Without the right gears, sleeping on a flight is almost impossible. The cramped space, incessant noise, and the uncomfortable seating won’t exactly lull you to sleep. But if you travel a lot or you’re in desperate need of rest while on flight, you can with a travel pillow.
Travel pillows are pillows that make sleeping in an upright sitting position much easier. These pillows are designed to support the head, neck and lumbar while you sit, allowing you to doze off undisturbed without waking up with a painful neck. Travel pillows come in a variety of designs but all works the same way. If you’re on the hunt for a travel pillow, then you’ll be glad to know that we did all the research and testing to narrow down your search. We hope that this buying guide will help you find the right travel pillow for you!
Table of Contents
- 1 Types of Travel Pillows
- 2 Basic Travel Pillow Shapes
- 3 Factors to Consider When Shopping for an Airplane Pillow
- 4 Best Travel Pillows for Airplanes
- 5 How to Sleep Comfortably in a Plane
Types of Travel Pillows
There are two types of travel pillows, inflatable and non-inflatable pillows. Each type has its own pros and cons:
Inflatable travel pillows are pillows that need to be filled with air before you can use it. You can adjust the thickness of the pillow by letting a little air out. Inflatable travel pillows lie flat and pack small when deflated so they won’t take up much room in your bag. As for the downsides, inflatable pillows do not provide as much support to the head and neck as a traditional non-inflatable travel pillow. Blowing up the travel pillow can be uncomfortable and a hassle when you’re doing it in a cramped and noisy space.
- Easy to clean
- Less firm support
- Prone to air leaks
- Have to be inflated before use
Non-inflatable travel pillows are portable pillows made with foam, memory foam, and other fillings. These pillows are designed for travel and camping. They come in various shapes, sizes, and materials. Non-inflatable travel pillows provide excellent neck and head support, better than inflatable travel pillows. However, they are a pain to carry around especially if you have a lot of luggage. In addition, non-inflatable travel pillows will take up more room in your bag so it won’t save you space.
- Excellent neck and head support
- Plush and firm
- Comes in different shapes and designs
- Will take up much space in your bag
- Harder to clean
- Add weight to your luggage/carry on
Basic Travel Pillow Shapes
Travel pillows come in an array of shapes and designs, how do you know which one is the right for you? The perfect travel pillow has to be portable but it should provide excellent support during travel. Let’s get to know the basic travel pillow shapes available on the market:
Image used under Creative Commons from stereogab
Also known as neck pillows, U-shape travel pillow offers excellent head and neck support, great for sleeping in an upright sitting position. However, the size matters the most when it comes to U shape pillows. A too-small sized travel pillow will cause neck strain while larger ones will disrupt sleep.
This travel pillow is the second most popular pillow shape and for a reason! The design offers excellent neck and chin support. The cushion cradles the side and back of the head while you sleep. Its unique shape allows you to sleep comfortably and your head won’t loll to the sides. The only caveat is that you can only sleep comfortably on one side. You have to switch the pillow whenever you shift to the other side, a nuisance if you’re trying to get some sleep.
Wedge shaped pillow has a unique triangle shape with a width that goes thin to thick. This versatile pillow offers excellent neck and spine support. However, wedge-shaped pillows will take more room in your bag so it’s not the most portable travel pillow out there.
This is a tube-shaped pillow that comes in varying lengths. The shape makes the pillow quite versatile; you can use the pillow in any sleeping position. That said, it does not provide great support for the neck and back.
Collar Travel Pillow
As the name implies, this pillow can be wrapped around the neck like a collar. The elastic ends feature a strap that you tie to the sides to secure the pillow. Collar travel pillows offer great neck support but it won’t prevent the head from lolling around while you sleep. Also, since the pillow has to be strapped to the neck, it can be quite uncomfortable.
Image used under Creative Commons from Timothy Brown
Factors to Consider When Shopping for an Airplane Pillow
Now that you know what types of shapes travel pillows come in, let’s take a look at all the important factors you need to consider when shopping around for an airplane pillow:
As far as the shape goes, the right travel pillow will depend on your most preferred sleeping position. If you don’t sleep on your sides, a U-shaped pillow is a great choice.
