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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, 76x80 inches; California king, 72x84; full, or double, 53x75; and twin, 38x75.) 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.

Find the Best Mattress for Any Sleeper

For more, watch our interactive video. You can skip to chapters on the different types of mattresses, tips for test driving a mattress, and more.

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.

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.

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.

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.