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The Best Travel Mug Today

By Jacqui Cheng, The Sweethome

If you're looking for a new insulated travel mug and want a high-quality replacement, the Zojirushi Stainless Mug has the best balance of heat retention and versatility. Here's why.

If you're looking for a new insulated travel mug and want a high-quality replacement, the Zojirushi Stainless Mug has the best balance of heat retention and versatility. It kept coffee at least 10 degrees hotter after 8 hours than the next travel mug down on our list—just enough to make the difference between drinkable and lukewarm. Though it's at the higher end of the price spectrum, its well-designed exterior, one-handed usability and easy-to-use locking mechanism make it well worth it for something you’ll likely use on a regular basis. Plus, it will never, ever spill in your bag.

The Zojirushi is undoubtedly the best overall travel mug, but it is a bit on the skinny side. If fitting snuggly in your car or bike cup holder is a top priority, get the $20 OXO Good Grips LiquiSeal Travel Mug. It will only keep your drink at an ideal temperature for 1-2 hours, but that’s enough if you plan on just sipping while you commute.

We also have a bottle brush recommendation for when you need to clean the gunk out from time to time.

Who’s This For?

There are literally thousands of bottles, mugs, thermoses, sippy cups and other devices out there meant to transport your hot liquids from one place to another. Most of them fall into one of two camps: products that are meant for you to drink from while commuting, and those that are meant mostly for transportation that you drink or pour from later, at the comfort of your desk. A large majority of the travel bottles/mugs on the market are aimed toward the everyday office commuter, though some are heavier duty and geared toward those who like to camp or hike. We leaned toward the former group because it’s better to have the option to drink on the go than to not have it. That said, we think our choice of the Zojirushi Stainless Mug would also work for campers/hikers due to its exceptional heat retention capabilities.

The type of person who would buy one of these things is one who likes to make his or her own hot drink at home to take with them throughout the day—perhaps because of stingy office mates, or perhaps because of the horrible quality coffee and tea out in the world. You usually want the coffee to stay hot at least through the duration of your commute, if not for several hours after you arrive at the office. You want the mug to be easy-to-use in the car or at your desk and so leakproof that you could toss it into your bag or briefcase without worrying about ruining your gadgets.

There’s one kind of person who insulated travel mugs are not for: hardcore coffee snobs.

There’s one kind of person who insulated travel mugs are not for: hardcore coffee snobs.

We talked to 2012 US Barista Champion Katie Carguilo and New Yorker technology editor (and the author of our Coffee Gear guide) Matt Buchanan. Both agreed that the best way to enjoy a high-quality cup of coffee would be to drink it out of an open-air container within 15-20 minutes of it being brewed. This is because the flavor of good coffee begins to degrade the minute it’s brewed, so the still-piping-hot coffee from your travel mug will taste different 6 hours later than it would if it was freshly brewed.

“Coffee’s enemy is oxygen, so the longer it sits around (hot or not), the more stale the flavor will be,” Carguilo said via e-mail.

If you’re really, really into coffee, this could be the factor that makes you decide against a travel mug. However, Carguilo and Buchanan also both agreed that good coffee, when kept hot in a travel mug for several hours, is still better than buying Starbucks/McDonald’s/Dunkin coffee on the road. So while a travel mug might not be the most ideal for coffee drinkers with delicate palates, it’s still a useful device for when you know you’re going to be traveling.

Why Stainless Steel?

Travel mugs tend to come in three basic materials: plastic, glass/ceramic or stainless steel. According to previous tests performed by Cook’s Illustrated, all-plastic mugs can’t retain heat for more than an hour, and all-ceramic no more than 30 minutes. Good Housekeeping agreed, stating that plastic and ceramic mugs don’t retain heat for long and break easily. That wasn’t acceptable to them or us, so all-plastic and all-glass mugs were out. Indeed, when you look at various other guides that have been written on the subject, including an extensive heat retention test performed by Tested, the ones that rise to the top are always stainless steel—double-walled, vacuum-insulated stainless steel.

