It’s no easy feat to get a good night’s (or morning’s, or afternoon’s) sleep on an airplane. “When we’re traveling, we’re just a bit less able to really, truly relax,” says Dr. Rebecca Robbins, a sleep specialist at NYU Langone Medical Center. When we’re on the road, or in the air, our bodies are in a higher state of alert. Also, airplanes are cramped and uncomfortable.
Besides foot slings and natural sleep aids, a pillow is necessary for even attempting sleep on a flight. There are the ones airlines give you, and there are the microfiber wraparounds sold at airport Brookstones and in duty-free stores. And then there are several others: ergonomic ones and inflatable, space-saving ones, that make travel easier, not more burdened. To find out which of these are the best, we talked to picky people who log a lot of miles: travel writers (plus one airline employee.)
The best travel pillows
Wainani Arnold, founder of the Wainani Wellness Center and in-flight wellness expert for Hawaiian Airlines, prefers a collar-shaped neck pillow like the Cabeau Evolution. “It should be able to close in the front and provide 360 degrees of support for the neck, skull, and chin. It should keep its form and not smash down or deflate too much,” she says. “The sides should come up to the height of your earlobes. The back of the neck pillow should be flat or only as thick as the distance between the back of your neck to the back of your head (one to two inches). If it is too thick in the back, the pillow will push your neck forward from the chair too much and will potentially dump your head back, which is not ideal for your neck.” Arnold also like that this pillow keeps your jaw supported. “You won’t be caught open-mouth breathing which is, one, not very attractive and, two, dehydrating.”
Another Cabeau pillow, this time an inflatable one with a tiered structure to keep your head stable and a pouch to stash your phone in. “They are a bit higher than most neck pillows and also have a special toggle that you can connect and tighten so the pillow doesn’t fall off,” says Jennifer Lachs of Digital Nomad Girls. “If I weren’t trying to travel very light I’d switch over to their memory foam pillow as it’s even more comfortable.”
Taryn White of The Trip Wish List uses this Samsonite pillow, which, like a handy outfit, has pockets. “It’s super comfy, and it folds into a pocket,” she says. “We all know that airplanes and airports are not very clean, so being able to keep the pillow from coming into contact with tons of germs was a huge selling point. And an added feature: it has [its own] pockets, in which I can store earbuds, gum, and mints.”
You’ve likely seen Cloudz pillows at the airport before. “I grabbed one at the airport for a trip several years ago and then ended up purchasing one for all three of my young girls for long-haul flights,” says Sarah Wilson of the blog The Family Backpack. “I like that it is super soft and also the snap allows me to attach it to my luggage or the girls’ backpack easily. I don’t sleep well on flights but this pillow has made it a bit easier.”
If you want to both spend a bit less and get something that packs down, this inflatable pillow will do the trick. “For many years I simply didn’t want to sacrifice the space in my bag and I also didn’t want to risk looking like the Linus of the airport by lugging around an extra U-shaped pillow,” says Krista Canfield McNish, founder of FoodWaterShoes. “In my mind, the best travel pillow has to be compact, comfortable, inexpensive (in case you lose it or it just doesn’t pan out for you).” Her personal favorite is this one with the airplane safety graphics. As loud as it is, she says, it folds up and takes up less space in your luggage than a magazine.
Oneika Raymond, host of Travel Channel’s One Bag and You’re Out and Big City, Little Budget uses the more indulgent but still inflatable Daydreamer, which comes with a fabric finish and a built-in inflation pump so you don’t have to put your mouth on something that came in contact with your airline seat.
If you don’t have the bulkhead or a traveling companion to lean against, try a weirder shape. “I’m obsessed with this hideous inflatable golf club,” says Teddy Minford, editor at Fodors.com. “It creates something to lean against even if you’re in the middle seat.”
Robbins suggests a pillow that resembles the one you sleep with on a regular basis, and CNN Travel editor Lilit Marcus swears by the luxury of a Hästens pillow. “It packs small and flat, but when you get on the plane, you unzip the zipper around the middle and suddenly — bang — it’s a huge, fluffy marshmallow,” she says.
The travel pillow is not for everyone. “I kind of hate travel pillows, and I hate single-use items,” says travel and technology writer Séamus Bellamy. “But I still recognize the need.” He’s solved this problem by going for a stuff sack-style travel pillow like this Tom Bihn model. “It’s basically just a sack and you put your sweater or whatever you want in there to make it the size you want, and then away you go,” he says. “You just use the stuff you’re already carrying and make a pillow from that.”
If you’re a sweaty sleeper and need a better-ventilated option, the Therm-a-rest Trekker is the same kind of pillow but made of a more breathable fabric. “It’s the same principle, but it will take up slightly more room in your bag,” Bellamy says. Stuff or unstuff as much as you like. If you’re truly aiming for peak travel minimalism, Bellamy also recommends pulling out one of your packing cubes and using that.
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