As an avid aviation geek, the grand opening of TWA Hotel at JFK Airport is more than just an Instagrammable locale. It’s history! More than a year ago, after reading about the renovation of the Trans World Airlines Flight Center, Bob and I made a plan to book a stay during the opening weekend. In fact, my love of this hotel became so widely known in close circles, that my boss was kind enough to text me in February at the very moment the TWA website’s reservation system was live. I booked within minutes.
Last weekend, we headed to NYC to celebrate the grand opening of this historic space. As a long-time collector of vintage fashion and a lover of films from the 1950s and 60s, I was eager to take a step back in time for a couple days.
Unfortunately, I quickly discovered the TWA Hotel was not ready for takeoff, and they should have delayed their departure. While it’s an incredibly photogenic spot and gaining international media attention, our stay at the hotel amounted to a comedy of errors… one after another after another. It was the first weekend the property was open, so I completely understand there are kinks to work out. Sadly, it was one of the worst hotel stays I have had in recent memory.
If you’ve read my blog for any amount of time, you know that I am quick to rave about our travel experiences. When I venture to a new destination or try out a new-to-me property, I tend to focus only on the good, because the negatives are usually minimal.
The best part of our stay? The architecture and aesthetics (hence the fun photos). Everything else was a complete mess, and I would hate to let any of my photos to convince anyone to go out of there way to book a stay here. In fact, I won’t even go into the worst aspects of our stay, but I’ll go in-depth enough to give you an idea of why I was counting the minutes until check out.
First, a little background on the property…
What is the TWA Hotel JFK Airport?
The TWA Hotel is JFK Airport’s only on-airport hotel, and located just steps from Terminal 5 and a short AirTrain ride to all other terminals. Most importantly, it’s the former Trans World Airlines Flight Center. To understand the journey of the hotel, it’s important to peel back the history.
Trans World Airlines Flight Center History
The Trans World Airlines Flight Center at JFK officially opened in 1962. Many still call it the “cathedral of aviation.” From what I understand, it was more than just an airport terminal – it was a vibrant hub for travelers. It was almost like a “third place” for visitors (i.e. how we think of Starbucks or Panera today – but far more chic). It was even referred to as “the Grand Central of the jet age” by architect Robert A. M. Stern.
The space was originally designed by Finnish-born architect, Eero Saarinen, who also happens to be the same architect of the St. Louis Arch. His name alone, “Eero” is quite fitting; it sounds like “aero” (i.e. air, atmosphere, etc.), doesn’t it?! He’s also known for designing several iconic pieces of furniture such as the “Tulip” chair and the “Womb” chair, both of which are readily used to this day in mid-century-inspired interiors.
A week before our stay, CBS Sunday Morning featured a segment on the TWA Flight Center, and I learned it was shuttered back in 2001. Before closing, it was featured in the Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks movie, Catch Me If You Can. For the past 18 years, it sat empty – a relic to an iconic era of architecture and travel. In 2005 the terminal (aka “Head House”) was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Years later, developer Tyler Morse stepped in with a plan to renovate the space in a unique way. Enter TWA Hotel.
Design + Architecture of the TWA Hotel JFK Airport
The building underwent a $300 million renovation to bring it back to its original beauty. One of my favorite facts about the design is there are no right angles in the building. They’ve also maintained the iconic departure boards (i.e. the “flippers) which were restored to 1962 glory.
When Will TWA Hotel JFK Airport Open?
The hotel opened to the public on Wednesday, May 15, 2019. Since we booked our reservations back in February, we were able to stay there for the very first weekend and, going into it, I couldn’t have been more excited!
Our Stay at the TWA Hotel
By now, you may be saying, “OK Jenn, enough of the history lesson, just give me your review of the TWA Hotel!” Well, here goes nothing…
In a word, it was bad. Really bad. Do I think it will get better after several months? Possibly. Would I recommend you spend money booking a stay there anytime soon? Absolutely not. If you happen to be taking a JetBlue flight from JFK you should definitely walk across the terminal and check out the space. It really is a sight to be seen. Just don’t go out of your way to stay there overnight.
The problems with our weekend began the moment I arrived. After flying from LA to Newark, I took a car all the way to JFK airport in Queens (I told you I was excited for our stay here)! Why didn’t I just fly directly to JFK do you ask? Well, as many of you know, I am a United loyalist (love them)!, and they haven’t had any operations at JFK airport since 2015. Regardless, I thought the TWA Hotel would be worth the effort (and loooooong car ride). I was wrong.
