It’s 10 p.m. Hawaii time, and I’m trying to sleep on a Boeing 767. I’m upright. I’m stuffed in Economy. And my 8-year-old has his legs sprawled across mine because he can’t get comfortable sitting up like the rest of us poor schmucks. My husband, Rick, is across the aisle from me looking like he’s been sleeping comfortably for hours. At this moment, I hate him. It was so much easier to sit on an airplane 20 years ago. Back then, my body was younger. I had no back pain, no hip pain, no leg pain. No kid in my lap. Sometimes the company I worked for even upgraded me to First Class. Ahh, those were the days…
Fast forward to 2014, and all I really want is to drag my memory foam sleeping pad onto the plane and spread it out in the aisle with a goose down pillow and a patchwork quilt. Since I’m pretty sure the FAA would frown upon that, I’m resigned to filling up my carry-on backpack with an array of blow-up pillows and a handful of ibuprofen.
Travel Back Pillow Systems
I’ve spent quite a bit of time researching the best travel pillows and travel pillow “systems” out there. And quite a bit of time sitting in a tiny economy seat, trying to get comfortable. Right off the bat, I have to rule out those funny-looking pillows that require you to bend forward and rest your head on the seat-back tray. That might work for some (ahem — younger) people, but my spine can’t bend in that position for more than eight seconds. I need the kind of pillows that keep me upright and provide lumbar support.
I have found the best way for me to sleep on a plane, considering my compromised L-4 and L-5 discs, is to be reclined as much as possible, with good lumbar support, and my head cradled on either side. For me, the 2-in-1 Travelon 1st Class Sleeper ticks all these boxes, and is my #1 recommendation for people with back pain.
Here’s how it works:
Simply sit on the lower part of the Sleeper, spread the inflatable part up the back of the seat, and use the valve to blow it up behind you until it surrounds your back, neck and head with air-cushioned support. In this position, the valve remains at head height, which is handy if you need to make an occasional adjustment. Now, scoot your bottom close to the edge of the plane seat and stretch your legs in front of you. If you could see yourself from the side, your body would be almost straight, just tilted backward. Sort of like sleeping on a bed that’s been propped at a 45 degree angle. The “2” part of the 2-in-1 system comes in when you don’t want to sleep. Just deflate the Sleeper a bit and fold it in half for a nice, wide pillow that offers lumbar-only support.
I used this pillow in sleeping mode on that red-eye from Hawaii, which was a six-hour flight with about four hours of “sleep.” It worked pretty well. If I had a complaint, it would be that I needed some cushioning under my tookus, which got numb after awhile in that position. Perhaps I need to throw a small, flat memory foam pillow into my pack? (I’ll let you know the next time I take a transoceanic flight.)
Travel Back Pillows
But for all its positives, even packed tight, the Travelon Sleeper takes up a bit of space in the carry-on. It’s also a little heavier than most – slightly more than 1 lb. So if I’m not taking a red-eye, I usually just throw in a small back pillow for lumbar support. There are a lot of options available in this category, and we’ve tried a number of them. Obviously, the inflatable kinds are the best space-savers and offer the ability to change the amount of support they give you, but many people like the feel of memory foam and microbeads.
Whatever you like, below are a collection of some of the back pillows that we have used during our travels and what we think about them. Included is the Travelon 1st Class Sleeper (#4) for size comparison.
1- Original McKenzie Self-Inflating AirBack Pillow – Offers lots of support, but for mid-lumbar only. It’s not great for plane seats because it doesn’t inflate fat enough, but it might work well in a rental car.
2- Cocoon Ultralight AirCore Travel Pillow – This is my current favorite inflatable, especially for shorter hops. It’s lightweight, packs small and can be blown up for perfectly-sized, adjustable lumbar support. Our son has one, too, and it provides just enough cushioning for a small head nodding off against a window.
