Best in Class

Photo: Marcus McDonald

Before I became a travel writer, I thought that travel pillows were simply inflatable, half-donut-shaped options that you buy at the airport for $20. And while those pillows still have their virtues — in a pinch, I’d much rather be with one than without — travel pillows have truly evolved beyond those designs. On the 11 flights I took last year, I put several of those new pillows to the test.

My criteria was simple: I wanted to get a proper rest onboard, and I wanted to be able to pack the pillow into my bag (without eating too much into my carry-on allowance). The pillows that passed that test came in all shapes and sizes. There were pillows that didn’t look like the classic donut (great for people who never get onboard with the U shape), as well as several that smartly upgraded that donut shape (either with luxurious materials or handily placed headrest straps which meant I didn’t jolt myself awake mid-flight.) I also tested travel pillows designed specifically for which seat I traveled in, from cushy pillows designed to slope against the window, ones for the tray table, and even — when I ended up in the dreaded middle seat — ones that slot over the seatbelt.

Read on for my guide to the best travel pillows I’ve tested. As I only get so much annual leave, I’ve also included recommendations from travel experts who log more miles than I do — as well as chiropractors who explain the science behind them. And once you’ve sorted your travel pillow, make sure to read my guides on the best carry-on luggage and other travel essentials to make your trip as smooth as possible.

First, consider the type of travel pillow you’re interested in: U-shaped versions that go around the neck or traditional flat pillows that have been shrunken down for portability are most common. U-shaped pillows are designed to prevent lateral bending in the neck — “it’s that move to sort of pinch the cellphone between [your] shoulder and ear,” says Dr. Carla Fischer, the director of quality and patient safety at NYU Langone Spine Center. That bending to the side she says is the most important thing to prevent, but not everyone sleeps in the same position or has the same concerns, so I’ve included several styles in this story.

Below you’ll find pillows made with memory foam, filled with beads, or just air if they’re inflatable — each of which has its own pros. Dr. Claire Fitzpatrick, founder of Bed Stuy Chiropractic, believes that memory foam is the most “accommodating” when it comes to travel. When I asked her what she meant, she explained that “if you get a medium to medium-firm memory-foam sort of pillow, it accommodates you, but it doesn’t let you dig into it too much.”

When it comes to thickness “the sides should come up to the height of your earlobes,” says Wainani Arnold, founder of the Wainani Wellness Center and in-flight wellness expert for Hawaiian Airlines. “The back of the neck pillow should be flat or only as thick as the distance between the back of your neck to the back of your head (one to two inches). If it is too thick in the back, the pillow will push your neck forward from the chair too much and will potentially dump your head back, which is not ideal for your neck.”

Between a carry-on and a personal item, both stuffed to the brim, finding room for something as large as a pillow can be cumbersome. The most packable among travel pillows are the inflatable ones. Others filled with memory foam or cotton are a little trickier to deal — but are likely more comfortable. This is a trade-off, depending on how long your flight is. And often, neck pillows often have a snap closure at the front which can easily be used to secure it to the handle of your suitcase.

Trtl Pillow

Shape: Neck pillow | Fill: No fill | Thickness: Thin | Easy to pack

This travel neck pillow is not the traditional U-shape; it has no fill and is very thin, but it still takes the top spot on my list. It had the most recommendations from our experts, which is what gave me the confidence to test it out during a 12-hour flight to Seoul. I was a bit perplexed by its appearance initially, but writer Lauren Schwartzberg explained that it achieves the main goal of a neck pillow — which is to prevent lateral bending in the neck — thanks to the plastic brace stowed inside a padded scarf. The brace is only in one part of the pillow, but you can adjust it “so you’ll have to choose which side you prefer nodding off toward,” Schwartzberg explains.

The first time I tested out the Trtl, I was out like a light. The brace’s angle hits just right: There is no sloping so much that your neck bends unnaturally, but it’s supportive enough for you to relax into a decent sleep. Editor at Pack Hacker Lauren Maternowski’s promise that I would be able to “fully lean against the seat’s headrest,” was completely true. Former Strategist staffer Rosie Percy also found that with the adjustable Trtl she was “able to sleep through a flight for the first time in my adult life, touching down feeling refreshed and without a crick in my neck.” And the Points Guy’s travel editor, Madison Blancaflor, told me, “It’s the only way I can survive long-haul flights in economy.” Scott Keyes of Going (formerly known as Scott’s Cheap Flights) also echoes their praise: “What I like about it is its versatility. It lets you sleep decently even if you’re in the middle seat, and this one is small enough to easily tuck into your backpack.”

