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After asking 10 panelists to try on eight travel pillows and after taking four cross-country red-eye flights in window, aisle, and middle seats, we think the Travelrest Ultimate Memory Foam Travel Pillow is the best travel pillow for most people. Its high memory-foam walls do the best job of supporting and cushioning your head and neck, and it packs down to the size of a roll of toilet paper.
The uniquely angled back on the Travelrest Ultimate sets it apart from other travel pillows because it can lay flat against the seat back. Most other pillows have a rounded back, which pushes your head away from the headrest. The Travelrest also has rubber grip dots to prevent slipping while sleeping. This pillow’s spongy memory foam cushions the entire circumference of your neck, preventing your head from leaning far in any direction, and its adjustable Velcro strap ensures it can fit most necks. The pillow’s cozy velour exterior is removable and machine-washable. While it doesn’t pack flat, the Travelrest weighs less than a pound and compresses to a quarter of its size when rolled into its Velcro-strapped carrying case. Our only complaint is that the Travelrest’s high walls, while supportive, can push over-ear headphones off of the ears of people with shorter necks.
If our top pick sells out, or if you find yourself pillowless past security, the Cabeau Evolution Pillow is almost as good a pillow for a slightly higher price. It lacks the Travelrest’s angled, lay-flat back, but its U-shape, contoured memory-foam core and machine-washable velour cover still provide comparable levels of comfort. Its adjustable string closure also means that you can fit the pillow much tighter around your neck than you can with the Travelrest, making it a good choice for people with smaller necks or people who prefer a more constricted fit. Additionally, it’s the only one of our picks that we’ve regularly seen in stores located behind the security checkpoint at many airports.
If you typically lean to the same side while sleeping, the Trtl’s fleece-covered plastic frame provides unshakeable support to one side of your neck while remaining comfortable to wear. It’s basically a one-sided neck brace. The pillow’s cozy wraparound fleece will also keep your neck warm, making it a good choice for anyone who gets cold while flying (and a poor choice for those who sleep hot). But the Trtl’s winning quality is its tiny, packable size. Unlike any of our other picks, the Trtl does not need to be compressed or stuffed into a carrying case. It will always take up about as much space as a PB&J sandwich.
The Bcozzy, a variation on the hemi-donut theme, is our pick for anyone who wears large over-the-ear headphones on a flight or tends to nod forward while they sleep. The pillow’s overlapping ends form a snug cushion that holds your chin in place far better than do the Trtl’s plastic frame or the Travelrest and Cabeau’s chin-facing gap. While the pillow does not provide great support to either side of your neck, if paired with a large pair of headphones, the Bcozzy holds a head in place perfectly. While not as compressible as our other picks, the pillow has a small loop that can be clipped to the outside of most bags so it doesn’t have to take up space inside your bag.
Why You Should Trust Us
I am a frequent flyer who often takes red-eyes from coast to coast—I now live in Brooklyn but fly home to San Francisco to visit my parents. I’m also an insomniac, so falling asleep on planes has never been easy for me. While writing this article, I tested eight travel pillows on two five-hour flights and slept with our four picks on two more cross-country flights. I also spoke with Rebecca Robbins, a postdoctoral fellow at the NYU Center for Healthful Behavior Change, to see what she looks for in a travel pillow.
In addition, my Wirecutter colleagues as a whole are an exceptionally mobile group. We’ve worked remotely from every continent except Antarctica, so I asked some folks on staff which pillows they like and use regularly.
Who This is For
Boarding a red-eye without a travel pillow in your bag is like choosing to sleep on the floor when there’s a perfectly good futon nearby. Sure, it’s no bed, but it’s a hell of a lot better than hardwood. In an interview she did with The Atlantic reporter Kelly Conaboy, Dr. Mary O’Connor, director of Yale’s Center for Musculoskeletal Care, said that despite a lack of clinical studies that support the efficacy of travel pillows, “Many of us who travel have experienced falling asleep with our neck in a weird position and it bothering us thereafter. So, I think they can be helpful, but that depends on how they’re used and whether they support the neck.” In other words, using a supportive pillow may decrease the chances you wake up with an unwanted crick. It certainly has in our experience.
