The Best Travel Pillows: Desperately Seeking Slumber

#travel pillows for airplanes

On long-haul flights, an unconventional travel pillow can be the key to avoiding a pain in the neck


Travel pillows, clockwise from top left: Travelon 1st Class Sleeper; Comfy Commuter; Caldera Releaf Neck Rest; Kuhi Comfort; Travelrest Drue Wagner/The Wall Street Journal

Or at least that’s what the makers of the SkyRest hope. It’s just one of a surfeit of unusual travel pillows for sale now. Search online for travel pillow and up pops an array of strange options. Many were invented in desperation by sore-necked travelers—some with impressive credentials: A clinical professor of neurosurgery! An Alaska Airlines pilot!

I looked at a dozen of these pillows and brought eight along on a recent trip that involved four long-haul flights, each over nine hours. To the horror of my family, I even tested the most extreme bolsters.

Like the SkyRest, for instance: Blown up to its full 14 inches wide by 13 inches deep, the pillow is meant to be placed on top of a tray table or your lap. The proposed sleeping position involves leaning forward and placing your head on the pillow’s sloped top. It feels like being extremely pregnant or sitting with a big box on your thighs.

The Uprightsleeper looks like a neck brace—the kind worn to immobilize the cervical spine after a traumatic injury (although it makes no medical claims )—and facilitates sleeping while sitting straight up. A padded rest for the chin gets pulled tight to keep the head from falling forward or sideways. It may be a good option for those with neck problems, but I found it to be a pain in the neck.

Sales of the SkyRest have grown 10% to 20% almost every year since the company’s 2002 launch.

And then there’s the Ostrich Pillow, a bean-filled mask that covers your entire head but has a hole for your nose and mouth so you can breathe. It resembles the head of an alien octopus and is even more embarrassing to wear than it sounds.

Travel pillows sell because no one wants to use those flimsy white ones the crew tosses on seats in the economy cabin. (Not only are these pillows uncomfortable, they’re sponges for other people’s germs.) Even sales of the ungainly SkyRest have grown 10% to 20% almost every year since its 2002 launch, according to the manufacturer.

Despite all the design efforts, many of these so-called pillows didn’t pass muster. The best option is to make sure you get a window seat and bring a pillow from home, with a fresh cover for each flight. But if you’re going to be stuck in the middle or aisle seat for hours on end, the right pillow can be a godsend. Here are a few standouts.

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