When my husband told me the flights to Vietnam spanned roughly 24 hours — even longer on the return — I went into brief panic mode. Never being one to easily sleep in transit, I feared I’d be a grisly companion on the way with murderous jet lag once we landed. So I set out to find some coping mechanisms to maximize the possibility of getting at least a little shut-eye en route and decided it was time to finally invest in some kind of travel pillow.
Mindful of packing light and easy, since our two-week trip had us on the move nearly every day, I thought I’d look into what’s out there besides the ubiquitous U-shaped memory foam and bead-filled pillows. Turns out, there are some really comfortable, versatile, and cleverly designed options, from inflatables to bendables to fiberfill loops.
Therm-a-Rest Air Neck Pillow — For the truly space-conscious traveler, this one is tops. A high-quality U-shaped inflatable, it is ultralight, packing down into a sack that can slide into a pocket. Yet its soft and stretchy brushed polyester cover allows it to plump up easily for customizable support, with an air valve that lets you adjust while you’re wearing. This one got passed around our travel group, even in the car. $29.95, www.thermarest.com (If you have the space, the company also makes a surprisingly plush and comfy compressible compact pillow that can service serious bedtime needs as well, yet it mashes down and rolls up to the size of a canteen.)
Infinity Pillow — This one turned out to be my favorite for its versatility. The roughly yard-long continuous loop is bulkier than a simple neck pillow, but it can be used in so many configurations, not only behind the neck, but also as lumbar support, depending on individual needs — the difference between body shapes and airplane seats can be marked. You can twist, wrap, or bunch, but I found myself wearing it looped around both arms, part of it supporting behind the neck and part across the lower back. (Some people even configure it to also mask noise and light.) For transport, it compacts easily into a smallish stuff sack, banded bundle, or simply loop it around your neck and waltz on board. Washes beautifully in the machine. $39.00, www.infinitypillow.co
trtl — The Scottish-made trtl “pillow” feels more like a lightweight scarf with built in neck support. You can position it with support on either side or under the chin, and, according to an independent study by the University of Dundee, it is scientifically proven to hold the head in a better ergonomic position than the standard U-shaped pillow. Made of soft washable fleece, it’s unusual, but quite comfy, very portable, and easy to use, with Velcro fastening tape for secure positioning. $29.99, www.trtltravel.com (And by the way, the company makes fabulous compression socks, especially recommended for long flights.)
Dot&Dot Twist Memory Foam Travel Pillow — This versatile pillow is a long bendable foam tube that can be formed into the standard U shape, or whatever suits your needs, including an S shape to support both neck and face. Or you can pop it behind your back, under the legs, etc. The company even claims it can be curved to help cradle a baby, and I found it a terrific support for reading a book in bed. It’s bigger and heavier than the usual foam pillows, but bent in half, it snaps together for easy connection to the handle of a suitcase. $23.99, www.shop.dotdottravel.com
AirComfy Multipurpose Travel Pillow — With its unusual butterfly shape and easy fill valve, this lightweight portable pillow fully inflates to provide excellent support cradling the arch of the neck (though the side wings might not offer enough structure if your neck tends to flop in sleep). Lightly inflated for a lower profile, it provides great lumbar cushioning to slip behind the back. It has a light inner layer of foam, yet compresses into a small package — packsack and luggage clip included. The velvety soft velour cover zips off for easy cleaning, and an adjustable elastic strap lets you secure it to your seat wherever you need it. $19.99, www.aircomfytravel.com
Travelrest Ultimate Travel Pillow — This inflatable cushion may not be for everyone, but it is notable not just for comfortable support but also for innovative design. Ergonomically shaped like a long comma, it cradles the neck and gives the arms a little something to hug. The sling strap lets you attach it to your seat or wear it like a crossbody messenger bag. Rolls up for easy packing. $29.95, www.travelrest.net
TUMI Patrol Packable Travel Puffer Jacket — Though I didn’t have an opportunity to try this one out, I thought the concept was genius. This water-resistant down jacket compresses to fit into a hidden pouch in the collar that effectively converts it into a U-shaped neck pillow. Going from frigid Boston to warmer climes, you can wear it to the airport, then take it off and sleep on it. Love it! $195, www.tumi.comKaren Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.