time).

Watching the sunset at the aft of Pacific Explorer

At dawn, as the sun pokes it’s cheery cheeks over the horizon again, the process repeats with a gradual increase in temperature.

With this in mind:

Turn the thermostat up after you get out of bed in the morning, even just a small amount. Then turn it down before you go to bed.

Stateroom thermostat on a cruise ship

You will sleep better when the temperature is a few degrees lower than it was while you were awake. So turning down the thermostat helps mimic that natural change and also reduces the chances of waking up hot and sweaty during the night.

Sometimes I find small temperature tweaks are all that is required, and other times I find more significant changes work better. Just experiment and see what works best for you.

Don’t eat just before bed

Your digestion slows down while you sleep, so if your belly is full right before bed, you may not finish digesting this food properly until morning. Potentially even worse, eating food just before bed disrupts your stomach’s regular healing process.

If your dinner isn’t fully digested when you go to bed, it can start to go off after 8 hours of sitting in your warm tumtum, especially dairy and meat. As the food begins to ferment in your stomach, combined with your stomach being unable to heal itself efficiently, it can leave you feeling unpleasant in the morning and potentially wake you up throughout the night.

Late NIght Hot Dogs at the Boardwalk Doghouse on Radiance of the Seas

And no, I’m not talking about the unpleasant feeling of motion sickness either. Not yet, anyway.

Another side effect of eating shortly before bed is that you are doing your digestion in an unusual position, horizontally. Depending on how you sleep, you can be putting pressure on your stomach and esophagus that causes discomfort, and you are more likely to experience symptoms like indigestion, heartburn and acid reflux.

I find starting my dinner around 5-6 pm and going to bed around 10:30 pm works well. This timeframe gives my body a reasonable window to digest the food I’ve put into it before I go to sleep and my digestion slows.

Here’s a great video from Nutrition Facts about the benefits of eating early.

Qatar Airways

Do not overeat in the evening (or at all)

Overeating in the evening, be it at dinner, or late-night snacking, can also contribute to an unwell tummy during the night.

The later you have dinner, the less you should eat. Less food in your stomach means less for your body to digest before you sleep. This logic stands true even if you eat dinner around 5-6 pm. A massive meal may not get digested before bed, regardless of whether you are going to bed at 10 pm or 2 am.

Lots of Desserts in the Main Dining Room

Also of note here, studies have found your body needs more time to fully digest low-fibre foods like meat than it does for high-fibre foods like vegetables. So making sure to have lots of fibre at dinner (and your other meals) will help your digestion.

And, all of this is important because if you wake up in the night with motion sickness, any undigested food won’t help how you are feeling.

Besides, no one wants to see that steak again. Trust me, I’ve seen it come back up hours later, and it doesn’t look that much different to when it went in (which is disturbing enough on its own). The thing is, this time, it’s swimming in a soup of everything else you ate mixed with stomach acid. Not pretty.

Qatar Airways

Go for a walk

I like to throw a 30-minute brisk walk into my evenings. About half an hour after dinner is sufficient to wait for me to avoid getting a stitch. Leave it an hour though if you need to. It doesn’t have to be high-intensity, but the brisker, the better.

Evening Walk on Explorer of the Seas

Going for a walk around the walking track or on one of the outer decks for at least 30 minutes serves a few purposes:

  • To increase your metabolism. A higher metabolic rate will help burn off any extra food that you might have consumed throughout the day, including at dinner time.
  • To expend energy before bed. A 30-minute walk helps to burn off some of the excess energy you might have and wear your body out a little bit (or a lot) before bed.
  • See the sunset. Kill two birds with one stone.

I also like climbing stairways. Call me crazy, but if I climb 12, 24, or perhaps even 36 flights of stairs before bed, I’m going to be pretty tired.

Make sure you have enough food

In contrast to overeating food, you also need to make sure you have enough. Let’s be honest; it’s pretty unlikely you will be starving on a cruise, but, if you don’t have enough energy reserves when you go to bed, then your sleep can be disrupted.

If your brain runs out of fuel while you are asleep, it will wake you up. This is called nocturnal hypoglycemia.

Chops Grille Side Dishes

What does the brain need?

Basically, glucose. Your brain can’t supervise the daily maintenance and repair operations in your body if it doesn’t have enough glucose.

So if you find yourself inexplicably waking up throughout the night, try having a tablespoon of honey 30-minutes before bed or during the night when you wake. This won’t be enough to make you feel ill, but it will give your brain the glucose it needs to function while you sleep.

Fruit via room service on Explorer of the Seas

If honey isn’t practical, have an apple, banana or other fruit before bed. Keep the quantity minimal, so it doesn’t sit in your tummy all night. Again, make sure to have the fruit at least half an hour before you go to bed so your body has time to absorb that glucose.

Cut the caffeine early

Yes, I know, your life will end if you don’t get your caffeine fix. You know what though? That’s only because you have built up such a high tolerance to it (or because your heart medication puts you to sleep),

Coffee with a view on Radiance of the Seas

Just because you can drink a cup of coffee or a bottle of Coca-Cola before bed and then go to sleep doesn’t mean you should.

