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By The Way
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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hell is tiny lights in a hotel room

Is there anything worse than little red beams shining in your cornea when you’re trying to sleep?

(iStock/Washington Post Illustration)

Jessica Halem adores hotels. And loves to sleep. Unfortunately, the two are often at odds.

As someone with a careful sleep-hygiene routine who must slumber “in complete darkness,” Halem finds herself on the offense during hotel stays. There are tiny lights in the TV and smoke detector to deal with. Gaps in the curtains. Alarm clocks, microwaves, refrigerators, air conditioners.

“Everything that could possibly be needed ... has a light on it, and it’s shining in your eye,” said Halem, 50, an LGBTQ+ health-care expert from Philadelphia. “I can see the lights through my closed eyelids. I know I’m not alone.”

She is not.

TikTok, Twitter, Reddit and other sites tell tales of similar woes. Unlike a home environment, where light-emitting appliances might be safely tucked out of view in other rooms, hotel rooms are often both compact and chock-full of glowing devices.

Twitter users share their ingenious hotel room hacks

“Different people may have different sensitivities to light at night,” said Phyllis Zee, a professor of neurology and chief of sleep medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “And if you’re aware that it’s bothering your sleep, it’s probably too much.”

She said many devices in hotel rooms emit blue light, which has a more potent effect on sleep than red or amber lights. Zee herself has been at the mercy of an unexpected light source while staying at a “wonderful, beautiful, fancy” hotel in D.C.

“I would keep waking up throughout the night,” she said, and finally realized that she was facing a blue light glowing from a heating unit fan in the wall. She turned away from the light and covered her eyes. The next night, she blocked the light with a towel.

“When I did that, I actually slept well,” she said.

Want to check in to your hotel early? Good luck.

For light-sensitive sleepers, over-lit hotel rooms force them to get creative — or face a restless night.

Chantal Spies, a 37-year-old communication manager based in the Netherlands, posted a TikTok in September showcasing her fixes to excess light in an Ibiza hotel room. The main tools: a bandage for a tiny TV light and a sanitary napkin, which she used to stick a rolled-up magazine page over the light display on an air conditioner.

“Must.be.pitch.black,” she wrote. The video got more than 341,000 likes.

In an email, Spies said the bandage and sanitary napkin stayed in place for her entire six-day stay — and it wasn’t the first time she’s used the hack. She said she didn’t realize how many people shared her aversion to lights at night.

“Based on the comments, lots of people need the room to be dark and quiet without flashing lights,” she said. “Some people commented: ‘Just wear an eye mask,’ but eye masks are uncomfortable and somehow your brain just KNOWS there are lights flickering on the outside of that mask.”

John E. DiScala, founder of the travel site Johnny Jet, is a proponent of a good eye mask. But the frequent traveler who craves a “pitch black” room at night is also a big fan of gaffer tape, which is like electrical tape but is easier to tear. He rolls about an inch of it around a lip balm to bring on trips for emergencies, including covering lights on microwaves, clocks, refrigerators, smoke alarm displays or other light sources.

“I unplug the clock almost always anyways,” he said. “Some don’t even let you do it.”

He also endorses a tip that has been circulating for years on social media: using a clothes hanger for pants or skirts to clamp curtains together, blocking a sliver of light from shining through. A tweet in praise of the practice has been liked more than 362,000 times.

Lonny Wolfe, a former hotel general manager who owns the consulting company the Art of Housekeeping, said the biggest light complaint he’s heard has been about the gap between doors and the floor, which lets hallway light into the room.

If hotels don’t fix the problem themselves, he recommends guests take action. “Roll up a towel and just put it against the door,” he said.

To be clear, light leakage isn’t the only problem travelers have when it comes to hotel rooms. Frommer’s managing editor Zac Thompson said he is often flummoxed by complicated shower systems and multiple switches for standard lights.

“You basically have to solve an escape-room riddle just to fall asleep,” he said. He described “little lamps everywhere,” some of which have wall switches and some of which have no obvious way to control them.

“I’ve gone to sleep with one light on, because I can’t figure out how to turn it off,” he said.

Hotels are rewarding travelers for opting out of housekeeping

Because hotels serve different kinds of customers with a variety of needs, they do need to offer all kinds of lighting options, said Helen Chun, an associate professor of services marketing at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. One person might want to read or write in bed while a partner turns their individual light off to sleep.

“There are different reasons why it is recommended that you have multiple light sources in the hotel room,” she said. “Unintentional ones, that’s like a no-brainer. You really have to remove unintentional lighting sources.”

Chun packs an eye mask, but she said she appreciates a “dim night light” that she can turn on when she wants.

Halem has a host of solutions in her tool kit. She brings circular felt stickers — the kind that go on the bottom of furniture — to place over lights, which sometimes involves standing on a bed or chair.

If she can’t turn off an alarm clock, she’ll rip it out of the wall and put it in the closet. She unplugs microwaves and uses the hanger trick on curtains. Sometimes she even tapes curtains to the wall. Multiple eye masks come with her on trips.

She also wouldn’t mind having conversations with “whoever is in charge of the television set that has a red light that doesn’t turn off,” the smoke detector engineers who decided that a green light should indicate the devices are in working order and maybe federal health officials.

“Perhaps the [National Institutes of Health] should get involved,” she said. “There should be some sort of announcement. ... Light leakage is a problem. We shouldn’t have it while we’re sleeping.”

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