You can’t throw the proverbial rock on the web these days without “hitting” a list of tips on choosing a mattress. Memory foam, latex, springs…you name it, it’s there.
On the other hand, if you need a quick solution for guests and sleepovers or you need to plan a small bedroom by including an inflatable bed, the advice is scarce.
What makes the situation even worse is that the information that’s out there comes from sources that have a horse in the race – the companies trying to sell you their products, all of them labeling their air mattresses as the “best.”
Well, today, we put an end to that, at least for the readers of HomeStratosphere.
Air mattress doesn’t deserve to be the orphan among mattresses
Let’s first burst a few bubbles (pun intended) and bust a few myths about an air mattress.
The bad rep that still lingers comes from the fact that inflatables did have their 5 minutes of glory but it didn’t end up well. Most of us who remember the 70s to 90s era, still react with an involuntary smirk to the mention of an inflatable bed.
There’s a good reason behind the smirk.
At one point, in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, inflatables were all the rage, but the low-quality materials, structural issues and slow pumps pushed them into oblivion, and people simply went back to the traditional chairs and sofas.
If mattresses were music bands, an air bed would be a one hit wonder that took some time off and came back with some amazing stuff but alas, nobody’s paying attention anymore.
The days of lilo are ancient history
Most of us who are old enough to fondly remember, say, the Macarena song, probably know the term “lilo.” It’s that cheap plastic inflatable you get for the beach.
The issue with the air mattresses and inflatable chairs in the ‘90s was that the technology used to make them wasn’t that different from lilos. They’d get punctured or started leaking within a month of use.
Those days are gone.
If you just look at the numbers and stats, you’ll see that the user satisfaction rate of an air mattress today is at 79%, second only to memory foam and latex (81 and 80 %, respectively).
*note: these numbers include adjustable beds, which are also considered as “air.” Adjustable beds are high-end mattresses with an air-chamber core that allows you to control temperature, positions and firmness of the bed and are beyond the scope of this guide.
A modern air mattress is a serious product, made using durable materials, “smart” pumps that prevent deflation and air coils that have the same role of a spring in a regular mattress.
As we said, they’re a one hit wonder that went on to make great stuff but never got back its rightful place on the stage, as a guest bed or as an elegant sleeping solution for your bedroom.
Enough small talk, let’s see what makes a good air mattress
Here’s what we’ll go through in this guide:
- Inner structure
- Safety (off-gassing and fumes)
- Getting the biggest bang for your buck
Let’s dig in.
Materials used for air beds
Inflatable mattresses are traditionally made of vinyl (a stretchy type of plastic). The quality and types of vinyl used haven’t changed much for decades Until a few years back, that is.
After a pretty long period of a few companies (like Coleman, Serta and Intex) dominating the industry with about a dozen of products, tides shifted. The arrival of “young” companies like SoundAsleep brought on changes that can be described as, and we’re not using this word lightly, revolutionary.
Regular vinyl just wasn’t cutting it anymore, especially if the industry was going to remain competitive.
What we mean when we say “regular vinyl” is just one layer of recycled 0.4 mm thick PVC. They might have advertised it as puncture-proof, but real life use of the products told a different story.
Today, most of the best air mattresses and brands use reinforced materials. The vast majority of them is still based on vinyl, but improved in ways that practically make it a novelty material.
What you should look for
Look past the marketing lingo like “puncture-proof” and search for models and brands that actually explain what’s better about the material. Each of the top brands has a different approach to making the material better.
Below are just a few examples:
- SoundAsleep uses multiple layers for their 3 models (Dream Series, Cloud 9 and Camping Series). This means that if you scratch the bed, it won’t leak, you will just have damaged the surface layer.
- AirMattress.com (which just introduced their first product to the market after selling other brands since 2003) uses a nylon-encasing layer to wrap the virgin (not recycled) vinyl in. This makes the material more durable, less stretchy and lighter.
- Intex uses what they call FiberTech fibers for most models in their latest Durabeam Series. These fibers are inside the mattress, they connect the top and the bottom, making the bed more stable. They don’t stretch like vinyl would and less stretching means lower leak %s.
- Fox airbeds take a much simpler approach – they just make their products using a much thicker material (0.6 mm vs. 0.4 mm, which is still the industry standard). The thickness makes their blow-up beds much more durable, but it also makes them heavier.
If you’re looking to get the best value out of your air bed, look for some of the materials we mentioned above. Don’t take claims like “puncture-resistant,” look for the explanation behind the claim.
Top surface – go with a model that has a soft velvet-like finish on the top – it’s much more comfortable to sleep on (even without sheets) and has a much better “grip” if you’re using sheets.
