After our flights from Iceland were rerouted for a third time, I took it as a sign: We were meant to fly in and out of JFK. The problem? The only return flight would leave us stranded at the airport overnight. This wasn’t an issue per se, as I’d wanted an excuse to spend the night at JFK, but the question remained: Is TWA worth a layover in itself?
Yes, I actively chose to spend an extra day at John F. Kennedy International Airport simply to check out the TWA Hotel and answer that question, for you and for myself.
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The history of the TWA Hotel
Let’s rewind in case you have no idea what I’m talking about. And if you do, you’re likely a design junkie and travel addict like me who has watched from afar as JFK’s defunct TWA terminal was renovated into a swoon-worthy, Jet Age theme park that is a major throwback to the golden age of air travel.
The abbreviated version of a much longer story that details the ebbs and flows of the aviation industry goes like this: Renowned Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen—also the creative brain behind St. Louis’ Arch—conceptualized the airport terminal, which originally opened in 1962 as the TWA Flight Center, home to Trans World Airlines, which was founded in 1925 and one of the biggest international air carriers in the world at the time of its conception.
But the jets it could have housed quickly outgrew the terminal, which was not equipped to handle Boeing’s mammoth wide-body 747, which launched just eight years after the Flight Center began operation.
The Port Authority almost demolished the Flight Center many times until it became an official landmark in the 1990’s, meaning its preservation was ensured; around the same time, the airport built the JetBlue terminal behind it instead. In 2001, TWA went bankrupt and the Flight Center closed for good.
Many times over the past 20 years, it was almost turned into a hotel—until it finally fell in the right hands a few years back. The redevelopment project was awarded to MCR/Morse Development in 2014, and the TWA Hotel officially opened its doors for the first time in 2019.
The coolest part about the project is how everything, from the lighting to the penny tiles to the recreation of the original public restrooms, reflect Saarinen’s design, freezing the hotel in the year 1962, for better or for worse.
How do you get to TWA Hotel?
While it’s easy to get to TWA Hotel from the main JFK terminal, it’s also a lot of walking. So if you have any accessibility issues, you’ll want to arrange transport prior to touching down. It took us at least 20 minutes to walk from our gate at JFK’s Terminal 4, board the AirTrain for a stop, get off at the JetBlue terminal, Terminal 5, and follow the signs to TWA.
The great news it that you never have to leave the airport. And if you’re flying international from Europe like we were, you’ll likely be arriving at JFK’s terminal 4, which puts you just one AirTrain stop from the TWA Hotel.
The downside? If you’re already tired after a transatlantic flight, it’s still quite the haul to reach your bedroom.
The TWA Hotel experience
Once we arrived, we walked into the huge lobby just as travelers ready to board their flights 60 years before us did. We rolled our bags to the left check-in desks and were greeted with a disgruntled employee who checked us in and could not have been less enthusiastic about it. I feel like because he was not wild about his job, we didn’t really get the lay of the land and missed things as part of our visit.
So if I have one major complaint about the TWA Hotel, it’s the lack of great service. Then again, you’re at an airport, so maybe they simply wanted it to feel authentic, ha!
Once we got our room keys, we walked what felt like a half a mile down the famed red carpet that led to the wing where our room was, showered off the grime of a transatlantic flight and reconvened in the Sunken Lounge.
The TWA guest rooms
There are two seven-story wings that house a total of 512 new rooms in the TWA Hotel. The red carpeted jetways link them to the rest of the hotel. And even though our room was the first one once we reached the wing, it was still a long walk. This hotel would be tricky for those using wheelchairs or walkers.
TWA Hotel had barely been open two years when we stayed there, and already the light illuminating our room number was broken. The door to the bathroom was broken (wouldn’t shut). There was no trash can, period. There were various chips and other small breaks in the room. It definitely felt like an airport hotel in this manner.
The rooms are basic, but they did have a full set of barware, which I appreciated even if I didn’t make use of it. Overall, though, I was underwhelmed by our quarters. I’ve read that rooms are supposed to have fun touches like mini Etch A Sketches and old rotary phones, but ours lacked that bit of fun personality.
Our room was also right by the elevator, so it was loud every time someone got on or off. I always travel with bluetooth sleep headphones, but had I not, I wouldn’t have gotten a lot of sleep. Ironically, the hotel is said to have innovative soundproofing solutions to keep you from being woken up by the whoosh of a plane, but the walls and doors were not soundproofed to keep noise out.
The Sunken Lounge
As you go up the first half flight of stairs once you enter the hotel, you’ll get a view of the bold red-and-white Sunken Lounge in all of her glory—sleek midcentury design with a hearty dose of nostalgia. She’s definitely the centerpiece of the hotel and an Instagram icon.
The TWA pool
There’s a rooftop infinity pool with a bird’s-eye view of planes taking off and landing, and it’s open year round. Somehow despite being at TWA Hotel for nearly 24 hours, I totally forgot to visit this spot even though we were there on a warm day in November. Oops.
According to the website, guests are required to make reservations to the pool, which are free, for afternoons or evenings—only select morning hours are no-reservation periods—and there’s also a rooftop après ski experience, The Runway Chalet at The Pool Bar, up there as well.
Jetlagged me was very happy to find the Intelligentsia Coffee station right in the main lobby. The coffee bar has all its usual offerings, as well as a handful of specialty drinks and some merch, too.
The Paris Café
The only full-service restaurant at TWA Hotel is Jean-Georges’ The Paris Cafe. We had a pretty tasty dinner there and an OK, but overpriced lunch the next day. For breakfast, there was only a a buffet option, which we skipped and ate at the Food Hall instead.
