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Travel Pillow Challenge: The Quest for Good Airplane Sleep

My greatest weakness as a travel professional? I can’t sleep on planes.

If you’re like me, then you know the feeling of dread that washes over you when you realize that nothing stands between you and an incredible trip to Europe (Asia, South America, etc.) but 12 hours of red-eye misery, cramped in coach class, a hard, unyielding armrest digging into your hips, head banging against the windowshade, legs going numb as you try to contort yourself in the one miracle position that will bring on sleep. And you almost don’t go.

But if you love travel as much as I do, you suck it up and go. In a desperate attempt to make long-haul flights more bearable and find a miracle cure for the sleepless flight, I took four travel pillows with me on a recent trip from San Francisco to Germany and the Netherlands. I chose products that seemed unusual or intriguing. Here’s how they ranked. (Spoiler alert: I barely slept a wink.)

Kuhi Comfort Travel Pillow
The Pillow: The Kuhi Comfort Travel Pillow is not your standard-shaped neck pillow. It’s made of two soft cylindrical balls, attached by a strap. The selling point is that you can use it multiple ways. Turn it one way and the curved part is by your neck; flip it around and the flat part is against you. Straighten the strap and you can tuck one end over your shoulder and cuddle the other, put it behind you for back support and place it in your lap to rest a book.

The Flight: I was pretty excited about this one — the design is original and the materials feel high-end. To my disappointment, the fit is just off. The strap is too short and the balls are (ahem) too big. When the pillow was around my neck, I felt surrounded by material. Trying alternate positions didn’t work — the pillow is too bulky for good back support and too short to sling across your body. The final blow: Because the pillow isn’t inflatable, you have to carry it around in its little stuff sack, which attaches nicely to the handle of your rollaboard but dangles awkwardly if you’re carrying a backpack or other bag.

Final Verdict: I wanted to love it, but I just couldn’t make it work.

Cabeau Evolution Pillow

The Pillow: The Evolution Pillow is an enhanced version of the standard, plush (non-inflatable) neck pillow. It’s made of memory foam and has raised side supports to cradle your neck — or you can wear the pillow backwards to support your chin. It even has a pocket for your MP3 player. It comes with a travel case and memory-foam earplugs.

The Flight: I was the least excited about the Evolution Pillow, but it was actually really comfortable. I used this one while dozing on an early-morning flight, and I did appreciate the extra head support, the soft material and the absence of the inflatable-pillow plastic smell. However, I would like to see a step-by-step video of how the designers scrunched the pillow down to a quarter of its size and fit it into the stuff sack. I couldn’t even get the entire pillow into the bag, so I couldn’t use the Velcro straps to attach it and it just dangled awkwardly, threatening to fall out.

Final Verdict: Until someone can show me how to make this pillow travel-friendly, I’m sticking with my blow-up model. (Editor’s Note: Cabeau recently offered us the following instructions for packing the pillow.)

EZ Sleep Travel Pillow

The Pillow: Imagine a miniature version of an inflatable pool mat that you could stand up like a wall between airplane seats, attached by a Velcro strap around the arm rest. What you see in your mind is the EZ Sleep Travel Pillow. The concept is to create a support structure for you to lean against as you catch some in-flight Z’s, so your body isn’t flopping about like a rag doll.

The Flight: It hit me in the airport — if I have the aisle seat and someone else has the window, I may be too embarrassed to set this inflatable wall up. It’s big and it encroaches into shared territory. Luckily for me, I had two seats to myself. The pillow does not seem as sturdy as the claim — if I really fell asleep on it, I don’t believe it would hold my weight without collapsing onto my seatmate. What it was great for was putting against the armrest or the window to create a soft surface to lean against — preventing hard metal and plastic plane parts from bruising my body as I tossed and turned.

Final Verdict: If you and a family member are sharing adjoining seats, by all means, set this pillow up. Otherwise, it might not be worth packing the EZ Sleep to use in conjunction with another pillow for your head or neck.

Travelrest Travel Pillow

The Pillow: Here’s a new one — an inflatable pillow shaped like a banana, or possibly an apostrophe. The Travelrest Travel Pillow is larger on the top, so you can rest your head, and then tapers into a slight curve (this part slings across your body). A long string at the bottom lets you attach the two ends to secure the pillow around you or your airplane seat.

The Flight: This pillow was hands down my favorite. I contorted my body into all sorts of positions trying to sleep across two airplane seats, and whether I was sitting up or half-lying down, the pillow cradled my head and gave me something to wrap my arms around so they didn’t just dangle uselessly. The only downside was the plasticky smell that plagues all inflatable travel pillows, though perhaps that would go away after a few uses.

Final Verdict: While it didn’t help me sleep, the Travelrest pillow made my attempts more comfortable. I’m keeping this one and will definitely use it again.

— written by Erica Silverstein

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