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Anyone who has attempted to sleep in a car, one a plane, or while using other modes of transportation can attest to the aches, pains, and pressure points that tend to develop from sleeping in an upright position. For this reason, travel pillows are an indispensable sleep accessory for many road trippers and frequent fliers.
Travel pillows are much smaller than standard pillows. This allows them to be easily scrunched and stuffed between the sleeper’s body and their headrest. They are also very lightweight, making them easy to store and lug between destinations; many are made from plush fabrics or lightweight foams, while others are filled with air that can be deflated for better portability. In addition to standard rectangular or square-shaped travel pillows, today’s come in U-shaped varieties, as well as more innovative designs.
This guide will explore the different types of travel pillows, as well as our picks for the best travel pillows sold today. Our choices are based on verified customer and owner experiences, as well as intensive product research and analysis.
The PUREFLY Travel Pillow is an inflatable, U-shaped pillow that provides optimal ergonomic support for upright sleepers. Both sides press gently to stabilize the neck while the raised back with a recessed top helps prevent the head from falling forward too much. Both inflation and deflation are powered with automatic valves, eliminating the need to breathe into air valves and manually push air out of the pillow.
The pillow is constructed with a soft, comfortable micro-velvet cover that is removable and machine washable, allowing travelers to keep the pillow hygienic trip after trip. The PUREFLY is also lighter than five ounces, making it easy to store and carry in baggage; each purchase of the pillow includes a complimentary carrying case. The PUREFLY is widely available for less than $20, making it a top-value pick as well.
The AirComfy Travel Pillow is an inflatable pillow with an hourglass shape that makes it suitable for not only air and auto travel, but also as a support pillow for the back, knees, and other areas while sleeping in a bed or sitting in an office chair. The AirComfy also provides great stability for travelers thanks to an elastic band in the back, which can be wrapped around headrests; this prevents the pillow from jostling excessively, making it beneficial for travelers who are restless sleepers.
With an average selling price of less than $20, the AirComfy is another high-value inflatable travel pillow. It can also be deflated and compressed into a travel-ready carrying case. And due to its compact size, inflation does not require much manual breathing; different air capacities also adjust the firmness to accommodate adults and children with different pillow feel preferences. The AirComfy does not come with a cover; it may be spot cleaned only.
The TravelRest Curl Memory Foam Pillow is a highly supportive U-shaped pillow padded with a soft, single-piece memory foam interior. This material conforms closely to the sleeper’s neck and shoulders for a personalized fit, but the shape recovers nicely and indentations are unlikely to develop quickly. The memory foam also alleviates pain and pressure points in the neck, shoulders, and other sensitive areas that may become aggravated during travel.
An adjustable drawstring at the front of the pillow allows users to cinch or loosen it for personal customization and better stability. The TravelRest Curl comes with a removable, machine-washable microfiber cover; the memory foam never needs to be cleaned. The pillow is backed by a two-year warranty; most competing travel pillows do not come with any sort of warranty coverage.
Back, neck, and shoulder pain sufferers
Those who prefer a personalized fit
Sleepers who do not like inflatable travel pillows
Most travel pillows offer a limited amount of neck support. The Cabeau Evolution Pillow is a standout because its thick frame and raised back are designed to support travelers whether they sleep upright with their heads tilted back, forward, or to the left or right sides. The memory foam interior conforms closely, regardless of the sleeper’s position, to alleviate various aches and pains in the head, neck, and shoulders, while the soft, removable velour cover provides elevated comfort.
The Cabeau Evolution Pillow features an adjustable drawstring at the front for added customization and stability. The pillow is also highly compactable, and can be compressed to roughly 25% of its full size. A carrying case is included with every purchase. All Cabeau Evolution Buyers receive a full money-back guarantee if they are not satisfied.
All upright sleepers, regardless of how they tilt their head
Neck and shoulder pain sufferers
Sleepers who do not like inflatable travel pillows
Our choice for the most innovative travel pillow is the Trtl Pillow, which is made from ultrasoft fleece and equipped with a flexible, built-in neck brace. The pillow is designed to be wrapped around the sleeper’s neck much like a scarf; the ribbed brace can be repositioned in any direction, but is firm enough to provide adequate support – particularly for travelers who tilt their heads to the left or right when they sleep upright.
Portability is another reason why the Trtl is a great alternative to traditional travel pillows. Due to its and extremely light frame (148 grams in all), the Trtl can be easily stowed or attached to the handle of a suitcase or backpack. This pillow is also completely machine washable and does not require spot or dry cleaning.
Sleepers who tilt their necks to the side
Travelers with limited luggage space
Those who do not feel comfortable on traditional travel pillows
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.
|Who Should Use a Travel Pillow?|
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.
Optimal Head Size
Optimal Shoulder Width
Less than 3″
3″ to 5″
More than 5″
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.
|Today's Travel Pillows: Common Designs and Features|
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 shell with removable, washable cover
Foam shell with removable, washable cover OR single-piece, machine-washable design
Shell: Polyurethane Cover: Velvet or velour
Shell: Memory foam Cover: Velvet or velour Single-piece: Polyester or fleece
3″ to 5″
$10 to $20
$10 to $40
Lower price-point Adjustable thickness More compact
Stable shape for more continuous support Wider loft range
Air loss potential Will not inflate if shell is cut or torn
Potentially higher price-point Bulky and difficult to pack in crowded bags
|Important Considerations for Travel Pillow Shoppers|
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:
How much does the pillow cost? The vast majority of travel pillows are available for sale at $40 or less, but inflatable pillows tend to cost less than non-inflating ones.
What is the loft of the pillow? Inflating pillows can be adjusted to achieve proper loft for each sleeper, but even when inflated to capacity these pillows tend to be medium-loft. Non-inflating pillows cannot be adjusted, but they may be medium- or high-loft.
How does the pillow inflate? Inflatable pillows may be inflated manually with human oxygen, or fill with air using built-in valves and buttons. Choosing between the two often comes down to personal preference — although placing one’s mouth on the air intake valve is considered somewhat unhygienic, particularly if more than one person uses the pillow.
Does the non-inflating pillow consist of one or two pieces? Some non-inflating designs feature a memory foam shell and a washable cover, while others are one-piece designs made of washable material with bead or puffball fill. The majority of travelers seem to prefer the feel of memory foam compared to one-piece designs made of materials like polyester or fleece.
Is the pillow or cover machine washable? The vast majority of travel pillows either have a removable, washable cover or are themselves machine washable. This is important for hygiene, as oils and bacteria can accumulate on the pillow’s sleeping surface.
How much space does the pillow take up? Non-inflating pillows are fairly compact when they are deflated — but owners should make sure they will not come into contact with sharp objects inside their luggage. Non-inflating pillows can be bulkier and harder to fit into bags.
What position do you prefer to sleep in? Those who sleep on their back usually find that U-shaped pillows offer the most comfort and support. However, side-sleepers who are not accustomed to leaning their heads back may find that differently shaped pillows are more comfortable and supportive.
Does the pillow include a warranty? In rare cases, travel pillows come with product warranties that may last as long as two years, but most do not come with any sort of warranty. Some pillows that do not include a warranty may provide a money-back guarantee with proof of receipt instead.
|Additional Sleep Accessories for Travelers|
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.
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.
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.