Generally, U-shape travel pillows are the most common and most popular of all travel pillow shapes because the shape is designed to provide excellent neck support. It also supports the head on both sides so you don’t wake up with stiff muscles when you wake up.
On the other hand, if you’re most comfortable sleeping on your sides, J-shaped pillows, cylinder shaped pillows and wedge-shaped pillows offer the support you need. The shape of the pillow will affect its portability too. Opt for portable pillows that are easy to carry around, those that won’t take much room in your bag.
Some travel pillows are filled with fiberfill, polyester fiber, or air. Others are made from solid foam or memory foam. The perfect travel pillow should be filled with materials that conform to your unique shape, one that offers a gentle but firm support to the neck, head, and lumbar.
Of all travel pillow fillings, polyester fiber is the most durable but this material is not as good as memory foam in terms of conforming to a user’s unique shape. Air-filled portable pillows are perfect for those who do not have more room in their bags for a travel pillow. You can adjust the firmness by letting a little air out or filling it with more air.
Size and Weight
Travel pillows have to be portable because the size and the weight of your bag matter when you’re traveling on a plane. Unfortunately, the sizing of travel pillows aren’t consistent as mattresses, there are no definite categories to consider at all. You’ll have to check the dimensions of the pillow to determine the right size and weight for your needs. When you’re traveling, always choose a lighter travel pillow, one that’s easy to carry around and won’t take much room in your bag.
High-quality travel pillows are made from durable materials so they will last longer than dirt cheap ones. That said, the most expensive pillows aren’t necessarily the right ones for you so our advice is to determine what type of materials work for your needs. Travel pillows are typically made from foam, memory foam, down, wool, polyester, and in the case of inflatable travel pillows, coated plastic. Here’s an in-depth look at the most common travel pillow materials you need to know:
Inflatable travel pillow is made from a thin layer of coated plastic and the sleeping surface is typically covered with a sort of felt or suede like material for cushion. This pillow can be uncomfortable because the plastic retains heat and when in direct contact with skin, it causes sweating. It’s best to use a cotton cover to stay comfortable.
Foam offers varying levels of firmness and quality. Travel pillows made from this material offer firm support to the neck and head. However, because of quality issues, some foam pillows do not last for long. In addition, heat spots can develop on certain parts of the pillow because foam retains heat very well.
Memory foam is a new type of pillow material developed by NASA. Travel pillows made from this material provide excellent support and comfort while you sleep. However, because memory foam is dense, airflow is limited so the sleeping surface is prone to developing heat spots that cause sweating.
Beads, pellets, or beans are often used as filling for travel pillows too. The material offers great support and superior airflow. The beads have the uncanny ability to mold to a person’s head so bead-filled travel pillows are quite comfortable to use. As for the downsides, the pillow itself is heavy and a struggle to pack. In addition, the beads make a crunching noise whenever you shift position.
Pillows filled with down and/or down feathers are light, plush, and expensive. These pillows offer great cushioning but because the material is too soft, the pillows themselves do not offer excellent support. Down filled pillows are also harder to clean and a struggle to pack because they are larger than your average travel pillows.
Cheaper travel pillows are made from either 100% polyester filling or a blend of polyester and cotton fibers. The filler is hypoallergenic and provides plush, soft texture. This is a great material for those who are used to soft pillows. However, because the material is soft, the pillow itself does not provide ample support.
Travel pillows made from wool are soft, comfortable, and easy to clean. These pillows retain their shape well and are more durable than other travel pillows. However, travel pillows filled with wool are quite expensive!
Best Travel Pillows for Airplanes
Aeris Memory Foam Travel Neck Pillow
- Plush and dense
- Excellent support
- High-quality construction
- Excellent airflow
- Not for everyone
- Not as portable as other travel pillows
Aeris’ memory foam travel pillow is a plush, dense U-shaped pillow made from memory foam. It does a great job of conforming to a user’s unique body shape and the support it provides to the head and neck is superb. The foam is covered by temperature controlled, perforated velour material and it’s machine washable so maintenance shouldn’t be a pain. The pillow is nice and soft and the airflow is excellent when used in an air-conditioned room.
