Ever planned a vacation down to the last detail, only to realize that you hadn't planned for spending several hours on an uncomfortable airplane seat with limited entertainment? One option is to sleep instead. Or… it would be, but you forgot to buy an airplane travel pillow.
Perhaps you didn't forget this step. Perhaps you bought a travel neck pillow, but now that you're putting it to use, it's somehow making things worse rather than better (we bet we can guess which type you bought: read on to find out). What's the point of these things anyway?
Finding a good travel-size pillow isn't easy, especially when shopping online. These things need road-testing in very specific circumstances, and it's hard to tell if it'll work until you're using one in action. That's why we've put together a comprehensive buyer's guide to help you choose the best travel pillow and make a wise buying decision.
Here's what you need to know.
What is a Travel Pillow?
It may seem self-explanatory, but you could choose between 2 definitions:
- An item marketed and sold as a travel-size pillow
- A pillow you take with you on a plane that helps you sit comfortably and sleep.
This is an important distinction. Option #2 is a much better definition because it places the item's functionality ahead of its sales tag. It also allows for some nuance as to where you're going and what type of transport you're using. A polystyrene-stuffed tube might market itself as a small travel pillow, but does it matter if you could get better sleep using a sofa cushion?
Consider the case of a mom who brought a plump, full-sized pillow on a plane for her kids rather than buying a gimmicky kids' travel pillow – sound obnoxious? The kids slept on either side of it and were supported by each other's weight. They slept soundly for the whole flight and got in nobody's way.
It's a niche example, but the point is that it's not all about the size or shape of the pillow; it's about how you use it. You need to think about how to use a travel pillow before buying one. You've got to think about where you're going to put it, what your surroundings will be, and whether it's going to give you the support you need: if it turns out to be useless, you've just wasted money on additional baggage.
Let's consider the use case first. When do you need a travel-size pillow?
When Should You Use a Travel Pillow?
The type of pillow you need depends on your mode of transport. For example, you can usually get away with a larger pillow in a private car than on an airplane. Below we cover standard modes of travel and how to choose the best travel pillow for the occasion.
When choosing an airplane travel pillow, it's all about size. If you're flying economy class, space will be limited, and your neighbors aren't going to appreciate having their ears tickled by the corners of your cushion. Its good manners to find a model that doesn't take up more room than the width of a standard airline seat.
This is probably less of an issue if you're in business or first class. Furthermore, some airlines offer complementary pillows for passengers in these classes – we can't vouch for how comfortable these are, and you may still prefer to bring your own if you know it's effective. Still, you'll have a lot more room for a wide pillow if you're traveling in luxury.
The other key consideration with choosing an airplane travel pillow is that you don't want the cushion to be too thick. Airline seats are mostly hard and unforgiving, and many economy-class seats don't tilt back. A super-compact, overstuffed cushion will push your head uncomfortably far forward compared to your back. Not recommended.
What you want on an airplane is a small travel pillow with enough give for your head to sink in and rest slightly to one side. Soft fillings like buckwheat hulls will naturally move to each side of your head, providing excellent neck support on each side while cushioning the back of your head. They're ideal as airplane travel pillows.
If you're traveling in a private car, you'll likely have more leeway to use a slightly larger pillow. Leaning on a full-size pillow against the car door is one option. However, if bringing one of these isn't an option, you want a cushion with flexible options.
By this, we mean that the best travel pillow will support you whether you're leaning forward, leaning against the window, or sitting with your head back against the headrest. Leaning forward isn't generally recommended – it can give you a bad back – but if you find that it's the most restful pose then and there, you want robust cushioning between your arms and your head.
Again, the best answer is usually an adjustable small travel pillow filled with buckwheat or millet hulls. You can fill these to be as firm or as forgiving as you like before you set off. They provide ample cushioning if you lean forward and adjust their shape neatly if you lean against the window. Behind your head, they're just as effective as on airplanes.
Cars are also one of the few places you can get away with using lavender filling for pillows. While scented cushions aren't generally a good idea on public transport, lavender is a wonderful scent that can help you sleep – if you're in a private car, mixing dried lavender with buckwheat or millet hulls is an excellent choice.
