Going Back in Time at JFK With A Night at the Spectacular TWA Hotel

JFK - New York/JFK

When the TWA Hotel opened in the old Eero Saarinen-designed TWA Flight Center at New York’s JFK airport last year, I knew that I wanted to go just like every other airline dork in the world. It took me long enough, but on my recent trip to New York, I added an extra night on the back-end so I could stay the night. In short, it was phenomenal.

First, I had to book it. The TWA Hotel annoyingly only sells direct, so you can’t find it anywhere else. Even corporate travelers can’t use their booking systems which seems like a big mistake to me. I went on to the website and opted to pay for the upgraded runway view deluxe king for $259 for the night. By New York prices, that’s not bad… especially considering how awful all the other JFK airport hotels are.

My wife and I were coming from Manhattan, so we hopped on the subway and then took the Airtrain out to Terminal 5. Outside the train, there are TWA signs pointing you to go down the elevator, along the street, and then across into the building. At first, it’s a little sad. The innovative and breath-taking design by Saarinen is dwarfed by parking garages, hotel rooms, and other structures. But then when you get closer, the effect is minimized.

The main terminal building has been painstakingly restored with incredible attention to detail. In front, you can see the old car parked outside. These touches are noticeable throughout the building.

On the inside, you turn left to get to the check-in desks. These were indeed TWA check-in desks back in the day, and they look like the bones haven’t changed much. We tried to check in using the kiosk, but it said to talk to someone. The agent told us that our room wasn’t ready (it was 3 and check-in is 4), but he could get us into another room if we preferred. I said yes, please, and asked if they were full since I would have been surprised. He said no, it was booked at about 40 percent which is normal for them. Remember how I said they only sell direct? Yeah, that is undoubtedly part of the problem.

It took a long time to get this sorted as he kept going back and forth to talk to someone behind the scenes, but eventually it was worked out. We were given our TWA-branded room keys, and we wandered into the rest of the terminal.

It’s certainly an oddity seeing dozens of people just wandering around a hotel lobby, staring into the distance, but that’s exactly what this building does to people. The lack of interior doors, soaring ceiling, and TWA red highlights were enough to make even the casual onlooker interested.

The ticket counters on the other side of the entry area are being turned into a food hall, but so far, it’s mostly just empty with only a couple vendors. Behind those counters are the fitness center and the TWA Shop where you can buy all sorts of memorabilia.

In between the ticket counters is a central information desk which appeared to be staffed by someone dressed in TWA garb. I don’t know what that person did, and I didn’t bother finding out. I did stare at the large Solari board for some time, but the flights weren’t real. They just put random times, airlines, and destinations up there.

Turning around away from the entrance, there is a large set of stairs that takes you up to a middle ground. On the other side, the floor spills back down into the Sunken Lounge. Visually, this is a highlight. Here’s an overview from the level above, with the Connie in the background. Beyond the Connie is JetBlue’s Terminal 5.

On either side of the Sunken Lounge is a bar, and I saw them both staffed at most times. The Solari board in the middle was constantly flapping, displaying new messages.

Ringing the Sunken Lounge were a variety of curiosities. There was a room meant for playing Twister, though the spinner had been taken away.

There was also a newsstand and a payphone that worked. For 10 cents, I was able to use the faux-rotary phone (you could hear the touch tones when you dialed) to call back to my parents since they were taking care of our kids.

There was also a watch store, a reading room, and some restrooms.

After exploring this part of the building, we decided to head toward our room. The brand new buildings that house the rooms are connected to the terminal via the two old tubes that used to lead to the aircraft gates from each side of the terminal. You’ve definitely seen these iconic tubes in movies, and they are just as stunning in person.

The elevators to the rooms are halfway down the tubes, and they are not spared the attention to detail. This is on the floor:

The hallways are attractive and the gentle curve of the structure makes for an interesting view.

The rooms themselves are fairly small. There’s no closet in the room, and there’s also not a trash can. Instead there’s a mat next to the mini-bar snacks at a desk-ish thing behind the bed that shows you where to place your garbage.

Of course, I didn’t care about this. I solely cared about the view out the window. If I looked left, it might as well have been Long Beach with all the JetBlue tails. But if I looked right, well, then I had this view of Terminal 4.