Thanks to the fact that it helped me sleep so well, even in economy, as well as the fact that it’s easy to pack, I’m firmly naming the Trtl the best travel pillow overall.

Samsonite Magic 2-in-1 Travel Pillow with Pocket in Charcoal

Shape: Neck and lumbar pillow | Fill: Not listed | Thickness: 2 inches | Average packability

If you aren’t exactly sure if you’ll need neck support or lumbar support, a convertible pillow like this might be your best bet. This neck pillow folds up into a square-shaped pillow that can then be used on your lower back or up against a window. It can also be rolled up into the built-in pocket for storage — which is great for saving space, and also shielding the pillow from any germs in the airport. Taryn White of The Trip Wish List also tells me that it has teeny pockets for earbuds, gum, and mints, a big pro if you usually find yourself rummaging around to find your essentials mid-flight. It has a less convenient hook (compared to a strap) to secure it to your luggage, but the snaps that close the front of the pillow provide another option for strapping it on. I couldn’t track down the fill used in this pillow, but the general consensus from reviewers is that it was “firm but not [too] hard for me & my aching neck,” (according to one reviewer on the Bed, Bath & Beyond website.)

Cabeau Evolution Memory Foam Travel Pillow

Shape: Neck pillow | Fill: Memory foam | Thickness: 5 inches | Easy to pack

This pillow is an improvement on the half-donut. It’s a U shape, but with slightly raised sides to stop your head from slumping (and supports your jaw to prevent open mouth breathing, says travel blogger Carmen Sognovi.) It’s made from memory foam, and it has a flattened back, which allows it to be flush with the chair. This helps your spine align with the chair, for more comfort (according to Dr. Fitzpatrick). But the best feature is the adjustable strap that fastens the travel pillow to a headrest — which prevents you from flopping forwards once you’re sound asleep. Unfortunately the Cabeau takes up more space than the Trtl, but it is still fairly easy to carry — it comes with a bag that compresses it to half its size, and you can use the bag’s strap to fasten the pillow to your carry-on.

Cabeau Air Evolution Inflatable Pillow

The same brand also makes an inflatable version of their travel pillow — and though I generally don’t like inflatable pillows, this one is a good option. It inflates to five inches thick, but is just the size of a soda can when deflated. Just like the memory-foam pillow, this one has a flat back to help keep your neck in line with the seat, and it has a neck strap to keep your head super-stable. “They are a bit higher than most neck pillows and have a special toggle you can connect and tighten so the pillow doesn’t fall off,” says Jennifer Lachs of Digital Nomad Girls. Lachs admits that the memory-foam pillow above is “even more comfortable,” but the inflatable is better if you want to travel light. (Initially I thought that inflatable was synonymous with adjustable — the more air you put in the taller it will be and less air will make it less firm — but Dr. Fischer said it’s a bad idea to not fill up these pillows all the way, as that’s not how they were designed to be used.)

Healthy Back Travel Pal

Shape: Lumbar pillow | Fill: Inflatable | Thickness: 2 inches | Easy to pack

The Travel Pal is a different type of travel pillow — it’s designed for lumbar (rather than neck) support. As a WFH-er who’s rather particular about ergonomic office chairs, I notice the lack of lumbar support on airport seats whether it’s long- or short-haul flights. “In a proper chair, the lumbar part should actually push out to support that curve in your low back, but they don’t do that on planes because if they did, it would affect their seating, so a lot of them curve in,” says Dr. Jared Hoffman of Williamsburg Chiropractic. His recommended solution is this pillow which inflates to two inches thick, and reduces stress on the joints and discs of your low back by supporting that lower-back curve. Dr. Hoffman not only recommends it to patients, but says “this I have used personally and I think it’s one of the best products I’ve come across.” And as it’s inflatable, it’s super easy to travel with — just deflate and roll into your bag once you disembark.

Travelrest Ultimate Travel Neck Pillow

Very Good Deal

Shape: Neck pillow | Fill: Inflatable | Thickness: 3.5 inches | Easy to Pack

On a recent flight to Italy, I chose the dreaded middle seat on purpose to see how well the Travelrest really works. The inflatable pillow is worn like a sash, and it gives you something to loll your head against (apart from the person sitting next to you.)  “I’m obsessed with this hideous inflatable golf club,” says travel writer Teddy Minford, who first told us about the unique travel pillow. “It creates something to lean against, even if you’re in the middle seat.” After testing it, I agree with Minford that the pillow gives you something to rest your head against — and I successfully managed to get a few hours of sleep on my early flight. However, I’m not a middle-seat convert just yet. I still felt myself sloping a little towards the side I was resting on. I was overall impressed with how much the pillow improved the usually uncomfortable experience of middle seating, though, and it was super easy to transport: When deflated, it rolls up to the size of an iPhone.


