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My greatest weakness as a travel professional? I can’t sleep on planes.

If you’re like me, then you know the feeling of dread that washes over you when you realize that nothing stands between you and an incredible trip to Europe (Asia, South America, etc.) but 12 hours of red-eye misery, cramped in coach class, a hard, unyielding armrest digging into your hips, head banging against the windowshade, legs going numb as you try to contort yourself in the one miracle position that will bring on sleep. And you almost don’t go.

But if you love travel as much as I do, you suck it up and go. In a desperate attempt to make long-haul flights more bearable and find a miracle cure for the sleepless flight, I took four travel pillows with me on a recent trip from San Francisco to Germany and the Netherlands. I chose products that seemed unusual or intriguing. Here’s how they ranked. (Spoiler alert: I barely slept a wink.)

Kuhi Comfort Travel Pillow
kuhi comfort travel pillowThe Pillow: The Kuhi Comfort Travel Pillow is not your standard-shaped neck pillow. It’s made of two soft cylindrical balls, attached by a strap. The selling point is that you can use it multiple ways. Turn it one way and the curved part is by your neck; flip it around and the flat part is against you. Straighten the strap and you can tuck one end over your shoulder and cuddle the other, put it behind you for back support and place it in your lap to rest a book.

The Flight: I was pretty excited about this one — the design is original and the materials feel high-end. To my disappointment, the fit is just off. The strap is too short and the balls are (ahem) too big. When the pillow was around my neck, I felt surrounded by material. Trying alternate positions didn’t work — the pillow is too bulky for good back support and too short to sling across your body. The final blow: Because the pillow isn’t inflatable, you have to carry it around in its little stuff sack, which attaches nicely to the handle of your rollaboard but dangles awkwardly if you’re carrying a backpack or other bag.

Final Verdict: I wanted to love it, but I just couldn’t make it work.

10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

Cabeau Evolution Pillow
cabeau evolution pillowThe Pillow: The Evolution Pillow is an enhanced version of the standard, plush (non-inflatable) neck pillow. It’s made of memory foam and has raised side supports to cradle your neck — or you can wear the pillow backwards to support your chin. It even has a pocket for your MP3 player. It comes with a travel case and memory-foam earplugs.

The Flight: I was the least excited about the Evolution Pillow, but it was actually really comfortable. I used this one while dozing on an early-morning flight, and I did appreciate the extra head support, the soft material and the absence of the inflatable-pillow plastic smell. However, I would like to see a step-by-step video of how the designers scrunched the pillow down to a quarter of its size and fit it into the stuff sack. I couldn’t even get the entire pillow into the bag, so I couldn’t use the Velcro straps to attach it and it just dangled awkwardly, threatening to fall out.

Final Verdict: Until someone can show me how to make this pillow travel-friendly, I’m sticking with my blow-up model. (Editor’s Note: Cabeau recently offered us the following instructions for packing the pillow.)

EZ Sleep Travel Pillow
ez sleep travel pillowThe Pillow: Imagine a miniature version of an inflatable pool mat that you could stand up like a wall between airplane seats, attached by a Velcro strap around the arm rest. What you see in your mind is the EZ Sleep Travel Pillow. The concept is to create a support structure for you to lean against as you catch some in-flight Z’s, so your body isn’t flopping about like a rag doll.

The Flight: It hit me in the airport — if I have the aisle seat and someone else has the window, I may be too embarrassed to set this inflatable wall up. It’s big and it encroaches into shared territory. Luckily for me, I had two seats to myself. The pillow does not seem as sturdy as the claim — if I really fell asleep on it, I don’t believe it would hold my weight without collapsing onto my seatmate. What it was great for was putting against the armrest or the window to create a soft surface to lean against — preventing hard metal and plastic plane parts from bruising my body as I tossed and turned.

Final Verdict: If you and a family member are sharing adjoining seats, by all means, set this pillow up. Otherwise, it might not be worth packing the EZ Sleep to use in conjunction with another pillow for your head or neck.

Top Tips for Sleeping on Planes

Travelrest Travel Pillow
travelrest travel pillowThe Pillow: Here’s a new one — an inflatable pillow shaped like a banana, or possibly an apostrophe. It’s larger on the top, so you can rest your head, and then tapers into a slight curve (this part slings across your body). A long string at the bottom lets you attach the two ends to secure the pillow around you or your airplane seat.