When the runways changed from departing/arriving on the 13s to using the 4s, the view of departures got really good. I could have stayed there forever, but there was more exploring to be done.

Our tower had the pool up top, so I walked up there and froze. The water was heated, but I wasn’t about to get in. The bar had been converted into a winter ski chalet, and it was really well done. We didn’t stay long up there.

Back down at the tube, we walked toward the gates to see a couple of hidden little exhibits. Our tunnel had a 1960s living room and a replica of Saarinen’s office at the very end.

Walking down the other tube, we ended up in a replica of Howard Hughes’s office. There was also a retro-looking elevator with terminal access for those who were flying out on JetBlue in Terminal 5.

We ambled back toward the hotel lobby where it was almost time for dinner. Upstairs there is one area at the old Ambassadors Lounge space where you can find a quiet corner for yourself in some pretty funky looking areas.

There’s also an exhibit up there showing TWA uniforms from the past.

We headed over to the other side where dinner awaited us at the Paris Cafe. The service was good, but the food was just ok. It’s worth doing once, but that’s about it.

By this point, we were exhausted, but there was one more thing to do. That Connie in the back is a bar that’s open for business. We had to go get a drink there.

It’s a really cool space even if the drinks weren’t up to snuff. But it was great sitting at the window looking out on those massive spinners.

After that, we were done. We headed back to the room and collapsed into the comfortable bed. It was a truly unique experience that everyone should see even if you’re not an airline dork. The architecture and history alone makes it worth a trip.

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23 comments on “Going Back in Time at JFK With A Night at the Spectacular TWA Hotel

  1. Took my Mom there for her birthday last October. She retired from TWA Reservations in 2000. Certainly worth the visit but you really only need a few hours to “do” the whole thing.

  2. Great review, Brett. I was pleasantly surprised at the cost of this remarkable “living museum”. It’s a long way from home for me (Manila), but sometimes I fly through JFK to change to Jet Blue on my way Florida, so it might be a good place to spend a night and unwind after 12 of 14 hours for MRT or ICN. Top-end hotels here cost about the same, and they sure don’t have the view or the memories. So many happy, happy years flying TWA, I miss them dearly.

  3. My first transatlantic flight was from that terminal on a TWA 707 in the mid 70s. The shapes of the terminal look so very familiar but everything seemed so much larger back then. The terminal looks better now than it did at least from the day I first used the terminal until it closed. TWA looking in one direction and Pan Am looking the other; no other airport could define the grandest early days of U.S. international aviation.

  4. Looks fabulous. I’m intrigued by the mention of the replica offices for Saarinen and Howard Hughes. Do you have any pics of those?

  5. It’s nice to see great architecture saved for posterity. The living room exhibit brings back a lot of memories. The faux rotary payphone is a nice touch. Those are almost impossible to find nowadays with cell phones all over.

  6. Thanks for this fabulous post. I grew up the daughter of a TWA employee and remember not just the building of the terminal but many, many hours spent there as a non-rev waiting for a seat on a flight. It was such a different time. Once my dad hit 20 years as an employee, the family could fly for free. We could upgrade to first class for $15! Rules were much less strict. A few times there were just 3 seats available, but our family of 4 got on anyway, with my dad riding in a jump seat. When I was in 4th grade, my dad led a class trip that included a visit to the TWA hangar complete with a plane tour, as well as a stop to see the art at the PanAm building. Back then, few of my classmates had flown on a plane so it was quite exciting. Thanks for this trip down memory lane!

  7. We went the weekend of October 10, and also had a runway view room (880, which I told them should be renamed the Convair room). Lucky for us they used 4-22 all weekend long, and rotations were right in front of the pool. It was warm enough that weekend that we spent all Saturday at and in the pool. Service in the Connie and up at the pool was rough, but the Paris Café was good for dinner Friday and Sunday brunch. You should have gone down into the conference center, which is really well done.

    I think some of the service issues are purely the fact that the operator is one of the largest Hampton/Residence Inn operators, and isn’t use to high end/boutique hotels, although they do operate the High Line and New Yorker hotels.

    As for occupancy, the weekend we were there about 25% of the rooms were out of service. The JAL flight cancelled and they all got put up there. I think they get a lot of last minute bookings due to cancellations because it’s right there.

