It can sometimes be hard to sleep in a hotel room (or anywhere else for that matter). The stress of changing time zones, unfamiliar surroundings, and unexpected sounds and noises, all aggravated by sometimes the urgent need to sleep due to your alarm set for too early the next morning, can see you unable to sleep in an uncontrolled environment with a frustrating mix of noises keeping you awake.
Even if you do manage to drop off to sleep, studies show that our brain is still working overtime processing and then discarding all the nuisance noises while we sleep, and that means we wake less rested and less alert for the day ahead. Perhaps unsurprisingly, studies also show that our blood pressure rises due to the noises we’ve suffered.
Earplugs might help solve the problem (keep the ones you get in airline amenity kits), but many people find them uncomfortable. There is another solution.
This solution is to quietly play some other sort of neutral soothing sound in the background. This will mask other sounds, and while you’re not then in a totally silent room, you are in a room where there are no annoying sounds, merely a neutral background sound.
In its purest form, this would be what is called white or pink noise – just a sort of hissing rushing sound. This is easily created – these days, apps that run on our phones and tablets give you a wide range of choices – wind in the trees, surf on a beach, and many others. Simply choose the sound that you find least annoying and most conducive to quickly falling asleep.
Or select a mix of sounds and blend them together. Do you want to recreate the sound palette of a crackling open fire while outside wind blows through the trees, birds and crickets chirp, and, oh yes, you’re by a lake or ocean with waves breaking on the shore, plus it is raining? Then dial up the sound levels on all these commonly found sound options, and you’ve exactly that coming out of your device.
Best of all, you have a choice of free apps on both Apple/iOS devices and Android devices, as well as other apps that cost $5 or less (giving you a largely unnecessary but wider range of sounds and perhaps the ability to edit/adjust the sounds even more than the free apps).
We tried several of the free apps to see if they fulfilled the potential they appear to promise. In brief – we were encouraged and impressed.
Relaxio White Noise Generator : Create a mix of sounds from a selection of 16 different sounds. You can set the relative volume levels of each of the different sounds. There are choices such as waves, rain, fans, wind and leaves, crowds talking, traffic, and even a bit of thunder and lightning (not sure how that helps you nod off!). You can save your own preferred mixes of sounds so you can recall them the next time you start the app. You can have it play for ever (or at least until you stop the app or the batteries die) or for a choice of different time periods before stopping.
It is easy and simple to set up, and you can’t beat the price (free). If you are playing the app, the phone’s screen will turn off but the phone won’t, itself, go to sleep so it keeps playing. While there are other apps with more features, this seems to do anything and everything you’d need and is very easy to understand and use.
TMSOFT White Noise : This comes in three versions, a free, a paid, and a Pro (more expensive) version. We of course looked at the free version and saw no reason to consider upgrading.
Some of the samples were – at least to a person easily annoyed such as myself – annoying. Who would want to listen to a dripping tap sound? And some of them had me listening obsessively to detect the point where the sample looped around and started repeating again – it is easier to notice this when there are a series of distinctive sounds as part of the sample than it is when it is something steady like the sound of unchanging rain.
You can create mixes of up to five sounds, and each of the five sounds can be edited – not just its volume, but also its pitch, its ‘variance’ (think of for example the rise and fall of waves crashing on a beach), the speed at which the sound varies, and where on a stereo soundstage the sound is heard (if you’re perhaps playing the sound through some Bluetooth speakers, I guess).
The app had all the other usual features, and if the 40 or so built-in sounds aren’t enough, you can apparently download more from their website. Trust me, 40 should be more than enough.
It is more feature rich than the Relaxio app, but slightly harder to master.
Neither of the two iOS apps we review next had Android versions available.
iLBSoft Relax Melodies : This might be a more powerful app than some of the others, or it might just be an over-engineered example of rampant featuritis taking a simple concept and running too far with it. I rarely need to turn to help files with any app, but I did with this, and – alas – even the help files proved too complicated to access. You had to log in to something online to access the help files, it seemed, which is not only a ridiculous requirement (why should anyone need to create an account to access help files), but a potential problem if you’re traveling internationally and have no access to international data services.
The sounds it offered ranged from the usual (rivers and oceans) to the unusual (a flute) and the not very relaxing (various melodies). Generally the sounds tended to be ‘brighter’ and so they felt less relaxing to me. There was a very wide range of sounds (54) that could be mixed/blended together, and if that wasn’t enough, there were more that could be purchased by upgrading to a ‘Pro’ version.
I found the app frustrating and ‘too clever’, requiring mental efforts at a time when I was simply wanting to go to sleep. Not recommended.
Phase4 Mobile White Noise HQ : This app immediately suggested I should get a companion app, ‘Rain Sounds HQ’. I decided to stick with the White Noise app.
