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The 8 Best Neck Pillows for Falling Asleep on Any Trip, According to a Sleep Science Coach

Technology + Gear Airports + Flying
by Eben Diskin Mar 23, 2022

There are a few things that scream, “look at me, I’m a tourist who’s never left my zip code before”: The Hawaiian shirt and sunhat outfit, the selfie stick, the fanny pack — you get the point. You might think, as I once did, that a big, bulky neck pillow belongs on that list too. After all, it’s one extra thing to carry, looks a bit clumsy, and doesn’t really give you that much support anyway, right? Well, if those things are true, it’s only because you don’t have the right pillow.

Neck pillows are a great tool to help get to sleep while traveling. They also help maintain good posture. Neck pillows support your neck so your body doesn’t have to strain your muscles while trying to hold the weight of your head when you relax. Don’t just take it from me — neck pillows also come highly recommended by sleep experts.

For an expert take on finding the best neck pillow, we caught up with Logan Foley, a certified sleep science coach at the Sleep Foundation. Foley tests sleep products for a living (you can learn more about the Sleep Foundation’s methodology for testing here, and see the full list of where the Sleep Foundation landed on travel pillows here). She describes her job as someone who can’t replace a doctor, but can give strategies, tips, and schedules to help you sleep better.

We spoke with Foley to learn all about the ins and outs of how to catch some much-needed Z’s while traveling with the proper neck pillow (hint: stuffing a pillow case with clothes won’t cut it).

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Matador Network: What’s the most important thing when looking for a neck pillow?

Logan Foley: When looking at and evaluating travel pillows, the most important thing for me is support, meaning how well it holds the head up when sleeping upright. There are other factors we look at as well including materials, cost, and customer service.

How does one find the perfect neck pillow?

Travel pillows come in many shapes and sizes, and it’s really not one size fits all. Some people prefer the convenience of a blow up or collapsible pillow for travel, although I’ve found those are not the most comfortable options. The best option is the one that works for you.

A good neck pillow will have ample support and won’t wear down over time. Travel pillows that are filled with small beads may feel comfortable at first, but I have found they collapse after a few uses.

What has being a sleep science coach taught you about how to sleep while traveling?

Sleeping while traveling is always tough, and even being a sleep coach doesn’t mean I’m immune to the hardship of trying (and failing) to fall asleep in the middle seat. One trick I’ve learned: Always try to get a window seat if you can. Worst case scenario, you can lean against the vehicle’s side or put your pillow against it.

Things to bring:

  • A travel pillow
  • An eye mask
  • Some kind of noise canceling device (headphones, earplugs, etc.)
finding the best travel pillow

Photo: AnnaTamila/Shutterstock

Can you break down the main types of neck pillows, and what they’re best for?

There are many types of travel pillows on the market.

The main ones are:

  • U-shaped: These are the typical travel pillows you will see in the airport shops. They are shaped like a U and fit around your neck to lay on your shoulders, providing good spine alignment. These are a good option for most sleepers, but can be difficult to pack due to their bulk.
  • Wrap: Wrap pillows are relatively new on the market and may make you feel a bit odd on the first use. An example of a wrap pillow is the Ostrichpillow Go Neck Pillow, which is the main wrap pillow I have personally tested. It wraps around your neck, supporting your head much higher than a typically U-shaped travel pillow, which allows your head to tilt to one side. While your neck won’t be at a severe angle, having your neck titled for a long period of time may cause discomfort. This pillow is very packable and folds into a tight ball when not in use.
  • Rectangular: Rectangular travel pillows look like the traditional pillows you use on your bed, but are typically lightweight and smaller. These will not support your head if you are sleeping upright, but are a good option if you’re looking for a pillow to use once you get to your destination.

Which neck pillow do you most highly recommend?

My top choice is the Cushion Lab Ergonomic Travel Neck Pillow. It has great neck support to promote spinal alignment, is made up of memory foam that won’t sag with use, and folds up tightly for easy storage.

What would you say to someone who insists they can just recline the airplane seat and sleep that way?

I would say if you’re able to sleep comfortably in a reclined airplane seat, then you’re lucky! Again, these pillows are not a one size fits all product. If you have no trouble sleeping, you probably won’t be shopping for a travel pillow anyway. The one thing I would say is if you can sleep in a plane with no problem, but are waking up with neck pain, you may want to look into getting a pillow to protect your neck, especially if you’re traveling often.

The 8 best neck pillows, according to the Sleep Foundation

After rigorous rounds of testing, here are the travel neck pillows that the Sleep Foundation recommends.

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