Frequent travelers like me spend a lot of time thinking about how to be comfortable on long-haul flights (or any flight, really). Even at the best of times, travel can be tiring, and getting proper sleep on the plane can be difficult.
Travel pillows can help, but most of the travel pillows out there are glorified neck decorations that take up too much space in your luggage. You’ve undoubtedly seen flimsy examples of travel pillows in airport shops – the ones that have as much support as a bean bag. Or you’ve seen people carrying around a full-blown king-sized pillow from home and wondered how soon they’d lose it. Or you’ve watched as someone struggled to blow into an inflatable pillow that would stay inflated for all of 10 minutes. It’s less likely that you’ve actually seen your fellow travelers getting some quality sleep with travel pillows under their heads.
After 10 years of travelling for work twice a week, I finally decided it was time to see if any pillow out there actually works. I went all out and bought 9 of the pillows that are commonly mentioned online, and I compared each one. I spent more than $300 trying out all the pillows, so I figured I’d share my findings with anyone who might benefit! After buying these pillows and trying them on actual flights, it’s become clear to me that many of the travel pillow reviewers online have never actually tried to use the pillows in their natural environment (on planes).
Hopefully, you won’t have to waste time looking at pillow photos and measurements, reading design specifications, and poring over reviews, only to waste money on a pillow that isn’t comfortable or portable enough to make a difference to your sleep and relaxation while flying. These pillows fall into a higher priced tier, but I had thrown away enough $10 pillows that the cost was a drop in the bucket.
What process did I go through to evaluate the pillows?
- Find all the pillows that are highly talked about online
- Purchase each one of them off of Amazon
- Test the pillows at home
- Test the pillows on an actual red-eye flight
- Try to sleep with the pillow against a window
- Try to sleep with the pillow completely upright
- Make sure there is no head-bobbing
What ended up being the factors that mattered for a travel pillow?
Ability to fit in my carry-on luggage
Support for my head in the sides and front
Breath-ability of fabric
Are the $10 and $20 pillows worth it?
In the past, I used a lot of the lower cost pillows in the $10 and $20 range. These typically have lower quality materials: the memory foam was too soft or too stiff, or the fabric would trap heat and sweat, or the pillow would leak air if it was inflatable. Many of them also had designs that would not hold up my head when trying to sleep upright.
Based on my experience trying those pillows, I had actually given up using travel pillows for a while because I believed all of them were the same as these low-cost pillows. Fortunately, trying these higher end pillows has changed my view.
If you’ve been disappointed by low-cost pillows in the past, I recommend giving some of the ones below a try. If this is your first time trying a pillow, I recommend skipping the $10 and $20 pillows. You’ll end up saving money in the long run.