The Flight: This pillow was hands down my favorite. I contorted my body into all sorts of positions trying to sleep across two airplane seats, and whether I was sitting up or half-lying down, the pillow cradled my head and gave me something to wrap my arms around so they didn’t just dangle uselessly. The only downside was the plasticky smell that plagues all inflatable travel pillows, though perhaps that would go away after a few uses.

Final Verdict: While it didn’t help me sleep, the Travelrest pillow made my attempts more comfortable. I’m keeping this one and will definitely use it again.

– written by Erica Silverstein

43 Responses to “Travel Pillow Challenge: The Quest for Good Airplane Sleep”

  1. James King says:

    Sleeping on an airplane is one of the great mysteries of life. How to to do it? Inflatable pillow, 1 beer, eye mask, overstuffed pillow, 6 beers, sominex and Bose headphones. I have used them all. While I can rest better I can not sleep.

    • Adam says:

      You can generally sleep when you are so exhausted and frustrated at not sleeping. Usually 10 hours into a 14 hour flight in my experience, lol.

  2. Yesenia Villanua says:

    Would Love The Cabeau Evolution Pillow! & Promise to figure out how to fit it in the stuff sack!

  3. Pretraveller says:

    Thanks for a very good review of the different travel pillow options. It is interesting to see that there are many creative options available these days.

    I have a U-shaped inflatable pillow which has a flat section across the back, and it is just the sides which inflate. This pillow has been good value across many flights so far.

  4. Jean says:

    The travelrest inflatable pillow. I have two pillows at home. One u-shaped which is too bulky and hurts my neck. The other is just a small pillow which I use but hard to keep in place.

  5. Esther Rousso says:

    Would love to win the Cabeau Evolution Pillow. I have travel pillows all over the place and they haven’t really worked very well. What helps the most is about 5mg of Valium and Bose earphones. The pillows usually leave me with a sore neck, o am ready to keep on trying

  6. Donna Collier says:

    The Cabeau Evolution Pillow. I will make it fit!!!

  7. Donna Collier says:

    The Cabeau Evolution Pillow. I will figure out how to make it work!

  8. Jan says:

    Right now I carry 2 small pillows and a blanket on every flight trying to make myself comfortable enough to sleep. I want to give the Cabeau pillow a try. If the only downside is how to store it, I will buy my own stuff sack. I’ve been searching for a pillow that will support my neck when in the aisle or middle seat. As for the window seat, I suspect only a full size body pillow would fill that cavernous void and make it comfortable enough to catch some zzzzs.

  9. Catherine Luce says:

    I would love to test out the Kuhio pillow. I ahve never been able to sleep on a plan in coach. I hope you continue to investigate new propducts and share results with us

  10. Betty Zamost says:

    Finding the right travel pillow is an individual quest. I use several depending on the type of plane and the length of the trip. I personally like those that are soft and not the inflatable hard ones.

  11. I would love the The Evolution Pillow. I have bought two different soft type pillows to use on our next “Red Eye” flight. We will take turns trying each of the pillows in hope each one will like a different one. I think, that’s way they make so many options.

  12. nancy hobson says:

    I have had a cervical fusion so it is very important to keep my neck supported or I end up with a mingrane headache. I use my husband most of the time along with my pillow but nothing really helps me sleep.

  13. KT says:

    I’m a stomach sleeper, so I bring along a beach ball and inflate it either fully or partially depending whether I’m using my tray to support it or my lap. I can’t sleep with a neck pillow. The only drawbacks are: your seatmates laughing at you and your face sticking to the plastic. It works for me, anyway.

  14. Lanore Johnson says:

    I would enjoy the Travelrest pillow because it would take up less room in my luggage.

  15. Paul Dodson says:

    First class. Works every time. A sleeping pill, champagne, and lay down flat and sleep like a baby (if only I had a pillow).

  16. Patrick Condon says:

    I have several blow up pillows which I think are great as I can adjust the firmness to suit. I also swing in the wings on the headrest to ensure my head stays on the headrest.
    I also am a firm believer in soft earplugs, eye coverings and 5 mg of melatonin.
    Work out how much sleep you want to get, time it so that your get the amount you want before they wake you 2 hours before arriving at your destination. Don’t get involved in the movies but read a book and of course a glass or two of Red doesn’t hurt.
    I always manage 7 hours sound sleep on long flights in cattle class with this method.

  17. Laurel says:

    I like the travelrest pillow the best. I can deal with plastic, and it looks like I can tuck my blanket around underneath and it would keep my shoulders warm.

