That’s me in the photo – trying my best to pretend I’m sleeping. Please forgive the bad acting; it’s not easy to take a selfie on a plane with your eyes closed while trying not to get people you don’t know in the shot.
Enough about my underdeveloped photography and acting skills. Let’s talk about travel pillows.
You may already know that it’s kind of tricky to fall asleep when your head is nodding up and down like a bobblehead figure on a car dashboard.
Okay, so I exaggerate a little. Like me, you probably wouldn’t fit on a car dashboard. But you’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever tried sleeping with the wrong travel pillow that’s now 2000 miles away from a refund.
Even on a long car or bus journey, it sucks when you arrive with a sore neck because your head was slowly falling off. Thank goodness for spinal columns and skin; I quite like my head, thanks very much.
I regularly test new travel pillows, from the standard ones sold in airports to some very bizarre inventions. If you’ve ever seen the inflatable cubes you stick your arms and face in, you’ll know what I mean!
Check out this weird one I bought. It didn’t make the cut in this review, but I’ll share a photo because it’s kind of funny. I mean, who would use this in public?
“Mummy, why is that man’s head stuck in a beachball?”
My view is that manufacturers don’t need to reinvent the wheel where travel pillows are concerned. It just needs to feel comfortable, support your head and neck, not take up too much space, and ideally be cheap if you don’t use it much.
How hard can that be?
To find out, I bought a lot of travel pillows and took them on a car trip with a couple of friends to test them on different body shapes.
And over the the last few years I’ve slowly but surely tested them when travelling back and forth across the Atlantic to visit my wife while she’s working in the US.
So if you need a good travel pillow for your next trip, here are my thoughts on the ones I liked best.
1. Cabeau Evolution S3
Best memory foam travel pillow, with excellent neck support
The Cabeau Evolution S3 has raised sides that help keep your neck and head aligned. With the adjustable cord lock at the front, it feels like it has 360-degree support, which is great for sleeping in the sitting position.
You can also use the attached seat straps to keep it in place and prevent your head from doing that ‘flopping forward’ thing that might lead to neck pain.
The memory foam is medium density, which contributes to the effective support you feel when you lean into it. It feels soft on your skin and molds gently to your head, providing a gentle cushioning that feels very comfortable.
It comes with a small travel bag that it compresses into to save space. And the exterior cover can be removed and machine washed.
I wouldn’t recommend this one for children due to the relatively high sides. And if you’re driving in hot weather without air conditioning, it might not be appropriate either.
Otherwise, I think the Cabeau will be an excellent travel pillow for most people. It’s the one I personally use when I’m not testing new ones, and have been very happy with it.
Best micro-fiber travel pillow, ideal for kids
The versatile Bcozzy is my recommended travel pillow for children, with its friendly look and comfy feel. But many teens and adults will like the adult version too. It provides complete 360-degree neck support, and you can create different support heights with the overlapping ends.
If you have a shorter neck, you can lean your head on just one level of the pillow. And if you’re a bit of a giraffe (like me…), you can double the ends together to get more support. You can also fold it in half to get even more cushioning if you’re in a window seat.
So you can use it either to lean into, if that’s your preference, or wrap it a bit tighter to keep your head more upright. And I found the flatter back section means it doesn’t push your head forward when you’re in a plane seat – a problem that chunkier pillows sometimes create.
The plush cover feels soft and comfy. And the polyester fiber interior has just the right amount of fill to cushion your head for long periods of time. Conveniently, the whole pillow is machine washable.
I like that it comes with a handy snap strap to tie it onto hand luggage, which is useful as my only criticism is that it’s not as compact as some travel pillows. So overall, the Bcozzy is a versatile travel pillow that will suit both adults and kids.
Best inflatable travel pillow
If you need a travel pillow that takes up as little space as possible in your luggage, the Purefly is the most comfortable of the many inflatable travel pillows I’ve tried.
It inflates to the classic U shape, but with a style of raised neck support that more and more inflatable pillows use these days. This style of raised support does work well, but only if you’re sitting upright in my experience – not if you’re fully reclining.
