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Stainless-Steel Travel Mugs

By: Amy Livingston on May 15, 2017

Stainless-steel mugs are durable and hold liquid temperatures for hours

These days, most professional tests of travel mugs focus exclusively on double-walled stainless-steel models. Experts say this type of travel mug is by far the best at keeping hot drinks hot and cold drinks cold, and they are also typically more durable than plastic or ceramic. Stainless steel is also unlikely to retain flavor, so you can remove all traces of coffee taste and odor if you want to use the mug for something else.

Travel mugs from Zojirushi earn more recommendations from our sources than any other brand. Zojirushi travel mugs come in many different styles, sizes, and colors, but the one that most often comes out on top in professional tests is the Zojirushi Stainless Mug SM-SA (Est. $25). Reviewers at TheSweethome.com say that out of the 60-stainless steel mugs they looked at and the 9 they subjected to hands-on testing, the SM-SA offers "the best balance of heat retention and versatility." This slender, lightweight travel mug comes in three sizes – 12, 16, and 20 ounces – and seven colors, from muted to bright.

In TheSweethome.com's test, as well as two other professional tests, the SM-SA earns top marks for heat retention, keeping hot water at a reasonable drinking temperature for hours. All reviews we spotted also praise the mug's "foolproof" locking lid. It closes securely to keep the contents from spilling, no matter how you shake, drop, or bounce the mug around, yet it opens easily with the press of a button when you're ready to take a sip.

TheSweethome.com also gives the mug high marks for durability. It survives several drops with no more than a few minor scuffs, and after nearly three years of "constant use," it holds its heat as well as ever. However, testers at YourBestDigs.com found just the opposite: when dropped from a mere 3.5 feet, the cap of the Zojirushi mug cracked immediately. Also, while testers at TheSweethome.com say this mug's Teflon-type coating makes it easy to clean, those at YourBestDigs.com say the narrow mug was the hardest to clean inside of all those tested – a complaint we saw echoed among users at Amazon.com. You can't just stick it in the dishwasher, either, because like most stainless-steel mugs, it isn't dishwasher-safe.

The Stainless Mug SM-SA has a few other flaws as well. Some reviewers say it actually holds heat too well, leaving coffee or tea too hot to drink for over an hour after brewing -- so it's best to let yours cool a bit before pouring it into the mug. Also, its narrow shape doesn't fit snugly into many car cup holders. Although the flip-up lid is easy to open with one hand, some users complain that it tends to bump your nose when you drink. Finally, the mug's nonstick lining may raise safety concerns for some users, who fear that hot liquids could leach harmful chemicals out of the coating. However, most experts consider nonstick coatings safe as long as they aren't heated past 400°F. (See our report on skillets for more details.)

Editors at TheSweethome.com say another Zojirushi mug, the Zojirushi Stainless Mug SM-KHE (Est. $25), performs nearly as well as its top pick. In most respects, this mug is nearly identical to the SM-SA; in fact, reviewers say you can hardly tell them apart unless you look at them side by side. Both have double-walled stainless-steel construction, a slim profile, and a 5-year warranty on their vacuum-insulating properties.

The SM-KHE actually does slightly better than the SM-SA in temperature testing, keeping coffee a few degrees warmer over an 8-hour period. However, the testers find that on a few small but significant points, the SM-KHE doesn't quite measure up to the SM-SA. It's a couple of ounces heavier (in equivalent sizes), and its lid has a bulkier design that's more likely to bump your nose when you drink or block your view as you drive. It's also not available in a 20-ounce size. On the plus side, for those who prefer to avoid the chemicals in Teflon, the SM-KHE doesn't have a nonstick coating. Instead, it has an electro-polished "SlickSteel" finish that helps keep it from retaining tastes and odors. Users at Amazon.com and BedBathandBeyond.com say this mug is easy to clean, comfortable to hold, and totally leakproof. This version holds 16 ounces and come in a black finish, but it is available in four other finishes, and in a 12 ounce size.

If the high price of the Zojirushi mugs puts you off, you can get solid performance at a little lower cost with the Contigo Autoseal West Loop Travel Mug (Est. $18). This mug's key feature is its cleverly designed locking lid, which earns high praise from both professionals and users. Like the Zojirushi lids, it completely prevents spills and drips but opens with the push of a button when you want to drink. The difference is that the second you release the button, the Contigo's lid locks again – so even if the cup is knocked right out of your hand, it won't spill. The Contigo mug is also slightly wider than the two Zojirushis, so it fits more securely in most cup holders.

In other respects, though, the Contigo Autoseal West Loop doesn't match the performance of its competitors. It's nowhere near as good at retaining heat; in TheSweethome.com's test, it loses nearly as much heat in two hours as the Zojirushi mugs do in eight. It's also not that durable. In two separate professional tests, dropping the Contigo mug from a height caused the lid to shatter completely, spilling the contents everywhere. Users at Amazon.com also note problems with peeling paint, leakage around the seal, and a plasticky taste and smell that lingers even after repeated washings. This may be because the Contigo's plastic lid, unlike the Zojirushi's, can't be dismantled completely, making it harder to clean thoroughly. Over time, many users note, the lid can wear out, causing the mug to start leaking.

Still, if on-the-go convenience is your top priority, the Contigo's convenient shape and push-button seal could make it the right travel mug for you. It's available in 16- and 20-ounce capacities, in a variety of colors.

Stainless-steel mugs that can also brew your tea

Some stainless-steel travel mugs have built-in tea infusers that you can use to brew loose-leaf tea on the go. However, most professional sources don't review this kind of travel mug, and the one test we found from 2014 didn't give high marks to any of the choices.

Fortunately, there's another option for tea drinkers. You can buy the Contigo Autoseal West Loop mug profiled above, and then add the Contigo West Loop Stainless Steel Tea Infuser (Est. $10). This little accessory has three parts: a stainless-steel basket to hold loose tea, a clip that snaps securely into the lid of any West Loop mug, and a blue "drip cup" to hold the basket after brewing so your wet tea leaves don't make a mess. To use it, just drop tea leaves into the basket, clip it to the lid of your mug, close it up, and go. The basket will dangle down into the hot water, steeping your tea as you travel. When the tea is strong enough for your taste, you can either remove the filter and drop it in the drip cup or leave it in place as you drink. As soon as you drink enough to drop the water level below the bottom of the basket, the tea will no longer be in contact with it, so you don't have to worry about over-steeping.

Hundreds of owners at Amazon.com have reviewed this tea infuser, giving it an overall rating of 4.5 stars out of 5. Owners say the infuser gives them control over the brewing time of the tea, since they can remove it at any point in the process. They also appreciate the drip cup that lets them store the wet tea leaves so they can use them again. Their main complaint is that the infuser basket displaces too much liquid in the mug, leaving them with a smaller overall volume of tea. Also, many users say it's difficult to remove the infuser from the lid after brewing without burning your fingers. To get around this problem, the manufacturer recommends letting your boiling water cool for at least three minutes before putting the cap and infuser on top. The water should still be hot enough to steep the tea, but not hot enough to cause burns.

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