5 Solutions to ‘Travel Noise Pollution’

crying baby

Noise--photo by Kevin Dooley

Sound/Noise Sensitivity
Are you sensitive to certain sounds/noise in general–and more specifically, when you travel? What do you do if/when it really gets to you? How do you handle it?

Do you:

a) block it out with earplugs?
b) drown it out with your iPod?
c) let it into your aural space (ie, your unprotected eardrum)?
d) self-medicate
e) a combination of 2-3 techniques
f) all of the above

(Or are you someone who could sleep through a nuclear armageddon? If so, I hate you/want you to tell me your secret.)

I happen to be sensitive to all kinds of sounds/noises–especially intermittent ones. I can deal with the sound of continuous traffic, but not with quiet that’s interrupted from time to time and unpredictably. As you can imagine, that makes me a light sleeper. And of course, I’m a magnet for snorers wherever I am.

Sleep aside, being sound/noise-sensitive is not a good thing since I’m a low-budget traveler. I always travel coach, usually sleep in low-budget rooms with thin walls (and hostel dorms on occasion), sometimes ride on chicken buses with blaring music and frequently travel to developing countries where there’s constantly some sort of construction happening not far from where I’m staying. It doesn’t stop me from traveling, of course. I just have to make sure I’m prepared.

5 Noise Pollution Solutions

Here are some situations I’ve found myself in and my “noise pollution solutions.” I’d love to hear what yours are, too, by the way.

PROBLEM #1: Bawling Babies

Ever been on an overnight flight to Europe or beyond–the kind where you really need to get some sleep or you’ll feel like a train wreck for a week? And there you are, on the verge of falling asleep. Someone’s baby, a few rows away, begins to bawl for no apparent reason. This, of course, triggers a blood-curdling scream from a toddler who’s two seats away. Suddenly, there’s a symphony of (off-key) sounds–the kind that rip right through you and push even the Armageddon sleepers over the edge. Been there, done that…and can now tell you the story with no PTSD whatsoever.

My Solution: Heavy Metal

Heavy metal music (not death metal as it could be a bit too much) played on my iPod + antihistamine or Xanax. I opt for this type of music because it sometimes contains its own screams, which can mask the sound of the bawling baby/babies. The antihistamine (generic benadryl) helps with sleep–by knocking you out. Sometimes, though, it just doesn’t work. That’s when you bring out  the big guns–Xanax. I usually get a bottle of 10 before I travel for those “just in case” moments. And most of the time, it works great.


You’ve just crawled into bed, in a hostel dorm room. The person who’s a few beds away begins to snore…like a longshoreman after a night of drinking. Or someone in the room has to reorganize their Ziplock bags just as you’re drifting off. Or they’re speaking loudly to someone else at 2 am. Or maybe someone in the room has a…special friend they’re hanging out with–I mean, hooking up with. Then what?

My Solution: Relocation (usually)

If someone’s being noisy, I politely ask them to be quiet or lower their voice or stop making the offending noise. But if someone is snoring, I try to change rooms. In the case of dorm-room sex, I may let the involved parties know that I’m awake–or I may just move elsewhere. It’s annoying, but…once I’ve relocated, I usually sleep fine. Once, however, I couldn’t  change rooms, so I went into the lobby with my pillow and blanked and crashed out on a sofa. Sure I felt a bit…homeless…but I was that desperate for quiet.


This was also in Mexico City (perhaps I won’t go back there?). It was about 5:30 am–a time when I’m still in REM, enjoying the Rapid Eye Movement cycle, thank you very much. Well, sure enough, I was awakened by the sound of a jackhammer being used down on the street. It was so loud, I thought the building was going to cave in. I still needed another hour of sleep.

My Solution: Earplugs + iPod

How this worked was quite simple. I still had the headphones from the flight I’d been on–you know, the kind…the ones that have the pad that covers your ear. So I first put my industrial (orange) earplugs in to block the semi-distant sound, but then doubled up, so to speak, with the layer of sound from the iPod via the headphones. It created a sound barrier that worked incredibly well. OK, truth be told–at times, due to this unique set-up–and the cabin pressure–I felt like my head was in a mini vice. A little Xanax took care of that, luckily.


I was on my way from Prague to Krakow, by train, and had the perfect seat. There were just a few other passengers and they were quietly reading or looking out the window, just as I was. I remember how I began to unwind and let go, thinking the Sound/Noise Gods had blessed me.

