What's the best inflatable mattress?

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Nov. 15 2007 7:31 AM

Sleeping Around

What's the best inflatable mattress?

Sleep and I have an awkward, on-again, off-again relationship. I'm slow to fall asleep, quick to wake up, and picky about my bed. Like most people, a night of bad snoozing inevitably ruins my day. That goes double during the holiday season, when I travel between friends and family, sleeping on their pull-out couches, floors, extra beds, and air mattresses.

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Oh, the air mattresses. They bring up such painful memories—like the time when, as a college student between apartments, I spent a month sleeping on one. But I had to overcome my bitterness toward them recently, when my boyfriend and I moved into our tiny one-bedroom apartment. We bought a couch, some kitchen stuff, a coffee table, and, for my boyfriend, a Nintendo Wii. As friends and family begin to visit, however, it became clear we were missing something: a comfortable place for them to sleep. I needed to get over my deep-seated resentment and buy an air mattress that could give my guests a peaceful night's sleep—and leave them looking forward to their next visit.

Torie Bosch Torie Bosch

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

Methodology

I tested six full-sized air mattresses, ranging in price from $34.97 to $259.99 (lowest prices found are listed for each). I selected mattresses that didn't require me to purchase a pump separately—they either came with a built-in pump or could be inflated using a hair dryer. I spent one night on each (two nights on some that required additional testing), setting each up in my living room to better reflect the overnight-guest experience. I evaluated them on two criteria:

1) Ease of Use (10 possible points): You usually find yourself on an air mattress after traveling, eating too much, drinking too much, socializing, or generally wearing yourself out. When it's late and I'm tired, I don't want to fumble with an instruction manual. Is it a cinch to set up? Does it inflate quickly and (relatively) quietly? Can I fold it up and store it easily when I'm done? My apartment is small, so I need an air mattress that doesn't take up lots of precious closet space.

2) Snooze or Lose (10 possible points): Does it make my back ache or wake me up with squeaking noises every time I toss and turn? Does it deflate in the middle of the night? Is it easy to adjust the air volume so I can get the firmness I want? And, most of all—does it allow for a good night's sleep?

Here are the results, from sleeping like a baby's crying to sleeping like a baby:

Coleman 4-in-1 Quickbed

Coleman 4-in-1 Quickbed, $39.99 This cheap air mattress is meant for the great outdoors, not the living-room floor. Despite the name, there are only three ways to set it up: You can split it into two twin beds, zip them together for one king-sized bed, or stack them on top of each other for a raised twin bed. As I began to set up the bed, I smirked—using twin beds to create one king-sized bed reminded me of 1950s sitcoms (and apparently is still an option for some couples).

It doesn't come with a pump, so at bedtime, I whipped out the hair dryer. (Using a blow dryer is safe, as long as you use it on the cool setting.) The dryer did the bulk of the work, but I had to sub in and finish it up with my lungs. Unfortunately, the zipper that holds the twin beds together is pretty flimsy, and they drifted apart during the night, creating a little gulf that I somehow kept rolling into. The gap and the gushiness of the beds, which kept losing air, combined to give me a terrible night's sleep. I'd like to take this opportunity to offer an open apology to my co-workers, fellow Metro riders, and anyone else I came into contact with the next day, when I was unreasonably cranky. The only upside to the Coleman Quickbed is that it's lightweight and easy to store. That means it won't take up much room in my trash can.

Ease of Use: 4 (out of 10)
Snooze or Lose: 1 (out of 10)
Total: 5 (out of 20)

Wenzel Insta-Bed

Wenzel Insta-Bed, $34.97 Like the Coleman, the Wenzel Insta-Bed doesn't come with an air pump, so out came the blow dryer again. Unlike the Coleman, Wenzel does offer a tiny hand pump, that, while too small to inflate the entire mattress, allows you to make small firmness adjustments. The hand pump works, but it was awkward to use—the up-and-down pumping movement felt like CPR, which I haven't attempted since 10th-grade health class.

It took me a very long time to fall asleep. In all fairness, maybe it wasn't the Insta-Bed's fault. It could have been the headache I nursed all day, but sleep just didn't come. I spent an hour or more tossing and turning, unable to get comfortable on my uninviting bed. The next morning, it took a while to deflate—as I got ready for work, I had to periodically stomp on the bed to rid it of extra air. It was easy to fold up and lightweight, making it storable. Unfortunately, it doesn't come with a satchel or bag for storage or transport. Bottom line: I'd only offer this mattress to guests I secretly don't like.

Ease of Use: 6
Comfort: 6
Total: 12