According to the Aeris brand, their products are aerated for a week to reduce that dreaded chemical odor that memory foam has so this is a great travel pillow for those with sensitive noses. If you’re after support, you will get it from this pillow. Aeris’ memory foam travel pillow is nice and thick and it forms a cozy cradle when used so comfort while catching some ZZZs on a flight shouldn’t be a problem!
However, the thickness of the memory foam could too much for some. Also, try not to squeeze this pillow in a small bag because this could distort the shape. The size of this pillow could be an issue if you’re accustomed to traveling light. It’s quite bulky so it won’t save you space in your carry-on.
J-pillow Travel Pillow
- Unique, patent-pending shape
- High-quality materials and construction
- Perfect for side sleepers
- Portable and lightweight
- Supports one way only
- Size runs too small for some
As the name implies, the J-Pillow is a J-shaped travel pillow made from foam. The queer design allows users to rest their heads on the side so if you’re on the window seat or you’re a side sleeper, this is a great pillow to get. The design is patented so it’s a unique product and it works. What’s more, you can squeeze the pillow down so it packs small, saving you a lot of room in your bag. It’s also lightweight so traveling with this pillow is easy!
As for the support, this pillow supports the neck, head, and chin extremely well. It’s comfortable and dense but not too dense that airflow is affected in any way. The entire product is machine washable, not just the cover. It retains its unique shape well wash after wash so you don’t have to worry about distortion during washing. If you’d like a firmer support, the brand recommends air drying the J-pillow after wash and tumble dry on low heat when you prefer less firm support.
As for the downsides, this pillow isn’t as versatile as the traditional U-shaped travel pillow. It can only provide support on one side so this product works great if you’re a side sleeper, not so much if you’re a back sleeper. Also, the size is on the small side so this won’t fit some people.
TravelRest Ultimate Travel Pillow
- Unique, patented shape
- Offers full lateral support
- Adjustable firmness
- Prone to air leaks
- Supports one way only
Yet another travel pillow with a unique, patented shape, the TravelRest ultimate travel pillow is a long cylindrical pillow that offers full lateral support for the upper body. The product guarantees excellent neck, head, and back support by keeping the head from lolling forward while you sleep. This travel pillow is inflatable so the firmness can be adjusted according to your preference. This ergonomically designed pillow diffuses muscle strain. According to the brand, the Ultimate travel pillow is best for those who suffer from back pains and those who are prone to a stiff neck.
This is a multi-purpose product and it’s adjustable plus the shape allows you to loop the pillow over the headrest. This pillow is perfectly portable and it packs light. But, since it’s inflatable, the material isn’t as plush or as supportive as your regular foam travel pillow. Also, the velour cover is not bundled with the pillow itself, it’s sold separately so if you dislike the texture of an inflatable pillow, you’re gonna have to get the cover too. The pillow is prone to air leaks too so it becomes a tad softer when in use. If you’re after versatility, this pillow supports only one side at a time.
Trtl Soft Neck Support Travel Pillow
- Ergonomically designed for soft neck support
- Portable and light
- Collar-type travel pillow
- Not for everyone
- Can get uncomfortable when used for an extended period
The Trtl travel pillow is an ergonomically designed travel pillow that offers soft support to the neck area. This is a collar-type travel pillow with cushioned sides for support. According to the brand, this product is designed for long-haul flights, allowing users to enjoy maximum comfort even in cramped sleeping spaces. This perfectly portable pillow packs small and lies flat. It’s also lightweight so it’s about half the size of a normal travel pillow.
We like how this travel pillow attaches to the bag easily thanks to its elastic straps. It’s surprisingly comfortable despite its flatter shape but for those who need firmer support, this might not be the best choice. The design is versatile; it offers great support to the neck but not much to the head. If you don’t like the idea of a thick material being wrapped around your neck, this isn’t the best option for you. Since the pillow is collar-type, it can get uncomfortable when worn for an extended period.
