Travel pillows need to strike a tricky balance: not supportive enough and you’ll end up with a crick in your neck, too big and stiff you’ll, er, end up with a crick in your neck. They also need to be compact, lightweight and easy to clean — no small feat for a humble travel accessory!
CNN Underscored spent weeks testing 10 of the most popular and highest-rated travel pillows on the market. We evaluated pillows of all different designs and materials on both comfort and build to determine the best travel pillow for trips via plane, bus or car. And while many of the pillows we tested had their merits, there was one clear winner:
The Cabeau Evolution S3 is the Goldilocks of travel pillows: We found it firm enough to support our head and neck, soft enough to fall asleep on and perfectly portable, thanks to its being made of springy memory foam that enables you to compress it to half its size.
Best travel pillow overall: Cabeau Evolution S3 ($39.99; amazon.com)
The Cabeau Evolution S3 updates the standard U-shaped travel pillow design with raised sides that gently cradled our head and neck when we used it. The S3’s flat back also rested relatively flush against our seat, preventing our head from uncomfortably jutting forward, while an adjustable front clasp let us slightly tighten or loosen the neck opening to our liking, which makes it possible to tailor the pillow to travelers of different sizes.
We found that the S3 works best when leaning your head to the side or as a cushion against a solid surface, but it still offered decent chin support. Its two built-in straps attached to nearly any seatback we tested on, keeping the pillow in place and helping to lessen whiplash during sudden stops or turbulence.
The S3’s memory foam manages to be soft, springy and supportive all at once; it’s firm enough that it kept our head from slouching too far to the side but not so firm that it dug into our cheeks and ears (unlike another popular memory foam model we tested). Of course, memory foam, however cushy, is never going to be the lightest or most breathable material around. And while we didn’t overheat while using the Cabeau, it also wasn’t the coolest pillow we tested.
That said, the S3’s cover is a definite upgrade from Cabeau’s original Evolution pillow. Whereas that older model’s cover is made entirely from velour, the S3’s is made from a more breathable, quick-dry fabric that did indeed feel cooler to the touch. The S3’s cover is also fully removable and machine-washable — a must when it comes to something that touches highly trafficked surfaces like airplane seats. Actually getting that cover on and off the S3’s memory foam insert proved trickier than we’d have liked, but it held up perfectly well in a standard wash cycle.
The comfiest travel pillow in the world is useless if it’s too big to travel with, which is why one of the best things about the Evolution S3 is the fact that it compresses down to half its size. All you have to do is roll the pillow up like a cinnamon bun and then stuff it inside the included carrying case. Doing so took a bit of elbow grease and was easiest on a solid surface, but we think that’s a fair price to pay given how much space it ends up saving.
The S3’s carrying case, in turn, is another major upgrade from the original Evolution pillow and was far and away our favorite case of the bunch. It clips directly to your luggage and is made from ripstop fabric that’ll keep your pillow clean and protected until you’re ready to use it.
How we tested
The most important things to look for when shopping for travel pillows are comfort and portability: You need something that’s going to offer real support without taking up a bunch of space in your luggage (thus defeating the purpose of being a travel pillow). With these considerations in mind, we settled on two major rubrics for our pillow testing criteria: comfort and build. We then had one short tester and one tall tester evaluate how comfortable and supportive the pillows felt when behind our heads, under our chins and in the crooks of our necks. We gauged how easy the pillows were to transport by rolling them up, smooshing them down and packing each into its carrying case (if included). We attached those carrying cases to our luggage and noted how doing so impacted our mobility. We also noted how the pillows’ covers felt against our skin and then slipped those same covers off and put them through a machine wash cycle. Finally, we factored in the cost and looks of each pillow to determine their overall value and to choose the best pillow for most travelers.
We used the following specific categories and subcategories for testing:
- Behind head comfort/support: We noted how comfortable and supportive the pillow felt when placed around the neck and/or behind the head.
- Side comfort/support: We noted how comfortable and supportive the pillow felt when leaning our necks to the side as well as when leaning against a hard surface (as a traveler would be able to do when sitting in a window seat). We also noted how simple it was to readjust the pillows while resting on them (i.e., to switch sides).
- Front comfort/support: We noted how comfortable and supportive the pillow felt when letting our heads droop forward and resting our chins on it.
- Fit: We noted if each pillow fit people of different heights equally well and if they were adjustable at all.
- Portability: We noted each pillow’s size, whether it included a strap or bag for easy toting and if it could be compressed to take up less space. While some pillows were indeed heavier than others (looking at you, memory foam models), we found that a few extra ounces weren’t noticeable when carting the pillows around. Overall size, case quality and the ability to attach pillows to our luggage made a much more meaningful difference in portability.
