Do You Really Need A Travel Pillow?

The terms neck pillow or travel pillow conjures the image of a horseshoe-shaped soft pillow; after all, it's a ubiquitous form. You often see millennials lugging it around to relax--frequently, balanced with a cup of coffee, on the other hand. Mothers carting off kids are in the habit of having them safely seat-belted with neck pillows before scuttling them off on long drives.

And if you are going on a long-haul trip by air, land, or sea, the obvious answer is that you need a travel pillow more than you know. Back to taking long train commutes after a long spell working from home? Having a travel pillow will help you ease back into the grind.

You don't even need to sleep--you can relax better and take some stress off your neck and upper body. It is not an infallible tool, and the sooner you come to terms with the fact that travel pillows were not meant to protect, the better.

travel pillows laying on airplane seat

Benefits of a travel pillow

Unless you travel by first class, you've experienced your head bobbing up and down while traveling. Even when there's little vehicular movement, your body can sense this, and it may be time to buy a travel pillow. Those with preexisting cervical damage may even suffer herniations which can cause pain, numbness, and immobility.

A travel pillow does not offer the best protection for whiplash injuries. Don't get caught off-guard, and believe the hype. Travel pillows in the market currently can't do this, but some offer more support than others.

A correctly sized pillow with adjustable firmness does the job of helping you achieve a good night's sleep better. Propping the neck and head prevents large movements that can result in a lesser chance of experiencing headaches, dizziness, nausea, stiffness, and restlessness. 

When do you need a travel pillow?

If you are a commuter in London, Paris, or Brussels, you may get caught in traffic for over two hours. Those in Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago will marinate in traffic for over 100 minutes. Commuting in Washington takes almost 35 minutes one way or over an hour per day.

Long commutes can cause anxiety and affect a person's health, so it's a matter of shortening it or putting it to good use with power naps, so it isn't a waste.

Disregard whatever the airline, train, bus, and shipping companies tout about having comfortable seats that will let you sleep like a baby. This is quite unrealistic. 

You need to deal with hard backrests, non-ergonomic angles, high (or low) headrests, and uncomfortably close seating. And don't forget aspects commuters have no control over--light and noise.

Here are some other scenarios when bringing your own pillow would be advantageous:

  • Long haul

Spending long hours in a seated position, with your body trying to accommodate the unfamiliar shape and firmness of the seats, can contort your spine and cause many discomforts long after the ride. Pillows are inexpensive and portable and help you become more relaxed in a stressful situation.

This form of travel has become the norm in countries like Japan, where trains have gotten so efficient. And if you are a commuter who prefers to sleep rather than use your downtime to keep abreast with the news, play games, or update your social media account, this time can be a precious window to recharge. 

In Indonesia, how to have a restful sleep during a long commute and wake up on time for your designated stop are dual challenges that are seriously studied. Experimental designs to address tension neck syndrome, satisfying sleep, and waking appropriately include ergonomic considerations, thermal sensors, and smart devices for real-time alarms. 

  • Camping

It's not just on long-haul trips that travel pillows prove beneficial. If you've ever gone on camping trips when you were younger, makeshift pillows filled with leaves and grass spelled fun. 

Fast-forward several decades later, when you are suffering from aches and stiffness. At this point, you appreciate glamping more than a real adventure in the wild. This time, you need a travel neck pillow that fits just right so you can wake up rested and not have carry-over fatigue from a restless night.  

  • Hotel or resort accommodations

In the popular comic strip Peanuts, Linus brings his safety blanket everywhere. In a similar fashion, some tourists bring along their travel pillows for many reasons. 

Some have health issues like asthma or allergies that make them very sensitive to mites, dust, and molds. Bringing a well-sanitized pillow for them makes a lot of sense, considering that having health issues in unfamiliar surroundings is a worrisome prospect.

This is also the practice of travelers who suffer from neck stiffness or headaches when sleeping on too soft or overstuffed pillows. This causes misalignment of the head, neck, and body, causing discomfort and impacting sleep quality. 

  • Ethical traveler

Ethical travelers may not necessarily suffer from respiratory conditions, but they feel strongly about not leaving or exacerbating a toxic footprint. They bring organic pillows with fillers made of buckwheat or millet husk in 100% cotton or bamboo fiber. They may also favor organic latex.

A big no-no for this class or travelers is using memory foam or other toxic filler that is not biodegradable and releases volatile organic compounds (VOC). VOC causes many health problems, including headaches, dizziness, and difficulty breathing.

Travel pillow considerations  

The kind of pillow ideal for you depends on several factors like how you sleep, difficulty sleeping, pain, and filler material or shape preference. Choosing the best pillow that can support restful sleep is a serious task.

Traveling lean is a point to consider, so the pillow must be light and compact enough to fit into a backpack that can be stored in overhead bins or under the seat.

The pillow must not be bulky and should never encroach on another passenger's space. Encroaching is not limited to the passenger footprint. For instance, ensure that the material is non-irritating and hypoallergenic since you may cause hypersensitivity in others.