Trains, Long-Distance Buses, and Coaches
If you've got aspirations to travel internationally, pay attention: you're going to be doing a lot of traveling on trains and long-distance buses. Your seating arrangements will vary greatly depending on where you travel – some countries have extremely well-developed transit networks (e.g. Japan, Germany, Spain), and you can look forward to comfortable seats and using a travel neck pillow just as you might on a relatively spacious airline seat.
Other places have slightly more rustic systems in place. Some old European trains use the charming but not always comfortable “compartment” system, where you may have a room to yourself, but seating will consist of 2 benches opposite each other. These trains tend to jolt around quite a lot, and if you're on a long, inter-country trip, you'll want a cushion that can be used as a regular pillow. The most comfortable way to sleep on these trains is lying down.
This is one area where U-shaped travel pillows just aren't up to scratch. A small travel pillow in a square or rectangular shape lends itself to many rest positions, whereas the U-pillow really only works when you're sitting up. It's questionable whether it even does a good job of that, but we'll come to that topic later.
Of course, a travel-size pillow can be used even when you're not on the move. Here are a few times you might appreciate having one around.
- The sofa: decorative sofa cushions look lovely but are notoriously bad at being usable cushions. They're often overfilled to the point that they're just not comfortable to prop yourself up on. Your travel pillow might do a better job when you're enjoying a lazy night in.
- The movies: just because you brought a cushion doesn't mean you expect the movie to be a snoozefest! It's not rude to bring head or neck support as long as it's not getting in anyone else's way, and it can make for a much more comfortable viewing experience.
- All-night queues: if you're a super-fan of a book series, movie franchise, or performance artist, you'll know all about all-day (and even all-night) queuing for a first release or concert. Along with a comfy camp chair and possibly a sleeping bag, a well-made travel neck pillow is a great friend.
Types of Travel Pillow
Let's now consider the various shapes and styles available. The area has seen surprisingly little innovation since the mid-20th Century, with modern designs often failing to catch on. Sometimes the old ways are best, after all.
Still arguably the best shape for any travel-size pillow, a small, rectangular design provides enough space for your head to sink in without disturbing your neighbor travelers.
The best filling for these tend to be a soft, natural option like buckwheat or millet hulls; the amount you include is easy to adjust, so you can use the same pillow for different trips and adjust its firmness accordingly.
Round cushions can be a game-changer if you've found that squarish designs aren't for you. They allow your head to sink into a central position and provide support on all sides. The issue some people find with round cushions is that the shape might push their neck out more than they like – again, using an organic millet or buckwheat filling means that you can adjust where the plumpness is according to your preference.
The “U” in “U-pillow” may as well stand for ubiquitous because that's what they are. You'll see these anywhere you travel, and if you've forgotten to bring a cushion, you'll swear to yourself that you'll buy one next time.
The U-Pillow attempts to offer support to both sides of your neck and the back of your head but somehow fails at all these objectives. You won't get good support behind your head – instead, your neck will be in an uncomfortably forward position while your head attempts to loll back.
Likewise, leaning on either side of the U-pillow causes it to slip, as most designs are somewhat loose-fitting. The head is a very heavy part of the body, and when you fall asleep, this cushion is no match for it – so you end up with a crick in your neck anyway.
These cushions talk a good game. Some people like them, and we won't question their accounts. However, the style just doesn't hold up to real-world testing for most people, and it's much better to invest in a higher-quality, more conventional, less silly-looking small travel pillow.
Another cushion that makes sense in theory but typically doesn't live up to expectations. A roll is a cylindrical unit that goes behind your head or neck. Its main advantage is that it's extremely easy to transport. Its main disadvantage is that it's pretty useless when operating as a pillow. This is just as true when using it for camping as traveling, so if you like outdoor vacations, we're trying to save you two disappointments for the price of one here.
Rolls simply don't have the height to let your head and neck each rest properly. It's one or the other, which either means you're going to get a sore head and struggle to sleep or wake up with a crick in your neck. Neither is desirable.