Cut out caffeinated drinks (and food, yes tiramisu, I’m talking about you) as early as practical. Like, 2 pm early. Healthline says the half-life of caffeine in your body is five hours. So if you have a cup of coffee at 2 pm, half of it will be gone by 7 pm. Most of the effects will be worn off by this time, but it takes another 5 hours for half of what is left to be gone. So at midnight, your body still has 25% of that caffeine cruising around.

Dawn Princess Interior Stateroom and Bed

For me, caffeine disrupts my sleep for approximately 8 hours after ingestion.

Not to mention, caffeine is also a diuretic, which does increase the frequency of your need to visit the commode. Who needs to be woken up in the night, potentially more than once, to relieve that pressure? Not me! There are more than enough possible disturbances without adding extra ad breaks to the eyelid show.

Coffee on Golden Princess

Regardless of your tolerance level, though, if you have less caffeine late in the day and evening, then there is going to be less in your system, and less to disrupt your sleep or send you stumbling to the throne. There is one caffeine exception, however, that I talk about later.

Remember, most black teas have caffeine in them too. If you need the hot drink experience before bed, consider a hot chocolate or herbal tea instead. Peppermint or chamomile teas are great choices as they are natural sleep aids!

Use natural sleep aids

Herbal teas really are amazing! Both peppermint and chamomile tea are soothing. They can help to settle your stomach and cause drowsiness.

Herbal Teas on Explorer of the Seas

Other natural options include magnesium supplements, or creams, and lavender scents. A couple of really great options that I recommend are the Arianrhod Aromatics MagHemp Sleep Lotion and the Lavender Dream Pillow Mist.

Qatar Airways

Avoid motion sickness

If it is looking to be a rough night, take a ginger tablet or put on some Motion Eaze before you go to bed – this will help to settle your stomach during the night and, hopefully, prevent you from waking up feeling crook.

MotionEaze on Royal Caribbean

I’ll admit, a 2.5ml bottle doesn’t seem like much, but one bottle has lasted two of us for around 85 nights at sea with about half leftover, so it does last a long time. Of course, that will vary depending on how much you use it.

Another option you can try is motion sickness bands, like the Travacalm Travel Bands. These bands have a hard bead in them that is meant to rest against a pressure-point on the underside of your wrist. This pressure-point relieves nausea in some wearers. I find these do work, but I get tired of the pressure on my wrists. I tried these a few times but I found that a combination of Motion Eaze and ginger tablets works the best for me.

You could also take motion sickness medication as many of these cause drowsiness and will help you sleep, but it is best to check the ingredients first and make sure they are ok to have with anything else you might be taking.

Motion sickness medication is also the caffeine exception as many motion sickness medications do contain a small amount of caffeine. For example, Travacalm Original. The drowsy side-effects almost always overcome the caffeine, but your mileage may vary. Get one without caffeine if you can. That is going to be the better option. Travacalm Natural is ginger-based without any caffeine, and there are some other alternatives like Blackmores Nausea Relief Ginger tablets that are (in my opinion) better value.

If you’re already feeling the motion in the ocean, try a peppermint tea or chamomile tea in addition to putting on some Motion Eaze or taking your motion sickness medication. The warm tea can be relaxing before bed, and both peppermint and chamomile are known to soothe nausea. Oh, and they can help with sleep and relaxation. Wham, bam, thank you herbs!

Herbal Mint Tea on a Cruise Ship

This kind of feeds back into one of my earlier suggestions. If you aren’t going to bed just yet, going for a walk on one of the outer decks can also help with motion sickness.

Under the stars at sea

It’s hard, but try and take your mind off what you are feeling in your belly. Often, thinking about nausea makes it worse.

Qatar Airways

And if all else fails…

If all else fails, count your breathing – It’s kind of like counting sheep. I find if I’m laying there awake, consciously breathing in and out while counting each inward breath puts me to sleep. If my thoughts drift off to other things, I just bring them back to counting breaths and focus on that. Before long I’m watching eyelid movies.

Jewel of the Seas Balcony Room

That’s it!

That’s what I do to make sure I always get some of the best sleep of my life on board a cruise ship. I’ve had my fair share of motion sickness, but now, I love the rocking and sleep like a baby. Except for that time we sailed into a lightning storm in the middle of the night. That woke me up and was unbelievable to watch through our front window (cabin 7500) on Radiance of the Seas. I was utterly fascinated with that show.

Lightning show on Radiance of the Seas

However, I digress!

Have you got any other tips to get the best sleep on cruise ships? Preferably ones that don’t leave you hungover. Let me know in the comments below.

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Who Am I?

Matt in Noumea

Matt works sort-of full time running his digital marketing business, TerraMedia. In his spare time though, he loves to travel with his wife, so they usually end up doing a lot of it.
Home is Australia, and while they don’t spend all their time travelling the world, Matt and his wife like to take the time to really explore and get to know a place, even if that means spending a lot longer there than normal tourists might.

You can read more about Matt and his story HERE.

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