Some travelers are blessed with the ability to fall asleep in various modes of loud, cramped, or otherwise disruptive transport. Others struggle to catch zz’s outside of their own bed, unless the conditions are just right. Whether you consider yourself in the first category or the latter, you (and your neck) will certainly benefit from a high-quality travel pillow.
What to look for in a travel neck pillow
Before you purchase a neck pillow for travel, you’ll want to consider the type of sleeper you are on airplanes. Are you a window seat devotee who plans on sleeping against the side of the plane? Or will you need more neck support since you always chose the aisle seat? Most importantly: Will it fit into your purse or other personal item? These are the features you’ll want to keep in mind when shopping for a travel neck pillow:
Shape: The travel pillows that airlines provide are just a smaller version of regular pillows. But you’ll need something that provides more neck support when sleeping upright in a plane seat. The most common shape of travel pillow you’ll see is U-shaped, but in recent years, brands are coming up with other designs that wrap all the way around your neck or have clever infinity designs that can be worn multiple ways.
Material: The most supportive travel pillows are filled with memory foam, while inflatable pillows are the easiest to pack. But you’ll also want to look at what the outside of the pillow is made of. Fleece will keep you warm on cold planes, while silk will feel the most luxurious. Most importantly, look for a travel pillow with a removable cover so it’s easy to wash in between trips.
Packability: U-shaped pillows are the most ubiquitous type of travel pillow, but they generally don’t pack down, so you’ll have to clip it to the outside of your personal item so it doesn’t take up all the space inside. Inflatable travel pillows pack down the easiest but can also deflate during your flight. Look for travel pillows that aren’t filled with bulky materials or come with a stuff sack so you can compress memory foam versions.
How do you wear a travel neck pillow?
U-shaped travel pillows work better when you wear them with the bottom of the “U” in the front and the clasp in the back.
Didn’t know this? Turns out most people have been wearing them incorrectly all along. In July 2021, TikTok creator @sidneyraz’s video went viral (to date, it has 36.4 million views) when he demonstrated that “travel pillows go in front” as part of his “something I wish I knew before I was in my 30s” series. “Mmm, I’m so comfy,” he said as he showed how his neck and chin are more supported with the bulkiest part of the pillow beneath them.
This was also news to Lyndsey Matthews, AFAR’s senior commerce editor. But she recently tested it out with the Calpak neck pillow featured below and can confirm: It just works better.
Of course, this doesn’t apply to non-U-shaped travel pillows—like the Ostrichpillow Go, Trtl, and Infinity Pillow—that are meant to be worn in a specific way according to their unique designs.
Are travel pillows worth it?
If you’re traveling on a red-eye flight in economy, a travel pillow is a must-have travel accessory for any efforts at getting some shut-eye at 40,000 feet. However, it might not be worth packing a travel pillow for shorter flights during the day—especially if it’s a bulkier model that doesn’t pack down well.
To help you make the best purchase for the way you travel, these packable neck pillows are soft, cozy, and supportive in all the right ways. From memory foam versions to super-compact ones, here are the best travel neck pillows—in no particular order—to bring on your next flight.
1. Trtl Travel Pillow
Any qualms about looking silly instantly disappear as soon as you put this unique travel pillow to use.
“It feels a little strange putting it on the first time and sort of looks like a neck brace,” said Rosalie Tinelli, AFAR’s senior audience development manager, in her review of the Trtl. “But who cares how it looks when you’re getting peaceful sleep on an airplane and waking up with zero neck stiffness?”
It’s ergonomically designed to maximize neck support using a genius combination of a strategically placed internal padded frame and a soft fleece wrap (that’s machine washable) to comfortably cradle your head. As an added bonus, it weighs only half a pound and folds up way more compactly than your standard U-shaped pillow to slip easily in any carry-on. Trtl also makes a kids’ version—because you’re never too young to appreciate a good car ride nap.
2. Ostrichpillow Go Neck Pillow
- Buy now: $51 (regularly $60), ostrichpillow.com
- Exclusive discount code: Use code “AFARNECK15" from August 4 to September 30, 2023, to get 15 percent off
- Highlights: Memory foam, washable, comes with carrying case
Ergonomically designed to support the head and neck, this memory foam pillow features a Velcro band in the front that allows you to adjust the fit to support your chin just right—ideal for anyone who has experienced the dreaded forward head lurch while attempting to sleep sitting up. Encased in an easily removable and washable sleeve, the pillow compresses down to almost half its size into an included pouch for easy packability.
3. Infinity Pillow
- Buy now: $45, infinitypillow.co; amazon.com
- Highlights: Can be worn multiple ways, washable, includes strap for packing
Essentially an infinity scarf with a puffy microfiber filling, this travel pillow is the most versatile option out there. To use it as a neck pillow, loop it twice around your neck and adjust it by pulling on one loop to provide more support. If you’d rather sleep against the window or on the tray table, just roll the pillow up and rest against it. Need lumbar support? Fold the loop in half and prop it behind your lower back.
It’s available in eight different colors of soft bamboo fabric, and you can throw the whole thing in the washing machine after your trip. Though it’s one of the bulkier pillows available, it does come with a Velcro strap so you can roll it up and secure it. You can also purchase a travel case made specifically for this pillow, but that will cost you an extra $13.
4. Calpak Silk Neck Pillow and Eye Mask Set
- Buy now: $38 (was $95), calpak.com
- Highlights: Silk, washable, comes with sleep mask and carrying case
Swathed in hypoallergenic silk that’s removable and washable, this travel neck pillow is paired with a matching sleep mask with blackout lining for extra security against unwelcome lights and jet lag. It also comes in a transparent carry bag that slips effortlessly on to your suitcase handle, which beats letting it hang exposed off the side of your luggage.
5. Coop Original Travel and Camp Pillow
- Buy now: $40, coophomegoods.com
- Highlights: Memory foam, washable, comes with carrying case
A shrunken-down version of the signature adjustable pillow from bedding brand Coop, this portable pillow is ideal for camping and travel situations that allow for more reclined slumbering positions. It’s filled with a memory foam–microfiber blend that can be removed or added to fit your sleep-maximizing needs, and the removable cover is crafted in Coop’s proprietary Lulltra fabric that’s derived from ecoconscious bamboo. The whole thing is machine washable—just separate the cover from the inner pillow to wash either one. If you’re headed somewhere rainy, get the water- and dirt-resistant camping pillowcase for added protection against the elements.
6. HoodiePillow Inflatable Travel Hoodie Pillow
Think of this as your go-to sweatshirt in travel pillow form. Available in five hues (we’re partial to classic charcoal gray), this inflatable pillow can almost blend in with your travel uniform while providing some much-needed sleep support. And once you’ve reached your final destination, simply deflate and pop it in your bag. Our favorite part is the cozy attached hood, which doubles as a subtle “do not disturb” sign that’s ideal for warding off chatty seatmates and piercing overhead lights alike.
Lyndsey Matthews contributed reporting to this article. This article was published in 2021; it was updated on August 10, 2023, with current information.