- How Sleep Works
- Sleep Disorders
- Sleep Resources
- Sleep Health
- Sleep Medicine
Anyone who has attempted to sleep in a car, on 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.
Original is the best word to describe the J-Pillow Travel Pillow. This pillow was designed by a former flight attendant who knows what it’s like to sleep poorly during travel. Unlike most competing models pillow, this novel design is created to give your head, neck, and chin support while you snooze.
The unique shape will fill the gap between your head and shoulders to give you the best neck support with a travel pillow. The shape also allows you to conform and twist the pillow in different positions as needed, customizing it to fit your head and neck perfectly. The J-Pillow is great for plane travel, but it also works for buses, cars, camping, and even reading at home.
If you’re worried about the size for portability, they have a solution for that, too. Simply enclose the pillow ito its carry bag, decreasing it to about half the size. You can then use the snap-loop fastener to attach it to your luggage, and not worry about carrying it around until you need it. It’s also easy to take care of. The J-Pillow is machine washable and durable, so you won’t have to worry about it getting dirty as you take it along on your travels.
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.
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.
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.
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 Category||Thickness Range||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.
U-Shapes are the most common shape you’ll find in travel pillows. Many people love this kind of pillow for its simple support. The inflatable U-shape pillows also make for easy deflation and storage while you’re not on the plane. However, other users have complained that this shape doesn’t provide enough neck support, and that some innovation is in order.
The J-shape, which is largely new on the market, attempts to answer for the U-shape’s shortcomings. This type of pillow allows for more versatility and chin support, keeping the head propped up higher than some U-shape pillows. Unfortunately, the shape of this makes it less portable than some of its peers.
The hourglass-shaped travel pillow’s biggest strength is its versatility. While many shapes are made for the head and neck only, this one is like the Swiss Army knife of pillows. Use an hourglass shaped pillow for your head and neck, but also for the back, knees, or even while sleeping in a bed. If you’re looking purely for neck support, however, another shape may be ideal for you.
A wrap-style travel pillow will wrap around your neck much like a scarf. This design is great for a traveler whose head tilts while they sleep. It’s also ideal for portability: unlike its other clunky counterparts, this is one of the easiest shapes to pack up and stow in a snap. If you’ve liked traditional travel pillows in the past, however, you may not have a need for this one.
Rectangular travel pillows are the closest thing to a pillow you’d use on your bed at night. The biggest difference: they’re more compact and meant for travel spaces. The rectangular pillow may work for you if your neck easily holds itself up while sleeping. These are rarely popular travel pillow options precisely because most people aren’t so fortunate. Overall, it’s usually better to find a travel pillow that will better support your neck.
Many frequent travelers have serious opinions about which option of travel pillow is better: inflatable or non-inflatable. The type that’s best for you depends on a variety of factors you care about. That includes:
The table below compares inflating and non-inflating travel pillows in terms of design, composition, price, and other factors.
|Travel Pillow Type||Inflatable Pillow||Non-Inflatable Pillow|
|Construction||Inflatable shell with removable, washable cover||Foam shell with removable, washable cover OR single-piece, machine-washable design|
|Average Loft Range||3"||3" to 5"|
|Average Price Range||$10 to $20||$10 to $40|
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Getting great sleep during travel time can make a world of difference once you reach your destination. Of course, each type of travel comes with its own challenges. Airplanes are short on humidity, while buses and trains may have lots of disruptive stops. No matter the transportation method, these general tips for will help you sleep better while traveling.
In addition to a supportive pillow, the following accessories may come in handy for sleep-deprived travelers.
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.
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 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.