“Because I don’t like putting my face on something that has been used for God knows what,” says Paula Miller, a retired teacher who lives in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. “I have an aversion to any pillow that isn’t mine. I would much rather give up the space of one outfit in order to get a good night’s sleep.”
Miller is part of a broader, slow-moving trend among travelers who no longer trust the pillows, sheets and bedspreads furnished by their hotel or vacation rental. Today, you can find hotel guests who pack their own travel pillows for a variety of reasons, including comfort and cleanliness.
About 7 in 10 Americans rated pillows as having a “big impact” on their ability to get a good night’s sleep, according to a survey by the National Sleep Foundation. Several other studies suggest that frequent travelers, particularly business travelers, find the pillows provided by hotels unsuitable as an impediment to a good night’s rest.
“As silly as it may sound, horrible pillows have practically ruined the past two trips to Vegas,” says Annie Valades, a former TV marketer based in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Why people pack travel pillows
Jean Roberts endured moldy, smelly, dirty hotel pillows before finally packing a travel pillow. She says it took a few “off the grid” trips to Southeast Asia to turn her into an ardent pillow-packer. She and her husband visited Sabah, Malaysia, an area that had recently flooded. The pillows on her bed had spent some time underwater, too.
After that she carried her personal pillow, filled with a blend of down and fiber and covered with bright yellow material “so it can’t be left behind,” says Roberts, a retired sculptor who lives in Melbourne, Florida.
Other guests say they pack their pillows for comfort. Nick Brennan, who runs a wireless company in England, says his pillow is a “personal” thing. He discovered his favorite on a trip to Australia and purchased four of them on the spot.
“My pillow is just right,” he says. “It feels very comfortable to me and is firm and supportive yet soft. I find some hotel pillows are just too soft and your head sinks into them. Some people like this. I don’t. Other times the pillows can be rock hard. Again, each to their own.”
The travel industry is slow to react to pillow demand
Dan Daftari, a hotel industry consultant who founded Sleep CoCo, a high-end pillow company, says the lodging business has largely ignored pillows because they don’t last as long as the more expensive mattresses sold in hotel catalogs and because the market is so segmented.
“Only in the last 18 to 24 months have things like pillow menus and options for down or down alternative pillows become available to guests,” he says. “These options are typically only offered at the higher-end hotels in major cities, and in most cases, guests are unaware of this service.”
It isn’t just the pillows, but also the pillowcases.
“Some hotels have lovely quality pillowcases, but most do not,” says Andi Neugarten, the Founder of Sleep ‘n Beauty, which makes silk sheets and pillowcases. “Also, in order to withstand the number of guests and laundry, most times these are laundered with chemicals which I find offensive.”
If you travel frequently, you might want to become a pillow-packer. You’re a candidate if you travel to exotic places that don’t have the same hygiene standards as you, or if you have trouble sleeping in a hotel or vacation rental bed. Then again, you might start carrying a pillow for sentimental reasons.
My 11-year-old daughter, who accompanies me on my business trips, is one such person. I know because she has no trouble sleeping anywhere. I’ve seen her nap for hours at a time in an economy-class seat, sitting upright. She’s fallen asleep in five-star hotels, vacation rentals and roadside motels. She always carries a fuzzy pillow with her but doesn’t always sleep with it.
“Why do you take your pillow with you?” I finally asked her.
She gave me the “you’re-so-silly-Dad” look.
“Because,” she said. “It’s my pillow.”
How to get the perfect pillow for your next trip
• Find a hotel with a pillow menu. For example, the French Quarter Inn, an upscale boutique hotel in Charleston’s Historic District, provides all guests with a complimentary “Sound Sleep” pillow menu. It features seven different pillow options, including cool gel, hypoallergenic and Swedish massage. “It’s another way to show guests we truly understand and care about their entire hotel experience, from beginning to end,” says the Inn’s general manager, Carlo Carroccia.
• Look beyond the travel specialty stores for a solution. That’s what Jenash Michaels, a frequent traveler, does. “Hotels seem to have two kinds of pillows: feather, which seems to deflate immediately upon use, and foam, which is either the consistency of concrete or about as much support as the feather pillow,” she says. The travel stores also tend to fixate on neck pillows for long flights. She found her perfect latex foam pillow on a department store website.
• Don’t forget your guest profile. Ann Witt, a retired teacher from Aurora, Illinois, recommends filling out your guest profile if you belong to a loyalty program. “On my Marriott profile, I request no feather pillows,” she says. That usually results in a synthetic pillow that’s acceptable for her. “But it’s best to check pillows when you arrive,” she says.