These are shaped to fit travel headrests and often come with a small additional section at the bottom that tucks under your neck or back. The full design looks somewhat like a mushroom. These pillows aren't bad in terms of support in the right places – they're much better than U-pillows or rolls. However, they tend to be let down by low-quality coverings and fillings and are often overstuffed.
Trtl Travel Pillow
The Trtl travel pillow is an innovative wrap-around pillow that markets itself on “scientifically proven neck support.” They look neat and travel easily, but the Trtl travel pillow has the drawback of only supporting one type of sleeping position. It's far less flexible than a well-designed, well-made cushion.
Various novelty designs exist – if you want a kids' travel pillow, you'll find some fun coverings that your little ones might like. However, it's best to get them a small travel pillow that will help them sleep than focusing on patterns. A child with a sore neck is not a happy child.
There are also some truly horrifying designs out there, like travel neck pillows that appear to be a pair of hands with giant fingers that wrap around your neck. Each to their own.
Types of Filling
We can't understate the importance of choosing a good filling. It may seem secondary to shape, but the filling defines how good the support will be and how comfortable it will feel behind your head. Here are the options.
Buckwheat hulls are a superb choice for all cushions, but especially for a travel-size pillow. The filling volume is adjustable, and as they're often 100% organic, you don't have to worry about removing and potentially throwing away polystyrene.
Buckwheat hulls are somewhat large, meaning that the pillow shapes itself easily around your head to provide all-around support.
Millet hulls are perfect for those who prefer a slightly firmer cushion. They're smaller than buckwheat hulls, so they retain their shape more and provide a similar experience to memory foam. However, as the volume is adjustable, you have greater control over the firmness.
An inflatable travel pillow is an excellent choice if you're trying to save on space. You also have some control over how firm an inflatable travel pillow is – fill it slightly less if you want a softer berth. Self-inflating options are best if you're looking for an airline travel pillow, as you don't want to be blowing it up while sandwiched between strangers!
Memory foam tends to be pretty firm, making it slightly less yielding than buckwheat or millet hulls. It's also questionable how advantageous memory foam is in a small travel pillow compared to in a bed – you won't be using it as much, so there's less use in it “learning” your shape.
Hemp is another excellent option for those who want plenty of support. Organic hemp filling provides robust support but adapts to the shape you want it – this makes it a great choice if you don't know which way you'll be sleeping (lying down, sitting up, etc.)
Some thermal options use a filling that can warm up at the flick of a switch. We'd note that if you're using a thermal airplane travel pillow, be considerate of your fellow passengers if it radiates heat and you're in close quarters.
A great choice if you won't be sleeping directly next to anyone! Lavender has a soothing aroma and has been used as a sleep-aid for millennia. It can be combined with organic hulls to create a fantastic travel pillow – again, this is best used if you know you'll have a bit of space.
Don't buy a cushion that uses polystyrene beads. It doesn't bio-degrade – those little pellets will be harming the environment until the sun expands. They're also not especially comfortable. Many U-pillows use this type of stuffing.
Types of Cover Materials
Choosing a comfortable cover material is also essential. We review the options below.
Bamboo fabric is natural, breathable, and remains cool to the touch. This makes it an excellent choice for travel because you won't need to move around as much to find a nice cool spot. It's easy to wash and has antibacterial properties – very useful when traveling closely with many strangers.
Cotton is cool and breathable, but try to make sure you're buying 100% high-quality cotton if you go for this option. Cotton-poly blends hold sweat more than 100% cotton and aren't as cool to the touch.
Polyester is the run-of-the-mill covering for a travel-size pillow. It does the job, but it warms up quickly and can feel rough or scratchy to the touch, depending on the quality. It's cheap but nowhere near as comfortable as bamboo or real cotton.
Microfiber is increasingly popular, although we've found that it tends to warm to the touch more than we'd like. It can also have an unjustifiably high price tag as “microfiber” sounds trendy.
