You should think about buying a new mattress if you wake up tired or achy, you tend to sleep better at hotels than at home, your mattress looks saggy or lumpy, or your mattress is at least five to seven years old. Use this mattress guide to help with your purchase.
Choose a size
Most sleepers shift positions during the night, and cramped quarters can keep them from moving freely. Standard mattress dimensions are king, 76x80 inches; California king, 72x84 inches; queen, 60x80 inches; full, or double, 53x75 inches; and twin, 38x75 inches.
Consider an innerspring first
A conventional innerspring mattress is the most common choice and often the least expensive. Memory foam, which was developed to protect astronauts against g-forces, is heat-sensitive and conforms to your body. Tempur-Pedic is the big name in memory foam, but there are other brands. Not all memory foam feels the same, and it can take time to get used to. Many of today's innersprings, billed as "hybrids," add one or more layers of foam over the springs. Another option is an adjustable-air mattress; with this inflatable kind, you can typically choose a different firmness for each half of the bed. Select Comfort (which manufactures Sleep Number) is the major brand, though other manufacturers, such as Tempur-Pedic, have entered the fray.
Decide where to shop
Buy at a store, not online or over the phone, unless you've already tried the identical mattress in a store. A product manager for Tempur-Pedic told us that more online customers return their mattresses than shoppers who buy in a store. Online sellers, however, are growing in popularity due to no-risk return policies. If you're buying online, always check the terms.
Department stores have frequent sales and lots of brands, but they can be crowded, cluttered, and short on helpful sales staff. Bedding stores such as Sleepy's and 1-800-Mattress, and some furniture stores, offer plenty of variety and are often less crowded. We found the salespeople at these stores more attentive and sometimes more willing to bargain. Start out with the least expensive bed from a few top brands, and work your way up in cost. Hint: Stores keep the priciest models up front.
Company stores selling only Duxiana or Select Comfort provided especially good service, because employees can afford to take time with customers. Queen-size sets cost about $5,000 to $8,000 at Duxiana (there's no bargaining) and about $900 to $3,800 at Select Comfort (there are occasional sales). One specialty bed we tested, Tempur-Pedic, is sold at a variety of stores, but we found that discounts have historically been few and far between.
Understand the name game
Manufacturers usually modify innerspring mattresses for different sellers, changing the color, padding, quilting pattern, and so forth. Then each seller can call the mattress by a different name. Consumers are the losers. Because such mattresses are at least somewhat different, and the names vary, you can't comparison-shop. (A big chain such as Sears or Bloomingdale's has the same model names for the same beds at all of its stores, usually at the same price.)
Some mattress makers provide helpful information on their websites. Go to www.simmons.com, for example, and you'll find basic information about the company's flagship Beautyrest lines, including TruEnergy, ComforPedic, Natural Care, and BeautySleep. You'll see those names wherever you find Beautyrest, and all beds in each line share attributes.
Choose the right firmness
Don't rely on descriptors. One company's ultraplush might be another's supersoft. Orthopedists once recommended sleeping on an extremely firm mattress, but there's little evidence to support that view. The best surface is purely subjective, says a spokesman for the Stanford University Center for Human Sleep Research.
A study published in the British medical journal Lancet suggested that people who suffer from lower back pain would benefit from a medium-firm mattress. That made sense to several experts we interviewed. If a mattress is too firm, it won't support the body evenly and may cause discomfort at the heaviest points (hips and shoulders). If it's too soft, a sleeper could sink into the surface and have a hard time moving, which could cause tingling, numbness, or aches.
Alan Hedge, Ph.D., professor of ergonomics at Cornell University, noted that the best mattress supports the spine at all points while allowing it to maintain its natural curve. By age 40, Hedge said, skin loses elasticity and becomes more sensitive to pressure points, so a softer, more cushiony surface is more comfortable. "Slightly softer works better because there's less compression on the skin," he said.
Do the 15-minute, in-store test
Don't be embarrassed to lie down on lots of mattresses in the store. Salespeople expect it. Wear loose clothes and shoes that you can slip off. Spend at least five 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. On the whole, their opinions were the same as those of our in-store testers, about 75 percent of whom told us, in a recent subscriber survey, that trying out the mattress beforehand helped them sleep better.
Do you need a new box spring?
Foundations can sell for as much as the mattress, even though they're generally just a wood frame enclosing stiff wire and covered with fabric to match the mattress.
We found that companies frequently pair the same foundation with mattresses in different price ranges. You can save by buying a higher-priced mattress and a lower-priced foundation. Once the bed is made, no one will know. If the old box has bouncy springs instead of stiff wire, it should be replaced. And 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.