The menu is fairly limited. Vaccination cards are required per New York City laws, and they’ll ask you to show them at each visit.
If you’re looking for a quick bite, you can find it at Food Hall, which is about as literal a name for a dining establishment as it comes. From bagels and paninis to tacos and hot dogs, there are at least a half-dozen fast-casual stands in this communal space on the lobby level.
Connie Cocktail Lounge
I regret we knew nothing about this cocktail lounge inside of an old Lockheed Constellation “Connie” airplane. It looks dreamy with its design, murals and flight attendant servers. I wish the hotel employee who checked us in had given us a thorough lay of the land. The hotel is so sprawling, you almost need someone to give you a road map.
There’s a 10,000-square-foot gym that’s open 24/7 and is touted as the world’s biggest hotel gym that I saw nary a hint of while we stayed there. If you’re not a guest at TWA Hotel but are doing a layover at JFK, you can buy a day pass to access the gym.
The TWA Shop
If you love the color red or simply are a fan of Jet Age-style swag, you’ll want to leave room in your bag to stock up at the TWA Shop while you’re visiting. Apparel, tote bags, beanies, coffee mugs—they sell a little bit of everything in this store next to the Sunken Lounge. There’s also a free photo booth!
One of my favorite parts of the TWA Hotel experience was the museum. Prior to the hotel’s opening, the development company collected more than 2,000 artifacts that trace the TWA story.
Many are displayed throughout the hotel, though there’s a mezzanine level directly above the check-in desks that has a robust collection of memorabilia.
Curated by the New-York Historical Society, the exhibits are free of charge, open to the public (not just hotel guests), and include items like 37 different TWA uniforms over the decades and a recreation of former owner Howard Hughes’ office.
What it costs to stay at TWA Hotel
For our stay at the TWA Hotel on a Tuesday night, we paid a room rate of $213 per room, with taxes and fees tallying up for $266 a night. This was the rate for both a king room for my mom and a double queen room for SVV and me, both of which were the same size and on the same wing.
The pros of staying at TWA Hotel
There are many reasons you’d want to stay at TWA Hotel, some of which would make it worth a layover, depending on your style of travel.
- The design and music
- The overall experience of a bygone era of travel
- The affordability—the TWA is definitely cheaper than a city hotel
- The Intelligentsia coffee bar
- The food hall with its grab-and-go options
- The convenience and ease to reach from JFK, especially if you have a connecting flight the following day
- All the little vignettes throughout the hotel that summoned nostalgia for an era I wish I’d lived in
- The many seating areas, ideal for remote workers looking for somewhere to hole up on a JFK layover
The cons of staying at TWA Hotel
And although ultimately our experience at TWA Hotel was a positive one, no stay is perfect, and we found several cons worth noting during our 20 hours there:
- The design was already starting to look worn in parts, even just two years later. I love the red carpet, but it sure shows wear and tear like no other.
- Our room and bathroom had no garbage can. You don’t realize how much trash you accumulate while traveling until you can’t throw anything away.
- The cleaners hadn’t cleaned out the mini-fridge from the previous guests (their food and opened drinks were still in there).
- Yet, the cleaning staff had no problem barging into our room without knocking at 8am to ask if we were leaving soon. Checkout is at 11am.
- Our sliding door for the bathroom was broken, which eliminates that element of privacy especially in a small room like this one.
- The front desk staff’s hospitality left little to be desired. It was clear the man checking us in was not enthusiastic about his job, and it left all of us feeling less than welcome.
- Food and drink options are very limited to the Jean-Georges restaurant the Paris Café, which was gorgeous but also overpriced and pretty restrictive in options. One meal there was fine. Three meals there would get boring fast.
- The bar can’t serve cocktails before 12pm. The servers told us this is an airport rule, but as I’ve definitely had drinks at JFK before noon, I’m suspicious of whether that’s a real law.
- The music throughout the hotel is so loud, you can barely hold a conversation let along take a phone call. Yes, I’m showing my age, but it was frustrating receiving important calls and not being able to take them due to the volume in all the common areas—it was also really hard to do work, and I had planned to spend the day making my base in the Sunken Lounge.
Can I visit TWA Hotel if I’m just there for the day?
Even if you don’t have an overnight layover at JFK, you can take advantage of the easy access to TWA and visit with the Daytripper pass. A Daytripper pass allows those staying four hours or more to rent a room for an afternoon, though you’ll pay handsomely: A four-hour visit starts at $149 before taxes.
On the flip side, if you’re traveling light and have a layover at JFK, you can visit TWA Hotel for a drink or meal and then head straight back to the terminal when you’re done.
Would I stay at TWA Hotel again?
So is TWA worth a layover if you’re already going to be passing through JFK airport? My answer: Absolutely. Any Jet Age lover will be smitten with the design and the concept as a whole.
The Sunken Lounge is a really fun place to hang—it definitely beats JFK proper and most of the airport lounges I’ve tested out there. I walked around like a kid in a candy store wanting to visually devour every last detail and vignette.
Just don’t expect a lot of bells and whistles like we did going into our TWA Hotel stay. Know that your room is just a place to lay your head and the real experience lies in the environment of the terminal-turned-hotel.
Is the TWA Hotel worth traveling to by train from elsewhere in New York? That’s debatable and entirely depending on how much you like to geek out over aviation history midcentury modern design. There are so many other cool hotels in New York City, I’m not sure I’d go out of my way to visit TWA unless you’re either an aviation nut or architecture geek or are already going to be at JFK, in which case, definitely head there for a drink and some people-watching from the Sunken Lounge.
Have you stayed at this design icon yet? Do you think TWA is worth a layover?