Against the Travel Neck Pillow

This useless accessory has one job—which it fails at.

A businessman asleep on public transport using a neck pillow
That bliss you see? It's a lie. (Simon Marcus Taplin / Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic)

Is there a pillow as useless as the U-shaped travel neck pillow? There is not. This half-ovate, toilet-seat cover-esque object reigns as King of Travel Accessories, while failing miserably at its intended sole use. It is a scourge for reasons that I will outline in this essay and of which, by the end, I will convince you without question.

This past summer, I had occasion to travel by plane with such a pillow—memory foam in a pleasant maroon—and did so thoughtlessly, stuffing it into my carry-on as if it were my passport, or a book to ignore while watching, God willing, episodes of Sex and the City on the tiny television. When it came time to attempt sleep I, like many of my fellow passengers, dutifully placed the U-shaped pillow on my shoulders. As my neck protruded an uncomfortable distance from the seat back, I let my head fall to my left. No good. I let my head fall to my right. No good. I scrunched the pillow up, so it was more like a tiny, oddly-shaped normal pillow, but the damn thing kept bouncing back to U-shape, which, by design, has a hole in it, so that was definitely no good.

This damn pillow was no good.

It might come as a shock to you to hear someone speak the truth about U-shaped neck pillows so plainly, as this sort of pillow has been allowed to exist unchecked since it was patented in 1929. I understand and will allow you a moment to compose yourself. Have you taken it? Okay. The U-shaped neck pillow is an unsupportive abomination; a pernicious, deceitful, recklessly ubiquitous travel trinket lulling the masses not to sleep but to a zombielike restlessness for which they have been trained to blame themselves, i.e., “I can’t sleep on airplanes.” The U-shaped travel neck pillow is a useless trash pillow for nobody.

But not everyone agrees. “I bought this pillow for the long-weekend holiday trip. The memory foam is the perfect firmness, and it is so soft and comfortable,” says someone named Ivan in an Amazon review of a neck pillow similar to that which failed me on my recent flight. Okay, Ivan. Someone named Allen says, “I use this in the car. I fall asleep very easy. This keeps my neck comfortable and I don't wake up with neck pain.” Okay, Allen. Someone named Cass says, “I returned it as it had a horrible chemical smell, plus whatever was inside was a solid piece. I wanted something that had little pellets.” Well. This one seems like more of a “Cass” issue, actually.

Brad John, the cofounder of Flight 001, a popular chain of travel stores about which Martha Stewart has allegedly commented, “I love this store, it looks like an airplane,” told me the U-shaped travel pillow sells very well, even though there hasn’t been much innovation in the market. “They’re basically the same as they’ve always been. We sell the heated ones, the inflatable ones, the foam ones.” The main advancement, he said, and the top seller at the moment, is a convertible travel pillow “which you can either make into a regular pillow or a U-neck.” Very interesting that the top-selling U-shaped neck pillow is one that has the ability to function as a normal, non-U-shaped neck pillow.

Brad John himself uses a normal pillow on flights. “I just don’t find the neck pillow comfortable,” he said, “but that’s just personal preference.”

Everyone I spoke with agreed that the U-shaped neck pillow stinks, notably my friend Megan Reynolds who said, “We have one in the house but the boy cat uses it for sex.” My friend Lindsay Robertson, to whom I was referred explicitly because she regularly uses a U-shaped neck pillow on flights, proved to secretly be a member of the U-shaped-neck-pillow resistance: “I never actually use it as a neck pillow, because I can't sleep that way—I'm not sure anyone can,” she told me. Instead, she puts her neck pillow on the tray table in front of her, takes off her glasses, puts her hands in her lap, and “[lets her] face fall completely forward into the pillow, as if [she has] expired.”

What accounts for why some derive comfort from the U-shaped neck pillow—(liars)—and some do not? I asked Mary O’Connor, who is a professor of orthopedics and rehabilitation and the director of the Center for Musculoskeletal Care at Yale. “I’m unaware that there is any clinical data that shows they’re effective in reducing neck strain or neck discomfort,” she said, “However, many of us who travel have experienced falling asleep with our neck in a weird position and it bothering us thereafter. So, I think they can be helpful, but that depends on how they’re used and whether they support the neck.”

The ideal pillow, she said, would keep your head and neck in neutral alignment with your spine, so you’re not too far forward, or backward, or too far to one side or the other. “But how do you know, when you’re in the airport, that the pillow you’re going to purchase is going to give you the right support?” O’Connor asks. “The pillows are all the same. Some people have short necks, some people have long necks, and there’s no ability to look and say, ‘I need this design or this size pillow for my neck, to really work well for me.’ And that’s part of the challenge. Could one of those pillows help someone? Yes, they could. Will they help everyone? Probably not.”

I attempted to find research pointing to the uselessness or usefulness of the dreaded U-shaped neck pillow, and came up empty-handed. However I did find a study titled “The Use of Neck-Support Pillows and Postural Exercises in the Management of Chronic Neck Pain,” which was published in The Journal of Rheumatology in 2016 and dealt with the positive effects of bed-specific neck-support pillows for people with chronic neck pain. I spoke to the study’s coauthor Brian Feldman, a senior scientist and head of the Division of Rheumatology at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, who made sure I understood that his study was not, actually, about the U-shaped travel pillows people use on planes. I understand. I thought he might be able to offer some insight, anyway.

In, he stressed, his own opinion of U-shaped travel pillows, he said, “I can’t stand them. I never use them. They’re not built strongly enough or firm enough. There are all kinds of new gizmos that people have been developing for pillows for sleep in transportation, and they tend to be more like straps that hold your head in place, or boxlike structures that you can sit forward and place your head in, or neck collars, which give you much more support around your neck. Those kinds of things are probably all much better than the typical U-shaped pillow.”

Keeping your neck in a nice physiological position while sleeping is a wonderful thing to do, he said, but the issue with U-shaped pillows is that they aren’t built to be firm enough or high enough to help most people, plus they don’t circle around the neck properly. “They just don’t do the job they’re supposed to do,” Feldman says. In order to work, he thinks they’d have to look more like the kind of rigid neck collar you see on someone who has recently injured their neck, one “that presses up into the head and keeps the chin up and supported so the head doesn’t flop over in any way once you’ve fallen asleep” while sitting up.

Also, don’t they look like the the first-ever stone pillow used by Mesopotamians in 7,000 BC? Seems like we should not still be using a pillow that looks like the first-ever stone pillow used by Mesopotamians in 7,000 BC, but that’s just my opinion.

If I could leave you with one piece of advice, it would be: Take a hard look at whether or not your U-shaped travel pillow is worth toting on your next flight. Are you stuffing it into your carry-on out of usefulness, or out of habit? Is it taking up precious storage space because it will help you sleep, or because you thought you should buy it even though you’ve encountered no evidence, either personal or scientific, to suggest that this thought is correct? Are you wrong, or do you agree with me? Ask yourself these questions, and then leave the U-shaped pillow behind.

(Unless you’re a boy cat and you’d like to use it for sex.)