However, not all travel pillows are the same, and if you also happen to have a zealous hatred of your travel pillow, you probably have a bad one. So even if you have a generic pillow you picked up at some airport a few years ago, consider upgrading to one of our picks. And of course, these pillows work well on buses and trains, too.
How We Picked
So how can you tell if a pillow is likely to actually support your head? Rebecca Robbins, a postdoctoral fellow studying sleep, says the best travel pillows will keep your head elevated and in alignment with your spine: “Look for something that would really be supportive. My one gripe with most travel pillows is that they’re too soft and not too full—you want something that will be supportive as you try to get comfortable in your limited space.” Robbins also recommends finding a pillow that can keep you cozy but not too hot, as she says it’s easier to sleep with a lower body temperature.
Robbins does her best to avoid one common travel situation. “My number one sleep tip is to not take a red-eye if you can avoid it,” she said. “If the flight is five hours, you’re going to only have three hours of true rest, because all the announcements—‘lower your window,’ ‘raise your window.’ Those can be significant distractions.”
We also looked at existing editorial reviews for guidance. Ethan Green, founder of the sleep resource blog No Sleepless Nights, compiled an extensive comparative review of 10 popular travel pillows that we found helpful when deciding what models to test.
For people who want a travel pillow that will ease some of the discomfort of sleeping upright on a bumpy plane ride, we’ve identified the following key features:
Comfort and support: The pillow should offer ample support for the weight of your neck and head but not restrict your movements or feel too tight.
Portable (but not inflatable): You don’t want your travel pillow to take up so much space in your carry-on that you can’t bring other things you need, so it should compress to a smaller size. Barring that, there should at least be a way to clip it to the outside of your bag or luggage. Inflatable pillows are easy to pack but should be avoided. They inevitably spring a leak, often sooner rather than later.
Soft: The material should feel plush against your skin but not trap so much heat that it’s uncomfortable to wear.
Universal fit (or as close as possible): The pillow should allow space for people to sleep with a ponytail or accommodate bigger hair, as well as a whole variety of head shapes and sizes and neck lengths.
Sleeping styles: It should also accommodate people who move their head in any direction while they sleep. It should also work in a window, a middle, or an aisle seat.
Speed of compression/decompression: In case you need to quickly stow your pillow before exiting the plane, or if you want to catch some shut-eye in a moment’s notice, it shouldn’t take too long to stuff the pillow into its carrying case or unfold it to full size.
Weight: Ideally, the pillow shouldn’t add undue burden to your carry-on. While inflatable pillows will always be the lightest option, memory-foam pillows don’t weigh much more and can offer significantly more comfort.
Grip/traction: Your head will likely move around a bit while sleeping on a plane, especially if there’s turbulence. So any kind of grip or traction around the bottom of the pillow will help it stay in place and keep you snoozing.
Machine washable: As you might expect from a vessel that ferries hundreds of people back and forth across the sky on a daily basis, planes can be filthy. So you’ll want to be able to wash the whole pillow—or at least its cover—before you take it on your next trip.
How We Tested
We researched more than 40 travel pillows—which ranged from variations on a hemi-donut to inscrutable crowdfunded designs—and after comparing hundreds of glowing and enraged Amazon reviews, we decided to test eight. We asked a panel of 10 people to try each of the pillows in a chair pushed against the wall of a conference room (the closest we could come to airline conditions in our office) and surveyed them on the fit, comfort, and support of each pillow. The panelists all had a variety of neck lengths and jaw sizes, and one even had a substantial beard. We also ran all of the pillows or their detachable pillowcases through a washing machine as instructed to see how well each stood up to a spin cycle and tumble dry.
And because simulations are rarely enough, I brought eight travel pillows on two cross-country flights to see how the pillows felt in the specific back design of an airplane seat. As I was lucky enough to have unnecessarily kind and understanding neighbors (thank you, Mike and Deborah!), I wore each of these pillows in a window, a middle, and an aisle seat to see if they felt comfortable in each configuration. I also tried on Deborah’s Muji travel pillow (as she offered), but determined it had much less support than our picks. I also carried all of our picks on two more cross-country flights on a different airline to ensure the pillows did just as well in different seat designs.
