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Many people rely on travel pillows for support and comfort when sleeping in cars or on planes, trains, and other forms of public transportation. Travel pillows are also popular among campers and backpackers. These pillows are usually compact enough to fit into a standard suitcase or overnight bag. Most travel pillows are U-shaped models to fit snugly over the sleeper’s shoulders and provide optimal support to the head, neck, and spine, but some models take on different shapes. Today’s travelers can choose from a wide range of inflatable and non-inflating pillow designs. Most are priced between $10 and $40, and are widely available through brick-and-mortar and online sellers and retailers.
This guide will explore the pros and cons of using a travel pillow, some key considerations for shoppers, and our picks for the best inflating and non-inflating models that are currently available for sale. First, let’s look at why you should (or shouldn’t) use a travel pillow when you’re on the road.
Sleeping and transportation often don’t mix. Seats on airplanes and other modes of transport often feature seats that do not recline much (if at all), minimal legroom, and little to no cushioning for the head and neck. The problem is compounded by travel duration; most people can make do during a two- or three-hour flight, but overseas flights typically span at least eight hours. Combine these discomforts with the realities of jet lag and most travelers disembark feeling strained and achy.
Many airlines and train lines offer pillows to accommodate passengers, but in most cases these pillows are quite thin. This can be problematic because pillow support and comfort is directly tied to loft, or thickness. Sleeper’s should take their head size and shoulder width. Most airline pillows are ‘low-loft,’ meaning they measure three inches thick or less. As the table below shows, low-loft pillows are primarily suitable for people with small heads and narrow shoulders; people with larger dimensions tend to be much less comfortable.
|Pillow Loft||Thickness||Optimal Head Size||Optimal Shoulder Width|
|Low||Less than 3″||Small||Narrow|
|Medium||3″ to 5″||Average||Average|
|High||More than 5″||Large||Broad|
Travel pillows, on the other hand, are usually medium- or high-loft, meaning they measure at least three inches thick. In addition to providing more loft, travel pillows also help passengers adjust to the unnatural sleep position of sitting in a chair that reclines very little, if at all. When most people sleep in a reclining position (as opposed to sleeping on a horizontal surface), their neck will naturally crane forward as soon as they fall asleep. This often results in them waking up with a neck ache. Sleeping with a travel pillow allows them to lean their head and neck back further, reducing the risk of falling forward when asleep.
The sleep position issue may not be as crucial for campers, who normally sleep in their tents in a horizontal position. However, campers still require certain levels of loft in order to feel comfortable and supported — particularly if they sleep on a pad or sleeping bag that is thinner than their bed at home. For this reason, high-loft pillows are usually most suitable for backpackers, campers, and other recreators who sleep in tents.
The majority of travel pillows sold today are U-shaped models designed to rest on the shoulders with both ends facing forward. For added neck support, some of these U-shaped pillows have raised backs with a gentle curve; this ergonomic-minded design can help prevent neck pain and pressure.
Some U-shaped pillows are long enough to be completely wrapped around the neck. This provides 360-degree support, allowing sleepers to crane their neck at the most comfortable angle.
In addition to U-shaped designs, some travel pillows mimic the rectangular shape of bedroom pillows. Other designs include thinner, fabric wraps with a foldable built-in neck brace for a flat resting surface; and long, slender models that can be embraced like body pillows.
Regardless of shape, travel pillows can generally be divided into two categories: inflatable and non-inflatable. First, let’s look at inflatable models. Common characteristics of inflatable designs include the following:
Travel pillows can generally be divided into two categories: inflatable and non-inflatable. First, let’s look at inflatable models. Common characteristics of inflatable designs include the following:
Inflation method: Some inflatable travel pillows fill up the old-fashioned with: with human oxygen. They feature a tightly sealed air valve that allows users to blow into the pillow until they reach their desired loft. Some newer models feature inflation systems that do not require human oxygen. Instead, the user opens a valve and presses down on a button until the pillow is properly inflated. In either case, the loft is adjustable. However, it’s important to never overinflate a travel pillow; this can cause the pillow to burst at its seams, or otherwise damage its structural integrity.