3- Microbead Cushie Pillow – Large, not adjustable and you can’t pack it down, but it is soft and comforms to your body. It’s shaped like a back pillow, but the beads eventually migrate downward, negating any lumbar support. I think it works better as a head pillow in a window seat.
4- 1st Class Sleeper by Travelon – An A-plus, all-in-one solution for back pain while traveling. See detailed description above.
5- Tempur-Pedic Memory Foam Back Pillow – Very dense, heavy, expensive and not great for traveling light. Thin enough for car travel, though, especially in a seat that has no lumbar adjustment. The pre-formed shape limits how much you can adjust it to your body shape, but if you really need your spine to remain upright and immobile, this one could work.
The BetterBack is one of my more recent acquisitions. It doesn’t quite fit in the travel back pillow category, but I have found it does have its place in the back pillow arsenal. While it’s marketed as a device to help improve your posture, I have used it on a two-day car trip (passenger only – it doesn’t work for driving because of the way it fits around your knees), and found that it kept me in an upright position and helped alleviate the multi-hour, sitting-induced travel slouch.
I still had to use a pillow behind me because the BetterBack is intended to pull you away from your chair, and who wants to sit that way in a car or airplane for long without a cushy pillow behind you?
As an added bonus, it doesn’t have to stay in the closet when you’re not on the road… you can use it pretty much anywhere and anytime you’ll be sitting for long periods. I find it useful when I spend hours at a computer. It even works in a cross-legged position, making it great for meditation. Around the house, mine tends to remain in its open, straps-hanging-out state, but the whole thing can be folded up into itself, turning it into a compact, portable, zippered pouch.
Travel Neck Pillows
Now that your back is happy, let’s talk about pillows with neck support.
We’ve had some success with the TravelRest Inflatable Travel Pillow that you sling over your shoulder and rest your head on. Rick likes it more than I do. I have a long neck, and it just doesn’t always work for me. But it’s soft and comfortable if you have the right body shape.
For an adjustable, non-inflatable pillow, the Travelmate Memory Foam Neck Pillow has a removable insert and comes highly recommended on Amazon.com. I tend to steer clear of the half donut pillows because my head falls forward when I sleep upright, not to the side, and I find the puffy part around the back of my neck to be annoying. We haven’t tried this one yet, but it is super popular, and has an excellent price. It also has an elastic strap for hooking around your luggage handles.
The Travel HoodiePillow is another half donut pillow with an added bonus, a neck pillow combined with… you guessed it… a hoodie to cover your head and eyes. As we discovered, it’s definitely sized for an adult; when our pre-teen son tried it, it pretty much covered his entire face. It also suffers from the puffy neck issue I mention above, which doesn’t seem to be a problem for everyone.
My main nit-picky complaint with this pillow is the valve. It doesn’t extend very far, and you have to put your entire mouth on the fabric to blow it up, which then gets wet. Yuck. It’s a great concept, though, and seems like it would be popular with the backpacker crowd.
Sleeping on an airplane is hard enough for most of us. To round out your fabulous overnight Economy experience, don’t forget the little things that will make your journey just a little bit more comfortable.
Travel blankets are very handy, like the lightweight, silky ones made by Dreamsacks…
as are a good pair of warm, fluffy socks.
Block out the rest of the passengers with ear plugs like these cotton/wax hybrids from Ohropax…
or something smaller like these TaoTronics noise cancelling earbuds.
A little Benadryl never hurt either, but you didn’t hear that from me!
You shouldn’t expect to sleep soundly on an airplane, unless you’re lucky, affluent, or clever enough to go First Class. And you shouldn’t expect to be refreshed and un-jet-lagged in your final destination. But with the right pillows and blankets in your carry-on, you should be able to bring along a few comforts of home and spend just a little time dreaming of your final destination.
Here are quick links to all the items mentioned above:
What do you think of these travel pillows? Have you tried any of them? Do you have your own favorites? Please leave us a comment below.