Occasionally, travel mugs come with a stainless steel exterior and a ceramic or glass interior. This option tends to be most ideal for those with sharp palates—people who can taste (and care about) a change in flavor when drinking coffee directly out of a stainless steel container. And certainly those people are out there; both Carguilo and Buchanan reported that they’d prefer not to drink out of a container with a stainless steel lining, but for slightly different reasons. Carguilo argues stainless steel keeps the coffee hot for so long that by the time it gets to proper drinking temperature, the coffee has lost most of its natural flavor. Buchanan, on the other hand, argues that all to-go containers are poor drinking vessels because “taste is 90 percent smell, and if you’re brewing nice coffee, you want to taste it.”

As such, it would seem easy to assume that coffee experts would never use or recommend a container with a stainless steel lining, but that would be wrong. The problem with glass or ceramic interiors is that they can still break easily: one wrong drop or bump and your minor investment is in bits on the floor. This was a common problem among the ones we researched in this category, and few people are happy after spending money on something that breaks. When it comes to materials, our experts recommended sticking with stainless steel all around for durability reasons—and if you feel you can taste a tinny flavor, try pouring the coffee out into an open-air mug before drinking it.

Some people actually prefer stainless steel interiors, too. According to Will, who performed his own extensive tests on insulated travel mugs, a container with a stainless steel interior is easier to clean and remove the coffee taste if you want to use the mug for anything else (water, tea, etc.).

Regardless of palate sophistication (or lack thereof), our experts and research agreed that a vacuum sealed travel mug made entirely out of stainless steel (save for the lids) was the best choice for most uses. It retains heat the best out of all the available materials and is the least breakable, which is a double win.

How We Picked

The Final Six.
Despite limiting our focus to all-stainless models, there were still hundreds of options to consider.

Despite limiting our focus to all-stainless models, there were still hundreds of options to consider. So, we turned to a number of publications to see what they liked the best and which criteria they used. The three best guides on the subject are the previously mentioned ones by Tested and Cook’s Illustrated, and another one from Good Housekeeping, which all took a slightly different angle to evaluating travel mugs. We also considered the most highly-rated ones from Amazon. From there, we focused on models that were highly ranked for heat retention and ease-of-use, taking extra care to select ones that would be easier to clean as well.

In the end, we were faced with six travel mugs to test ourselves: the Zojirushi Stainless Mug,Zojirushi Tuff Mug, Thermos Nissan, Thermos Vacuum Insulated Travel Mug, Contigo Autoseal West Loop, and the OXO GoodGrips LiquiSeal Travel Mug.

How We Tested

According to Carguilo, and supported by the findings at Cook’s Illustrated, coffee is typically brewed at about 200°F and the best temperature to drink is at roughly 145-155°F. There’s some debate over the technical ideal when it comes to the temperature for coffee drinking, but we used Carguilo’s guidance to perform our tests. Subjectively when it came to drinking temperature, 155°F came off as a little too hot for my liking (but was still drinkable), while coffee seemed quite pleasantly hot to me down to about 140°F. Anything below that started to feel lukewarm.

The tests themselves were very similar to those performed by Tested: I poured freshly brewed coffee into each of the mugs and measured their temperature using a candy thermometer. Then I measured the temperature in each of the bottles every hour for 8 hours.

To measure leaks, I poured hot, green water (thanks food coloring!) into each of the mugs and set them on their sides in a messenger bag overnight, and I performed the same tests again while setting them completely upside down on a white towel overnight. None of the mugs leaked by any noticeable amount.

I also dropped them all several times with no major explosions or breaks, though stainless steel has a tendency to dent if you drop it too much over time.

A good mug should be both easy to open and close with one hand, ideally without having to spend too much time looking at it.

Another important criteria that’s not easy to measure objectively is one-handed ease of use. If you’re going to be using it while driving or biking (not that we recommend it), you’ll definitely need at least one hand free and probably both eyes. A good mug should be both easy to open and close with one hand, ideally without having to spend too much time looking at it.

The locking mechanism is another crucial part of the mug because if you’re carrying it in the same bag as your computer, the last thing you want is for it to spill everywhere when you hit a pothole or bump in the road. Not all the models we tested had this function, but among the ones that did, some were definitely better designed than others.