One notable downside of inflatable pillows is that they will probably deflate to some extent after a few hours of use — especially at high altitudes. Sleepers may be most comfortable by slightly over-inflating before use in order to compensate for the lost air.
Material composition: Most inflatable pillows feature a shell made from polyurethane-based material, such as polyvinyl, which can be slick and cold to the touch. To provide more resistance and a warmer feel, inflatable pillows often have a cover made of materials like velvet or velour. These covers also create a more hygienic barrier between the sleeper’s face and the pillow shell, since they are removable and can be machine washed; polyurethane shells should never be laundered.
Compactness: While all travel pillows are fairly compact by definition, deflated travel pillows take up much less space than non-inflatable models (which cannot be reduced in size). This makes inflatable pillows more suitable for lengthier trips, since they take up less luggage space, as well as backpacking trips. Most inflatable pillows weigh 10 ounces or less.
Price-point: The average price-point for inflatable travel pillows is lower than that of non-inflating models. Expect to pay between $10 and $20 for a new inflatable pillow.
Next we’ll discuss non-inflating pillows. Common features of these models include the following:
No adjustment: Unlike inflating travel pillows, non-inflating models cannot be adjusted in terms of loft due to their solid construction. If possible, sleepers should test out these pillows before purchasing to determine if they meet loft preferences and needs.
Material composition: Most non-inflating travel pillows sold today are made from memory foam, also known as viscoelastic polyfoam. This material is designed to become softer when it comes into contact with body heat, and then recover its shape once it begins to cool down. Travel pillows are typically made from firmer memory foam that will provide continuous support to the head, neck, and spine; softer foam tends to sink, which can lead to neck pain.
Like inflating pillows, non-inflating pillows made from memory foam often come with removable, washable covers. Non-inflating designs made from other materials (such as polyester or fleece) may not feature a cover, but these materials are usually machine washable. These pillows are usually filled with beads or polyester puffballs, which tend to be less comfortable — and if the pillow develops a tear, these fill materials may escape and compromise the pillow’s overall loft.
Thickness: Since they are not adjustable, non-inflating pillows tend to have more loft than inflatable ones. The downside to this is that they tend to be bulkier are harder to fit into luggage than inflating models that can be deflated and reduced in size. The material of non-inflating pillows may be scrunched or molded to make more room, but these pillows may not be suitable for travelers who have limited space, such as backpackers and those taking extended trips. On the other hand, non-inflating pillows may be ideal for short trips or car camping.
Price-point: Non-inflating pillows tend to be the more expensive option — though most are still generally affordable. Shoppers should expect to pay between $10 and $40 for a new non-inflating travel pillow.
The table below compares inflating and non-inflating travel pillows in terms of design, composition, price, and other factors.
|Travel Pillow Type||Inflatable||Non-inflatable|
|Typical Construction||Inflatable shell with removable, washable cover||Foam shell with removable, washable cover OR single-piece, machine-washable design|
Cover: Velvet or velour
|Shell: Memory foam|
Cover: Velvet or velour
Single-piece: Polyester or fleece
|Average Loft||3″||3″ to 5″|
|Average Price-point||$10 to $20||$10 to $40|
|Stable shape for more continuous support|
Wider loft range
|Cons||Air loss potential|
Will not inflate if shell is cut or torn
|Potentially higher price-point|
Bulky and difficult to pack in crowded bags
If you are in the market for a new travel pillow, here are a few factors to keep in mind when comparing different brands and models:
Next, let’s look at the best travel pillows according to customers and owners. The first table lists our picks for the top-rated inflatable travel pillows. Please note that all customer satisfaction ratings come from authentic customer and owner experiences.