If you can get a good-quality silk travel pillow, more power to you! Silk is a luxurious, lovely material with a lot to recommend it. It's a great pillow covering but somewhat expensive – you'll probably be traveling in first-class if you're shopping for silk travel pillows, so enjoy!
How to Use a Travel Pillow
Here's how to use a travel pillow for good-quality rest that doesn't hurt your neck – from best to worst.
- Behind the head, sitting upright. This is the most standard pose. A high-quality pillow with a forgiving, adaptable filling like millet or buckwheat hulls will shift to offer support on either side of your neck while providing cushioning for your head. This keeps you stable and offers maximum comfort.
- To one side. If you have a window seat, you might wish to lean against it. Again, a hull-filled pillow will conform to the shape of the corner or wall, giving you the best-quality rest possible.
- Lying down. If lying down is an option (e.g. traveling on a long-distance train or overnight ship), you want a travel-size pillow that can act as a regular pillow! The rectangular shape (or an inflatable travel pillow) is your best bet here.
- Hunched forward. Try to avoid this pose if possible. It's bad for your back – however, if you do lean forward, use a rectangular pillow with a firm, forgiving filling to cushion your head against your arms and knees.
How to Choose the Best Travel Pillow: Quickfire Summary
Let's quickly run through what we've learned, so you can choose the best travel-size pillow!
- Shape: rectangular or square is best; round is also a good choice. Avoid U-pillows.
- Filling Material: organic buckwheat or millet hulls are ideal. Hemp is a good alternative. Never polystyrene.
- Cover Material: bamboo is organic, soft, and breathable. High-quality cotton is another good choice.
- Size: think about where you're going! Choose a small travel pillow that won't annoy your neighbors, but don't choose something so small it won't make a difference.
- Weight: this is important if you'll be carrying a lot of gear. Hulls are a lightweight filling, making them a good choice.
- Density: another advantage of hull-filled pillows is adjustable density. Change it to suit your needs.
- Price: it's worth paying extra for the best travel pillow: otherwise, you've just spent money on nothing. Find something that works and make the investment.
- Purpose: where are you traveling? Where will you be sleeping? Picture your journey and how the pillow will help you.
Fundamentally, the best travel pillow is one that provides you with comfortable rest while you're on the move and doesn't leave you with a bad neck once you disembark. A rectangular or round pillow with a natural hull filling is easily the best choice. An inflatable travel pillow is also a good option if you're packing light.
What are travel pillows made of?
The best travel pillows use breathable materials like bamboo fabric for the outer casing – polyester or poly/cotton blends tend to get warm too quickly and can feel scratchy. Fillings made from organic hulls make them easy to adjust to suit your comfort needs and reduce environmental waste compared to polystyrene.
Are travel pillows healthy?
A lousy travel pillow is even worse than no pillow at all. You've spent money on something that, at best, does nothing and, at worst, gives you a worse crick in your neck than sitting upright would have! However, the best travel pillow will let you sleep easily while on the move and rest your body.
What is the best kids' travel pillow?
A good kids' travel pillow will do the same as any good cushion – provide ample support and prevent a stiff neck. Fun designs are appealing, but comfort should always be the priority.
Is it good to sleep with a travel pillow?
Investing in a travel neck pillow is worthwhile if you know you'll be sleeping on a journey. Make sure you buy a high-quality option; otherwise, it's not worth spending money.
Do travel pillows go in the front or back?
The best position is behind your head. A good cushion will let your head sink in while providing support on each side, meaning you won't sag or fall asleep on a fellow passenger! Rectangular cushions with high-quality fillings let you rest in a variety of positions and also double up as a regular pillow when needed. This makes them the best choice by far.
Choosing the Best Travel Pillow: Key Takeaways
Now that you know everything about travel pillows, it's time to make an investment in your well-being when you're on the move. Don't settle for second best: from the cover material to the shape, all elements contribute towards high-quality sleep and feeling refreshed once your journey is done.
Our travel pillow offers everything you want when you're on the move – comfort, portability, and ease of use in any travel situation. Purchase yours today and enjoy the benefits on your next journey.