The Science of Sleep. How the Travel Industry is Cashing in on Tourism’s Latest Obsession

Skift Take

Gen Z has made boasting about good sleep its most recent flex. And the travel sector has followed suit, using science to cater to vacationers of all ages looking to get some precious shut-eye.

By Sarah Kopit | April 28, 2024

Short red-eye flights are the worst. And they are some of the most frequently traveled routes for corporate road warriors. San Francisco to New York. New York to London. London to Dubai.

Airports are not relaxing.

It’s impossible to start winding down while sternly being directed to “TAKE YOUR LAPTOPS OUT OF YOUR BAGS!,” then walking, barefoot, on a sticky linoleum floor through a metal detector.

By the time you’ve trudged to the gate, loaded yourself onto the plane, and settled-in enough to possibly drift off, you will inevitably move through the five stages of grief.

First, you’ll check your watch in disbelief that there’s now only five hours until landing (denial). Next, annoyingly, you also know that the *#&$#-ing lights will come on an hour before that (anger). Then you make a deal with yourself that if you could just get to sleep right now, you’ll never book this flight again (bargaining). But you’re sadly wide awake and morning is racing towards you at 550 miles per hour (depression). This would be a nightmare if you could get to sleep in the first place, but you won’t (acceptance).

Even writing this makes me anxious. So it’s probably no surprise to hear that I’m a poor sleeper, especially on planes.

And as a working mother in the thunderdome-stage of parenting – and the editor of a travel publication – daydreaming about a sleep-based vacation (minus the jet lag) is a regular occurrence.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one.

Enter Sleep Tourism

Sometime around 2022, after we stopped talking about vaccines and masks, we switched-over to obsessing about vacations and sleep.

The data is clear. A recent Gallup poll found a majority of U.S. adults – and especially women under age 50 – say they would feel better if they got more sleep.  A majority of travelers told Skift Research they are willing to pay a premium for accommodations or travel packages with sleep-focused amenities. And a Hilton survey from October says that across all age groups, the primary reason for vacationing in 2024 is to “rest and recharge,” and even more than that, sleep is a main priority.

“Interest in sleep tourism has skyrocketed since the pandemic,” said James Cole, founder of Panache Cruises. “Travel companies are increasingly focusing on those suffering from sleep deprivation.”

Restaurants and bars in New York City are closing earlier due to lack of late night customers. Over on TikTok’s #sleeptok, you’ll find dewy twenty-somethings laying out the specifics of their bedtime routines. Did you know Dakota Johnson apparently sleeps 10-14 hours a night? Now you do.

Sales of alcohol, long known to scientifically disrupt quality sleep, are down. Mocktails are having a moment. Biohacking is in. Stress is out. Brunch is the new dinner. 

Seemingly gone are the days of Hustle Culture, where the thought was you could sleep when you die. In 2024, it’s “I’ll sleep tonight, thank you very much, and I’ll do so blissfully for 8-10 hours.”

Conversations around “sleep on a day-to-day basis are now finally surfacing,” said Mickey Beyer-Clausen, CEO of the circadian science-based jet lag app, Timeshifter.

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And the travel industry is here for it. ​​Sleep tourism is estimated to increase by a whopping  $409.8 billion from 2023 to 2028, according to researchers at HTF Market Intelligence.

The Science of Sleep

Borrowing from the popularity of the wellness sector, the travel-related sleep market hones in on the growing science around quality sleep.

There are two wings to the movement: One that promotes rest and wellness as its primary motivation, and another focused on helping travelers after long-haul international flights. When you cross time zones, everyone will experience the granddaddy of all sleep-related travel woes: jet lag. Despite what Taylor Swift says, it’s not a choice.

It won’t surprise anyone who’s been sleep deprived that scientists are now learning just how strongly sleep is associated with mental health. Doctors also know that chronic sleep issues may heighten the risk of dementia, heart disease, obesity, and various cancers.

A case study. You’ve booked that dreaded six-hour red eye, leaving San Francisco at 10 p.m. PT, landing at JFK at 7 a.m. ET. After moving through all the stages of grief, you shuffle off the plane and into the early morning New York sunshine. To your body it’s 3 a.m. You’ve got a 1 p.m. meeting. You feel a bit nauseous. 

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Chart by Timeshifter

You white knuckle it through the work day, then check into your hotel, order some carbohydrate-laden comfort food, and try to stay up until a respectable hour. When it’s finally time for bed, you just lay there awake, painfully exhausted but still unable to sleep.

If any of this resonates, you’ll be pleased to know that sleep researchers think they have a better way to travel. By understanding the science around the human body’s many circadian clocks, they believe we can dramatically cut the time it takes to adapt to a new timezone.

Timeshifter, a mobile app designed to help long-haul travelers with jet lag, promises to ease that special feeling of discombobulation that comes with crossing time zones. By allowing users to input detailed personal preferences and specific flight information, the app creates tailored sleep plans that takes into account things like an individual’s chronotype and complicated stopovers. These plans aim to realign the body’s various circadian rhythms.

“For business travelers, it’s that one trip every month to Europe or China,” said Beyer-Clausen. “In order to get better natural sleep, you need to be fully aligned. Otherwise your circadian clock is going to keep hitting you with fatigue during the day and alertness during the night.” 

He says it’s the body’s exposure to sunlight and darkness that most greatly impacts the experience of jet lag – not hydrating, eating the right foods or getting exercise.