Our pick: Travelrest Ultimate Memory Foam Travel Pillow
The Travelrest Ultimate remains our top pick after several years because its plush but firm memory-foam core offers more support to your neck than that of any other pillow. It’s also one of the few pillows we tested that felt specifically designed for an airline seat, with an angled, grippy back that aligns perfectly to both upright and reclined positions and ensures the pillow won’t slide down as you nod off. The velvety-soft pillow supports heads and necks of all sizes and can be fitted with an adjustable cord and clasp. In the tried-but-true shape of a hemi-donut—imagine a donut with a bite taken out—the Travelrest Ultimate may look like other pillows, but a number of thoughtful details make it a softer, more supportive pillow than all the rest.
The Travelrest offers better all-around support than any other pillow we tested. Its broad, marshmallowy walls hug the whole circumference of your neck. It feels supportive but not stifling.The easy-to-fasten Velcro strap means it can be adjusted to a snug fit for necks of many sizes. There’s even a small crevice for curlier hair or a ponytail.
In addition to fitting your neck, the Travelrest’s back tapers up to a point to fit flat against an airline seat back. Most neck pillows lack this tapering on the back and the excess padding can push your neck away from the headrest, causing your neck to droop forward. Additionally, the Travelrest has grippy dots on the back that prevent it from slipping.
In addition to its excellent support, the Travelrest is very comfortable and cozy to wear. Its memory-foam core is wrapped in velour, which kept my neck warm without overheating it. The Travelrest’s velour also felt softer and smoother against my skin than similar coverings on other pillows, such as the Cabeau Evolution. It’s also easy to clean: The Travelrest’s cover is easily unzipped and machine-washable. The velour retained its softness after going through a wash and dry cycle.
While the Travelrest isn’t inflatable, it packs down to the size of a roll of toilet paper in its carrying case. Once you fold it cinnamon-roll style and it’s small enough to fit inside the bag, a Velcro strap on the pouch helps you compress it even further. If there’s still not enough space for it in your bag, you can always clip its drawstring to any exterior loop.
All of these thoughtful details were not lost on our testing panel. They gave the Travelrest the highest marks of any pillow in comfort and neck support, and two-thirds of our testers picked it as their favorite pillow.
Flaws but Not Dealbreakers
The Travelrest Ultimate will never compress to the thin, flat size of a tiny pillow like the Trtl. But its unparalleled, cushiony support can still pack down to a reasonable size, and its 13 ounces won’t make your carry-on noticeably heavier. And if saving space is your highest concern, we think the Trtl provides space-conscious support without the spit-filled fuss of an inflatable pillow.
While the Travelrest’s voluminous plush can support all heads that lean left, back, or right, the pillow may not hold up the chins of people with smaller faces. When my head bobbed forward, my small face sank into the gap between the pillow closure and my neck. You can adjust the Velcro strap for a tighter fit, but the short strap cannot be pulled as tight as the Cabeau’s adjustable strings.
The Travelrest Ultimate’s unbeatable support is in part due to the height of its sides, designed to come up to the jaw of the wearer. This means the pillow may be incompatible with larger over-the-ear headphones for people with shorter necks. For instance, when I tried to wear the Travelrest Ultimate with my noise-cancelling Bose headphones, the pillow pushed the headset uncomfortably far up on my head, taking my earlobes with it. However, my editor, who has a longer neck, didn’t have this problem.
Runner-up: Cabeau Evolution Pillow
If you want a tighter, more adjustable fit, the Cabeau is the way to go. Its contoured memory-foam design offers almost as much neck support as our main pick does, albeit without some of the Travelrest’s luxurious height. But the Cabeau’s adjustable clasp allows a far greater range of cinching than the Travelrest. In other words, the pillow can fit as tightly as you like.
Like the Travelrest, the Cabeau’s hemi-donut shape offers 360 degrees of support for anyone wearing it. It also boasts a cushioned memory-foam core and a contoured top that will keep your neck upright and head in place. But unlike the Travelrest’s gently arched bottom, the Cabeau’s flat bottom won’t sit as securely on your shoulders and may move around during your sleep. The Cabeau also lacks the Travelrest’s smartly tapered, grippy back that helps keep the pillow in place during flight. The Cabeau’s velour cover is also machine-washable, but it feels less soft than the Travelrest’s.
