Whether you’re travelling by car, coach or plane, a travel pillow will transform your journey, promising a little touch of luxury in – literally, in some cases – pocket size.
With social distancing allowing travellers a little more space in transit, now is the perfect time to indulge in a travel pillow – with a free seat on one side, you can think outside the memory foam mould, and opt instead for an inflatable cotton pillow the same size as your bed pillow, or a soft bamboo scarf that doubles as an eye mask.
Our tester is a travel journalist, and has tried every pillow on the market in the quest for a comfortable night’s sleep in long-haul economy. Pre-lockdown we tested these pillows on the longest flight in the world, on the cold floors of the busiest airport in the world, and on bus rides across continents. More recently we’ve taken them with us on long car rides to socially-distanced campsites, and slept on them under the stars.
What you look for in a travel pillow depends on where and how you’re travelling, but across the board we looked for excellent support, softness and portability.
Having been a bit snobbish about the standard C-shape neck pillow in the past, we were pleasantly surprised by some new models that have vastly improved the experience of trying to catch some sleep in the dreaded middle seat: this kind of pillow still reigns supreme when it comes to air travel.
If you’re travelling by bus or car, your options are a little more open. Nothing beats a full-size pillow, and thanks to lightweight camping tech you can get fairly close now with an inflatable version. Some people will hate the inevitable “crinkle” that comes with a blow-up pillow, though: the soft bamboo infinity pillow is still our go-to novelty travel pillow.
Finally, don’t forget a travel pillow if you’re heading to a campsite or overlanding. The smallest, lightest pillow we found fitted in our trouser pocket, inflated to the size of a regular pillow, and had a cosy layer of down that made it perfect for a chilly night in the wilderness – or a layover on a cold airport terminal floor.
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Travelrest memory foam pillow
The perfect travel pillow. Ideal for flights or long car journeys, it takes the traditional C-shaped pillow and offers some small but brilliant improvements, like a flat back that’s angled to rest against a seat head. It’s also incredibly soft, with moulded memory foam that supports and compresses in all the right places. Best of all, it packs down well – about the size of a coffee cup – and fit into the side pocket of our larger backpacks.
The velcro fastener is basic but does the job, and the price is excellent. Our reviewer loved it so much she started wearing it for long afternoons in front of the laptop while working from home – it raised some eyebrows on Zoom calls.
Trtl pillow plus
A bit of a Marmite pillow, in that some of our testers loved it and others didn’t get on with it at all. Like the basic Trtl, the pillow is designed around a long scarf with a soft, height-adjustable support panel to rest your head against. It is endlessly customisable, and the height-adjustable Plus fixes some of the problems we found with the original Turtl, making it ideal for taller or shorter people who don’t fit a standard neck pillow.
It is really good at stopping your head falling forwards when you’re dozing, but the (admittedly very snuggly) fleecy scarf won’t stop your head falling to the unsupported side, so this pillow is better for people who aren’t prone to serious neck pain.
Infinity travel pillow
After a solid year of use this scarf-like pillow still goes everywhere with our reviewer. A long, stuffed loop of soft bamboo, you can loop it a few times around your neck like a big scarf to support your head on a flight or car drive, or loop it anywhere else for a nap on the go.
It’s invaluable for long flights with layovers, where you can use it like a normal pillow if you find a patch of floor to sleep on, or wrap it over your eyes like an eye mask. There is something oddly comforting about being able to entwine yourself in it like a blanket, and it’s a nice extra luxury on camping trips. It’s a little hard to pack down: you can wear it around your neck, but this gets quite hot.
Outwell conqueror air pillow
The closest travel pillow to an actual pillow that we found. A simple inflatable pillow that takes about 10 breaths to fully inflate to the size of a standard pillow, the real selling point is the lovely fabric cover, which is cotton on one side and soft polymer on the other.
Of course, it doesn’t have the same give as a feather pillow, but you can adjust the inflation with a simple valve to get pretty close. Excellent for car journeys or socially distanced flights, or anywhere you can take up a little more room. Because of its length and firmness when fully inflated, it also makes a really good back support.
Sea to summit aeros down pillow
The ultimate lightweight travel pillow, this rectangular inflatable pillow packs down to smaller than pocket-size, and weighs just 95g (we tested the large). It is very firm when fully inflated, but the dual valve means you can make micro adjustments if you need to squish it into a plane seat.
We loved the luxurious down layer, which felt as warm and soft as a proper pillow, and reduced the crinkle factor you get with most inflatable pillows. Overall it is better suited to a window seat, car or bus journey or anywhere you’re planning to nap lying down – at the terminal, for example – because it doesn’t have the wrap-around support of a neck pillow. Ideal for camping.
Go Travel memory dreamer
The classic, and a staple of the last-second airport shopping spree – where you’ll pay a significant mark-up for not planning ahead. Great for long-haul flights in the dreaded middle seat, the height and firmness of this pillow gives your head real stability, making it much easier to fall asleep. You can secure it really snugly around your neck: our reviewer has been using one of these pillows on flights for years and has never found it gave her a stiff neck.
It is unavoidably bulky and easier just to wear during transit. You can loop the clasp through a strap and carry it that way, but be careful of putting much strain on the clasp – one downside of the lower price is that the materials are less durable.
BCozzy travel pillow
A clever twist on a standard neck pillow, this plush and malleable pillow is perfect for sleeping in a middle seat, or anywhere that your head might drop forward. It has the best front support that we tested, because you can wrap the arms right underneath your chin, and folds up nicely to make a great pillow for a window seat.
If you’re taller or shorter, though, you might find that the skinnier arms of the pillow don’t provide quite enough support on both sides of your neck.
Mammut ergonomic CFT pillow
A great, lightweight pillow that’s perfect for anyone who needs a bit more ergonomic support. This soft, inflatable pillow has a thick groove in the middle that means one section is dedicated to supporting your neck, and follows its natural curvature slightly better than a flat pillow.
The curved cut means it fits snugly around your neck or shoulder, and it works great with a surface to lean against – a coach or plane window, for example. It packs down smaller than any other pillow we found, to a very small pocket size.
NEMO filo luxury pillow
A seriously smart and adaptable travel pillow which combines baffled air cells and foam to give you the closest thing to a feather pillow that our reviewers could find. The small air cells and squishy foam means that the pillow doesn’t feel as balloon-like as some inflatables, but it still packs down small and can puff up enough to offer excellent support.
We loved the net on the back, which you can stuff with a sweater or jacket for a bit of extra height.
The verdict: Travel pillows
The Travelrest pillow is the best classic travel neck pillow we found. But for versatility and snuggliness, nothing can replace our beloved Infinity pillow.
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