But then, the wind changed direction and so did my luck. The Sound/Noise Gods changed their minds, turning cruel in an instant. A couple boarded the train with their dog. Yes, a dog. It was small and had a shiny coat and wasn’t bad to look at. The problem? It was barking…a lot. So was the couple. At each other.

And then, someone else–a teenager yapping on a cellphone–joined our group of passengers. She was using a cheap headset, which meant…she was even louder than she needed to be. Our lovely cabin, idyllic initially, had devolved into the Train Compartment from Hell.

My Solution: Anthrax

No, not the poison (although the thought did, briefly, enter my mind). The group. There’s something about that music that can drown out almost anything. In that case, I traded in damage to my ear drum for mental peace. It was worth it–really. Wait–what did you say? Huh?

PROBLEM #5: Maddening Merengue

I love merengue. I really do. Especially if I’m hanging out with some Latino friends I can dance with and we’re somewhere that has…a dance floor. I don’t mind if it’s loud and fast, either. But when I’m on a bus, trying to relax or read my travel guide, I don’t want to hear it as much. I certain don’t want to hear it blaring from the speakers.

My Solution: Surrender

I give in…I surrender…I actually listen to it. I prefer salsa, but hey–the driver is driver, not a DJ. You can’t “request” songs, unless you’re on really good terms with him. I listen and try to make out what they hell they’re saying. They’re in love, angry, etc. Whatever. I figure it’s a free Spanish class–maintenance in my case since I already speak the language.

There is one exception to this, however. If the music has static in it–then, I’m in trouble. I find that almost as bad as nails on a chalkboard. If that is the case, then I go for the earplugs MINUS the iPod. I can still make out the music, but I don’t hear the static. A real win-win if you think about it.

How about you? What coping techniques do you use?

What sort of noises/sounds do you find irritating when you travel? And what do you do to deal? Do you use an iPod or earplugs? Do you simply expose your eardrum to it, unprotected? Or do you have “noise-canceling headphones?”  Or perhaps you self-medicate? Whatever you do to cope, I’d love to know!

“Noise” photo was taken by Kevin Dooley and obtained through flickr.

22 Responses to 5 Solutions to ‘Travel Noise Pollution’
  1. Sprite
    October 13, 2010 | 3:26 am

    smile, I
    a) drink
    b) take valium
    c) all the above

    • CB Driver
      October 13, 2010 | 4:35 am

      Hi, Sprite. You drink, huh? Not a bad option at all, especially if you’re looking to “drown out” the noise! I think it works well if you’re flying (although I sometimes do better with the medication.)

      All of the above? LOL. Yes, but be careful mixing b and c…. :)
      CB Driver recently posted..Chicky Bus–The Real Story conclusionMy Profile

  2. Emma
    October 13, 2010 | 12:34 pm

    I like your heavy metal solution. =)

    I know one thing that doesn’t work – putting a pillow over your ears. I’ve tried that and it’s amazing how little pillows block out.

    Perhaps someone could invent a curved pillow that goes around the back of your head, covering both ears. It would be made of something that would block out all noise.

    Hey, that’s a pretty great idea! :)
    Emma recently posted..TuesdayMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      October 13, 2010 | 1:43 pm

      What a great idea, Emma–a curved pillow. Perhaps it could be made with special memory foam with a thin layer of earplug foam. It would also be easy to pack; you would simply roll it up and pack it in a small sack no larger than an iPhone.

      No low-budget traveler should be without the Amazing Earplug Pillow? LOL Perhaps we should create it and sell it for “two easy payments” of $29.99! :)

  3. Andi
    October 13, 2010 | 3:26 pm

    Oh gosh, I’m laughing so hard right now. Xanax is the best, mix it was some champagne, and I’m a happy Andi. :)
    Andi recently posted..Europe- Day 3 Part 1My Profile

    • CB Driver
      October 13, 2010 | 3:44 pm

      So glad you’re laughing…that’s what I was hoping for! Yeah, Xanax–good stuff. I must say that I LOVE the idea of combining it with champagne. I think that would make for a very relaxing journey….to….wherever! :)

  4. Steve
    October 13, 2010 | 6:04 pm

    I love the recommendation for Xanax. If you’re like me, you need your sleep and babies crying in stereo is very distracting. Luckily, my last few trips have been relatively noise free with the exception of one early morning woken up by a loud rooster. I take earplugs with me for times like that, but I usually have an alarm set so I can’t put them in.
    Steve recently posted..8 Unique and Interesting Pub CrawlsMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      October 14, 2010 | 3:23 am

      Thanks for reminding me about those roosters. Perhaps I should add them to the list as….Rude Roosters or Crazy Crowers! What’s their deal, anyway? I thought they were supposed to crow at around 5 or so. Often, it happens at seemingly random times, like 3 or 3:30 am. How rude of them!

