Mattress Buying Guide

How to Choose the Right Mattress


Is it time for a new mattress? Do you wake up tired or achy, or does your mattress look saggy or lumpy? Or maybe you sleep better at hotels. If you dread a trip to Sears or Sleepy’s, realize that you’ve got more options than ever before—department and specialty stores are no longer the default destination. Now great mattresses at fair prices can be found at Costco and online retailers.

We test queen-size mattresses (60”w x 80”l) because they’re the most common size purchased. (For your reference, the other standard dimensions are king, 76×80 inches; California king, 72×84; full, or double, 53×75; and twin, 38×75.) We subject each mattress to a battery of tests, including running a 308-pound roller over each one 30,000 times to simulate 8 to 10 years of use. Still, there’s much to know even before you start shopping. Here’s your path to a good night’s sleep.

Compare the Types

If you’re shopping for a new mattress you could be overwhelmed by the variety of choice and prices ranging from too-low-to-believe to astronomical. But there’s good news: Our years of testing have shown that, whatever type you choose, you don’t have to spend over $1000 for a comfortable, supportive mattress. Here are the major types you’ll see:


Memory Foam

Mostly polyurethane, memory foam is a favorite of people who take our survey and suffer from back and joint pain. A variation is latex foam, claimed to be hypoallergenic. Memory foam softens when you lie on it and soon molds to your body. Once you get up, it springs back to its original shape. Some owners feel it sleeps hot, however, and some mattresses take some effort to change position. (We measure for this in our Ratings, too.) Variations include models with infused gel to help keep it cool. Air it out before first use if you’re concerned about off-gassing.

cut away detail of an innerspring mattress


These are traditional mattresses composed of steel coils in various configurations. They’re often the least expensive—and the most widely sold. Variations can include special layers of cushioning, a pillowtop layer, and infused gel. “Hybrids” have one or more layers of foam on top of the springs. Shifting positions tends to be easy, but on some models your sleep partner might feel an annoying bounce when you do so. (If you’re concerned, don’t worrry—we test for this tendency.)

cut away detail of an adjustable air mattress

Adjustable Air

You can inflate this type to your desired firmness using an electric pump attached to the bed. These typically include additional layers on top, such as foam. Most also let you inflate individual halves to different firmnesses to suit each sleep partner. But if you want to adjust the bed during the night, the noise of the pump can be annoying.

Four Mattress Myths

Common claims that haven’t held up in our tests:

Foam Layers Make a Better Bed
More innerspring mattresses now include foam on top. But the foam is often too thin to make a difference on some of the hybrid models. Hybrid innerspring models that scored well in our tests had a foam layer several inches thick, though performance still varied.

More Coils, the Better
The better innerspring models we tested had 600 to 1,000 coils. But even if one mattress has more coils than another, the coils could be made of thinner-gauge metal. You’ll also hear about coil variations such as Bonnell (hourglass type), continuous wire, and individually pocketed springs. None of those is inherently superior.

Gel Provides a Cooler Sleep
Some mattresses (noted in our Ratings) have a layer of gel-infused foam that’s supposed to provide a cooling effect. But that layer is buried beneath other layers. While our tests have shown that innerspring mattresses containing gel did tend to sleep slightly cooler, the reverse was true with gel-infused foam beds.

Extra Lumbar Support Helps Back Sleepers
A special lumbar-support zone is one of many ways manufacturers try to differentiate their product lines. But there’s no guarantee that it makes any real difference, and it hasn’t shown significant benefits in our tests.

Forget About Comparison Shopping

If you like a mattress at one store and ask elsewhere for something similar, you’re likely to be steered toward a same-brand mattress claimed to have the same construction, components, and firmness. But they’re probably not the same. Mattress makers offer some lines nationally, but when those brands are sold through major chains such as Macy’s, Sears, and Sleepy’s, they’re for lines exclusive to those chains. And manufacturers don’t publish a directory of comparable mattresses. When we went to three bedding chains and asked for mattresses similar to those we’d bought at three department stores, five of the six were way off the mark. So use our Ratings as a guide, and insist on the precise make and model that scored well in our tests. Also check our Ratings of mattress brands and stores, based on subscriber surveys.

Shopping Tips

Lie Down
If possible, lie on any mattress that you’re considering. Wear loose clothes and shoes you can slip off. Make yourself comfortable, and shoo away the salesperson if you’re feeling pressured. Salespeople should expect you to take your time. Spend at least five or ten minutes on each side and on your back (your stomach, too, if that’s a preferred sleeping position). Panelists who took beds home for a month-long trial rarely changed the opinion they formed after the first night. Shopping online or at a warehouse club? Tryouts aren’t usually an option, so checking return policies before you buy is extra important.

Check Return Policies
Make sure the store offers a full refund or credit toward another mattress. Return periods, often called “comfort guarantees,” range from a couple of weeks to 120 days. Some retailers, including Macy’s and Sears, charge a 15-percent restocking fee. Costco and some online sellers provide free pickup if you want a refund or exchange, but otherwise, you’ll have to pay for it—or cart the mattress to the store. And you’ll be responsible for any damage.

Try to Haggle
Once you’ve settled on a model, try to bring the price down. Many businesses, such as warehouse clubs, have fixed prices and won’t budge. But for retailers that do negotiate—particularly specialty chains—huge markups allow them to lower prices by 50 percent or more during their frequent sales. Our recommendation: Any time of year, insist on a sale price you’ve seen for the mattress you know you want, and don’t be afraid to walk out if you feel you’re getting a raw deal.

Don’t Be Bullied Into Buying a Box Spring
You might not need it. For an innerspring mattress, the box spring (also called a “foundation”) is a wood frame enclosing stiff wire and covered with fabric to match the mattress. For foam or adjustable-air mattresses, it’s a box several inches high. If you’re switching to a foam or adjustable-air bed from an innerspring, you’ll need a boxy foundation that lacks springs and wire. Otherwise, if your box spring isn’t broken and is still structurally sound, consider keeping it and saving money (roughly $150 to $300 for a queen-size). One caveat: Some brands require you to buy their box spring to receive full warranty coverage.

Understand the Warranty
It can range from 10 to 25 years and covers only manufacturing defects such as sagging and loose or broken coil wires. Coverage is frequently prorated, meaning that it decreases over time.

On Delivery Day
Never accept delivery without inspecting the mattress (and the box spring, if you buy one) for stains and other damage. Also be sure that the mattress has a label that states “all-new material” before you send the driver on his way. If it’s not there, refuse delivery. And keep it on afterward in case you do have to file a warranty claim in the future.