Although the Cabeau’s fit and shape aren’t quite as good as the Travelrest’s, this pillow is more adjustable. It can be tightened or loosened with two adjustable strings that clip together, which results in a far more adjustable range than the Travelrest’s short strip of Velcro. If you have a smaller neck and know you find a tighter grip on your neck comforting, the Cabeau may be the way to go.
Like the Travelrest, the Cabeau also packs down to a quarter of its size, thanks to an adjustable strap bisecting its carrying case. But at 15.2 ounces, it’s a bit heavier than the Travelrest.
Unlike any of our other picks, the Cabeau Evolution is sold in many of those ubiquitous news stores inside airports. So if you find yourself lacing up your shoes after security and wishing you had bought one of our picks before your flight, look for the Cabeau’s contoured shape among the novelty hemi-donuts dangling off the travel pillow racks. It’s the best pillow you can buy at an airport. But if you have the chance to order online, the Travelrest offers more support at a better price.
Also Great for Portability: Trtl Pillow
The Trtl Pillow, though odd-looking and unconventional, won a contingent of ardent fans with its firm support and slim, packable size. But it’s not our top pick because it works on only one side, and its warmth-trapping fleece can cause your neck to overheat. The Trtl consists of an arched plastic skeleton inside of a soft, fleece scarf that wraps once around your neck and then closes with Velcro to hold the pillow in place. You just lean your head against the convex end of the bendy frame, wrap the pillow around your neck, and your head has a soft but firm pedestal on which to rest while you sleep. It sounds weird, but it’s not that different from a neck brace—only it’s one-sided and softer.
Because the Trtl is little more than a scarf with a plastic plate in it, it packs down to the size of a sandwich and can lay flat against the back of your bag. This is the smallest travel pillow we tested and also requires none of the squashing or awkward cinching it takes to stuff the Travelrest or Cabeau into their holding bags, which are also easy to lose. Unlike any of the other pillows we’ve seen, the Trtl is small enough to fit inside a briefcase or handbag, making it the best option for people who don’t normally travel with backpacks. And at a featherweight 5 ounces, the Trtl is the lightest pillow we tested.
Though the Trtl can support your head from only one side, the tall, bendy plastic frame inside offered more support on that one side than either the Travelrest or Cabeau. Yet even with its soft, wraparound design, it lacks the all-around support provided by our top and runner-up picks. If you are an asymmetrical sleeper (if you prefer sleeping with your head leaning to one side), the Trtl may be a good choice. However, it’s not a good choice for people who nod forward—the plastic insert is too stiff. If that’s you, we prefer the Bcozzy, which we talk more about below.
Some testers found the Trtl’s quasi-corseted-turtleneck design off-putting. But then again, no one looks cool wearing any travel pillow. And on that note, the Trtl’s cozy fleece will keep your neck toasty. So if you know you run hot, the Trtl may not be the pillow for you.
Wirecutter’s strategy editor Ganda Suthivarakom swears by the Trtl: “It packs almost flat, weighs next to nothing, and can be helpful for sleeping even when you are stuck in a middle seat. As someone who is always cold on the plane, I don’t mind the whole fleece scarf design, either.”
Also Great for Forward-Nodders: Bcozzy Pillow
The Bcozzy is a snakelike spin on the traditional hemi-donut that’s perfect for anyone traveling with large headphones or people who tend to nod forward while sleeping and wake themselves up. It lacks the tall, supportive sides of our other picks, but the overlapping front is the perfect height to keep your chin from nodding forward as you doze off. It’s not as supportive on the sides, but this leaves ample room for big headphones.
The Bcozzy’s best advantage is its overlapping circular design, which allows you to adjust the pillow to degrees of personal preference. You can place the overlapping ends of the pillow around any point of your neck (though it only really makes sense in the front or on the sides), and wear the pillow as loose or as tight as you’d like. We think it’s most comfortable when the ends meet right under your neck—and in that position, it cushions your chin better than any other pillow we tested.
The longer, leaner Bcozzy lacks the plush, ensconcing neck support of the Travelrest Ultimate or Cabeau Evolution. It lays so low on your shoulders that it might not even touch your jaw. But this makes the pillow perfect for anyone who likes to wear over-the-ear headphones along with a travel pillow while they sleep on the flight. I personally like to fall asleep to music and drown out the dull roar of an airplane, so the Bcozzy works perfectly for me.