Cabeau Evolution Memory Foam Travel Neck Pillow
- Portable and lightweight
- Excellent neck and shoulder support
- Soft velour cover for maximum comfort
- Machine washable
- Neck clasp may be uncomfortable for some
The Evolution travel pillow by Cabeau is made from dense and plush memory foam that conforms to your unique shape perfectly. This light and portable memory foam pillow comes with its own ear plugs and travel bag for undisturbed sleep anytime and anywhere. The pillow packs small, just compress it and insert it in its tiny bag and you’re ready to go! This is a great travel pillow for long, international flights because the soft velour cover and the ear plugs guarantee a comfortable rest.
We love the level of support Evolution travel pillow provides, it’s neither too thick nor thin and the raised side support helps prevent muscle stiffness. Of course, the thickness of the pillow is subjective, some feel that the pillow is too thick but we loved the width. Our only gripe is that the clasp on the ends of the U pillow can be a bit constricting.
How to Sleep Comfortably in a Plane
Sleeping anywhere besides the comforts and privacy of your own bedroom can be a challenge especially if you’re a light sleeper. It’s even more difficult to sleep when you’re stuck in a cramped space and surrounding by incessant noise from fellow passengers on a long-haul flight. Apart from getting a great travel pillow, here are ways to get a good night sleep on a plane:
Choose a Window Seat
If you can choose a seat in advance, opt for the window seat so you have more space to lean your head on the side of the plane while dozing off. Seating near the windows allows you to control the amount of light that enters through the window. Usually, airlines let passengers reserve a seat in advance during the booking process so jump on the chance to secure the perfect seat whenever possible!
Bring the Right Gears
High-quality sleep requires high-quality gears. Get a nice, cushy travel pillow in the shape and size you’re comfortable with! You can also bring a shawl, a thick pair of socks, and a chill playlist to lull you to sleep. The idea here is to make your sleeping environment as close to your bedroom as possible.
Maximize the Legroom
Planes aren’t exactly known for generous legroom but make every inch count if you’re in desperate need of a good night’s sleep! Crossing your legs restricts blood flow and may potentially cause a blood clot to form when you’ve been sitting for more than four hours. Being stuck in a small space is also bad for the lumbar so always uncross your legs and stretch them out while you sleep! If you can, recline your chair to ease pressure on the lower spine. For added support, get a travel pillow and wedge that in between your lower back and the chair.
Limiting the use of mobile devices of any kind is critical to a restful slumber so if you’re trying to sleep, turn all your mobile devices off. That includes the TV, mobile phone, laptop, and/or tablet. These devices generate white light that’s too similar to sunlight. Exposure to blue light inhibits the release of melatonin, the chemical that induces sleep.
Skip the Booze
Drinking alcohol to help you fall asleep may work initially, but the after effects of these drinks will only last up to 3 to 4 hours. Once the effects of alcohol have worn off, you wake up in the middle your sleep with a throbbing head and sore throat! Also, alcohol dehydrates the body like no other so you’ll be forced to make frequent bathroom trips, which will disrupt your sleep and your fellow passengers’ too!
Watch What You Eat
Your eating habits while flying will affect the quality of your sleep too. It’s best not to eat a meal two hours before you sleep. Avoiding greasy or fatty foods could also help induce sleep because the body won’t work too hard digesting your last meal.
If you’re committed to beating jet lag, here’s a tip: sleep at least an hour earlier than your usual bedtime. Shifting your sleeping window earlier helps the body adapt to new sleeping hours better, preventing sleep deprivation and other symptoms related to jet lag. In addition, avoid light exposure during the first half of the flight and try to get some sleep.
Adjust Your Watch
Before a flight, make all the adjustments to your wristwatch, mobile phone clock and laptop/tablet watch so you’ll be able to adapt to the new time zone faster. The sooner you start adapting to your new time zone, the faster it is to recover from jetlag!
Flying can disrupt sleep but making small changes in your sleeping habits prevents sleep deprivation. Using the right gears also increases the chances of getting a restful sleep on a plane! Travel pillows come in a variety of shapes and materials and as long as you educate yourself on these options, you’ll have no problem finding the right product that suits your needs.