What is a Travel Pillow?
Frequent travellers use them all the time: horseshoe-shaped pillows that fit around the neck and stop your head from lolling too far when you fall asleep while seated upright, for example, in a plane seat. This prevents you waking up with a stiff, painful neck – and can also stop you from snoring embarrassingly as can happen if your neck is constrained in an unusual position!
How They Work
When we fall asleep, our bodies relax completely. While this is fine when we are in bed or otherwise lying down, when we are sitting upright – as so often on public transport, be it a train or a plane – it can be uncomfortable and even injurious. Our necks are our weakest points and when our neck muscles relax, our heads tilt to one side or another, or even fall back, which can result in issues ranging from the embarrassing (uncontrolled dribbling, loud snores) to the painful (cramp, sore and stiff necks, back pain and headaches).
Travel pillows work by fitting around the neck and shoulders, providing support that holds our heads up for us while still allowing for that complete relaxation. In this way, our heads remain upright and comfortable, so we remain dignified and comfortable when we sleep, and wake up without any pain or stiffness.
Some travel pillows are tweaks on the basic horse-shoe design, having extra padding by the back of the neck, raised ‘arms’ or ‘wings’ on which you can rest the side of your head, or extra height for those with especially long necks.
What Materials are Travel Pillows Made From?
Early models and cheaper alternatives are inflatable, with a valve on them similar to those seen on beach balls. The valve pulls out a little, so the user can blow up the cushions with their mouths and use them as needed. The benefit of this is that the cushion takes up very little space in your hand luggage, and that they are ready to use in a few seconds when you are ready for a nap. The downside of these types of travel pillow is that they tend to be made from plastic, albeit plastic coated with a velvety outside to make it more comfortable to touch. The plastic can heat up under contact with your skin, and can make you quite hot and sweaty. The travel pillows also tend to deflate over time, especially if your head is resting heavily upon it, which means that after a long sleep, you might still wake up with a sore, stiff neck, despite using the pillow.
Most new travel pillows are made from memory foam which is highly compressible. Folding up to one-third of so of their full size, these cushions usually come in sturdy carry-bags that hold the compression. Because they are memory foam, they readily return to their full shape and size once removed from the carry-bag.
There are occasional niche travel pillows that do things differently, with firm plastic inserts inside padded fleece covers (see the TRTL review below) and there are some variations on the shape, but for the most part the horse-show design wins out.
Are There Extras with Travel Pillows?
Yes, there are a number of extras that can come with a travel pillow although none are standard except for, perhaps, the carry-bag into which the memory foam pillows fit.
Carry-bag – handy sturdy bags, with draw-strings, these bags compress the memory foam to one third of its usual size, and then fit handily into your carry on luggage, or fasten onto a handbag or backpack, so the pillow is handy when you need a nap.
Eye-masks – it is no good being comfortable enough to sleep if glaring lights are going to keep you awake. A sleep mask slips over your eyes and ensures that your brain thinks that it is full dark, and therefore, time to sleep.
Ear plugs – much like the eye-masks, ear plugs ensure that your surroundings are not preventing you from getting off to sleep as desired, cutting out unnecessary noise.
Phone pocket – if you like to nod off while listening to podcasts or music, these cushions allow you to do just that without disturbing your seat neighbours. Your phone will slide fully into the pocket, and be held in place securely until you wake up and want to check your messages or social media feeds.
Uk Travel Pillow Reviews
This review will look at travel pillows from a number of manufacturers (Fylina, J-Pillow, TRTL Pillow, DYD, Newdora, life hall and Raha). Some manufacturers have more than one pillow on the market, others just the one. An impartial run-down of all the contenders follows, and then our best travel pillow recommendation, chosen from those reviewed, will be announced.