We still think the Travelrest Ultimate is a superior overall hemi-donut pillow, but the Bcozzy is an excellent choice if you plan to wear big headphones or know the feeling of that sharp, waking drop when your head falls forward on a plane.
The Bcozzy is also one of the least packable pillows, as it doesn’t come with a carrying case and does not compress particularly well. But its 7.4 ounces is around half the weight of the Travelrest or Cabeau, and it does comes with a little loop that clips onto the outside of a backpack or duffel. And even when squished down at the bottom of a bag, it doesn’t take up that much more space than the Travelrest Ultimate or Cabeau.
After reading some online reviewers’ complaints about their necks overheating under more fleecy travel pillows, we tested the ventilated Cabeau Evolution Cool. The combination of a silky polyester cover (similar to spandex) and vented design did feel mildly cooler against our necks. And we liked the pillow’s silky feel, packable size, zippered carrying case. But it was significantly smaller than the standard Cabeau Evolution and the Travelrest Ultimate, and it left the chins of long-necked testers totally unsupported. It’s also much more expensive—about double the price of the Travelrest at the time of testing. If you have a shorter neck and tend to run hot on planes and would prefer a pillow designed to keep you cool, it may be worth the premium, but it’s not a great value overall.
Intrigued by one of the stranger innovations that we’ve seen in travel pillow design, we tested the Huzi Design Infinity, but we can’t recommend it. Instead of cinching or clasping at the front, it is designed to be looped several times around the wearer’s neck like an infinity scarf. But the pillow failed to support our testers’ necks. Regardless of who tried it, testers found that looping it twice was too loose and thrice was too tight. It was also the largest and least compressible pillow we tested.
The J-Pillow offered a singular, three-pronged design that proved impossible for anyone to figure out without instructions. After some explanation, our testers could wear the pillow correctly, but they still felt that its squishy stuffing offered insufficient support, and only to one side of the head. It’s also impossible to pack away efficiently due to its pyramidal shape. If you want a one-sided pillow, skip this and go for the Trtl instead.
We tested the inexpensive Travelrest Curl because we loved its plush and contoured big cousin, the Travelrest Ultimate. But while the Curl contains the same luxurious memory-foam filling as the Ultimate, the pillow is so small and simplistic that many testers found that the pillow didn’t even come up to their jaws when worn. It does have an attractive price, but its skimpy size and unsupportive design could support only the shortest of necks.
In general, we found that the velour-wrapped memory-foam pillows were more supportive than pillows made with other materials. The Comfy Commuter Original Travel Pillow is filled with lighter cotton and polyester, which was paradoxically too soft to offer substantive neck support and less compressible than the memory-foam pillows. We also didn’t like that the Comfy Commuter’s chin strap—intended to keep your head from falling forward—not only fails to do that but also made one tester’s neck feel constricted whenever her neck did move.
We found the air-filled Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow Traveller to be similarly lacking. We liked how easy it was to fill—its dual-valve inflation mechanism means it won’t let air out between breaths—and we appreciated that it weighed only about a fifth as much as the Travelrest, but the Travelrest’s 360-degree support made it too hard to go back to an open-ring design that offers no support in the front.
For an earlier version of the guide, we tested the Caldera Releaf and Travelrest’s new All-in-One. We don’t think they’re for most people, but if you sleep a certain way and don’t move around a lot, they could be great for you. The Caldera Releaf is less travel pillow and more neck brace, and it’s very supportive. It does offer superior neck support that’s great for forward-falling head bobbers, but it constricted the throat too much for our comfort. The Travelrest All-in-One has a novel across-the-shoulder design that could be good if you always lean to the same side while sleeping. It has a similar fabric to the company’s winning Ultimate Memory Foam Neck Pillow, but in our tests its bulky inflated tube offered no structured head support, which could pose a problem in bumpy conditions.
Rebecca Robbins, postdoctoral fellow at the NYU Center for Healthful Behavior Change, phone interview, October 20, 2017
Jordan Bishop, The Best Travel Neck Pillows, How I Travel, March 31, 2017
Ethan Green, The 10 Best Travel Pillows: My Favorites On Long Journeys, No Sleepless Nights, November 27, 2017
Kelly Conaboy, Against the Travel Neck Pillow, The Atlantic, October 10, 2017
Read the original article on The Best Travel Pillow.