If traveling is supposed to be “about the journey, not the destination,” then it should be a more comfortable and enjoyable experience. However, many travelers suffer from stiff, sore necks from the weight of their heads flopping on long plane, car, bus, and train rides, which can result in neck and back pain. Travel pillows will provide the support you desperately need to catch some z’s, but you shouldn’t just go with any old u-shaped neck pillow sold at the airport.
Many of today’s options are designed with components like high-density memory foam, washable covers, compact stuff sacks, and more. You might not be catching many flights now due to the pandemic, but plenty of these options are also excellent for road trips to campgrounds, the backcountry, hotel rooms, or just to visit relatives.
The Issue With Most U-Shaped Pillows
Many of the pillows on this list don’t look like the average u-shaped pillow with delated microbeads—for good reason. Those pillows have rounded backs, which push your neck forward without supporting the chin due to the opening in the front. If the cushioning isn’t high enough on each side, your head may flop from left to right. Kelly Conaboy even examined in the Atlantic how they fail to support your head because they don’t maintain neutral alignment of the spine. Despite the lack of published studies on the effects of sleeping with a u-shaped travel pillow, you probably don’t need science to tell you that your head drooping forward may cause kinks, stiffness, and soreness.
However, many travel pillows now exist that seek to solve this problem. Some still have a general u-shape, just with subtle—yet important—differences. Namely, squared or flat cushioning behind the neck and more coverage under the chin to keep the head upright. Though these varying pillow designs appeal to different types of sleepers and travellers, all have this basis of support and comfort in common.
In addition to travel pillows designed to be used in an upright, seated position, we also included several standard—but compact—pillow options made to support your head when horizontal for camping or perhaps crashing on a friend’s couch. These pillows are smaller than a standard bed pillow, but offer similar support and comfort, and also compress down into packs that are easier to manage while travelling.
How We Selected and Tested These Pillows
After researching over two dozen pillows and considering expert and consumer reviews, we tested 14, and in the end, selected 11 to recommend for all kinds of travellers. We wore and slept with these pillows for over 100 hours in total on red-eye flights, road trips in cars and buses, camping in tents, and even on the coach. Taken neck support and comfort into consideration, as well as portability, durability when machine washing and drying, and how inconspicuous their design was. We stored each pillow in its included bag (if it came with one) for at least a week to determine if it would retain its original shape. We also evaluated their weight, cushion height and materials, and their packed dimensions versus overall size. These 11 pillows represent the top options for back, side, and stomach sleepers, as well as those who primarily travel by car, plane, bus, train, or even campers who sleep on the ground.
Travelrest Nest Ultimate Memory Foam
Materials: Memory foam with velour, micro-fiber cover | Packed Dimensions: 6 x 5 x 4 in. | Cushion Thickness: 5 in. | Weight: 13 oz.
With limited space for a bulky pillow when traveling, packability is one of the most important features. Unless you can easily stuff the pillow into your bag—or strap it to the outside—you’ll likely end up leaving it at home. Out of all the options we tested, the Travelrest managed to pack the most memory-foam cushioning into the smallest stuff sack. Even after being compressed in its bag for over a week, the pillow immediately puffed right back into its original shape. Despite its compactness, it doesn’t compromise on support. With five inches of memory foam on all sides, it’ll keep your head in place no matter if you tend to loll to the front, back, or sides. Unlike most u-shaped pillows, its angled back sits nicely against any seat surface without pushing your head forward. Bonus points for the nonslip panel to help prevent it from sliding off airplane seats.
At $40, this pillow is more reasonably priced than some others—and Travelrest throws in accessories, such as memory foam earplugs, to sweeten the deal. Its removable cover retains its velvety soft surface after cycles in the washer and dryer, though it’s a bit of a tight fit to pull the cover back on over the foam’s contours. The dense foam also makes it a little challenging to fold up into its bag, but once you get it in there, it can compress down to a quarter of its original size. The only real downside we experienced was that the high cushioning could pinch earrings or larger headphones. But overall, if you want the most supportive cushioning without the bulk that many foam pillows have, the Travelrest Ultimate is, well, the ultimate.