    Oh yeah, one more thing, the pay phones work without the dime

    1. As to service issues, looking at the site I discovered the restaurants and bars are being run by outside companies, unfortunately rather ties the hotel operators hands vs putting the blame on them. Jean-Georges oversees the Paris Café and Lisbon Lounge. Gerber Group for the Sunken Lounge, Connie bar, and Pool Bar.

      Another fun tidbit I found on the website “Though fees and food and beverage minimums often apply during the summer months, there is currently no charge for non-hotel guests to visit our pool and observation deck.” Love the idea of going up and relaxing in the pool after a flight.

  8. From what I’ve read and been told, that isn’t a faux-rotary payphone, but a real vintage rotary payphone fitted with a pulse to tone conversion device. They did the same thing for the rotary dial Western Electric 500 sets they put into the rooms. Continuing their amazing attention to detail they actually went out, acquired, and had restored vintage telephones for the hotel

  9. The TWA Hotel is part of the reason I set my November trip out of JFK instead of LGA or EWR just to have some time to go visit before my flight.

  10. I stopped by this hotel a few weeks ago and the check in desk actually had me confused for a moment on if I was checking into an airline or checking into a hotel.
    The retro items in the lobby and rooms were a very nice touch. Mine had a Life magazine from the 70s sitting next to the rotary phone.

  11. > We tried to check in using the kiosk, but it said to talk to someone.

    The6 had self-service kiosks in the 60s and 70s? ;)

  12. Great review. Can’t wait till May when Wife and I will overnight there. Brings back some of my treasured TWA memories flying out of there as a nonrev and later as a DCS on the 747s. Behind the old ticket counter was a special VIP lounge for international group assemblies and celebrities who didn’t want attention they’d get in the Ambassadors Club (Jackie Onassis, Glen Miller, etc). Most memorable flight out of there was in ‘68 I believe during the air traffic controllers slowdown. Our flight left the gate #69 in line. We had dinner and saw a movie before takeoff.

  13. I got to stay there twice now, once overnight and then a day stay during a 10 hour layover where I just wanted to relax. I loved the history. The story of note from my trip was during the overnight we went to the Connie bar and I overheard someone else at the bar as one of the waitresses what type of plane it was. She responded quite matter-of-factly “Its a DC-6.” I got a chuckle when the guy then looked up DC-6 on Wikipedia and regaled everyone in his group that showed up later with information about the DC-6.

  14. As an Av-Geek, my wife and I stayed at the TWA Hotel in June 2019. In general, the nostalgia was great and the view from the Pool Bar, especially after it was dark of the Aircraft at Terminal 4 was unbeatable. The Menu at the Paris Cafe was limited at that time which was unfortunate. We were hoping for airline meals from the 1950s but instead had the option of upscale burgers and sandwiches and from what I recall, 3 or 4 entree choices. It appears that their menu selection as posted today has more options. Our biggest issue with the hotel, however is the thin walls between the rooms. What good are sound proof windows if you can hear every word of the phone conversation from the room next door? The person next door was literally on his phone past 2 AM conducting business even though we pounded on the connecting door a couple of times and even called down to the front desk. It doesn’t take a lot to create sound proofing between rooms and/or the main hall so I wish they had done that during construction.

  15. I think the hotel’s timeline is misguided. The Connie in the back is ok but the terminal is really from the jet age. It would be more authentic to put an old Boeing 727 there. The cars are also too old. The terminal was at its peak in the 1970’s and 1980’s and they should really put a 1976 Chevrolet Camero or a 1971 Mercury (Ford) Capri or a 1977 Mercedes Benz 450SEL around the place.

    Labor is expensive. They should consider getting rid of the attendant behind the desk and put a mannequin instead. However, the check in area is not obvious so maybe a person in the middle counter is ok.

  16. Good to see they cleaned up the old TWA Ambassadors Lounge upstairs. God, in the late TWA years (or was it right after the AA acquisition, I’m not sure) that lounge was pretty gross. There were birds flying around in the rafters and you could see the bird poop. One of the giant windows was also cracked.

    As a kid when we would pick up or see off dad from there we always loved the long oval corridors out to the satellites. The ledges along the sides were made for kids to run on!

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