Sleeping Around

What’s the best inflatable mattress?

Sleep and I have an awkward, on-again, off-again relationship. I’m slow to fall asleep, quick to wake up, and picky about my bed. Like most people, a night of bad snoozing inevitably ruins my day. That goes double during the holiday season, when I travel between friends and family, sleeping on their pull-out couches, floors, extra beds, and air mattresses.

Oh, the air mattresses. They bring up such painful memories—like the time when, as a college student between apartments, I spent a month sleeping on one. But I had to overcome my bitterness toward them recently, when my boyfriend and I moved into our tiny one-bedroom apartment. We bought a couch, some kitchen stuff, a coffee table, and, for my boyfriend, a Nintendo Wii. As friends and family begin to visit, however, it became clear we were missing something: a comfortable place for them to sleep. I needed to get over my deep-seated resentment and buy an air mattress that could give my guests a peaceful night’s sleep—and leave them looking forward to their next visit.


I tested six full-sized air mattresses, ranging in price from $34.97 to $259.99 (lowest prices found are listed for each). I selected mattresses that didn’t require me to purchase a pump separately—they either came with a built-in pump or could be inflated using a hair dryer. I spent one night on each (two nights on some that required additional testing), setting each up in my living room to better reflect the overnight-guest experience. I evaluated them on two criteria:

1) Ease of Use (10 possible points): You usually find yourself on an air mattress after traveling, eating too much, drinking too much, socializing, or generally wearing yourself out. When it’s late and I’m tired, I don’t want to fumble with an instruction manual. Is it a cinch to set up? Does it inflate quickly and (relatively) quietly? Can I fold it up and store it easily when I’m done? My apartment is small, so I need an air mattress that doesn’t take up lots of precious closet space.

2) Snooze or Lose (10 possible points): Does it make my back ache or wake me up with squeaking noises every time I toss and turn? Does it deflate in the middle of the night? Is it easy to adjust the air volume so I can get the firmness I want? And, most of all—does it allow for a good night’s sleep?

Here are the results, from sleeping like a baby’s crying to sleeping like a baby:

Coleman 4-in-1 Quickbed, $39.99 This cheap air mattress is meant for the great outdoors, not the living-room floor. Despite the name, there are only three ways to set it up: You can split it into two twin beds, zip them together for one king-sized bed, or stack them on top of each other for a raised twin bed. As I began to set up the bed, I smirked—using twin beds to create one king-sized bed reminded me of 1950s sitcoms (and apparently is still an option for some couples).

It doesn’t come with a pump, so at bedtime, I whipped out the hair dryer. (Using a blow dryer is safe, as long as you use it on the cool setting.) The dryer did the bulk of the work, but I had to sub in and finish it up with my lungs. Unfortunately, the zipper that holds the twin beds together is pretty flimsy, and they drifted apart during the night, creating a little gulf that I somehow kept rolling into. The gap and the gushiness of the beds, which kept losing air, combined to give me a terrible night’s sleep. I’d like to take this opportunity to offer an open apology to my co-workers, fellow Metro riders, and anyone else I came into contact with the next day, when I was unreasonably cranky. The only upside to the Coleman Quickbed is that it’s lightweight and easy to store. That means it won’t take up much room in my trash can.

Ease of Use: 4 (out of 10)
Snooze or Lose: 1 (out of 10)
Total: 5 (out of 20)

Wenzel Insta-Bed, $34.97 Like the Coleman, the Wenzel Insta-Bed doesn’t come with an air pump, so out came the blow dryer again. Unlike the Coleman, Wenzel does offer a tiny hand pump, that, while too small to inflate the entire mattress, allows you to make small firmness adjustments. The hand pump works, but it was awkward to use—the up-and-down pumping movement felt like CPR, which I haven’t attempted since 10th-grade health class.

It took me a very long time to fall asleep. In all fairness, maybe it wasn’t the Insta-Bed’s fault. It could have been the headache I nursed all day, but sleep just didn’t come. I spent an hour or more tossing and turning, unable to get comfortable on my uninviting bed. The next morning, it took a while to deflate—as I got ready for work, I had to periodically stomp on the bed to rid it of extra air. It was easy to fold up and lightweight, making it storable. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come with a satchel or bag for storage or transport. Bottom line: I’d only offer this mattress to guests I secretly don’t like.

