Air mattress vs inflatable mattress: What’s the difference?

Beautyrest air mattress placed on the floor in a light, bright bedroom
(Image credit: Beautyrest)

Air mattress and inflatable mattress are two terms that are often used interchangeably. However, there are some significant differences between the two which we will explore in finer detail within this air mattress vs inflatable mattress comparison piece.

While both rely on air-based support, an air mattress is the superior sleep option between the two, often providing pocketed air coils for additional comfort, which means that they are suitable as longer term temporary sleep solutions. 

The comfort and support that an air mattress provides doesn’t quite match that of the best mattresses, but they are certainly a sturdier option than regular inflatable mattresses (or air beds), which are cost effective, portable options that are great for overnight stays or camping trips. So, which air bed best suits your sleep needs? Let’s take a closer look at the key differences between an air mattress and an inflatable mattress… 

What is an air mattress?

Air mattresses, sometimes known as airbeds, are the more luxurious option in the air mattress vs inflatable mattress options. These are designed to be sturdier than a basic inflatable mattress and come in heights similar to a proper mattress. For example, the King Koil Luxury Air Mattress comes in three different height options of 13, 16 and 20 inches.

A woman sits cross legged on a beige King Koil air mattress

(Image credit: King Koil)

These mattresses have more structure than an inflatable mattress, offering some layering and plushness to make the sleeping experience closer to sleeping on a real mattress. You’ll even find air mattresses that have internal air-filled coils to provide support. Air mattresses are ideal for guests as they are comfortable enough to sleep on for longer periods and can even be placed on a bed frame for an extra level of support.

What is an inflatable mattress?

Inflatable mattresses are designed for short term use and camping trips. They are much thinner mattresses that are made to be as portable as possible. Expect most to come in at under 10 inches tall, with many needing the purchase of a separate pump to inflate them. An inflatable mattress is a cheaper option than an air mattress, but you obviously won’t get such a luxurious finish. 

A blue inflatable air mattress placed on the floor

(Image credit: Target)

You could consider an inflatable mattress the next step up from a camping mat, as the addition of air makes them more padded and comfortable. You’ll also get a nicer sleeping surface, with some cushioning from the added air. Inflatable mattresses are the ideal choice for campers as they’re highly portable but will still allow you to sleep raised up off the ground, preventing sleepers from getting cold and damp overnight.

Air mattress vs Inflatable mattress: Key differences

  • Air mattresses are thicker than inflatable mattresses 
  • Air mattresses often come with either an external or internal pump
  • Inflatable mattresses are lighter and more portable 

Back-to-back, an air mattress will look closer to a proper mattress than an inflatable option. Air mattresses are thicker and designed to resemble proper mattresses, with some models giving impressive height options. In fact, some are as tall or taller than our number one mattress choice in the US, the Saatva Classic

By contrast, an inflatable mattress will normally be under 10 inches in height. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing when you consider that inflatable mattresses are designed to be more portable and easier to carry around for camping trips.

Costs are lower with an inflatable mattress, although you may often find that you need to buy a pump separately. By contrast, we’ve found that nearly all air mattresses come with either an external or internal pump. Self-inflating mattresses, where the internal pump does the work at the push of a button are obviously the ideal choice for any of these mattresses.

You’ll also find more structure to an air mattress, with some layering and plushness to help enhance the sleeping experience. As mentioned above, some air mattresses will have additional features such as internal air-filled coils to give the mattress more support, structure and stability. They can have raised edges for better stability or built-in frames whereas inflatable mattresses are just an air chamber with a valve for inflation and deflation. 

Air mattress vs Inflatable mattress: Long-term health

  • Inflatable mattresses do not offer much support for sleepers
  • Air mattresses are designed to offer some support
  • Neither type will match the support you’ll get from a proper mattress 

Most of us have probably woken up with occasional aches and pains and, of course, the wrong mattress or one that’s too old can cause back pain in and of itself. Although firm mattresses aren’t always the best for back or other pain, an inflatable or air mattress isn’t going to provide the a solution either. Ultimately, these blow-up beds aren’t supportive enough to help with aches and pains and will probably cause them if slept on for too long. 

Obviously, an air mattress is more supportive than an inflatable mattress and you’ll be fine sleeping on this for a week or two. But long-term health requires a properly supportive mattress that cradles your pressure points and provides plenty of cushioning and support. 

Should you buy an air mattress or inflatable mattress?

Buy an air mattress if...

✅  You want a supportive occasional guest bed: For those of us who live in smaller homes, an air mattress is ideal for guests. Supportive enough to provide a comfortable night’s sleep, it will deflate and fold away for storage when not in use. 

✅   You want an adjustable inflatable mattress: Most air mattresses have the ability to adjust the firmness of them, meaning you can make the mattress comfortable for your own specific requirements. 

Don’t by an air mattress if… 

You are of a heavier build: Even the best air mattresses are unlikely to be supportive enough if you’re of a heavier build, which could lead to aches and pains as you sink too far into the mattress. 

You want a permanent solution: An air mattress is fine to sleep on for a few weeks, but it’s not a permanent solution and certainly doesn’t provide enough support to be a long-term bed.

Buy an inflatable mattress if...

✅  You need something lightweight and portable: Inflatable mattresses are much lighter than air mattresses and an ideal solution for things such as camping trips. 

✅   You’re on a budget: You can pick up a decent inflatable mattress for far less than an air mattress, making them a good choice for those on a tighter budget. 

Don't buy an inflatable mattress if... 

You need a mattress that can be used for more than a day or two: Inflatable mattresses might be fine for short camping trips, but they’re really not the most comfortable options for longer use. 

You want a durable mattress: Although well made, inflatable mattresses are still generally made of materials that can puncture or deflate over time. 

Jo Plumridge
Mattress tester and sleep writer

Jo Plumridge is an experienced mattress reviewer with several years' experience covering all things mattresses and sleep, and who tests memory foam, hybrid and organic mattresses. What Jo doesn't know about a boxed mattress isn't worth knowing, so naturally we tasked her with producing a series of features for Tom's Guide looking at all aspects of mattresses, from how to pick between latex and memory foam (it's a tricky one), to the seven mistakes people make when buying a mattress for the first time. When testing the DreamCloud Luxury Hybrid for Tom's Guide, Jo said: "I loved the back support and pressure relief it offered. Plus, it looks far more expensive than it is." When she isn’t writing about sleep, Jo also writes extensively on interior design, home products and photography.