If your current foundation is only a few years old, with no rips, warps, creaks, or "give," consider using it with a new mattress. Though most respondents to our recent subscriber survey replaced their foundation with their mattress, roughly 80 percent of those who kept their old one reported that they were sleeping better after replacing just the mattress. So if your box spring isn't broken and is still structurally sound, consider keeping it and saving several hundred dollars.
If your new mattress is extra-thick, consider pairing it with a "low profile" foundation, 4 to 6 inches thick, to reduce height.
Be wary of 'comparables'
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 that's supposed to have the same construction, components, and firmness. It's unlikely. 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 comparables. Retailers that claim to sell them, insiders say, generally snoop in competing stores and compile a list of beds that appear equivalent. But 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 mattresses were way off the mark. A two-sided mattress, for example, was said to be comparable to a one-sided bed. Ultimately, there's no way for you to know which mattress is actually the same as or comparable to one in another store.
Look for a comfort guarantee
Some retailers give you two weeks to several months to return or exchange a mattress or box spring you don't like. Everyone plays by different rules, and a store return usually costs you. At Macy's, you're encouraged to let your body adjust to the mattress; then you have 60 days to contact the company about returning or exchanging it, but you'll pay a $75 pickup fee plus a 15 percent "usage" fee. Sears has a 30-day comfort policy (with 60 days to return or exchange it); similarly, you'll pay return shipping plus a 15-percent restocking fee.
Don't count on warranties
They cover defects in materials and workmanship, not comfort or normal wear and are usually in effect for 10 years. Some mattress warranties don't cover full replacement value; instead, an annual usage charge is deducted from the current retail price.
When you make a claim, the store or manufacturer sends an inspector to your house. You'll need to show a receipt. If you say the mattress has sagged, the inspector checks whether the dip is below the allowable limit, 1 1/2 inches for an innerspring. (For a foam bed, the allowable limit is about half that.) A company will void a warranty if you've removed the "do not remove" tag, if the mattress is soiled, or if it has uneven support from a box spring or frame—a common reason for sagging, says a Simmons spokesman.
Wait for a sale, and bargain
Specialty mattresses usually have a set price, but you can save at least 50 percent off list price for an innerspring. Ads for "blowout" sales make such events seem rare. They aren't. If the price is good, buy; if not, wait. Our shopper spent $1,300 more for a Serta Perfect Sleeper set at one Sears store than for the same set at another Sears a week later.
An advertised "bargain" may not be all it seems, so read the fine print. A flyer from one store we saw touted 75 percent savings on mattresses, but a footnote revealed that the list price from which the discount was calculated "may not be based on actual sales."
Have options at several stores
If you're ready to shop elsewhere, you may be able to get a discount. When our reporter asked a salesman at a 1-800-Mattress showroom whether there was a better deal at the company's website, the salesman said he'd double the value of a $100 Internet coupon if the bed was bought at the store.
Seal the deal
Ask about trial periods, return policies, and restocking and pickup fees before buying—especially at warehouse clubs such as Costco or Sam's Club, where you can't try out mattresses. Also ask about disposal of your old mattress. (Some deliverers will take it to the curb; others charge to cart it away). Insist on a no-substitutions clause in the sales agreement, in case the bed you ordered is out of stock. When it's delivered, check for stains and other damage. Insist on a replacement if you're not happy.
Leave the tag on
In case you have to file a warranty claim, you'll need that do-not-remove-under-penalty-of-law label that's sewn onto the mattress. (If the tag isn't there, don't buy the mattress.) While the stern warning is aimed at retailers and manufacturers, not consumers, removing the tag could come back to haunt you if you can't resolve a warranty problem with the retailer and you need to plead your case to the manufacturer. The tags are important because they contain identifying information, a description of the filling (for example, polyester, goose down, feathers, or cotton) and the percentage of each, whether—and how much of—the materials are new or used, and details about flame retardancy. Other labeling requirements include country of origin (for example, "Made in the U.S.A. of imported materials" or "Shell made in China, filled and finished in the U.S.A."), and the name of the manufacturer, importer, distributor, or vendor. We checked the policies of three of the largest mattress makers, Sealy, Serta, and Simmons, and all agreed that you must have the tag in order to have your claim processed. What's not 100-percent clear is whether the tag must be permanently attached to the mattress or whether it's adequate simply to possess a tag that's been cut off. We suggest you play it safe and leave the tag alone.