Air mattresses offer comfort and convenience at an affordable price
No, you're not dreaming: Air mattress technology and design has advanced to the point where many temporary air beds are now as comfortable as beds costing hundreds or thousands of dollars more. This makes a blow-up mattress a great choice to keep around for overnight guests, family members who may visit regularly but don't need an everyday bed (like grandkids), or as a temporary solution for someone who has moved and has to wait for their regular bed to arrive.
The right air mattress or sleeping pad can also make camping trips a lot more comfortable, providing a layer of cushioning between your sleeping bag and the ground. Some outdoor air mattresses are, in effect, outdoor beds, bringing all the comforts of the double bed in your home to the great outdoors. Sleeping pads are lighter and thinner than regular air mattresses, making them suitable for folding and carrying in a pack. However, while sleeping pads are thin and lightweight, these self-inflating wonders still pack a lot of comfort in a small package.
Queen- and twin-sized air mattresses are by far the most common, but some manufacturers make air beds in full or king size as well. It's important to check the actual dimensions on the blow-up mattress you're considering, however; some air mattresses are sized a bit smaller than the true mattress size. Air mattresses also vary in thickness, but in general they can be either single-height or double-height. A single-height air mattress sits anywhere from 7 to 13 inches off the floor, which can make it difficult for some to get in and out of, especially those who may have physical challenges. A raised, or double-height mattress, by contrast, inflates to between 18 and 22 inches high, bringing it much closer to normal bed height. One caveat: that extra thickness might require you to buy deep-pocketed fitted sheet sets, which are less common and more expensive than standard sheets. Head on over to our separate report on bed sheets for our top recommendations.
Some air mattresses are very basic, just blow up rectangles, but other air mattresses have extra features, such as raised bumpers or built-in pillows. Many people like those features because they help keep your bedding -- and your body -- from falling off the air bed if it's not up against a wall. Parents of small children are particularly complimentary of air beds with bumpers as they feel that those bumpers give their child a feeling of security.
All blow-up mattresses, regardless of what they are used for, have one thing in common: they‘re inflated with a pump -- although some sleep pads are then topped off by blowing into a valve. The pump that blows up the mattress may be built-in or a separate unit, and it may run on standard household current, battery power or muscle power (like a bicycle pump). Some mattresses do not actually come with a pump, which can be both a plus and a minus: you have to purchase the pump separately, but you can choose the type that's most convenient for you, and if it breaks you don't have to replace the whole mattress.
Temporary versus permanent air mattresses
Air mattresses should not be confused with permanent-use air beds such as the Sleep Number bed, which uses air-filled pockets in place of springs. Inflatable air mattresses like those covered in this report can be quite inexpensive and are intended for occasional or short-term use only. While some owners do report using an inflatable air mattress as their regular bed, manufacturers do not recommend using air beds for long-term or permanent use. Most of the poor reviews we saw related to our top-rated air mattresses were from people who groused that the mattress started to lose air after months of daily use -- something that's to be expected from using what is, essentially, a reinforced, rectangular balloon. Also, since you are sleeping on air, blow-up mattresses, even those with pillow or flocked tops, tend to have poor insulation. Because of that, we recommend putting a blanket under your air bed and topping it off with a good, thick mattress pad before adding the rest of your bedding.
Permanent air mattresses, on the other hand, are meant for everyday use and get excellent ratings for longevity and comfort, but they can also cost $1,000 or more -- at least as much as a traditional innerspring mattress. For more information about permanent air mattresses, see our separate report on mattresses.
Finding the best air mattresses
We did not find any professional comparison tests of air mattresses, but we did find an interesting chart at SleepLiketheDead.com of the top six air mattresses based upon a large survey of owner satisfaction. However, there are no in-depth reviews of those mattresses there, so we evaluated air beds based mainly on user reviews from retail sites like Amazon.com, Walmart.com and Moosejaw.com, a major retailer of camping and outdoor equipment. We looked at what users had to say about how comfortable each mattress is to sleep on, as well as how easy it is to set up and to break down for storage. We also paid a lot of attention to durability: how well the mattress holds air during the night and how likely it is to develop problems, such as a leak or a pump failure. The result is our top-rated air mattresses that offer the best combination of comfort, durability and ease of use.