This was a much easier app to set up and use than the iLBSoft app, but not as easy as Relaxio on Android. We might slightly prefer the iOS version of TMSOFT White Noise, but it is close, and you might like to try both, because they are of course all free.
The Android TMSOFT White Noise app is also available on iOS. Relaxio is not.
Using the Ambient Noise Around You
If for some reason you find yourself without your phone or tablet, there are probably (hopefully) ways you could create your own ’emergency’ ambient noise. The air-conditioning unit, for example – set the fan control to high and have it always on, whether the unit is actually heating or cooling or ‘in the middle’ and not needing to do either. A similar noise source could be a bathroom fan if there is one (and the bathroom fan has the added benefit of not creating any draughts of air blowing over you in the night).
Another approach might be to find a television channel or an empty bit of space on a radio band and just have the static from that playing.
I’d certainly not recommend flouting the desperate pleas to save water by reusing hotels and instead running taps in the bathroom. But in an emergency, and where the hotel has failed in its express or implied promise to provide you with a peaceful quiet environment to sleep in, well, maybe all bets are off. Just be sure, in such a case, that the basin or bath drains adequately!
One possible downside of using your phone or tablet is you’re going to be draining its battery, unless of course you have the device plugged into a charger at the same time.
It is hard to say how much battery the apps use, because the louder you play the sounds, the faster you’ll use up battery. It also depends on the amount of charge your battery can hold and what other drains your phone imposes on it. But we suggest choosing a low level of sound, sufficient to drown out the worst of the background noises, and be sure to have your phone either connected to a charger or with a reasonably full charge at the start.
We did some testing on a couple of phones, which suggested that these apps were using anywhere from 1% – 4% of charge per hour (in addition to the other battery drains, of course).
Positioning Your Phone’s Speakers
Noting our battery comments, you don’t want to use any more battery than you must to drive the sounds. In addition, you don’t want to have such a loud background noise generator as to be creating problems for the guests in rooms around you. So, we recommend you point the speaker directly at you, and have the phone reasonably nearby.
Note that phones have speakers in different places. Sometimes at the top, sometimes at the bottom, perhaps facing forwards or even facing backwards. Work out where the sound is coming from on your phone, and direct that part of the phone to you in your bed.
Too much sound and it will change from being a quiet background ‘fill’ to an intrusive noise in the foreground, so set the sound as quiet as possible while still drowning out most of the background noise. If you’re in a hotel room on the second floor, overlooking a city street, and with tall buildings on the other side to reflect sounds from the street directly into your windows, and you’re sleeping with the windows open, you will never drown out emergency vehicles going past with sirens blaring, but if you can at least muffle the general cacophony of traffic sounds, that is a valuable achievement.
Configuring Your Phone
Some people leave their phone on 24/7. I usually turn mine off at night, because otherwise, I will get various advertising type text messages, have the phone beep every time an email comes in, and (particularly if traveling into other time zones) further risk having phone calls wake me up at ridiculous times.
Of course you can’t turn your phone off while also having it play white noise, but you can do the next best thing. Turn on its Airplane Mode This does two important things. First, it prevents any incoming events that might create distractions and wake you up. Secondly, by turning off all the phone’s transmitters and receivers, it greatly reduces the battery load and means you’ll wake up in the morning not only refreshed but with much more battery life remaining, too.
If you don’t want to use your phone or tablet to generate white noise, you could always buy a dedicated device.
Needless to say, Amazon has a bunch of different white noise generators; if you are going to buy one, you might want to get one that can be battery-powered (with a rechargeable battery) so that you won’t have problems with plugs and socket placements in hotel rooms, and so it can work internationally with varying voltages and plug types.
Prices start from a very reasonable $20 or so. They’re not necessarily bulky or heavy, but they are another gadget to pack and manage, so our preference is to add a free app to a phone or tablet.
As I mentioned in the TMSOFT White Noise review above, I like my sounds to have no clearly identifiable elements in them at all, just a blur of background noise. If there are specific sounds, then I start listening for a pattern and repeat in those specific sounds, and then I start noting the passing of time each time the sound repeats.
Hopefully you’re not as obsessive about these things as I am, but remember the object of this is to create a bland neutral sound ‘barrier’ that blocks out annoying sounds without creating any new potentially annoying sounds in the process.
When you’re away from home and your regular sleep environment and sleep times, it can simultaneously be difficult to go to sleep but also more important to do so. Even if you don’t wake up, noises during the night interrupt your sleep patterns, and even raise your blood pressure.
Adding some form of inoffensive background noise can mask other more distracting sounds, and help you better sleep. Free apps can be added to your smart phone or tablet, dedicated devices are available, and if all else fails, maybe you can run a fan in your room or tune the television or radio to an unused frequency and just have static playing.