Instructions often start several days before a traveler leaves home. The app sends push notifications directing when to go to bed, wake-up, get sunlight, stay in the dark and even use caffeine and melatonin.

“The problems caused by jet lag cannot be tackled using generic advice, which is over simplistic and can often be counterproductive,” said Steven Lockley, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Chief Scientist at Timeshifter. “Each traveler and trip is different and requires a personalized approach taking your sleep pattern, chronotype, itinerary, and range of personal preferences into account.”

Patches and masks to aid sleep. Photo by Skift

Elite athletes, C-Suite executives and even astronauts use this circadian science to get better sleep under extreme conditions.

And then there’s Equinox Hotels, where the luxury property’s entire selling point is to help guests get high-quality sleep. The only catch: you have to be able to afford it. The rate for a basic king room will set you back an eye watering $945 per night.

For your money, you’ll be pampered with cutting-edge sleep science. All rooms have the expected amenities like air filtration, blackout blinds, and soundproofing. But the property also boasts a dedicated sleep program called, “The Art + Science of Sleep,” complete with foods, meditations and goodies like melatonin infused patches. The spa has seemingly magical treatments that promise the equivalent of 3 hours of sleep in just 30 minutes, cryotherapy plunges and infrared sauna pods dedicated to boosting deep sleep by cutting cortisol levels and increasing blood flow. 

They’re even getting into the events business, launching a two-day sleep symposium in June catering to travel professionals who want to learn more about sleep science and tourism.

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When Equinox Hotels CEO Chris Norton appeared on stage at Skift’s Megatrends event in January, I needled him a bit (pun very much intended) about my being leery of having an IV stuck in my arm at a hotel to lessen the effects of jet lag – another of the spa’s services. In the greenroom later he made me promise to come by and try it out before I passed judgment. 

Sometimes we all have to suffer for our work. I made a reservation.

A Most Luxurious and Very Unscientific Sleep Study

In preparation for my stay, and in order to make this very unscientific experiment just as unscientific, I fished out an old Fitbit from the back of the closet. In the days leading up to my overnight, I tracked my sleep. 

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Photo by Skift

Monday night’s score: 77. Tuesday was rougher: 69. Wednesday: 71. Thursday: 77 again.  Scores of 60-79 Fitbit deems only,  “fair.”

By the time Friday came, I was silly excited to see if my sleep score would improve after the full Equinox treatment.

The day started early at breakfast with the hotel’s CEO. Over fresh fruit, yogurt and flaxseed pancakes, Norton and I chatted about life, sleep and how the hotel goes deep into the details.

In each room, beds have two, separate comforters arranged side by side, so guests won’t fall victim to stolen covers in the middle of the night. The lights on the safety devices like smoke detectors are arranged so they won’t disturb guest’s sleep. And my favorite – there’s a one panel control that will turn off all the lights, close the black-out blinds and set the temperature to exactly 66 degrees – the temperature experts recommend for optimal sleep.

It was about 11:30 p.m. when I hit that button and turned in for the night.

I’m not sure if it was the afternoon sleep-focused magnesium IV drip, the infrared sauna session or the horse hair and seaweed mattress, but I slept like a baby. 

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Friday night’s score … 82. The only night that week which Fitbit classified as “good” sleep.

The Sleep Vacation + The Travel Gear

Gen Z has made sleep and sleep tourism its latest flex. It turns out, those born between 1995-2010 are the most intentional group about prioritizing sleep – and they are willing to pay for it, according to a Skift Research. Hotels and other travel providers have taken note, adding amenities and products to cater specifically to sleep needs.

The Park Hyatt New York has an AI-powered bed to adjust mattress pressure points, oil diffusers and sleep-related books. At the Benjamin Royal, you’ll find white noise machines, power napping kits and a 10-deep pillow bar. While Aman offers cryotherapy, a contrast water circuit and traditional Chinese medicine known to improve sleep. Time Out New York even has a list for “Best sleep retreats in the U.S.” 

Not to be left out, the airlines are further optimizing every inch of the airplane to help passengers get better sleep. For long-haul flights to the South Pacific, Air New Zealand will offer a bunk bed time-share of sorts in its economy class called “SkyNest.” Starting next year travelers will be able to purchase four-hour sleep sessions in pods similar to the set-up already in place for cabin crew. American Airlines is rolling out a new amenities program designed specifically so passengers can have a more restful flight. And lest we forget the crazy-looking, $150 must-have neck pillow of 2024 – the Pluto Pod 2.0 – which promises in-seat sleep, even for those relegated to economy.

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Photo by Pluto Pod

Before I left Equinox, I visited its online sleep shop. If I wanted to try to recreate my stay, the hotel offers its entire sleep system – a platform bed, mattress, sheets and all the other accessories – for about $12,000.

That trip was just a not-so-quick ride on the 7 train from Brooklyn to Hudson Yards. No time zones crossed. 

But there’s no rest for the weary. I’m heading to Los Angeles for Skift next. So when it comes to jet lag, Timeshifter’s Beyer-Clausen reminds all us road warriors, “you can have the best mattress, the best pillows. Milk, cookies. It won’t help you. You need to attack the circadian science.”

Sarah Kopit is editor-in-chief at Skift. Contact her at [email protected]
Graphics by Beatrice Tagliaferri

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