Take for example, lavender pillows smell great, but in a confined space, it may be overwhelming. So, if you like how this scent calms you, use a light touch when you need to add some petals to your travel pillow filling.

 Here are some factors to consider:

  1. Fillers for travel pillows

There are various types of fillers used in travel pillows, each with its own unique benefits and drawbacks. Here are a few common fillers:

  • Buckwheat or millet husks travel pillow

You may not have heard of Buckwheat-filled pillows, but these have been widely popular in Japan since the early days. Also called "sobakawa" in Japan, it is made from the hulls of the buckwheat seed. This pillow is firmer than pillows made from millet husks and is chiropractor-recommended for side or back sleepers.

On long-haul trips, a small rectangular buckwheat pillow can be filled according to what is comfortable and provides adequate support.

Organic Buckwheat Pillows made by Pine Tales are made in Arizona from US-grown buckwheat. This means it does not undergo the chemical fumigation required by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) on buckwheat sourced from China or India.

The travel-sized pillow is encased in 100% cotton or bamboo. These feel good on the skin and are sweat-resistant, anti-microbial, hypoallergenic, and machine-washable.

Some users will initially adjust to its firmness, especially if they have been used to ultra-soft and fluffy pillows. However, this firmness makes it highly recommended for stiff neck and scoliosis, headache, neck pain, and even migraine.

Buckwheat and Millet pillows are organic and provide the natural support your head and body need at home and while traveling. Your head, neck, and body do not sink into the softness that does nothing to prop. It does have a little "give" to increase your comfort level.

  • Organic latex travel pillow

All-natural, organic latex travel pillows are a good alternative. The density or "give" varies. Some of these pillows are rectangular, and some have an indentation for the base of the head.

The user can adjust the pillow's thickness in some brands. If it's too thick, it may push the head forward at an angle that is not natural, causing neck stiffness and headache. You wake up tired instead of refreshed. Also, beware of latex travel pillows mixed with kapok. This material is not good for those with asthma or hypersensitivity issues.

  • Memory foam travel pillow

Memory foam is usually synthetic and can release toxic VOCs long after its first use. The shape-retaining function is due to its heat-activated properties. 

  • Microbead

The main concern for microbeads is that it is too soft, and the beads move with your head. It can be initially comforting because it is soft but offers the least support.

  • Inflatable travel pillow

If it's inflated properly, this travel pillow may give enough support. It's convenient because it can be deflated and is very portable. However, like the other pillows (except buckwheat), it does not conform to the body.

  1. Shapes and sizes of travel pillows

The travel pillow is not your bedroom pillow; hence, the peculiar size or shape for some varieties:

  • Rectangular: Rectangular-shaped pillows are versatile. It can support the face and the head. But like all the others, pillows won't support backlash.
  • U-shaped or horseshoe, semi-circular, or half-moon: This is what comes to mind when you mention travel or neck pillows. However, because it is not firm around the head or neck and is very soft, it is not the safest choice--although it can make you feel like you were ensconced in a cocoon.
  • Contoured: This means that the pillow is "shaped" around the contour of the head. However, everyone has a different head shape, so it's unclear whether this kind of pillow will be truly helpful.

Overall, there are many different shapes and sizes of travel pillows available to suit the needs of different travelers.

  1. Cover material

The covering material plays an important part because you want to avoid materials that are grimy, smelly, or rough to the touch. It should be machine washable and quick-dry. 

  • Cotton (100%): Cotton is cool, smooth, and breathable, and some are organically sourced. It's cool, natural, and sustainable.
  • Bamboo: Like cotton, bamboo fiber is cool, natural, and sustainable. It is supposedly anti-bacterial and hypoallergenic.
  • Cotton blend: Cotton blended with polyester may be too slippery and warm. It is not organic.
  • Microfiber: Microfiber is synthetic and soft. It can be expensive.

The best material for a travel pillow will depend on your personal preferences and needs. Consider factors such as comfort, durability, and care instruction when choosing the right cover material for you.

Are travel or neck support pillows the same thing?

Strictly speaking, travel and neck pillows may not be 100% the same. Travel pillows are different from the usual U or horseshoe shape you are familiar with. It can be a smaller, less fluffy version of a regular bedroom pillow--downsized to be less intrusive to other travelers.

Neck pillows, also referred to as cervical pillows, are of two kinds. One, the neck support pillow, is designed to be used in the sleeping position. It supports the neck and face and is recommended for people experiencing pain. It is not used for whiplash injuries and should not be used beyond two weeks if you find it uncomfortable. 

This is not the same support offered by travel neck pillows used when sleeping or resting in an upright position. In fact, the usual travel pillows offering any substantial support is a misconception.


Some people travel well and don't need to prop their heads or neck to sleep well. But not everyone can wake up refreshed. Not everyone can get a wink at all.

Travel or neck pillows that are right for you can get shaped around your head. It may not necessarily follow your whole contour, but it will keep your head from swaying or bobbing. The ideal travel pillow will also keep your head, neck, and body aligned.

Everyone benefits from good sleep or, at least, a restful respite. This is why everyone traveling for hours, camping, or staying in hotels needs a travel pillow that works.

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