Bottom surface – go with models that feature a non-slip surface for the bottom. Most of the time, this means that the bottom material is “sprinkled” with rubbery dots that prevent the bed from sliding or tipping over. For more specific information on the top air mattress models visit this page on TheSleepStudies.com.
This one sounds complicated but it’s fairly simple – there are two basic types of inner design, beams and chambers.
99% of the time chambers will be the better option, especially combined with air coils.
What’s better about chambers?
The primary reason chambers are the superior choice is that they distribute weight better, which makes the bed more comfortable:
There are also a few secondary advantages of the chambers + coils combo:
- The air inside doesn’t move as much. This means that you won’t experience cold rushes of air hitting the top surface. These cold rushes come from micro-currents of air swirling around inside. Less air movement, less micro air current, and practically no cold rushes.
- Better sleep for 2 people – with beams, there’s no enough support to prevent the 2 people on the bed sinking to the middle. Chambers and air coils isolate the weight and movement much better. The result is a sleep experience similar to that of a regular mattress.
- Lower %s of air leaks –the no.1 reason behind mysterious air leaks is one of the seams separating ever so slightly (best case scenario) or bursting and creating a lump. It happens because the sagging that comes from the weight “pulls” on the seams. It’s much more common in beamed design.
What to look for
Go with a chamber-coil combo. In terms of the number of air coils, the rule of thumb is the higher the number, the merrier.
In spite of all the improvements we talked about, both in materials and inner structure, an air mattress is still air wrapped in fabric, and it can still get punctured and leak.
Perhaps the most important advancement in the field is the “smart” pump. Different brands will have different names for these, but they all work pretty much the same.
If a regular airbed starts losing air in the middle of the night there’s only one outcome – you or your guests waking up on a half-deflated bubble or worse, on the floor.
Not with a “smart” or “never flat” pump.
The technology relies on the secondary pump that comes with sensors that monitor the pressure inside the bed and add air as needed to maintain your firmness setting.
Since most air leaks are pinholes, this practically eliminates the risk of the scenario we mentioned above. Unless someone creeps ups and slashes your bed, the worst case scenario is waking up to a slightly deflated bed.
What to look for
These pumps come with only a handful of models, and it’s usually the beds on the high end of the price range.
However, there are exceptions – models that come with the secondary pump and will not break the bank. A good example is the Serta Never Flat.
It’s the only blow-up mattress that we know of that costs about the same as a regular model and includes a secondary pump.
Safety – off-gassing and fumes
The impression that an air mattress is not safe because of the plastic fumes and chemicals used to make it, somehow still lives on.
In reality, rigorous standards are in place (as defined by the ASTM International) to prevent any harmful chemicals from reaching your sleeping environment or that of your child.
Yes, the air beds have reached and surpassed the safety standards of beds for children, and the number of products designed exclusively for the little ones is increasing by the year.
What if I don’t trust the standards?
If you don’t like the idea of sleeping on something that includes PVC in any form, you’ll want to look at PVC-free air beds.
These are made using a fabric called TPU and include zero PVC or chemicals related to manufacturing it.
Modern air mattresses are considered as safe as any other type. The industry is strictly regulated, but if you are still worried, it’s advisable to go with a trusted brand.
If you prefer not to bring any PVC into your bedroom, go with a PVC-free TPU fabric models. The downside here is that choice of TPU air beds is limited.
Value for money
With all said and done your choice will depend on your budget and needs.
It sounds like a commonplace so let’s take a moment to clarify what we mean by “needs.”
It comes down to three questions:
- Where will the bed go?
- How often do you plan to use it?
- Who will be sleeping on it?
Most of the best inflatable mattresses come in all the same sizes as a regular mattress. However, not all models come in all sizes, some of the products we mentioned only come in Queen and Twin size, simply because there’s not a lot of demand on the market for King and California King air beds. One final tip is to bear in mind the length of the cord and how close your power outlet is.
If you’re looking for a bed for your grandkids who visit once every few months, a cheaper option like the mentioned Intex Comfort Plush will do just fine. However, if you are getting an airbed to see if it solves that back pain, you’ll go with something more reliable (like the Serta or the SoundAsleep).
Make sure to check the weight limits of a particular model. If they are not listed in the specs, the online retailers that carry the products (like Amazon) have a section where you can search for answers or ask your own questions.
Back to you
If you had the patience to read the whole guide, you now know more about choosing a good air mattress than 99% of people ever will.
Choice of an air mattress is one of those “blurry” decisions that you’d otherwise have to make on a hunch or because you “like that blue one.”
Not anymore, you are now an educated buyer, skilled and ready to make an educated choice.