As far as cleaning goes, none of the mugs we tested were recommended for dishwasher use because dishwashers introduce heat and water pressure to the vacuum seal, which can degrade the bottle’s ability to retain heat over time. Really it’s a question of which mug is easiest to clean by hand; bodies are not a huge problem, but the ability to disassemble the lid matters.

Our Pick

The Zojirushi Stainless Mug was my top choice because of its superior heat/cold retention (allowing you to choose whenever you want to drink your coffee), good leakproof seals, an easy-to-use locking mechanism that I can trust if I want to throw it into a bag and its ease of one-handed use. It doesn’t leak, it doesn’t spill, it’s pretty tough, can take a bit of a beating, and is the most versatile out of all the mugs in the lineup. It also has the best overall Amazon reviews, and comes recommended from several trustworthy publications.

It doesn’t leak, it doesn’t spill, it’s pretty tough, can take a bit of a beating, and is the most versatile out of all the mugs in the lineup.

Among the six mugs/bottles that made our testing criteria, the Zojirushi Stainless Mug tied the Zojirushi Tuff Mug for the number one spot when it came to retaining heat: the Zojirushi Stainless Mug had only dropped by about 37 degrees over a period of 8 hours. That is to say that if you pour it in at 200°F and come back 8 hours later, the coffee should still be hovering around the 160°F mark—still on the hot end of the acceptable drinking range. That’s pretty impressive, considering that none of other mugs in our lineup (save for the Tuff Mug) kept our coffee above lukewarm level after 8 hours. For comparison, the OXO mug I tested dropped the coffee temperature by 95.6 degrees over 8 hours, Contigo dropped by 89.1 degrees, and the Thermos mug dropped by 62.8 degrees. Only the Thermos Nissan came close with a 47.3 degree drop.

But heat retention alone isn’t enough to be the best. Despite the fact that the Tuff Mug is great at retaining heat, it would probably be the last one we’d get because it’s difficult to use with one hand since it requires you to screw the top off.

With caps open: Zojirushi Stainless Mug (left) and Thermos Nissan (right).

Thankfully, the Zojirushi Stainless Mug is easy-to-use, especially one-handed. The lid can lock and unlock by pressing a button, allowing you to drink from it easily without looking. But unlike most of the competition (save for the Thermos Nissan), it also has a secondary locking mechanism that allows you to keep the seals extra-secure when needed. But the secondary lock isn’t necessary if you’re actively drinking from it: it’s easy to feel for the button and pop it open, take a sip, and pop it closed to put back into a cup holder.

The sliding lock (the secondary locking mechanism) is meant to prevent accidents from happening should you throw it in a bag with your gadgets. Just flip a switch and you’re practically guaranteed that there’s no way it will pop open when you don’t want it to. I would feel very comfortable putting it into a bag and letting it roll around on its side or upside down without any consequences. The Thermos Nissan had a similar mechanism, but it requires you to manually click a metal loop onto the latch. While it isn’t “difficult,” it isn’t as convenient as just flipping a switch on the Zojirushi.

It’s also easy to clean with a quick rinse using some soap and sometimes a bottle brush when necessary. Also, unlike some of its competitors like the Contigo, the plastic lid can be completely disassembled for cleaning out any smells or gunk that might get lodged in hard-to-reach places. Finally, Zojirushi is generally good about replacing parts that take a bad trip through the dishwasher, according to Smith.

Although we didn’t place much focus on keeping cold liquids cold—check out our water bottle review for what’s best for that—we did find that the Zojirushi Stainless Mug retained cold better than all six of the other mugs in our lineup. Over a period of 8 hours, it only allowed our icy-cold 33°F water to rise by four degrees, while the others in our lineup allowed the temperature to rise considerably more during that time. So, if you’re looking for a dual-use container that can preserve both hot and cold well, the Zojirushi Stainless Mug can hold its own.

It did show a few scuffs when doing drop tests, but not any worse than the other options. None of them broke, though, so it’s really a 6 way tie in terms of durability.

At roughly $33, the Zojirushi was on the higher end of the price range, but it’s worth the handful of extra dollars over the competition because of the container’s superior construction and performance. After all, the entire point of a travel mug/bottle is to keep your drinks hot and not spill them everywhere, so it’s worth the extra cost to make sure you’re carrying a high-quality product.