I liked the micro-velvet fabric, which really felt like soft velvet on the skin. The cover is removable and machine washable too, which means you’ll get more life out of it, especially if you’re off doing some serious traveling.
It has an inbuilt hand pump, avoiding the need to use your mouth to inflate it. You just squeeze the little dome next to the main air valve, and it slowly inflates.
As with all inflatable designs, the Purefly won’t be quite as comfortable as memory foam of fiber-fill. But it shines when it comes to saving space and convenience.
A versatile pillow that’s ideal for window seats, cars and trains
The J-pillow won a British invention award back in 2013, with its unique design that steers well away from the classic U shape. It has a sort of double J shape instead, with a section that sits under your chin to help prevent your head from dropping forward.
I’ve tested it on two flights, and it’s very comfortable to use in a window seat. That chin support really does help keep your head in place, and the side part feels plush to lean on. It didn’t feel quite as effective in a middle or aisle seat though.
The interior material is made from squishy polyester fiber. I personally like the feel of that, and it doesn’t get as hot as some memory foam pillows. I also like the fact that the whole pillow is machine washable, not just a cover.
My main issue is that the strange shape and springiness of the filling make it slightly inconvenient for storage. You can squash it down into your bag, or use the strap to tie it to your hand luggage. But it’s still kind of a lumpy ‘thing’ you have to cart around with you.
I think the J-pillow is a great choice if you have a window seat on a plane, or are traveling by car or train. It’s still okay for middle and aisle seats – just be aware that it might not stay in place quite as well.
Compact inflatable pillow for side sleepers
The Travelrest is another one with an unusual design. It has a long shape that crosses the front of your body, providing a large surface area for you to lean against.
It comes with an attached strap that you can tether around the top of your seat to keep it in place. Alternatively, you can wear it like a bag and hug it to your body.
I like how it gives you a comfortable surface to lean against – especially if you have a window seat. And you can even make it work in a middle or aisle seat.
My main complaint is that it didn’t stop my head drooping forwards when sitting upright. But in a reclining seat, it worked well as I’m naturally a side sleeper. My second complaint is that it looks a bit odd due to the size, and is a little awkward to change sides.
Considering how large it is when inflated, it rolls up tightly and is remarkably compact. So if you’re in need of a space-saving pillow, and you’re a side sleeper at home, this could be one you like. It’s also good for children on long car journeys, who might like the comforting feeling it provides.
Large microbead pillow, with a plush cover
The Cloudz travel pillow is a large micro-bead travel pillow that feels comfortable to sleep with. It’s large enough to keep your head reasonably upright, which isn’t always the case with this style.
It has a convenient snap closure which allows for a tighter fit around your neck, meaning your head is less likely to bobble around on awkward angles.
Like so many of this style though, the sheer quantity of material in the back section means you need to play with it to find a comfortable position. I found it was good for reading and watching movies, but when I wanted to sleep, I had to turn it sideways so it didn’t push my head forward.
The large size and quantity of microbeads also mean it doesn’t compact well, so you’ll need to tie it to the outside of your hand luggage.
If you’re a fan of the feel of microbead fillings, the Cloudz travel pillow offers comfort and head support along with a soft external material. But if you’d rather save space and value ergonomic design, it might not be the one for you.
Memory foam pillow with a curved design
Mvloc used to make one of my favorite inflatable pillows, but they appear to have stopped that model and now produce this memory foam version instead.
It has a very similar look and feel to the Cabeau, with a memory foam filling, the raised neck support and the adjustable rope lock at the front to help keep your head upright.
The contours of the sides are slightly more curved than the Cabeau, but the raised sides are not as high. So for me, this is one that will suit adults with shorter necks, whereas the Cabeau would be better to those with medium and longer necks.
The external material, unusually, is made from cloth and gauze. It feels breathable and soft on the skin, so along with the memory foam, is very comfortable on the whole.
Like most memory foam designs, the main problem is that it’s not so compact when not in use. But it does have a carry bag you can squish it into, and then hang on the outside of your hand luggage.