Travelers have varying opinions on essential carry-on items. However, there’s one classic on many lists: a travel neck pillow.
Unfortunately, one of the downsides of exploration is having to deal with some physically uncomfortable situations, like sleeping sitting up. That’s why the compact cozy item is so popular. With so many on the market, though, determining the best one for you may take time.
“When you can’t lay down on a plane, it’s important to try and offer your neck and spine support. Ultimately you want your neck and spine as straight/aligned as possible,” Keith Cushner, product expert at the Sleep Foundation, told TPG. “It’s important to consider a travel pillow that fits your needs like shape, size and portability.”
Here’s everything you need to know about choosing a travel neck pillow.
Determine what kind of sleeper you are
To know which travel neck pillow is best, you must decide if you are a forward or backward sleeper. Sitting in a seat, would you place your head on the back of the seat or lean into a pillow on your lap or tray table?
“Backward sleepers should look for the c-shaped pillows that can wrap around your neck with little difficulty,” chiropractor Dr. Jason Alviene told us.
Seats don’t recline much and can cause you to fall forward when you sleep, waking you frequently. Because of this, the pillow’s back should be thinner, so it doesn’t push your head too far forward, according to Alviene.
The sides of the pillow should also be thicker so they can prop your head up without it falling too far to the side. This will keep the neck in an ideal position with little muscle tension.
“Forward sleepers should look for a pillow shaped like a quarter circle,” said Alviene. “This will give a rounded side with two straight sides forming a right angle. It should look like a quarter of a pie from the side. The rounded end will be laid towards your face and can easily sit on your lap or the tray as you lean forward. These tend to be larger than the others, so purchasing an inflatable pillow is recommended to make traveling easier.”
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Find the optimal neck position
A neutral position is the most optimal neck position for sleeping on a plane when you can’t lie down.
“You want your neck to be in the straightest line possible,” Alviene explained. “Should muscles on any side of your neck be stretched, you will wake with pain and possible muscle spasms. With any pillow options, you will have a very good neck position for sitting and resting with the muscles in a normal position without having to contract too much to keep your head in position.”
Materials should be comfortable
Travel pillows are made from a variety of materials. Ultimately, it boils down to personal preference.
“It’s very important that you find the pillow that is comfortable [and] works for you versus being as concerned with fill as you would be for a bed pillow,” said Cushner.
Some materials can make a difference, though.
For example, a travel pillow made with a recycled blend of polyester and rayon won’t absorb much heat and help keep you cool. One made with microfleece is gentle on your skin, so it can prevent irritation from moving often. Viscose will also help prevent heat retention and limit skin irritation.
Additionally, a memory foam travel pillow with an ergonomic shape can alleviate common aches and pains. They also tend to offer a good combination of support and softness. However, they can retain more heat and be firmer depending on the brand.
If you opt for a more traditional travel pillow, one with plush down and feather fill will be soft and potentially more versatile if you lean up against a window while sleeping on a plane. Fiber-filled and microbead pillows will also provide a softer feel. Just make sure you have a washable cover.
Alviene added, “Read the materials your pillow is made of because you want to ensure you do not have any allergies before you purchase.”
The pros and cons of inflatable pillows
Travel pillows come in all shapes and sizes, including inflatable pillows. Should you choose an inflatable or non-inflatable pillow? There are pros and cons to both.
You can (obviously) deflate an inflatable pillow. That means it’s very compact when not in use, which is helpful for saving space in your luggage. You can also adjust the air level in an inflatable pillow to accommodate your firmness preference.
Non-inflatable pillows come in a broader range of materials, making it easier to find one that is the most comfortable for you. However, they tend to be bulkier.
Ultimately, several factors go into determining the best travel pillow for you. Understanding how you sleep, the level of firmness you enjoy, and the traveling you’re doing will help guide you in the right direction.
An important thing to remember is the pillow’s ease of travel. If it doesn’t attach to your bag or fit in your luggage, you likely won’t use it, making it a waste of money, according to Alviene.