Who Else Likes It?

An older version of the Zojirushi Stainless Mug was Tested’s choice for Best Thermal Mug, and Will told us he continues to use a newer version of the mug today. In Tested’s tests, the Zojirushi didn’t retain heat quite as well as heavier-duty bottles that come with separate cup tops, but those are generally bulkier and require you to keep track of more parts—not quite so good for the everyday commuter.

Good Housekeeping also named the Zojirushi an “outstanding performer at keeping drinks hot or cold,” and said it was easy to open and won’t obscure your line of sight when drinking.

When it comes to Amazon reviews, it’s pretty hard to argue against the Zojirushi Stainless Mug. With 244 reviews and a solid five-star average, customers have almost worked themselves up into a fanatical tizzy over this mug. The number of one-star reviews can be counted on one hand (four, as of this writing), and two of those object to it being made in Thailand.

Of the other 213 five-star and 22 four-star reviews, it’s hard to find one that encapsulates the overall feeling about this mug, but this one is pretty close: “[A]fter making some very hot tea that I planned to take with me the next day, I filled up my [mug], sealed it, and placed it in the fridge for over twelve hours. Got up the next morning, took my shower, went to have a small sip of my delicious tea and damn near burned my tongue. You just can’t beat that!”

Better for Cupholders

Here’s the one area where we think something other than the Zojirushi Stainless Mug or Thermos Nissan might be best. The Zojirushi and the Nissan are both fairly tall and thin, so they rattled around a bit when placed into a standard car’s cup holder. They did not tip over completely, even when I purposely knocked them around a bit, but they weren’t very secure and made me nervous while driving around.

This OXO will fit much better in your cupholders and has an easy-to-find button up top that opens and close the seal without forcing you to hunt around for it.

That’s why, if you’re someone who spends a good amount of time in your car and you like to drink your freshly brewed coffee while driving to work, something like the stainless steel OXO Good Grips LiquiSeal Travel Mug might be a better choice. This $20 mug is more geared toward the person who is actively drinking from the container, meaning it’s designed to fit the hand a little better in addition to your car’s cup holder. The OXO doesn’t retain heat nearly as well as much of its competition: somewhere between 1 and 2 hours after brewing coffee at 200°F, the liquid temperature falls into lukewarm state, so you’ll definitely want to drink it within the first 1.5 hours after pouring.

But if you like to drink while driving in the car to work, this could be the perfect solution. The coffee will be at a drinkable temperature while you’re driving, it will fit into your cup holder securely, and it’s easy-to-use while your eyes are on the road. It has a top-oriented push button that opens and closes the seal, so you can pop it open to take a sip and then pop it closed so it doesn’t spill everywhere in the event of a fender bender. I would not trust this mug on its own inside of my messenger bag or briefcase, but for active, in-car use, the OXO gets our vote.

The Competition

As we mentioned earlier, there’s plenty of competition out there—they’re all over the map and extremely similar at the same time. And truth be told, most will do a halfway decent job of keeping your coffee warm. Like smartphones making phone calls, insulated travel mugs can (mostly) perform their basic function, but the devil is always in the details.

The container that was the most like the Zojirushi Stainless Mug was the Thermos Nissan Stainless Steel Backpack Bottle. The design is almost exactly the same: a double-walled, stainless steel bottle with a screw-on top that has a button you can push to pop it open, and a separate locking mechanism for throwing into a bag. It did a pretty good job of keeping our coffee hot, too—it came in second place after the two Zojirushis (which were tied) and was the only other bottle in our lineup that kept coffee at barely-above lukewarm temperature after 8 hours. The main reason it lost out to the Zojirushi is that the secondary locking mechanism, which is just a metal loop that fits over the front of the lid, can be finicky for those who have ham hands (such as myself) or anyone who might be fiddling with it while driving. Plus, the Nissan is only about $5 less than our top pick, so why go with second best?

