We spent over 63 hours researching and testing to find the best travel pillow that would perform its basic function of assisting travelers in getting some sleep. We wanted to be sure we tested a variety of styles, including the popular ‘U’ shaped pillow which was the original and the first style to hit the market. After flying halfway across the world – to India and back – we feel confident in our choice of the Travelrest Ultimate Travel Pillow as best overall.
Table of Contents
History of Pillows
At the end of a long day, who doesn’t love looking forward to hitting the sack and snuggling up with a soft, cozy pillow? Most would say that this must certainly be a universal theme. However, did you know that soft, snugly pillows are not the only style of pillows used in the world?
Surprisingly, some of the first pillows ever developed were made of hard materials such as wood and ceramic. Their purpose was less for comfort and more to support the head, keeping it off the ground and away from bugs, dust, and dirt that could enter ears, mouths, and noses. Who knew that pillows were not originally developed for comfort?!
The evolution of the pillow can be traced back more than 9000 years to Mesopotamia – an ancient region in the eastern Mediterranean. In those days, pillows were made of stone and solely used by wealthy citizens. Commoners slept on ‘beds’ of straw and grass without the luxury of any head support.
Although the Ancient Greeks and Romans created pillows similar to those we use today, many men thought that using a pillow was a sign of weakness and their use was reserved for women. Men continued to sleep without a pillow and felt that this added to their strength and vitality.
It wasn’t until the industrial revolution developed modernized machinery that pillows became commonplace. Before machines, fabrics were expensive to produce, and too expensive for commoners to own.
Today, we know that pillows are an important part of a good night’s sleep and most of us do not sleep well without one. They can support our heads and are even able to keep our spines in proper alignment. They are essential to a good night’s rest and to maintaining a healthy body. Pregnant women often find relief from back pain by using a long pillow that goes both under their head and between their knees.
Each of us has different needs when it comes to pillow style and fill material which is why there are so many choices on the market. Choosing a pillow is truly a personal decision based on an individual’s comfort needs.
Some of the many pillow choices of today include soft, firm, standard length, king-sized, and are filled with either man-made or natural fill. Natural fill such as goose down or feathers tends to be the softest fill material. However, if you suffer from allergies, down and feather fill will not be a good fit for you and that type of pillow might even make your symptoms worse.
Planning Before Traveling
There is heaps of preparation that goes into planning a trip, whether it be for 3 days, 3 weeks, or 3 months. Oftentimes we pack excessive amount of clothing only to find that we wear the same outfits repeatedly – while piles of excess clothing lie untouched. Another mistake we make is buying new clothes for the trip, along with new accessories and gadgets that we think we’ll need while traveling – only to discover that we didn’t need them at all and continue to use our tried and tested articles.
Planning for a trip takes a bit of organization. Always start by making a list long before departure. Whether it be on a piece of paper or on my computer, start listing the items you’ll need as you think of them. You might even find yourself popping up in the middle of the night to write something down so you don’t forget.
It might seem obvious to pack these, but there are three important items that should always be at the top of the list: Airline tickets, Passports, Money (both cash and credit cards). Sometimes it’s easiest to forget the obvious so be sure to list these. That way, on the day of departure when you’re worried about forgetting something, you can rest assured that it will all will work out if these three items have been packed. With these, you can get to your destination and any forgotten item can be purchased. (An exception would be any personal medical items that would be difficult to replace).
Sample Packing List
- Credit Cards
- Plane Tickets
- Mobile Phone
- Phone Charger
- Book or Magazine
- Gum or Candies
- Socks for plane
- Reading Glasses
- Sun Glasses
- Hair Ties
- Mini Toothpaste (for carryon)
- Toothbrush (for carryon)
- Travel Scarf
- Lip Balm
- Travel Pillow
I generally don’t bother packing a hair dryer or washcloths, or other such items that will likely be provided wherever you’re staying.
However, one item that should always be on your list is a travel pillow. If you arrive at your destination with some sleep under your belt it will make a huge difference in the quality of your trip. You’ll arrive ready to explore and enjoy your destination – or even get straight to work if traveling for business.
Features to Consider
When deciding on what type of travel pillow to choose, there are three main factors to consider: Space, Flexibility, and Support.
