Making a DIY travel pillow is easy and inexpensive – It takes about five minutes and you may already have the supplies needed.
In this article, I’ll demonstrate a technique I learned from another traveler for creating a packable, inexpensive travel pillow that works even better than expensive pillows sold by travel gear suppliers and airport gift shops.
What Makes a Good Travel Pillow
When you think of a travel pillow, you probably think of the iconic C-shaped cushion sold in every airport in the world. Since it’s so popular, travelers generally assume this C-shaped cushion is the best option and add one to their collection.
The thing is, that many professional travelers have found that C-shaped pillows aren’t that great – and in fact, TikTok users decided recently that we’re all using C-shaped pillows incorrectly anyway. Researchers agree that neck support during travel is important but there’s no evidence that the iconic C-shaped bolster popularized by travel gift shops actually offers effective neck support.
Since most of us are not able to sleep sitting straight up, and few of us are able to recline enough in an airplane chair to reach a comfortable incumbent sleeping position, most in-flight sleepers default to hunching forward over folded arms on a tray table or leaning against an airplane window. Even though these latter two options tend to be the most popular for long flights, traditional travel pillows don’t offer much in the way of either support or comfort for airplane sleepers in these positions. For those of us who curl up over a tray table or lean against an airplane window, more support is needed.
This support has been hard to come by. Flat airplane pillows are useless and even balled-up coats and jackets compress into flat lumps. It all seemed futile- until another traveler showed me how to make a travel pillow using a cheap dollar store inflatable beach ball. A DIY beach ball travel pillow accommodates leaning and forward-slumping sleeping positions with better support and improved comfort.
How I learned how to make my own DIY Travel Pillow
When a fellow traveler demonstrated their DIY travel pillow made from a beach ball stuffed in a pillowcase, I was skeptical. How, I wondered, could this stupidly simple travel hack actually help increase comfort enough to improve sleep on an airplane?
But then, at their encouragement, I tried it- I was immediately impressed by the comfort of this DIY travel pillow. Before my next flight, I set to gather the supplies needed to make my own.
About this pillow
The genius of this homemade travel pillow is that, by inflating, it can provide so much more support while still fitting in a one bag travel style. When half-inflated and shoved against an airplane window, the trapped air squishes into the uneven windowsill and forms a soft, non-shifting, flat surface to lean your head against (goodbye tiny airplane pillows squishing into the row behind me!).
When fully inflated and placed on the tray table of the seat in front of me, the DIY travel pillow forms a shockingly supportive cushion. Instead of having to contort my spine into a hunched over sleeping position destined to leave me with a backache, this travel pillow helps me maintain a more naturally curved spine as I relaxed forward and rest my face on the soft cotton of my favorite pillowcase covering my squishy homemade travel pillow.
Even though the beach ball is plastic (which would be very uncomfortable to rest skin against), the familiarity of my own pillowcase provides a soft breathable layer between my skin and the plastic.
Supplies you’ll need to make your DIY travel pillow
This DIY is so easy, all you’ll are a few basic supplies you most likely already have:
1. A full-size, inflatable beach ball – Get it here at Amazon – (16″ seems to work best for not intruding on other passengers’ space)
2. A standard sized pillowcase (it works a little better if the pillowcase has a zipper – like this one at Amazon – but it’s not essential)
Since a pillowcase from home always makes it onto my packing list because it is one of the best tips for sleeping in a hostel or hotel, all I needed to do was locate a beach ball – and luck would have it, most dollar stores, drugstores, and big-box shops sell uninflated beach balls for around $1 USD every spring and summer.
To Make your Travel Pillow:
When packing for your trip, place the uninflated beach ball and the pillowcase into an accessible part of your carry-on luggage. (If your carry-on luggage is already bursting, you should be able to slip both the ball and the pillowcase into the pocket of a hand-held jacket- which is exempt from carryon limits)
After Boarding your Flight
Once you’ve boarded your flight and settled into your seat, remove your pillowcase and the uninflated beach ball and place them both into this pocket of the seat in front of you. (Placing them in a handy spot before take-off ensures that they’ll be easily reachable even if the captain keeps the “fasten seat belts” light on for the whole trip).
To use your DIY travel pillow
After takeoff, or whenever you are ready to try sleeping on your long flight, remove the beach ball from its packaging, place it inside of the pillowcase, and use your breath to fill the beach ball to the desired size. Placing it inside of the pillowcase before inflating can prevent the awkward pillow-case stuffing that would likely send elbows flying into other travelers’ personal space.
Inflate the beachball inside the pillowcase about 2/3rds of the way using your breath, close the valve, and zip your pillowcase.
Place the travel pillow onto your tray table or, if you have a window seat, into the window’s edge beside you, and relax against the pillow. Add or remove air from the beachball as needed for maximum comfort.
After your Flight
At the end of your flight, pop the cap on the valve and expel the air from the beach ball. Once manually expelled, press the beach ball flat and begin rolling it into a compact roll that can easily be stored in your luggage until your next flight, taking up a fraction of the space of a traditional travel neck pillow.
Beach balls aren’t designed to have pressure placed on the seams in the way that using them as a travel pillow does, so this travel pillow may not last as long as expensive pillows- but for the cost, you’ll still likely end up saving money compared to purchasing an expensive neck support pillow (that you’d likely forget somewhere or jettison in a hostel after overstuffing your luggage with souvenirs). Hopefully, you’ll get a few uses out of your beach ball before it begins to leak. If it does leak, try patching it with a patching kit made for plastic inflatables before tossing it out.
NOTE: This travel pillow can be used by adults, teens, and tweens, but because it involves placing plastic near the face, this travel pillow should not be used for infants, toddlers, young children, or anyone using a sedative to help them sleep on a plane.
You can easily make your own travel pillow using these instructions for combining a small inflatable ball and a pillowcase. Although I only use my travel pillow on flights, if you find yourself in accommodations that lack sufficient support, you can pop out your inflatable DIY travel pillow for use in hotels, hostels, and Airbnbs.
Lynli Roman’s unique approach to travel is informed by decades of experience on the road with a traveling family and, later, years spent as a solo international traveler. When she’s not writing about Seattle from her Pike Place Market apartment, Lynli writes on-location while conducting hands-on research in each destination she covers. Lynli’s writing has been featured by MSN, ABC Money, Buzzfeed, and Huffington Post. She is passionate about sharing information that makes travel more accessible for all bodies.