- Fabric: Nearly all the pillows featured a soft, velvety shell made from a velour or fleece-like material, but there was a range in terms of plushness. We noted how each pillow felt against our skin.
- Washability: Given that travel pillows touch your face, they need to be easy to clean. We also noted how difficult it was to get the pillows’ cases on and off when necessary.
- Breathability: We noted whether the pillows felt breathable and cool to the touch as well as if they tended to trap heat.
- Appearance: We made note of each pillow’s overall look and gauged how likely they were to attract funny looks.
Other travel pillows we tested
Jensens Inventions J-Pillow ($24.95; amazon.com)
The J-Pillow is a fantastically comfortable option with a big caveat: It works best if you’ve got a window seat. Because the J-Pillow doesn’t attach directly to your neck or your seat, it tended to slip around unless it was wedged against a hard surface. The J-Pillow was also too bulky for us to easily stuff into a carry-on bag or personal item.
While a less versatile option than our top pick, the J-Pillow’s lack of neck attachment might actually be a plus for those who find regular U-shaped travel pillows restrictive. And when we could lean against a hard surface, the J-Pillow offered excellent head, neck and front-facing/chin support. Like the Cabeau S3, it comes with a sturdy (though less compact) travel case that clips to your luggage. There also aren’t any covers or zippers to deal with; the entire pillow can be tossed in the wash.
Turtl Pillow ($39.99; amazon.com)
The Turtl is essentially a padded neck brace and was the most portable pillow we tested. It folds down relatively flat, taking up almost no space in your luggage, and one of our taller testers loved its sturdy support. That said, the Turtl proved far too big for our shorter tester, and both testers could feel the plastic brace in the middle poking through its padding. The Turtl was also very warm (which makes sense, given that you’re basically wearing a wool scarf), and we didn’t love that you have to fully unwrap and rewrap the pillow around your neck if you want to switch the side you’re sleeping on.
Cabeau Evolution Classic Pillow ($29.99; bedbathandbeyond.com)
Cabeau’s original Evolution model is a very decent travel pillow and cheaper than our top pick. That said, it lacks the S3’s straps, more breathable cover and far superior case. In a choice between the two, the S3 is definitely worth the minor bump in price.
Therm-a-Rest Compressible Travel Pillow ($24.95; backcountry.com)
As a lightweight option to toss in your bag for camping or backpacking trips, Therm-a-Rest’s compressible pillow is an excellent choice. It compresses down into a compact roll and is both supportive and comfortable when used like a normal pillow (i.e., when lying down). But because it doesn’t wrap around your neck or have any straps to keep it in place, it’s not a great option for trying to rest while sitting upright.
Bcozzy Chin-Supporting Travel Pillow ($29.97; amazon.com)
Bcozzy’s popular pillow didn’t offer us nearly enough neck support, and the material, while soft to the touch, felt less luxurious than our top pick. On the plus side, it’s relatively small and lightweight, and can be folded in half for more support if you’ve got a surface to lean against (it’s prone to slipping around otherwise).
Travelrest Nest Ultimate Memory Foam Travel Pillow ($39.95; amazon.com)
Travelrest’s bestseller is a well-made and supremely soft pillow, but its memory foam proved too stiff in our testing, and its sides were so tall that they pushed uncomfortably against our cheeks. This stiffness also made it difficult to compress the pillow into its carrying case. We prefered the squishier memory foam and shorter side profile of the Cabeau models.
Huzi Design Infinity Pillow ($39.90; amazon.com)
If you know you’ll have a hard surface to lean on, the Huzi can be finagled into a very comfortable position. It requires an illustrated guide to do so, however, and on its own doesn’t offer very much neck support. And while we loved (loved!) its silky, breathable bamboo fabric, the Huzi doesn’t come with a carrying case and took up a ton of space in our luggage.
Cloudz Microbead Travel Neck Pillow ($10.85; amazon.com)
The ubiquitous microbead pillow is lightweight and inexpensive, but its low profile leaves much to be desired when it comes to actual neck support. We didn’t love the feel and sound of the microbeads when pressed against our ears, and this pillow also doesn’t come with a carrying case. Given that it also isn’t machine-washable, this probably isn’t a pillow you’d want to rub your face against long term. We also found that it tended to flatten out a bit with continued use over the weeks that we tested.
AirComfy Ease Travel Pillow ($19.99; amazon.com)
If you want a very lightweight and portable lumbar pillow, the AirComfy Ease isn’t a bad choice. If you want a versatile travel pillow, this is simply too stiff, too small and too slippery to be of use. It conveniently attaches to the back of any seat for extra support, but it just isn’t very comfortable. And while inflatability is cool in concept, in practice it feels like trying to sleep on a fuzzy balloon.
Read more from CNN Underscored’s hands-on testing: