Travel mugs are essential if you like having hot coffee or tea on your way to work or school. They come in a variety of types, from cheap promotional mugs that don't insulate much better than a paper cup to pricey stainless-steel thermal mugs that can keep drinks hot for hours.
Portable mugs are commonly available in 14-, 16- and 20-ounce sizes, but you can find mugs that hold 10 to 12 ounces and high-capacity mugs up to 24 ounces. For comparison purposes, a medium-sized cup of coffee at most coffee shops is 16 ounces.
Travel mugs can be made from plastic, stainless steel or ceramic, but most experts recommend stainless-steel thermal mugs for their superior insulation of hot and cold drinks. The best travel mugs have double-walled construction and are vacuum-insulated, which improves insulation and keeps the exterior of the mug from heating up with hot liquids or producing condensation with cold beverages. These mugs can keep beverages hot for four to six hours or chilled for 10 to 12 hours. While stainless-steel travel mugs are tops when it comes to insulation and durability, there are some drawbacks. They are more expensive than plastic mugs, costing between $20 and $30, and most cannot be washed in a dishwasher. In addition, stainless-steel travel mugs are not microwave-safe.
Plastic travel mugs may be more convenient for some, since most are microwave- and dishwasher-safe. They tend to be more affordable than stainless-steel mugs, costing $10 or less, and they are lightweight. However, plastic thermal mugs don't insulate very well and will only keep beverages hot or cold for an hour or two. They can also retain taste and odor, even after repeated washings.
Some reviewers also have health concerns about plastic travel mugs because they may contain bisphenol A (BPA), a substance found in polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. Health organizations have raised concerns about BPA for years, saying exposure to the chemical has been linked to reproductive problems and hormonal disruptions. BPA is more of a problem with water bottles, since they are frequently made with polycarbonate (No. 7) plastic. Most plastic travel mugs recommended by reviewers, on the other hand, usually contain polypropylene (No. 5) plastic, which is a safer alternative, according to the Environmental Working Group. Many manufacturers of plastic travel mugs address this issue directly and will say if their mugs are BPA-free.
Though rare, you can also find travel mugs made from porcelain, glass or ceramic. These travel mugs won't retain tastes or odors, but durability issues make them less popular than stainless-steel or plastic mugs. They also can't compete with stainless-steel thermal mugs when it comes to insulation. However, they can be a good choice if you mainly use your travel mug at home or work.
For commuters, travel mugs with one-handed drinking mechanisms are the best bet, as opposed to lids that must be unscrewed or unsnapped before drinking. Travel mugs without handles, sometimes called tumblers, are most often recommended for drivers because they're designed to fit a vehicle's cup holder, while mugs with handles often are not. Travel mugs with handles are best suited for people who walk or take public transportation to work, since the handles make them easier to hold. Models that are designed for outdoor activities like camping typically have wider bases that increase stability. These travel mugs can also be a good choice if you use your mug at work, since they are less likely to be knocked over.
A number of sources have good reviews of travel mugs. The best testing comes from Good Housekeeping and Cook's Illustrated magazines, but both of these sources provide little analysis to accompany their recommendations. Men's Journal has a detailed and balanced test, and there are some older reviews from Wired and CoffeeGeek.com. Several newspapers, including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Los Angeles Times, also have valuable round-ups. Amazon.com is the best source for user reviews, with many top-rated mugs attracting hundreds of individual reviews from owners. Blog postings are also helpful for gauging owner opinions.
Only a few travel mugs have been recalled over the past several years, but most recently, the Life is Good Newbury Travel Mug was recalled in November 2009. The Consumer Product Safety Commission said the mugs could pose a burn hazard. According to reports, the exterior of the mug can become extremely hot when filled with hot liquids. The mug has since been discontinued.