- How much space do you have and do you want to carry a solid pillow that doesn’t deflate? Sometimes this can be cumbersome as most people find they need to attach it to the outside of their luggage if it doesn’t fit inside. Inflatable pillows are much easier to pack because you can deflate them and roll them up to fit in your bag. However, they are not usually as comfortable as the solid-fill style such as those made of memory foam.
- How much flexibility do you need in a travel pillow? This is personal preference and only you can decide if you want the pillow to bend into various positions or not. Think about how you use your pillow at home when deciding this. Do you ball it up under your head or just use it in its natural shape? You will also have different needs depending on whether you are traveling in a car or flying. Generally, you will need more neck support if you are flying. Unless you have a window seat, you will need something sturdy to lean into which will determine the flexibility you need in a travel pillow.
- How much support do you need on your neck and back in order to sleep comfortably? Can you lean your head to the side quite a bit or just a little? Do you need lumbar support or back support to sleep comfortably? Some people are able to sleep with just their head supported whereas others (myself included) need back and even some shoulder support in order to sleep on long, international flights.
Choosing the perfect travel pillow depends quite a bit on personal preference and individual taste.
When looking at so many options, the first thing that likely draws you to a particular design is the fabric and the fill. Most people choose a soft-pile fabric to hold against their face. Obviously, no one wants rough or scratchy material against their face while sleeping. All three of our contenders have soft surfaces. However, the best in terms of softness is obviously the memory foam option.
|Travelrest Ultimate Travel Pillow||MemorySoft||Trtl Travel Pillow|
|Fill||Inflatable||Memory Foam||Internal, structured neck support|
|Weight||6.6 ounces||13.4 ounces||4.8 ounces|
|Dimensions||2.2” x 4.8” x 10.8”||11.8” x 11” x 4.7”||7.5” x 7.5” x 3.7”|
How We Selected
Right off the bat we knew we wanted to choose a travel pillow that was comfortable, yet would pack up small and not take up too much of the valuable space in our carry on. We felt the best way to start weeding out the (literally) thousands of options was to read up on customers’ experiences. We set out to discover if they were satisfied with their choices.
Once we eliminated all travel pillows that didn’t have great reviews, which narrowed our choices down to 435 options. As we mentioned above, we were only interested in a travel pillow that we felt wouldn’t take up too much room in a carry on so we filtered out all choices that were not labeled as compact or small. Now we were left with only 36 styles to choose from.
By keeping our possible choices to between $10 and $40, we knocked out another 6 contenders and were left with 30 styles. From here we weighed the suggestions of well-seasoned travelers and bloggers such as The World Pursuit and Her Packing List who said it’s best to keep these top three things in mind: comfort, compactness, and value per dollar.
All agreed that a soft exterior is a must-have for comfort and sleep and that it would help you arrive well rested and ready to enjoy your destination. These suggestions gave us our final set of criteria important in choosing our final three contenders. We were then able to start using and testing them for this guide.
How We Tested
We had two, long, international flights to get through during our travel to India. The first was a flight from New York City to London. The fight time was expected to take approximately 7.5 hours and our flight left New York City at 8:30pm meaning that the 7.5-hour flight would take us to 4:00am our time. Knowing that we’d have to stay awake in London to disembark, find our next gate, and board the flight, we wanted to get some rest.
We spent the first hour of the flight getting settled in as the flight attendants served snacks and drinks. After that, they dimmed the lights and we cozied up to try and sleep.
MemorySoft Travel Pillow Test and Thoughts
This was the contender I was most looking forward to trying. It was soft and cushiony and looked extremely comfortable. I put it around my neck and instantly noticed that the part of the pillow behind my neck was too bulky and pushed my head forward. I gave it a few minutes as my head sunk into the memory foam but for me it didn’t sink enough and my head pushed forward more than was comfortable.
I spun the pillow to the side so that part of the opening was in the back which helped, and I slept a few hours. After waking and needing a new position, I tried putting the pillow on the seat tray in front of me. There wasn’t enough room to lean straight forward so I also lowered my daughter’s seat tray and laid forward at an angle. In this position, the pillow was quite comfortable and the bulkiness was welcomed as it supported my head high enough to sleep. The only problem with sleeping this way is that the position itself can become uncomfortable. In the end, this pillow comfortably supported my head while I was sleeping in a position that wasn’t the most comfortable for my body, and moderately supported my head when my body was comfortable.