Shape: Head and neck pillow | Fill: Polyester filling | Thickness: 3 inches | Average packability

Mercedes Arielle is a window-seat person and says the J-Pillow is best at cradling her head, shoulder, and chin on flights. As someone who favors the window seat myself, I knew I had to try it. It’s almost claw shaped, with a main body that supports the crook of your neck and a cushion extending below the chin to stop your head sliding forward. For Arielle, that three-pronged support is essential “because I rest my head against the window so I can maximize every inch of my window seat.” I particularly liked how the chin cushion didn’t extend too far around the neck (as I mentioned above, the usual doughnut-shaped pillows make me feel as though I’m being choked), and the main body of the pillow opened up in a V-shape so I could really wedge my head inside. The material felt more luxurious than the average travel pillow too — it had a fleecy lining that you can nuzzle down into. Although I love my Trtl, the J-Pillow has become my go-to for train journeys. It’s so cushy that it absorbs the vibrations and rattles that usually keep me awake during a train journey — meaning I can properly snooze. It’s also rather handy: You can compress the pillow to half its size in a carry bag, then use its loops to attach it to your luggage.

Ostrich Pillow Original Napping Pillow

Shape: Head pillow | Fill: Polystyrene microbeads | Thickness: Not listed | Not easy to pack

I know that mid-overnight flight, the tray table can begin to look very tempting — but it’s often hard, and all of the vibrations from the airplane can make you feel like there’s a rattling in your brain. To combat that discomfort, Dr. Fitzpatrick told me about this pillow that’s more like a helmet. It covers all sides, including the forehead, so it can be used in a number of situations. There is a hole for your mouth so you can breathe, but otherwise it’s a pillow, eye mask, and noise-canceling headphones all in one. Once out of the box, however, there is no indication that this pillow will compress again, meaning it could be cumbersome to travel with.

Huzi Infinity Pillow

Shape: Neck pillow | Fill: Polyester filling | Thickness: Not listed | Easy to pack

I’ve always wondered how parents can get their little ones to settle on a bustling flight — and writer and mum-of-one Chantel Tattoli told me that this Huzi pillow is her foolproof method. She says it has an an almost mystical effect on her daughter on long flights. “Generally, she seems to accord a magical ‘fairy-ring’ quality to this fluffy circle, as if once she’s thrown it over her, she’s staked some space in which things are pretty good,” she says. The pillow, like an extremely plush scarf, can wrap around your neck or lower back — or even both at the same time — to create a highly customized, optimum sleeping position. For this reason, it’s a great pick for those with scoliosis, too. “Even mild scoliosis can affect your comfortable position in a tight seat,” says Fitzpatrick. “The adjustable lemniscate-type pillows can be good for this.” Wearing it through the airport like a scarf also makes it easy to carry, but if you’d rather throw it in your bag, it rolls up neatly into a little ball.

Therm-a-Rest Compressible Travel Pillow



14% off

Klymit Pillow X Inflatable Camp & Travel Pillow

Very Good Deal



36% off

Ostrich Pillow Travel Pillow with Memory Foam

• Mercedes Arielle, fashion and travel blogger at Calculated Opulence
• Wainani Arnold, founder of the Wainani Wellness Center and in-flight wellness expert for Hawaiian Airlines
• Dr. Carla Fischer, director of quality and patient safety at NYU Langone Spine Center
• Dr. Claire Fitzpatrick, founder of Bed-Stuy Chiropractic
• Dr. Jared Hoffman, Williamsburg Chiropractic
• Scott Keyes, Going (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights)
• Jennifer Lachs, founder of Digital Nomad Girls
• Kat Lopez, freelance writer
• Lauren Maternowski, editor at Pack Hacker
• Teddy Minford, travel writer
• Rosie Percy, former Strategist associate director of e-commerce-audience-development strategy
• Dr. Rebecca Robbins, sleep specialist and Harvard Medical School instructor
• Stella Shon, writer at The Points Guy
• Carmen Sognovi, travel blogger
• Chantel Tattoli, freelance writer
• Taryn White, founder of The Trip Wish List

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