Stainless-steel mugs are most popular, but plastic alternatives exist
If you want to skip the drive-through and bring your own coffee or other beverage from home, a good travel mug is a key accessory. Whether you want to keep coffee scalding hot for hours, nuke a drink in the microwave, or brew your tea on the road, there's a travel mug to fit your needs.
Travel mugs come in a variety of sizes, ranging from a dainty 8 ounces to a whopping 32 ounces, but the most common sizes are 12, 16, and 20 ounces. The most popular type of travel mug is double-walled stainless steel: two layers of metal with a layer of vacuum between for better insulation. You can also find some travel mugs made of plastic and even a few made of ceramic or glass. A specialized type of travel mug is the tea tumbler, which contains built-in brewing apparatus for steeping loose tea leaves.
Double-walled stainless-steel travel mugs have many advantages. For starters, they're by far the best at keeping hot drinks hot and cold drinks cold. Professional tests find that some stainless-steel travel mugs can keep coffee or tea at a drinkable temperature as long as eight hours after brewing. Most tests don't measure a mug's performance with cold drinks, but any mug that can keep your cup of Joe hot during a long commute should also have the insulating power to keep your orange juice frosty. Stainless-steel mugs are also the most durable type, typically surviving falls from counter height and even from the roof of a moving car. And, for those with picky palates, stainless steel mugs are less likely to retain or transfer flavors than plastic.
However, stainless-steel mugs also have a few downsides. They're quite a bit pricier than their plastic counterparts, typically ranging from $20 to $30 for a 16-ounce mug. Also, stainless steel isn't microwave-safe, so you can't nuke a lukewarm drink -- though with these mugs' better insulation, it's less likely you'll need to. Finally, most stainless-steel mugs aren't dishwasher-safe, so cleanup is more of a hassle.
Plastic travel mugs offer a completely different set of perks. They're often lighter in weight than stainless-steel travel mugs, which can weigh as much as 12 ounces for a mug with a 16-ounce capacity. They're also more budget-friendly, typically costing $10 to $15 for a 16-ounce mug. Many plastic mugs are also microwave-safe and dishwasher-safe, so you can reheat your beverage with little fuss and save time on cleanup afterward.
Unfortunately, that's where the pros of plastic end. Professional tests show that plastic mugs can keep drinks hot or cold for an hour or two at most, and they also break more easily than stainless-steel mugs. In addition, plastic also holds and imparts flavors and odors far more easily than stainless steel, so you may get a hint of coffee with your morning orange juice.
Tea travel mugs are a niche product for hard-core tea drinkers. Like other travel mugs, these are typically made of stainless steel or plastic, though there are a couple of glass and ceramic options. What sets these mugs apart are the extra features they add specifically for brewing tea in the cup. Some have a removable or retractable metal basket to hold loose-leaf tea while it steeps; with others, you put the tea leaves directly into the mug and a strainer in the lid filters them out as you drink. Some models also include a hook or notch to attach the string of a tea bag, keeping the label securely out of your brewing tea.
Finding the best travel mugs
Tests of travel mugs appear in cooking magazines like Cook's Illustrated, travel-oriented magazines like Car and Driver, and general consumer review sites like TheSweethome.com. Nearly all these sources put travel mugs through the same basic tests: they leave hot liquids in them for several hours to see how well they hold heat, drop them to test their durability, and shake them in various ways to check for leaks and spills. After consulting several professional tests to find the top performers, we turned to user reviews at Amazon.com and BedBathandBeyond.com to see how these travel mugs stand up to real-world use. Based on all these sources, we've identified our picks for the best stainless-steel, plastic, and tea travel mugs for your daily commute.