I arrived at about 7:00 PM on Friday only to find out that my room wasn’t available. That was a major surprise (and disappointment) since check-in time is 4:00 PM. Thankfully my friend Allie came along to see the space, so she and I found a spot at the lounge and promptly ordered drinks and a cheese plate (PS – if you want three more crackers, it will be an extra $5 charge). About an hour later, I went back to the reception area and found out that my room was ready. Given that I had to wait until four hours past their posted check-in time, one of the receptionists generously offered me a $100 credit towards my stay. They promptly handed me my key, and Allie and I said our goodbyes. My weekend adventure had finally begun!
One small issue – I had no idea where to go. I was given a key with a room number and zero instructions on how to locate said room. Also, I forgot to mention that the main lobby is 200,000 square feet (almost twice the size of my local Target). I finally ventured my way down a long red-carpeted tunnel and made a quick turn at an elevator bank. Upon locating my floor, I immediately became lost because my room number was nowhere to be found. I walked up and down the hallway (luggage in toe) with zero luck.
Feeling frustrated, I took the elevator and made the long walk back to the lobby and wandered some more. Low and behold there was a SECOND identical tunnel on the opposite side which lead to a different elevator and new set of rooms. Needless to say, it was a bit like Groundhog’s Day. I later found out that each tunnel is named: one for “Saarinen” and one for “Hughes” and each leads to separate wings of hotel rooms. Pro tip: be sure to ask which one to use before leaving the check-in area.
TWA Hotel Rooms
There are 512 total rooms in the hotel and several room types among them. We booked the Executive King Suite with Historic TWA View. While it’s the most expensive and largest room of all, we figured – go big or go home, right? Plus, the prices are pretty reasonable (for New York City standards).
Upon locating my room, I entered and took-in the beautifully appointed space, complete with Knoll furniture, Kohler fixtures, and Frette towels. I was excited to be one of, if not the first, to stay in my room! But there was a problem. This wasn’t my room. I took a quick look at the hotel website on my phone and realized I was given a key for a Deluxe King (with a view of the runway). In short, I was checked into the lowest room type, even though I had reserved and paid for the highest one. I called the front desk, and the receptionist said “oh… yeah… the Executive King Suite isn’t available.” Wait, what?
Have you seen the Seinfeld episode where Jerry and Elaine are renting a car? Yeah, it felt kind of like that. (If you don’t know the reference, watch this).
So, here I am, in a room I didn’t book, and Bob’s flight from Chicago doesn’t land for another hour an a half. I’m old enough and smart enough to know that (in the grand scheme of things) the room situation wasn’t that big of a deal. What frustrated me was that nobody said anything. If I hadn’t called, I would have ended up paying the most expensive rate while staying in the most affordable room. I explained this point on the phone, and the receptionist offered 50% off our stay. After a full day of travel with no alternative options in sight, I accepted their generous discount.
Another Check-In Encounter
When Bob’s flight landed, I explained these initial snafus to him on the phone and asked if he could check and see about switching rooms for the following night once he got to the hotel. When he inquired they told him that they actually did have a suite available for Friday night and they could move us immediately. One catch: the reading light in the headboard won’t turn off. In short, we could stay in the room we reserved as long as we could sleep with the lights on. Wait, what?
We had no choice but to keep the room we had for the night. The front desk said they would do their best to move us to our actual room type the next day, but there were no guarantees. Being the smart husband he is, Bob also re-confirmed that we would be receiving the promised credit for the delayed check-in and the reduced rate for the reservation mishap. The person at the front desk said there weren’t any notes in the system about either. Woof. So, Bob took the time to re-explain everything and they said they could only make note of the reduced room rate and nothing else. By this time, it was late, and neither of us had dinner, so Bob accepted the offer and went to find our room. Thankfully, I texted him the “tunnel instructions” in advance!
OK, so it’s 10:00 PM, we are in our room, and we are starving. What did we have for our meal? Absolutely nothing. The hotel does not offer room service, and the sole dining option at that time (The Paris Café) did not allow any walk-in guests. Moreover, I overheard earlier from another guest that the only other real food options in Terminal 5 were all past security. Plus, Uber Eats and other food delivery places were mostly all “out of zone.” So we just unpacked and went to sleep.
Day Two at the TWA Hotel
The next morning, we woke up to the sweet sounds of industrial drilling. Construction happens, but having worked in travel and hotel PR for years, standard practice would be to email guests in advance. We would have loved some sort of warning about the noise due to construction or to make note of it during check-in. Or have a note in the room for guests to read upon arrival.
Plus, TWA Hotel promotes its “ultra-quiet, floor-to-ceiling windows — the second-thickest in the world — with blackout shades.” Trust me, we heard planes, sirens, and cars outside our windows, and worse – sounds between all four walls (next door, above, below, etc.).