Travelrest Ultimate Travel Pillow Test and Thoughts
This pillow arrived folded up flat in its custom packaging and with only three breaths we had it fully blown up and ready to use. Its shape is a bit strange and we even had a few people give us a sideways glance. In fact, we had blown it up before boarding the plane and the gate agent had to ask us what it was. Once onboard, my daughter tucked it between her body and the window, laying her head on the larger end and putting her hands over the smaller end to stabilize the pillow and keep it in place. This also helped support her arms which she said was comfortable.
Once, towards the end of this flight, we both used the pillow simultaneously. We let out a bit of air, folded it in half, wedged it between us, and both leaned in to sleep. This pillow held air rather well but did occasionally need to have air added. We both felt this pillow was the best of the three and often had to negotiate which of us was going to use it.
Trtl Travel Pillow Test and Thoughts
While previously sitting at the gate we practiced putting on the Trtl Travel Pillow. We had a hard time getting it on properly and getting any head support. Both my daughter and I tried it and we both had difficulty. We even tried helping each other get it on tight enough so the internal frame would adequately support our head, but to no avail. Our heads just slowly dropped to our shoulder with very little support. We didn’t even bother trying to sleep with this on the plane.
MemorySoft Travel Pillow
Travelrest Ultimate Travel Pillow
Trtl Travel Pillow
MemorySoft Travel Pillow
Travelrest Ultimate Travel Pillow
Trtl Travel Pillow
After our four-hour layover in London, we boarded the flight to New Delhi, India. Since we were able to sleep on the first flight, we weren’t completely tired for this and didn’t sleep as much even though it was scheduled as a 9-hour flight.
However, we again tried using both the Travelrest and the MemorySoft pillows with basically the same results.
The Travelrest was so versatile that we could each adjust it to accommodate whatever position we wanted. We could adjust the air to make it firm or soft and when soft we could fold it up to support whatever part of our body needed rest. Don’t be fooled by the atypical design and know that its versatility is its strength.
The MemorySoft is deserving of praise for its soft, moldable, and comfortable material – as long as you use it like a traditional pillow. We found it bulky when used around the neck and the material doesn’t give much. Also, it tended to spin a bit when we wore it which became uncomfortable.
Travelrest Ultimate Travel Pillow
Much to our surprise, the Travelrest Ultimate Travel Pillow emerged as Best Overall out of our three contenders. We found it to be amazingly versatile and able to meet the comfort and support needs of everyone.
There is a string attached to the large end of the pillow that is meant to attach either to your seat’s headrest, or to the smaller end of the pillow where there is a Velcro loop. We couldn’t get the string to attach to the headrest very well (it kept pulling off) but we did find it helpful when attached to the smaller end of the pillow.
When the string was attached to the smaller end of the pillow, we could slip our hands through the loop which put downward pressure on the pillow, thus keeping it firmly in place supporting our head and neck. This position also supported our arms which made for a more comfortable sleep.
Picture of string
This pillow can be deflated and therefore packs up quite small. We were able to tuck it into our carryon bag without any trouble and it probably would have even fit into my Kipling Alvar travel bag (link to bag article or to Amazon?) if I had tried.
Overall, this pillow was able to meet more of our comfort needs and was more versatile than our other top contenders which made it our Best Overall choice. Additionally, it could pack up small and wasn’t a burden to travel with which was an additional bonus feature.
MemorySoft Travel Pillow
We were quite surprised when the MemorySoft Travel Pillow came out as runner up because we honestly expected it the to be the winner. Why? We’re not sure but maybe it’s because we’re familiar with the design and know that it is extremely popular. We see them hanging from hundreds of travelers’ carryon luggage as we walk to our departure gate.
The version we tested is super-soft and moldable because it’s made of memory foam. We were able to sleep using this pillow but when it was put against the versatility test of our Best Overall winner, it didn’t compare. This pillow is designed with a memory foam insert which molds to your head and is softer than the blowup style that we chose as Best Overall. But, in the end, it didn’t offer anything more than head and neck support. Also, we only found it comfortable when we used it while leaning toward the window. Not being able to adjust our sleeping position just didn’t cut it for us.
This style is a bit cumbersome to carry around. Even though it could be stuffed into its stuff sack, that still wasn’t small enough to fit inside our carryon bag. We had to attach it to the handle of our carry on if we wanted to keep our hands free.