Ease of Use: 6
Comfort: 6
Total: 12

Aerobed Premier Comfort Zone, $159 Finally, a comfortable, easy-to-set-up air mattress! Its built-in electrical pump made inflation quick and easy, without any snags or incidents. (One minor complaint is the noisy pump—you would want to inflate it before any little ones go to bed, because it would surely wake them up.) A control panel connected via wire to the air pump—much like that of a hospital bed—let me adjust the firmness while still reclining. I fell asleep quickly, cushioned by the “comfort zone coils” that approximate those of a real mattress. The mattress stayed firm and full overnight. In the morning, my right shoulder was sore. Was it the air mattress’s fault? Perhaps. But when I gave the Aerobed a second try, I again woke up feeling stiff and poorly rested. I was also irritated by the air mattress’s height. It’s just a few inches off the ground, which makes getting up in the middle of the night an awkward proposition—particularly if there’s someone sleeping next to you. Deflating this one was easy enough, but it was a little cumbersome to fold up and store. I was especially picky with this one because of the steep price. There are more affordable options out there with friendlier price tags.

Ease of Use: 7
Snooze or Lose: 7
Total: 14

Air Cloud Pillowtop Full-Size Air Bed With Remote, $69.99 Like Lindsay Lohan’s career, this air mattress started out with great potential but ended up a disaster. It was very easy to set up: Plug it in and hold down the “inflate” button. An inflate/deflate remote allowed me to adjust the firmness, and I appreciated the little side-pocket caddy to nestle the remote in. I went to bed happy, convinced I’d finally get a good night’s slumber. But overnight, I got a sinking feeling. And by feeling, I mean I was really sinking, to the point where I could feel the floor beneath the mattress. I fumbled for the remote and inflated it again. A few hours later, I had to repeat the inflation process. At 5 a.m., on the floor yet again, I gave up and headed to my sweet bed. In the morning, I checked the mattress for obvious tears or a loose valve. No luck. The users’ manual admitted that this kind of repeated deflation might happen the first night. And apparently, I’m not the only one who has had problems with the mattress losing air. I believe in second chances, so I gave the Air Cloud another shot. I inflated it early in the day and lounged on it on a Saturday afternoon while watching football, reading, and working. It leaked a little, but not too much. When bedtime came, I had some serious doubts, but the mattress stayed firm all night. I’m truly puzzled by the fact that this air mattress has an obvious defect the manufacturer refuses to address—deflating with the first use. My sleep was high-quality the second time around, but the first-use woes mean that you can’t pick this air mattress up last-minute.

Ease of Use: 9
Snooze or Lose: 6
Total: 15

Home Trends Raised Air Mattress With Built-In Pump, $48.73 Sleeping snob that I am, the low price of this Wal-Mart-manufactured mattress made me suspect that it wouldn’t be a good sleeping experience. But despite its affordable cost (which usually means no-frills), the Home Trends Raised Air Mattress comes with a built-in, automatic pump that you can plug in to inflate the bed with ease in just two minutes. It even features a cute little compartment where you can store the electrical cord. The pump is a bit strange—it comes with a dial you have to flip around to inflate and deflate. On the plus side, the bed is also the lightest of the pump-containing air mattresses, which is particularly surprising because it inflates to the height of a normal bed—24 inches.

I slept very well that night, since the mattress stayed fully inflated through the morning. I had no problems rolling it up and sticking it into the little carry bag that accompanies the mattress. It’s perfect for travel, and at that low price, you don’t have to be overly protective of it. That’ll teach me not to judge a product by its price tag.

Ease of Use: 9
Comfort: 9
Total: 18 

AeroBed Premier Comfort Zone Raised, $259.99 For the most part, the AeroBed Premier Comfort Zone Raised is exactly like its cheaper brethren, the AeroBed Premier Comfort Zone. It has the same internal mechanical pump, the firmness-adjustment remote, “comfort zone coils,” etc. But this one, like the Home Trends mattress, is the height of a regular bed. I fell asleep quickly and got some high-quality shut eye. When my alarm went off, I hit the snooze button to continue enjoying the experience—and I never do that.

This product’s only downside? It’s bulky. It takes up plenty of room in my closet, and it’s heavy, making it difficult to cart around. But we have a winner. I’d rather have a comfortable bed to offer my guests than space to store a few extra pairs of shoes any day. I liked the AeroBed Premier Comfort Zone Raised so much that I offered it up to a friend who visited me for four days. She had been traveling for two weeks before stopping by my place—crashing on couches, hotel beds, and floors. She, too, was pleased with the air mattress, noting that her sleep on this Aerobed was the first good night’s rest she’d had in a while. Family and friends, come on over—the sleeping’s fine.

Ease of Use: 9
Snooze or Lose: 10
Total: 19