They also promote “free lightning fast Wi-Fi.” Yes, the Wi-Fi was free, but we couldn’t get it to work consistently. When we did, we’d have to renew the connection every few minutes. Not helpful for trying to get stuff done on our work laptops.
The Best Part of Waking Up
Anyway, back to our first morning. Since we were awake, the best way to ease into our Saturday would be a couple cups of fresh coffee. The catch? There’s not a coffee or espresso maker in the room. I get that not every hotel has in-room coffee, but a brand new space that costs over $300 million? That doesn’t quite add up. So we got dressed and headed to the lobby to find a cup of java. Thankfully, the hotel has temporary coffee kiosks set up complete with Intelligentsia (construction on the full coffee bar isn’t complete). Sadly, our cups were closer to room temperature than hot. Oh, and $5 each. But I digress…
We proceeded to explore the property and take copious photos (it really is a beautiful space). Although the hotel had plenty of visitors, it wasn’t too overcrowded. Pretty much everyone had a camera, so the hotel staff was completely unphased by our time spent taking blog photos. I especially loved that there were so many people visiting the flight terminal where they once worked and travelled through. It was so great to see all of the nostalgia!
Later that afternoon, we checked back at the front desk to see if there was a chance to switch rooms. Since there was a line, we decided to divide and conquer. Bob stayed at the front desk, and I ventured to The Paris Café to plead for a table. It was almost 4:00 PM and neither of us had eaten an actual meal since the day before.
Early Bird Special
I waited at the host stand and watched her decline every person who came by to request a dinner reservation for the evening. “Sorry, we’re full… apologies, we don’t have any space… we can only accommodate those who already have a reservation.” By the time it was my turn, I knew asking about dinner was out of the question. Instead I pleaded for a table for two as a walk-in right then and there. I mean, the lunch “rush” was over, and it was long before dinnertime.
The manager swung-by as I was trying to explain how starving we were, and she waived me in. I immediately texted Bob to say “get here as fast as you can!” He arrived a few minutes later with good news of his own: “I got us a new room!” he exclaimed. Even though it was a day late, we were happy to move into the room we were meant to have. Maybe we would luck out and be somewhere where the was less drilling in the morning?!
So, the plan was to eat a late lunch/early dinner, head back to our old room to grab our bags and move to the new spot. Since we knew it would most likely be our only actual meal of the day, we ordered everything. Appetizers, entrées, desserts, the works! Best of all, the food was DELICIOUS. My favorite was the salmon sushi. I’ve been daydreaming of it ever since!
After lunch, we switched rooms and decided to take a quick catnap. The catch? We soon found out there was a dog in the room above us. How did we know? Well, we spent the next two hours listening to the dog howl, bark, wail, and whimper. We called the front desk to see if we could possibly be moved to a different floor to avoid the dog, and they said they would immediately check into it and call back. An hour later and no word from the hotel. Again, the situation itself wasn’t that big of a deal, but compounded with everything else (and the lack of response from the hotel) we were both frustrated to say the least.
Also, side note, our new room now faced the interior of the hotel complex with a view of Flight Center and lobby. Once dinner time rolled around, we opened our shade to look across the way since the Head House was lit up at night. What did we notice? The Paris Café was half empty. So, in the end, there were easily dozens and dozens of people turned down from coming in for dinner throughout the day, and when push came to shove, the restaurant was only at half capacity by 7:00 PM. It remained that way for the duration of the evening. We noticed the same situation during brunch on Sunday.
The Pool Bar and Observation Deck
More than anything else, we were SO excited to see the hotel pool. When I first saw photos and renderings of the TWA Hotel’s infinity edge my jaw hit the ground. I mean, a 10,000 square foot observation deck with a full pool that overlooks JFK airport’s busiest runways?!? That’s right, a rooftop pool that overlooks an airport runway – SO cool! Best of all, it’s designed to be open 365 days a year.
Well, it turns out the pool won’t be open to the public for months. Probably even longer. We tried to head up to the roof on Saturday only to be stopped by a security guard. It turns out the Port Authority shut it down within 24 hours of it being open. Wait, what? Again, an email or notification at check-in would have been wise.
Last (and certainly not least), security at the hotel is minimal at best. For a hotel so close to a major U.S. airport, I would assume safety measures would be more tight. In fact, I saw several random people sleeping on couches and in public spaces at the hotel at all hours of the day. Moreover, access to the hotel room floors is completely open. No key card swipes in elevators and not a single staff member checking to make sure only guests are entering those areas. I truly hope they resolve that aspect as quickly as possible. In hindsight, that was among the most unnerving aspects.
All in all, the TWA Hotel JFK Airport is a place to visit for a few hours, not overnight. Make restaurant reservations long before you visit, and pack granola bars and instant coffee in your luggage if you plan to stay there.