Overall, it’s a great pillow and will work perfectly well on shorter trips. It would be a great choice for car travel as everyone has a window seat. However, for flights in general, and longer flights especially, two criteria kept it from being chosen as best: its lack of versatility and its bulky design.
Trtl Travel Pillow
This is the best wrap we could manage while trying this pillow
The Trtl Travel Pillow is designed with an internal support system that uses a flexible plastic device. This device is meant to hold your head in an ergonomic position as you sleep. It is even marketed as scientifically proven as a long-haul flight neck support system. The Trtl is very compact and lightweight – weighing in at only 4.8 ounces – the lightest of our Top 3.
It looked like an interesting design and seems to be well liked by users. However, no matter how many times we tried to wrap it comfortably around our neck, we couldn’t get it right. In addition, within 10 minutes, the support “brace” seemed to slowly give way and relax until we found our head titled at an uncomfortable angle and not supported upright at all.
With a wrap length of 28 inches, it was awkward to put on while sitting in a cramped airline seat. In fact, when we tested, we had to help each other put it on in order to give it a try. Even with help we weren’t able to get it to look like the marketing pictures and found it more frustrating than not.
Overall, we feel that this product takes too much effort to use and doesn’t effectively support your head while trying to sleep. Maybe we should have fiddled with it longer than we did, but we felt that an important point of a travel pillow should be ease of use. We did not find this model to be easy-to-use at all.
What We Liked
- The TravelRest Ultimate Travel Pillow seemed big and strange at first, but we came to realize that its long design is what gives it the versatility we liked. Also, because the design is a blow-up design, you could adjust it for firmness which helped get us comfortable in different sleeping positions. At one point, we even shared it across seats as each of us took an end.
- The memory foam of the MemorySoft Travel Pillow was very gratifying when we used it more like a traditional pillow and leaned forward to sleep on the seat tray. The material cradled our head comfortably and we fell asleep for a few hours even though the position itself was a bit uncomfortable.
- The TravelRest Ultimate Travel Pillow has a loop at the small end that you can hold to support your hands and arms while sleeping. We were happily surprised and found this to be a fantastic bonus that the other two models didn’t offer – hand and arm support.
What We Didn’t Like
- Although the MemorySoft Travel Pillow is super-soft and comfortable, we found it to be a bit bulky at the back of our neck. While testing it to sleep, it pushed our head forward from the seat. We actually found it more comfortable to spin the pillow around with the opening at the back so our head could comfortably recline. In this position, we still had pillow on either side and could lean our head to sleep.
- The Trtl Travel Pillow is awkward. We found it difficult to wrap around our neck and felt that the support device wasn’t stiff enough to hold our head in a comfortable sleeping position. Additionally, because it is over 2 feet long (28 inches to be exact) it’s difficult to put it on while sitting in a confined airplane seat. We actually had to help each other get it on in order to test it.
- The MemorySoft Travel Pillow is the bulkiest of the three we tested. Even when stuffed in its stuff sack, we couldn’t fit it in our carryon luggage and had to attach it to the handle. Granted, we were stuffed to the gills in our carryon and some people might actually like it hanging from their carryon which makes the pillow easily accessible.
After 24+ hours flying, both outbound and inbound, we found plenty of time to fully test our top three travel pillow contenders. Both the MemorySoft Travel Pillow and the Travelrest Ultimate Travel Pillow allowed us the comfort we needed to fall asleep. The both were soft and comfortable with the MemorySoft being the softest of the two. However, we found the MemorySoft Travel Pillow to be too restrictive in terms of various positions to use it in and it was bulky. For these two reasons, we chose the Travelrest as our top choice and Best Overall.
The Trtl Travel Pillow was all-around difficult for us to use and even when we did manage to get it properly wrapped around our necks we felt it didn’t support our head well enough to fall asleep. The inner support brace slowly relaxed and our heads fell closer and closer to our shoulders over a period of approximately 10 minutes. We never did fall asleep while testing the Trtl Travel Pillow.
Having a good Travel Pillow that helps you get some sleep while traveling can be a necessary part of travel. You will arrive at your destination much more relaxed and awake, ready to explore or get right to work.
Here’s to a safe, enjoyable, and restful trip!