As mentioned earlier in this review, we also considered the Zojirushi Tuff Mug—very similar to the Zojirushi Stainless Mug in its design and functionality. The Tuff Mug performed exceptionally well in our heat retention tests (it was basically tied with our top pick) but got the boot because of usability issues. The Tuff Mug mysteriously has a completely removable top lid and a difficult-to-understand drinking mechanism; I gave it to several very technical friends to mess with and no one could figure out how to make the liquid come out upon first blush. Separate parts means more things to lose when you’re out and about, and confusing usage means murder for someone trying to keep their eyes on the road. You also can’t completely disassemble the top, meaning it might harbor smells or gunk later on.

We also tested a Thermos Vacuum Insulated Mug (with tea hook), arguably the only container we tested that is actually shaped like a traditional mug. While we liked the look of it, the heat retention was just so-so–it was only able to keep coffee at or above optimal drinking temperature for about 4 hours—and we found the tea hook to be unnecessary. (There are people who use these containers for tea, and most of the time, they just plop the tea bag into the bottle without any problem.) The Thermos Mug has a push-button interface just like the OXO discussed above: there’s a button on the top that you press in when you want to drink and press again to seal it back up again. Again, it can be confusing to determine whether the button is in the up or down position just by looking at it, meaning you may find yourself pressing it over and over again to figure out whether it’s open or closed. When there are better options out there: no thanks.

And finally, we tested the 16 oz version of the Contigo Autoseal West Loop. Like the OXO, the Contigo is clearly designed more as an active drinking vessel than something you’ll throw in a bag to drink later at work. It’s wider, so it fits more securely in a cup holder, and it has a one-button interface so you can easily take a sip without having to look at it. The downsides here were that it had about the same level of heat retention as the OXO (which is to say not very much). The Contigo was only able to keep our coffee above lukewarm for between 1 and 2 hours, which might be fine if you make your coffee at home and drink it while driving to work, but it’s not particularly versatile for other situations. In this case, we just happened to like the OXO’s drinking button better than the Contigo, though in reality, the two could almost be used interchangeably.

There were several others that we considered but didn’t place into our final tests. For example, there’s the Contigo Extreme Mug, which Good Housekeeping says can obscure your view when drinking—bad for drivers—and can be uncomfortable to sip from.

Bodum also makes a combination French press + travel mug that sounds appealing because you can literally brew your coffee inside the mug as you take it with you. In reality, though, it’s not much different than brewing the coffee first and pouring it into the mug (in fact, it might be worse because the Bodum will keep your coffee grounds in contact with the hot water for much longer, therefore changing the flavor and making it more acidic). Additionally, as those familiar with French presses know, it could leave you with coffee ground bits floating around in your coffee.

Care and Maintenance

If you’re drinking anything besides water, gunk will build up over time. If you don’t like gunk, you’ll need to clean your mug from time to time and the best way to do that is with a bottle brush and some baking soda and vinegar. After a couple hours of research, we found that the best bottle cleaning set out there is the $13 OXO Good Grips Bottle Cleaning set. It comes with a large bottle brush, a skinny straw brush, and a looped detail cleaning brush, all kept together by a handy ring so you won’t lose any of the parts. The set is dishwasher safe, and after 96 separate reviews it doesn’t have a single one-star review on Amazon, so it’s a pretty good bet for anyone looking to get gunk out of their hard-to-clean items. We bought a couple sets to confirm their quality and they are as good as we thought they would be.

The set has a skinny straw brush, large bottle brush, and a looped detail cleaning brush, which is all you need for keeping your travel mug squeaky clean.

The competition offers similar products for a similar price point—the OXO set is $12.99—but there are downfalls. A $9.99 set from Contigo generally serves the same purpose, but some users think the bristles are too soft and that the entire set is difficult to store, especially since they are not held together by anything. There is another bottle brush kit for just over$14 from Camelback, but it doesn’t come with a detail brush and users generally feel the quality isn’t as high as the brushes from OXO.

Wrapping It Up

If you want a reliable travel mug/bottle that can be used either to drink from directly or pour into a separate mug, the Zojirushi Stainless Mug is the top of the tops. It retains heat for an obscenely long time, allowing you to brew your favorite coffee at home and take it with you to work, school, or on road trips without having to reheat it all day. And it definitely won’t leak in your bag and ruin your gadgets.

This guide originally appeared in The Sweethome on 9/26/13 and is republished here with permission.