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Whether you're traveling by plane, train, or automobile, one problem remains constant: getting a bit of shuteye while traveling can be hugely difficult. Fortunately, a good neck pillow can help eradicate your napping nightmares.
The market offers a wide range neck pillow types, all made with different fillings and outer materials. Which one is right for you?
Here at BestReviews, our primary mission is to help consumers answer this type of question. We test items in our labs and in real-world situations, consult experts, and gather feedback from existing customers — all so we can bring you thorough, unbiased reviews to aid you in selecting the perfect products for your needs.
When you're ready to buy a new neck pillow, you'll find our five favorites listed in the product matrix above. But first, read on for our full neck pillow guide.
The first thing to decide is which type of neck pillow is right for you. Your sleeping style and any issues you normally face when sleeping while traveling will help you determine which type of neck pillow is right for you.
The classic U-shaped neck pillow is likely what you picture in your mind when you think of a neck pillow.
Pros: You’ll find plenty of affordable options and lots of color and material choices here. U-shaped neck pillows offer good support for the back and the sides of the neck.
Cons: These pillows can be bulky, and some people find their neck still drops forward onto their chest when using a U-shaped neck pillow.
Price: U-shaped neck pillows tend to cost between $5 and $40.
Some U-shaped neck pillows have raised areas at the curved end for additional head and neck support.
The top part of a J-shaped neck pillow goes around the back and side of your neck while the curved part of the J supports your chin.
Pros: J-shaped neck pillows support the your chin and prevent your head from falling forward. The configuration may reduce your chance of suffering neck pain.
Cons: These pillows are fairly large and take up a fair amount of luggage space.
Price: J-shaped neck pillows tend to cost between $15 and $50.
Because neck pillows can take up a lot of luggage space, you might wish to look for a neck pillow with tabs or fastenings that allow you to attach it to the outside of your suitcase.
360° neck pillows wrap around your entire neck or fasten at the front to offer extra support.
Pros: Wearing a 360° neck pillow lessens your chance of getting a sore neck and prevents your head from flopping forward as you sleep.
Cons: Some people find 360° neck pillows to be too restrictive. If you’re interested in a 360° neck pillow, you may prefer a wraparound model rather than one that fastens shut.
Price: 360° neck pillows tend to cost between $15 and $40.
Often, the more supportive neck pillows are the bulkiest ones, so you have to decide which matters more to you, comfort or space economy.
Cross-body neck pillows look a bit like giant, elongated apostrophes. The large, rounded part sits between the neck and shoulder (you rest your head there), and the long part sits across the body.
Pros: Cross-body neck pillows offer full lateral body support and prevent the user's head from falling forward. An inflatable cross-body neck pillow will pack down small.
Cons: These pillows may not be as comfortable as padded neck pillows, and they don’t offer 360° support.
Price: Cross-body neck pillows tend to cost between $25 and $50.
Some neck pillows are inflatable. These pillows are not always as plush or comfortable as filled pillows, but they do pack down small, which is good news for travelers.
In addition to deciding which type of neck pillow is right for you, take note of a particular pillow’s filling and outer material. Liking how the pillow looks is important, too.
The three most common neck pillow filling materials are microbeads, polyester hollow fiber, and memory foam.
Microbeads are made from either polystyrene or plastic. These are the same materials you’d find in a bean bag. Microbead-filled neck pillows are often the least-comfortable but the most affordable.
Polyester hollow fiber is the material you'd find in most bed pillows and throw pillows. It tends to be fairly comfortable as a filling for neck pillows, but it isn't the most supportive option and may get flat or lumpy over time.
Memory foam molds to the shape of your head and neck. It’s comfortable and supportive, but it can make you feel fairly hot since it's not breathable. It's also one of the most expensive filling options.
If you get a hole in the outer fabric of a microbead neck pillow, the beads will spill out and your pillow will need to be replaced. But other types of neck pillow fillings can survive the odd nick or tear to the outer layer.
One of the main benefits you expect from a pillow is comfort. If you'll be using your neck pillow for long journeys, you undoubtedly want it to have a soft, pleasant-feeling outer material.
Velour and polyester are two of the most comfortable outer materials for neck pillows.
Inflatable travel pillows are usually made of some form of plastic, but most have a plush layer that somewhat improves the texture. And some inflatable neck pillows have covers, though these must often be bought separately, increasing your overall cost.
While memory foam pillows can be bulky, they can usually be compressed somewhat to fit into a cramped bag.
Color might not be the most important aspect of a neck pillow, but most come in a range of colors, so you might as well pick one that appeals to you.
Some neck pillows even feature patterns, such as polka dots or chevron print, which can make you feel a bit more stylish as you travel.
Be careful not to choose a nice design over a quality pillow, however; if you do, you’ll likely regret it when you wake up with a sore neck.
You can find convertible microbead-filled neck pillows that transform from U-shaped pillows into regular rectangular pillows.
Consider how often you travel when selecting a neck pillow. If you're frequently a passenger on long journeys, it may be worth spending a little more on a top-of-the-range neck pillow. If you only travel long-haul once every year or so, you could probably get by with a cheaper neck pillow.
Some neck pillows have a removable cover, which means you can wash and replace it. If you use your neck pillow a lot, this is a nice feature to have.
If you suffer from allergies, look for neck pillows made from hypoallergenic materials.
You can find neck pillows that come with added extras — such as sleep masks and earplugs — to help you sleep better on your travels. Of course, you could purchase these items separately, too.
If you find yourself getting cold or being bothered by the light, consider a neck pillow with a built-in hood. It’s unusual but fairly practical!
While most people use neck pillows for traveling, they also come in handy for an impromptu nap when you don't have access to your bed.
Some neck pillows have a handy pocket on the side, allowing you to slide in your phone or MP3 player so you have it there for easy access.
Q. Which type of neck pillow is best for side sleepers?
A. As a general rule, side sleepers prefer to rest slightly tilted and with their head to one side when trying to sleep sitting up. Therefore, cross-body neck pillows generally appeal to side sleepers. A U-shaped pillow would also suffice, as long as the sleeper doesn’t have a tendency to tilt his or her head forward, as this could result in neck pain.
Q. Which neck pillow should I choose if my head tends to drop forward when I sleep sitting up?
A. Many people find their head falls forward onto their chest when they sleep sitting up, especially in seats that don't recline or recline very little. If this is the case for you, opt for a pillow that offers support at the front of your neck to prop up your chin. Look for 360° neck pillows, J-shaped neck pillows, or cross-body neck pillows.
Q. Will a neck pillow really help me sleep better while traveling?
A. Let's be honest here – no neck pillow is going to make you feel as comfortable as you would in your own bed. That said, most users find they can get more rest with a decent neck pillow than without. It can also help you avoid getting a sore neck, which is a common complaint when sleeping in a plane, train, car, or bus without any sort of pillow for neck support.
At BestReviews, we purchase every product we review with our own funds. We never accept anything from product manufacturers. Our goal is to be 100% objective in our analysis, and we do not want to run the risk of being swayed by products provided at no cost.