This is one of the more reasonable travel pillows. It is made from very firm memory foam and is quite bulky, pushing one’s head forward in a manner that is not conducive to full relaxation. The eye-mask is excellent, fitting over the eyes without pressing on the sensitive eyelids, while the ear plugs seemed a little brittle and cheap. Due to the pillow’s firmness, it can be a struggle to squash it small enough to fit back into the carry-bag. This travel pillow comes in grey or navy.Check Price Now
Normally , this travel pillow is very similar to the above, with the same ear plugs and eye-mask. However, the design is subtly different, having a flattened back so you can rest your head against your seat back without feeling as though your head is being thrust forwards. It also has thicker ‘arms’ giving your heavy head more support without forcing it into an uncomfortable position.Check Price Now
Going for £24.95, this travel pillow can be hit and miss. If it is positioned exactly right, the plastic insert is both comfortable and supportive working even better than the traditional horseshoe-shaped travel pillows, while if that perfect place is missed (or if the user is unusually proportioned), the insert can dig in, causing discomfort and even a mild sense of claustrophobia. The covering, a thick padding of soft warm fleece, is wonderfully soft and comfortable if the insert is properly positioned. The travel pillow looks rather like a trendy scarf and comes in grey, red, black, teal, zebra stripes and a camo pattern in shades of blue.Check Price Now
Normally retailing for £14.99, this is a moderately priced travel pillow. The mask and ear plugs are satisfactory, while the travel pillow itself is soft and comfortable. However, despite the cord fastening at the front, there is sometimes a gap into which a sleeping head can slump. The travel pillow is best used while leaning back slightly to prevent the head drooping forward and causing neck and back strain. The pillow is well suited to this having a flat enough back that it is comfortable to lean back against the seat rest.Check Price Now
Retailing for £15.99, this travel pillow unfolds to an impressive size, achieving a firm ergonomic shape designed to support the neck without being too bulky or intrusive. It is easily packed up when no longer needed, squashing up tidily to around one-third of its full-size bulk. The arms of the U-shape extend well forward, so they meet in the middle , ensuring that your head will not nod forward uncomfortably. The travel pillow has a sweat-proof covering that stays clean and cool, even on the hottest flight.Check Price Now
At £24.95, it would be expected that this travel pillow worked exceptionally well, and for the most part it does. The unique design is to thank for that. This travel pillow moves away from the horseshoe-shape, taking on instead, as the name implies, a J-shape. The tail of the J curves into the neck, under the chin and jaw, while the serif on the J – the T-bar – opens wide to support the head, cushioning it from vibration and slumping. The fabric from which the pillow is made ensures that the vibrations and noise of the plane (or other transport!) is muffled, allowing users to sleep peacefully without being rattled about or being woken by the noise. The J folds up readily into the handy carry-bag, which features a short strap so the cushion can be attached to hand-luggage to keep it handy.Check Price Now
Selling for £12.00 (with an apparent recommended retail of £29.99) this velvety soft travel pillow comes in two colours – soft grey and lively royal blue. The inside of the pillow, the part that touches the skin, is made from cool-touch breathable fabric, while the outside is warm and textured velvet-feel velour. The neck hole is perhaps a little too generous which means that it does not offer quite the right amount of support, and if the user’s head tips forward the pillow does not offer any support at all. However, otherwise the travel pillow is firm and well-shaped, offering excellent support in the main.Check Price Now
Usually retailing at £9.99 – the lowest price of all those reviewed, this travel pillow follows the traditional design of a rounded horseshoe shape. It is made from sturdy memory foam covered with extra-plush velour for a velvety soft finish. It quickly regains its shape when unpacked from the bag, and squashes down easily enough to be packed away again when it is time to wake up. This is a fairly basic product, as might be expected from the price, but does a serviceable job at preventing neck and back aches.Check Price Now
And the Winner Is…
The winner of the best travel pillow is the J-Pillow Travel Pillow. The design means that it can be used even in a middle seat, without needing to be rested against a window or wall, and it stays snugly in place during use, meaning that you can relax completely and enjoy a good rest without staying half-awake to hold the pillow in place.
The idea for the J-Pillow came to a flight attendant who had observed her own, her colleagues’ and her passengers struggles to get a decent night’s sleep on long-haul flights. Seeing that the traditional horse-shoe design did not exactly meet the needs of every passenger, she wanted to find the perfect design that would work for everyone, no matter their size or height. Gemma Jenson set to work, basing her design around an idea that popped into her head one day when she was flying as a regular passenger. It took her over 200 attempts to perfect the pillow that works by providing a cushion for the side of the head, support for the neck and back and holding in place through the curving tail of the J which fits snugly under the chin to stay firmly in place.
So successful was Gemma Jensen’s pillow that she was awarded a prize: British Invention of the Year in 2012. It has been keeping heads and necks in great condition ever since!