  5. Sabina
    October 14, 2010 | 4:28 am

    I use earplugs all the way. I actually find I don’t need them that often, but when I do, they work. They don’t block out all the sound – whatever it is – but enough so that I can ignore it and sleep.

    • CB Driver
      October 15, 2010 | 4:11 am

      Earplugs are pretty damn wonderful, aren’t they? Glad they’re working for you!

  6. Rachel
    October 15, 2010 | 2:41 am

    #4 is the WORST. It’s the suffocation of multiple different obnoxious sounds!! … like a small whisper that turns into a high school full of screaming kids that don’t listen to “be quiet!”

    Classical music. I find that classical music works best to drown that stuff out. There are so many mixtures of sounds and tones … and the fact that there are no words or heavy guitar sounds helps you sleep!
    Rachel recently posted..So Much Food- So Little Cabinet SpaceMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      October 15, 2010 | 4:13 am

      #4 IS awful! I will have to try classical music. Perhaps that + the large headphones would work in certain cases. I do enjoy classical, especially Bach. Maybe next time!

  7. ayngelina
    October 15, 2010 | 7:25 pm

    If I could only learn how to deal with snorers, it seems once I hear them snoring I fixate on the sound.
    ayngelina recently posted..The ethics of being robbedMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      October 17, 2010 | 4:41 pm

      I hear you (and them–lol). I also fixate on the sound. Somehow, I think, you know how many seconds will pass before the next one. And it’s that anticipation (and the very annoying sound of the snore itself) that will keep you up!

  8. Andrea
    January 16, 2011 | 4:12 am

    Haha, love these tips! We seem to ALWAYS end up in the noisiest places. Like we’re cursed…earplugs are a constant companion.
    Andrea recently posted..Bungas’s Beer of the Week- North IslandMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      January 16, 2011 | 8:56 am

      Thanks–glad you like them! And so…you’re victims of travel noise pollution? Why does that happen to some of us? It’s always the light sleepers, too, isn’t it? Yes–earplugs. Don’t leave home without ‘em! :)

  9. FearfulGirl
    February 9, 2011 | 7:09 am

    I use earplugs ALL THE TIME. In fact, I’m tempted to wear them to the supermarket, the post office, everywhere really. While I’m extremely grateful for my ability to remove my earplugs and become hearing enabled again, I love the sense of perfect introverted isolation that comes with deafness. It’s like living in a bubble! I use Leight Sleeper earplugs: they don’t hurt your earholes and they block even the sound of a spouse with sleep apnea (think: choking on his own uvula all night long).

    • CB Driver
      February 9, 2011 | 9:29 am

      Hi, Torre. Thanks for sharing and making me laugh! I swear I’d wear my earplugs nearly all the time if I could, too. I love the sound of silence. I hate noise!! Great to know about that brand, too. And does it really block out the sound of snoring men (and the choking–LOL)? If so, I’m in. I seem to be a magnet for this sort of sleep disturbance. :)

      • FearfulGirl
        February 9, 2011 | 6:43 pm

        They do block out the snoring, but not the crying babies.

        • CB Driver
          February 9, 2011 | 9:37 pm

          I think that’s because of the piercing nature of that type of noise…rips right through you and your eardrums! :)

  10. Rease
    April 4, 2011 | 10:54 pm

    I’m all about the ipod. I just got off a bus this morning that had a crying baby right next to me. I find music that makes me concentrate on the lyrics but also makes me sleepy. I should really look into more pills to knock me out though because I am a light sleeper.
    Rease recently posted..10 Confusing Spanish IdiomsMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      April 6, 2011 | 8:56 am

      Hi, Rease. A bus with a crying baby? Sounds like a nightmare. But yes–the iPod can really help. The music has to be just right, though, to drown out the sound. The pills are helpful.

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