I recently watched the film Up in the Air, in which George Clooney’s seasoned traveler character, Ryan, bullies Anna Kendrick’s newbie character to switch to smaller, better-wheeled luggage at the airport.
As she is on the floor in a corner of the airport, transferring the contents of one suitcase into another, we see that she has taken up nearly half of her space with pillows. Ryan grabs her travel neck pillow and the full-size bed pillow she’s brought with her and puts them into a nearby trash bin.
I agree with Ryan that you should not bring a pillow when you travel if you can avoid it. However, there are three valid reasons why you might need it:
Lumbar support (maybe): I’ve never flown first-class on a long flight. Maybe those special folks in that rarified part of the plane are perfectly comfortable, but for the rest of us, pillows are a necessary item for proper lumbar support. However, on international flights they always give you a pillow, and I usually find it sufficient. In a pinch, your coat may serve nicely as a pillow (especially a down coat). So most of us don’t need a pillow for this, but some folks definitely do.
[Edit: In these COVID-19 days and likely on beyond, it is probably less likely that airlines will be handing pillows and blankets to passengers. Bring a pillow or a use your coat for lumbar support!]
Sleeping on the plane (maybe): Oh the evils of trying to sleep on a plane! This is something I still haven’t mastered. I think the pillow they give you is just fine if you have a window seat: put the pillow on the wall and lean into it. But if you are in the aisle or [horror!] in the center seat, then the pillow will do you exactly no good at all.
For those not in the window seat, there are pillow-like products out there that claim to help, but I’ve yet to try them. I purchased one, the Trtl Pillow, pictured here, but I’ve yet to try it out. I need to, because sleeping on the plane would really help with my jetlag, I think. Someday. I think I still need to get over my child-like resistance to going to sleep when I travel. I want to watch movies! I want to read! I want to work on my blog. [Update five years later: I eventually gave the Trtl away without ever bringing with me on a trip.]
Hotel sleeping with at-home comfort (definitely): What is it with hotels that put giant neck-bending pillows on their beds! Perhaps because I suffered a serious whiplash injury in my 20s, I’m one of those weirdos who uses a super flat pillow when I sleep. I used to just ask the hotel front desk for a flatter pillow, but there have been too many times when they didn’t have what I needed and I had to resort to using a folded towel in order to get something flat enough to get some sleep.
A few years ago I started bringing my own pillow on every trip, and this was a game changer.
The key is to get a pillow that is as small as possible so that it won’t take up too much room in your bag. One option is to buy a pillow made for toddlers. Another option, and what I did, is to buy a memory-foam travel pillow, then use a sharp knife to carve the pillow into exactly the shape and size you need. My carved-up pillow looks like hell, but it’s hidden nicely in a toddler-size pillow case. But the key is comfort: it’s so comfortable that I soon made it the same pillow that I use every night at home.