  18. Tom says:

    The Cabeau! It looks like it might actually keep my chin from bouncing off my chest when I sleep. And I promise I’ll figure out how to re-stuff the sack and send you video.

  19. Cindy says:

    Thanks for the review! I would love to try the Travelrest pillow.

  20. Susan Dougherty says:

    I like a challenge so I’d like to give the Kuhi Comfort Travel Pillow a try. I’m short and small, so it might fit me well. Also, I sew, so if needed, I could attach the balls to each other with a longer strap to give more spaciousness. I promise to report back!

  21. MC says:

    I really do wonder WHY it seems so difficult to design a good travel pillow! The best I have been able to do is the standard U-shaped one, under-inflate it so my neck will not be flexed forward, but then I don’t have good side support. Or, in a window seat, I double it up on itself & prop my head against the wall, which nowadays is often 8″ away from the edge of the seat.
    I agree – from the photos, the Travelrest pillow looks best (but odd, & possibly a bit hot too, as it lies across the front of your body), so yes, I wld love to get this pillow. — Nice review, thanks.

  22. MC says:

    nice tips, but the wings at the head rest only work if ur tall enough to use them.

  23. Mae Strutt says:

    Hey I am Woman and I would like the Cabeau. You would be surprised
    how well a woman can stuff it. Ha. Mae

  24. Dorinda says:

    Anything to make sleeping more comfortable. We take a lot of red eyes.

  25. judy dougherty says:

    I’d love to try the Cabeau travel pillow. I sleep on a memory foam mattress and pillow and they have contributed to many, many good nights sleep, so the idea that a travel pilow would be constructed from memory foam is appealing. I have a trip upcoming that I’d guarantee would give it a workout!

  26. judy dougherty says:

    Here’s to good travel pillows!

  27. Jenna Wallace says:

    I would like to try the Cabeau.
    Ever try one of those lap pillows?

  28. Ken R says:

    the Cabeau Evolution Pillow…
    WITH instructions!

  29. Michele Staczek says:

    I would love a Kuni Pillow. I will be on a coast to coast flight soon and it would be most helpful! Thanks!

  30. B Thompson says:

    I do the beach ball thing as well. Always self conscience about it until I wake up right before landing and I’m all fresh! Would love to try out the Cabeau tho! Thanks for the reviews, always helpful.

  31. Nancy W James says:

    Kuhi Comfort Travel Pillow, please! It looks like it would stay in place, while you fall asleep … only to wake in a new land to explore.

  32. Carolyn says:

    Evolution sounds a reasonable sort of thing. I think sleep in flight is an urban legend though. Even in the one time in business class, sleep eluded me. Alas, it’s economy for me.

  33. Kathy Jensen says:

    I have an inflatable pillow that doesn’t work well for me. I’d like to try the Cabeau Evolution Pillow.

  34. Jessica says:

    My husband travels at least once a month for his job and he’s currently searching for a great travel pillow. Would love for him to try the Kuhi Comfort Travel pillow, for my amusement mainly. Thanks for sharing your advice.

  35. jeff says:

    All of the photos show the sleeper with their head against the seat headrest. I’m 6’5″ tall and my head and shoulder are usually above the seat head rest making all of these pillows useless.

  36. Sue Holland says:

    Hi Erica,

    I would love you to try the TravelComfort Travel pillow, apparently very new in USA, then I found out it comes from Aust. I got mine on holidays in USA recently at Walkabout Travel Gear in CA, it is really different and I got 5hrs sleep on the way home, never heard of !! It is the only one which completely supports my head.
    Kind regards Sue

  37. a little pillow to stop the neck strain, a little pillow comfort to stretch my legs on …that is a comfort on an 8 hour plane ride ..oh! for a little buddy like that Kuhi Comfort Travel Pillow next to me. closing my eyes its sleepy time.

  38. Gail says:

    I wish I had one. Been looking for the right pillow for my trip to Paris.

  39. Larry says:

    Now I have seen it all an “inflatable pillow shaped like a banana” used to support my neck and head.

  40. Leslie Walden says:

    I haven’t found a perfect one yet, but I’m still trying. But I’m not sure I can blame a pillow for not being able to sleep on a long, cramped, flight. Especially when I’m excited on my way to a new place, or when I’m too tired on my way home.

  41. Cara Hunt says:

    I found a great travel pillow its called a sleep scarf by trtl – got it online at their website, it was so supportive and lightweight so loved it. I take it everywhere with me!

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