We tested 4 travel pillows for your return to sleeping on planes. There was one winner.

by Сашка

Sleeping comfortably in economy can feel impossible, but the right pillow can help

If you have flown in economy, you may feel like airlines are doing everything they can to make the experience uncomfortable. The seats are the opposite of ergonomic. The legroom is minuscule. Given that setup, sleeping on a flight is usually a nightmare.

That has been my experience before the pandemic — and even more so now. Since the complicated return of travel, I have had a tougher time feeling comfortable on planes, let alone sleeping on them. Despite knowing a travel pillow can help with the misery, I chose to skip packing one to have more room in my carry-on bag on my first few pandemic-era flights. That repeat decision led to a painfully craned neck, numb hands and little — if any — sleep.

If I’m going to start taking up precious luggage space for a travel pillow again, it has to be worth it. Travel pillows, like many you see at the airport, can be useless, so not just any option will do.

To see what deserves packing, I tested four pillows over four flights between D.C. and California. Here are my findings.

The illustrated encyclopedia of sleeping positions on a plane

Cushion Lab Ergonomic Travel Neck Pillow, $55

According to the Cushion Lab website, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop called this pillow “The Tesla of travel pillows.” While I don’t consider myself a Goop person, the claim caught my attention. The company promised an asymmetrical design by an in-house ergonomist that fits under your chin and around your face so you can lean and sleep comfortably with “360° zero pressure neck protection.” It was also the priciest of the bunch at $55, which is more than what I would like to pay for a travel pillow (or a regular pillow, for that matter).

When I unfurled it from its carrying pouch, my first thought was “Ooh this is gooey” — in a good way. The pillow’s fabric felt silky and smooth, encasing something that felt like a hard gel. Apparently that’s the “Hyperfoam,” an “extra dense, dynamically rebounding, proprietary memory foam.”

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I loved the texture of the Cushion Lab contender — and that it squished up smaller than the rest so it took up less space — but I was left wanting more support. Throughout my tests, unless I was leaning back in a specific rigid way (not how I usually fall asleep), I didn’t feel the strong embrace I was looking for in an airplane-friendly neck pillow. Lastly, it fought with my KN95 mask, pushing it up and requiring regular adjusting, but it didn’t really upset a cloth mask.

On the bright side, it looked normal, as far as neck pillows go — unlike my next choice.

Happy Headrest Travel Pillow, $24.99

The Happy Headrest Travel Pillow feels like an option for people who love science fairs. It’s for the infomercial enthusiasts, and the optimists who support crowdfunded inventions on the Internet. It’s a U-shaped contraption that hooks onto a passenger’s tray table, providing a soft ledge for resting face down.

Defying societal norms for a kooky innovation, I set up and leaned onto my bright blue device. Despite looking ridiculous to my fellow passengers, it was surprisingly comfortable. Sinking into the big, juicy pad was a great alternative to crunching my body backward into my seat. This felt like a guilt-free alternative to the controversial recline.

My complaint: You can only really use it to sleep on one side of your head, the side facing the window. After a while, my neck was feeling kinked and uncomfortable, but turning over felt impossible. Unless I’m traveling with the person seated next to me, there’s no way on God’s green earth I would rotate to turn toward a stranger. You’re way too close to your economy-row neighbor to face them; it would be intimate and weird.

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It also fit awkwardly in my backpack. It’s 10 ounces and carry-on-friendly, but it can’t fold up so you’ll have to schlep the bulky frame throughout your travels. It does come with a snap-on clip if you want to have it dangle from your luggage.

SeatDreamzzz Wall Pillow, $39.99

If I know I’ll be attempting to sleep on a flight, I always pick a window seat so I can curl up in my little nook without the interruption of my row-mates getting up for the lavatory. The SeatDreamzzz Wall Pillow seemed like the perfect accompaniment.

The pillow is an inflatable L-shape device that looks like a tiny suede couch. According to the company, it’s the first of its kind, designed to rest against a wall to provide support “in one of the most frequently slept-in positions outside of your bed.”

In the era of mask mandates and contagious airborne diseases, I did feel guilty and unsure about removing my mask to inflate the pillow. I figured it was no worse than eating or drinking on the plane and pumped up my accessory. You can make it super firm or keep it a little squishy so you can nestle into it.

Once it was in shape, the challenge was figuring out how to position the pillow against my wall (or window). There wasn’t an “ah ha” moment where I felt like I got it right. Nonetheless, it did provide great support not only for my head, but also for my arm. It’s versatile and has the potential to facilitate some snoozing, plus it deflates into the size of a soda can — allegedly. I just shoved it into my backpack without folding it up tightly.

Cabeau Evolution Classic Neck Pillow, $29.99

I have long stood by Cabeau’s Evolution Classic neck pillow. It was my go-to pick when I traveled constantly. I’d leave it behind in a cab, hotel lobby, Airbnb and inevitably buy a replacement. Breaking it out for this experiment felt like reuniting with an old friend.

As I had remembered, it is very plush, so there’s not much room for your neck to flop over. There’s an adjustable clamp in the front to make it even more secure, like a more-forgiving neck brace. You can roll it up to make it smaller to pack, although I lost the carrying sack long ago.

What I hate about the Evolution Classic is the fabric. It reminds me of a Greyhound bus seat. Cabeau makes another model, the Evolution Cool, that addresses overheating, but it’s $60. For someone prone to losing travel pillows, I am less inclined to splurge on the upgraded version.

The winner

After testing all of the travel pillows, I ultimately returned to the Evolution Classic for napping purposes. It’s not perfect, but it’s a safe and easy bet — no setting it up, no breaking it down. You just whip it out and snooze whether you’re stuck in economy, a train, the bus or a long, long car ride.

The harsh reality is that flying economy is unforgiving on the body, whether you are trying to sleep or not. You can alleviate some of the pain with accessories like a neck pillow. You just have to find the right one for you.

Video editing by Allie Caren.

More travel tips

Vacation planning: Start with a strategy to maximize days off by taking PTO around holidays. Experts recommend taking multiple short trips for peak happiness. Want to take an ambitious trip? Here are 12 destinations to try this year — without crowds.

Cheap flights: Follow our best advice for scoring low airfare, including setting flight price alerts and subscribing to deal newsletters. If you’re set on an expensive getaway, here’s a plan to save up without straining your credit limit.

Airport chaos: We’ve got advice for every scenario, from canceled flights to lost luggage. Stuck at the rental car counter? These tips can speed up the process. And following these 52 rules of flying should make the experience better for everyone.

Expert advice: Our By The Way Concierge solves readers’ dilemmas, including whether it’s okay to ditch a partner at security, or what happens if you get caught flying with weed. Submit your question here. Or you could look to the gurus: Lonely Planet and Rick Steves.

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