Travel Pillows Put to the Test

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Air: Man sleeping on plane (Photo: iStockphoto/Agnes Csondor)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on December 11, 2009. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, Christine Sarkis.

Flu fears have cast a whole new light on the standard practice of sharing pillows and blankets onboard planes, and offer a compelling reason to BYOP (bring your own pillow) when you travel.

Pillows have come a long way from the mini-rectangular models offered by the airlines. Browse the selection of any travel store and you'll find pillows shaped like amoebas, musical instruments, neck braces, podiums, and more. But do these deviations from the norm deliver better in-flight snoozing?

Over the last several months, we've put seven non-standard pillow shapes to the test on flights around the country and world. What we discovered is that while no pillow fixed the discomfort associated with ever-decreasing legroom and seat width, some at least allowed us to catch a few winks to make the flight pass more quickly. Pillows were assessed based on packability, ease of set-up, comfort, and how convenient they were to stow when not in use during the flight.

The Results

Rick Steves Deluxe Neck Pillow

Overall Score: 3.6 out of 5

Comfort Score: 3.8 out of 5 (highest comfort score)

Above average packability and stowability

Below average ease of set-up

Testers praised it as a pillow that is comfortable both for sleeping and for sitting upright and watching a movie. One tester found the pillow most comfortable when it wasn't inflated all the way and was leaned against the wall of the window seat or a curving headrest.

Complaints included it being difficult to inflate because of the different air chambers in the pillow, and seams that rubbed until the right positioning was attained.

Where to Buy: Various retailers


Komfort Kollar

Overall Score: 3.6 out of 5

Comfort Score: 3.6 out of 5

Above average packability and ease of set-up

Below average stowability

Testers had the best luck with a straight posture (no leaning on the window) while using the Komfort Kollar, making it a good choice for middle or aisle seat use.

Drawbacks included a "mildly annoying seam," the fact that the design makes it difficult to drink or use larger noise-cancelling headphones, and the look, which one tester compared to a neck brace.

Where to Buy: Magellan's


Jetrest

Overall Score: 3.5 out of 5

Comfort Score: 3.2 out of 5

Above average ease of set-up and stowability

Below average packability

The only non-inflatable of the group, the pillow received lower marks for being larger than some of the others, though one tester noted, "the convenient carrying case makes it easy to throw over the handle of a carry-on suitcase."

Testers observed that this pillow works best for those with window seats. Since the pillow is J-shaped, it only provides support for one side of your head.

Where to Buy: JetrestPillow.com or Various retailers


Travelrest

Overall Score: 3.5 out of 5

Comfort Score: 3 out of 5

Above average packability, ease of set-up, and stowability

The Travelrest offered one of the more unusual pillow shapes we tested. Its long body and rounded top, as well as the way it can be worn across the body, inspired a comparison to a guitar.

Testers were divided on the comfort score of this pillow. One tester noted that while it "requires some leaning, the pillow can be worn high to minimize neck strain," while another said "it required me to tense and lift my shoulder for it to stay in place."

Where to Buy: Various retailers


Eagle Creek Comfort Travel Pillow

Overall Score: 3.3 out of 5

Comfort Score: 3 out of 5

Above average packability and stowability

Below average ease of set-up

The U-Shaped pillow, sold by many companies in inflatable and stuffed models, is a common sight on planes. In our test, it received decent marks, coming out in the middle of the pack.

Testers rated comfort "O.K.," but pointed out that the pillow worked best for people whose heads didn't tend to roll forward when they slept. One tester had trouble inflating the pillow, and another found that the pillow was more comfortable when slightly underinflated.

Where to Buy: Various retailers


Travel Nook

Overall Score: 3.2 out of 5

Comfort Score: 2.5 out of 5

Above average packability

Below average ease of set-up and stowability

The Travel Nook was described by one tester as "less of a pillow and more like bumpers for your head." Testers were divided on the question of comfort. "Gives great support," one tester enthused, while another complained that there was "no neck/head support whatsoever."

Testers praised its packability and carrying case, noting that it was easy to tuck into a carry-on.

Negative marks included not being able to use headphones and limited head and neck mobility while using the pillow.

Where to Buy: Various retailers


SkyRest

Overall Score: 1.6 out of 5

Comfort Score: 2 out of 5

Below average packability, ease of set-up, and stowability

The SkyRest stands out as the only pillow in the mix that sits on the tray table and is used leaning forward. Shaped a bit like an inflatable lectern, this pillow was created for passengers who prefer to sleep leaning forward. One tester used it as a leg rest in the airport while waiting out a delay.

Testers had issues with the size of the inflated pillow, which was described as "bulky and cumbersome." One tester lamented, "Because I flew JetBlue (extra legroom) and am smaller than the average traveler, I felt like I was leaning forward into space and that the pillow (and me) could fall over at any time." Another tester sitting in an economy-class middle seat found it was nearly impossible not to encroach on her neighbors' space while using the pillow, saying it "would have been better if I'd had more room to use it."

Where to Buy: Various retailers

The Bottom Line

For us, this test drove home a very basic point about travel pillows: Comfort is highly subjective and whenever possible, you should try it before you buy it. Whether that means borrowing one from a friend or trying it on in the store, a quick test drive will help you assess whether or not a pillow is likely to be comfortable for you.

Do you have a favorite travel pillow? Share your recommendations and reasons in the comments section below!


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