|Brand||AirComfy||Daydreamer||Kmall||PUREFLY||Lewis N. Clark|
|Inflation||Human oxygen||Push-button pump||Push-button pump||Push-button pump||Human oxygen|
|Cover material||No cover|
(Pillow can be spot cleaned)
Removable and machine washable
Removable and machine washable
Removable and machine washable
Non-removable and machine washable
|Loft (fully inflated)||3.5″||3.5″||5″||5.5″||3″|
|Dimensions (inflated)||11.5″ x 11.5″||11″ x 11″||11.8″ x 11.8″||11.8″ x 11″||18″ x 11″|
|Special features||Elastic band for securing to seats and headrests||Can be inflated while in use||Built-in pocket for extra storage||Raised back helps prevent falling forward||Comes in travel set with eye mask and ear plugs|
|Carrying case included?||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Pillow converts into case|
|Tuck Customer Satisfaction Rating||82% (1,249 customer reviews)||90% (1,182 customer reviews)||91% (301 customer reviews)||92% (1,202 customer reviews)||85% (156 customer reviews)|
The next table lists our top-rated picks for non-inflating travel pillows, according to customers and owners.
|Construction||Polyester fleece cover|
Memory foam shell
Memory foam shell
Memory foam shell
|Machine washable?||Yes||Cover only||Cover only||Cover only||Yes|
(See ‘special features’ below)
|Shape||Long U-shaped||U-shaped||U-shaped||U-shaped||Square with arched center|
|Dimensions||9.8″ x 11″||10″ x 9.5″||11″ x 12″||13″ x 11.5″||7″ x 7″|
|Special features||Wraps around entire neck for 360-degree support||Can be rotated for 360-degree support||Removable insert allows users to adjust the loft||Adjustable drawstring provides customizable fit||Wraps around neck like a blanket and features a built-in neck brace to accommodate side sleepers|
|Carrying case included?||No||Yes||No||No||No|
|Trial/Warranty||None||Money back guarantee||None||2 year warranty||None|
|Tuck Customer Satisfaction Rating||89% (2,713 customer reviews)||90% (3,108 customer reviews)||85% (2,660 customer reviews)||85% (783 customer reviews)||86% (7,562 customer reviews)|
In addition to a supportive pillow, the following accessories may come in handy for sleep-deprived travelers.
Headphones: Headphones are a noise-blocking sleeping staple for many travelers. Additionally, listening to music using headphones at a reasonable volume can help lower one’s heart rate and alleviate stress prior to falling asleep. Headphone styles that are currently sold include on-ear, over-ear, and in-ear (also known as earbud) designs. Standard models are available through most retailers for $30 or less, but shoppers may prefer to spend a little extra for sophisticated headphones that block outside noise more effectively; these models may cost up to $250.
For more information, please visit our Best Headphones for Sleeping guide.
Earplugs: Rather than listening to music, some sleepers prefer to block noise using a pair of earplugs. The majority of earplugs used today are made from compactible, flexible materials like foam, silicone, or wax. These materials offer a snug fit that conforms closely to the unique contours of their ear canal. Shoppers should take note of the Noise Reduction Rating, or NRR, when comparing earplug models; this may range from 20 to 34, and higher ratings are associated with more effective noise-blocking. However, it’s important to note that using earplugs has been linked to certain health problems, including earwax impaction, ear infections, and hearing loss.
To learn more, check out our Best Earplugs for Sleeping guide.
Sleep Masks: Sleep masks are essentially blindfolds that help people sleep in environments where they can’t control light (such as airplanes or other forms of public transportation). By simulating darkness, sleep masks can help facilitate the production of melatonin, a natural hormone that controls one’s natural sleep cycle. Sleep masks are usually made from fabrics such as cotton, silk, and/or polyester, and some also contain foam for extra cushioning. Most sleep masks are available for $20 or less.
Visit our Best Sleep Mask Reviews for more information.
Pillows come in all shapes and sizes. To read our reviews of different pillow types and styles, please visit the following Tuck.com pages: