Published in July 2016 issue
My worldwide wrap-up of hotels for plane spotting
By Christine Negroni
When I was a child, my parents would toss collapsible aluminum chairs into the back of the pickup truck along with their four kids and drive across town to Miami International Airport (MIA). Dad would park on the side of the road, open the chairs beside the chain link fence and we would join the other families watching the planes flying over our heads.
I remember Eastern Airlines’ turquoise and navy striped fuselage, the blue and white globe adorning the tails of Pan American (PA) airliners and the shiny silver underbellies of American (AA) and Trans World Airways (TW) airplanes.
What I do not recall from that time, but have since learned, is that in the early 1960s, Dade County completed an expansion of the airport that included a posh 270-room hotel. The view of the airfield from the sky lounge may have been better and the seats were certainly more comfortable than the webbed woven lawn chairs that would leave impressions on the backs of our legs but as far as I was concerned, watching the planes, just outside the fence from the runway was about as thrilling as a balmy evening could be.
I recently shared this with Frank Wellborn, a retired Captain with FedEx. He told me that as a zoology student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the ‘70s, he had spent many evenings the same way, watching the planes at Raleigh Durham Airport (RDU).
“It was pretty exciting, it was doggone noisy and the airplane was pretty darn big,” he told me. Standing below airliners fully configured for landing, Wellborn recalled, “Would get your heart beating.”
Wellborn had learned to fly partly because of this experience. He had been a Marine Pilot assigned to the C-130 with the US Navy’s Blue Angels and, later had joined FedEx.
I became an aviation writer and when I travel, I carve out time to spend a night at every airport hotel with a view of the airfield.
Here are some of my favorites.
SHERATON SCHIPHOL (AMS)
The Dutch have a passion for aviation, a tribute to the long history of their KLM Royal Dutch flag carrier, the oldest airline in the world still in operation. KLM (KL) dominates Schiphol Airport (AMS), which is home to Schiphol Plaza, a shopping and dining center, as well as being a transportation hub for trains to the city of Amsterdam and to just about everywhere else in the Netherlands.
Schiphol also operates one of the best rooftop observation decks, favored by its proximity to the boarding areas which is open to the public. Here, plane spotters by the dozen log what they see while enjoying closeup views of some of the last remaining passenger-carrying Boeing 747s, and the new-intoservice Airbus A350s.
Taking a five-minute walk through the arrivals area and going up one level takes you to the Sheraton Amsterdam Hotel. One hundred and twenty seven of the 406 rooms have unobstructed views of airplanes. The restaurant, conference, and reception areas do not.
I stayed on the sixth floor with a view over the plaza and farther in the distance, the runway and maintenance hangars. This same view can also be enjoyed from the Club Room, where cocktails and enough snacks to make a meal are available in the evening. This led to my dilemma: stay in the hotel and enjoy the view, or take the 15-minute train trip into Amsterdam and try the space cake?
RYDGES AIRPORT HOTEL SYDNEY (SYD)
The travel-sized binoculars resting on the plane-spotters guide were a nice touch but, from my room at Kingsford-Smith Airport’s (SYD) Rydges Hotel, I would hardly need them to see the jumbo jets, which were parked practically below my window. Rydges, the Australian hotel chain that owns airport properties both here and in Darwin, clearly wants its guests to know that if watching planes is their thing, a night here should be on the schedule.
The walk from the airport to Rydges takes about a minute, located as the hotel is across the access road from the international terminal. The lobby and its bar are bright and cheery, and the mezzanine-level restaurant, serving breakfast and dinner, has limited views of the airfield. To get the full experience, book a room on floor two or above and plan to spend some time on the rooftop observation deck.
HILTON CDG PARIS (CDG)
Paris’s Charles de Gaulle (CDG) is the world’s eighth busiest airport, which explains why so many hotels are located right on airport property. In the fall of 2013, I stayed at the 385-room Hilton, one of three hotels clustered around the CDGVAL high-speed train stop at Terminal 3, Roissypole (the other two are the economy Ibis Paris CDG and the Novotel Paris CDG). Even from my room’s upholstered armchair, I could take in sweeping views in three directions. I spent hours watching and photographing airplanes, such as Air Mediterranee’s Airbus A320, which was so close that I could read the tail number. Then, I turned my attention to the big boys parked some distance away at the gates of the circular Terminal 1. A Malaysia A380 was there, along with an Airbus A340 from Air Tahiti Nui. Punctuating all the activity was the Paul Andreudesigned control tower; at 367ft, one of the tallest in the world.
While many of the spacious rooms of the Hilton take advantage of the scenery just outside the building, not all face towards the airport. To ensure you get the most out of your stay, book a south-, north-, or west-facing room on a high floor. East-facing rooms do not have an airfield view.
HANEDA EXCEL TOKYO (HND)
An airport (HND) this close to the city center and this easily accessed by public transportation (20 minutes by monorail from the JR Hamamatsucho Station) seems an unlikely spot for a hotel, but there are two here: the Excel at Terminal 2 and the Royal Park Hotel Haneda at the International Terminal. Here’s why I’d recommend a stay at the Excel over the Royal Park.
In both, the rooms are beautiful, large by Japanese standards, and comfortable, with fluffy comforters and lots of amenities. But only a limited number of the Royal Park’s rooms has views of the airfield and, in some of those, the view is from the bathroom window. The Excel’s seven-story building position and the design of its rooms and window placement mean that there is a far better chance of getting a room right by the planes parked at the gate. The views are fantastic night and day.
The bright and cheery Flyers Table dining room has tables by the window with the airfield below and, just to remind you of where you are, the buffet line is adorned with airplane models.
PARK INN, RADISSON (OSL)
Whatever you think you will save by choosing a hotel near but not at Oslo Airport (OSL), think again. This city has to have the most expensive cabs in the world. One night, having arrived after the hotel shuttles had stopped running, I paid $55 to go just five kilometers. Factoring that in, I would have been better off just taking the two-minute walk across the access road to Oslo’s Park Inn, the sevenstory hotel that towers over the airport terminal.
Many of the rooms here have a direct view of the airfield, and a few of those facing in the wrong direction feature bumped-out window seats that put you in position to see the runway.
While the restaurant and bar are spacious and very Scandinavian in atmosphere, the airport blocks their airfield views, so no watching planes while you dine. The upside? The breakfast buffet is free.
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GRAND HYATT INCHEON (ICN)
“We don’t have a beach and we don’t have a skyline,” manager John Jun told me as he took me on a tour of the hotel closest to Seoul’s Incheon (ICN). “What we have is a view of the airport.”
About that, he is correct. This elegant hotel gets its guests close to the action both in the rooms and in the second-floor restaurant, where large plate-glass windows overlook both runways. Buses take guests to the terminal, but it is close enough to walk when the weather is good.
Korean Air (KE) owns the hotel, so there’s plenty of aviation action even inside the building. On any given night, as many as one out of 10 rooms are booked to flight crews.
SONESTA OCEAN POINT ST. MAARTEN (SXM)
One of the top-of-the-line airport hotels is located at one of the top-of-the line destinations for plane-spotting, Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM). The Sonesta Ocean Point is an all-inclusive resort, but with one additional amenity: from nearly every window, guests can watch the planes arriving over the world-famous Maho Beach. From my sixth-floor balcony, I drank a beer beneath a shaded sofa that I could pivot depending on whether I desired to see the planes approach or land.
The Azul Restaurant is perched on a cliff, giving another two-directional view. You’ll pay upwards of $400 a night for the experience, which includes limitless food, drinks, and use of the pool and spa, but the hotel also offers day passes for $89 per person, which may be one of the best airport bargains around.
TUNE HOTEL AT KLIA 2 KUALA LUMPUR (KUL)
The reason so many airport hotels are so expensive is the premium you pay for space. Yes, the rooms are usually deluxe, so one can’t complain about that. There are some exceptions, however.
Tune Hotel at Kuala Lumpur’s KLIA2 (KUL), the low-cost carrier terminal, takes a page from the budget airlines with which it shares the airport by offering basic rooms at a basic rate. You pay for extras like television and air conditioning but who needs television when there are planes to watch from your balcony? The air conditioning, on the other hand—well, that you’re going to need.
Guests using the LCC terminal can walk to the hotel via a covered walkway or take public transportation from the International airport, located about two kilometers away. A night spent at Tune provides a total airport experience. You see and hear planes from the hotel’s outdoor wrap-around balcony. And you can sup with airport workers and fellow travelers at the food court by the KLIA2 transportation center.
No list of hotels for the aviation geek would be complete without including a few for the airport enthusiast. You know, folks who watched Tom Hanks’ character get stuck in the airport for nine months in the movie The Terminal and thought, “Yeah, that looks like fun.”
SHERATON HARTFORD BRADLEY CONNECTICUT (BDL)
At Hartford’s Bradley International (BDL) there’s considerable down time between the flights operated by North America’s best-known commercial carriers. Still, from one of the 237 rooms at the airport Sheraton, located between terminals A and B, guests can get close up views of planes taxiing and parked at the gate.
Great views are available from rooms on floors 4 through 8. Alternatively, the hotel’s Concorde restaurant and the hotel pool let you relax or exercise while indulging your passion for aviation.
EATON SMART NEW DELHI (DEL)
The parallel to the movie The Terminal is even stronger at the Eaton Smart New Delhi at Indira Gandhi International Airport’s (DEL) Terminal 3, and here’s why. The accommodations are luxurious, with large windows in the rooms that offer views onto the terminal below. The bar and restaurant on the landside of the hotel present a beautiful view of runway 29/11, while the airside dining area faces the gates. Who wouldn’t want to eat and sleep here?
But actually booking a night at the hotel requires the fortitude of the fictitious immigrant dealing with bureaucratic hurdles. An application must be made, paperwork presented. More incredible still is that guests cleared to stay at the airside half of the hotel cannot leave the hotel except to board their flights.
In spite of the challenges, my stay at the Eaton Smart was well worth the effort. The rooms were beautifully decorated and the meals were delicious. I even opted for a massage, one of the amenities on offer to ‘trapped travelers’. I may not have been at liberty to leave but I was free—in fact, encouraged—to linger in the dining room until I tired of watching jumbo jets and headed off to bed.
YOTEL LONDON HEATHROW (LHR)
Staying at the Yotel, at Heathrow’s (LHR) Terminal 4, is in many ways like flying. Up the elevator from the passenger area, around the corner from the airport pub, The Windsor Castle, guests are greeted at the entry by a purser-like individual who, if he is like mine, is unfailingly polite as he starts right in on the pre-stay briefing.
You will stay in a room called ‘a cabin’. Microwaveable meals are sold from the ‘galley’ and your compact accommodations are just the right side of right-sized without an extra inch to spare. The Yotel website claims that the hotel is “everything you’d find in a luxury hotel, just in a smaller space,” and I’d agree.
Because guests arrive to sleep at all times, cabin Windows face inward and are room darkening. I did not see an airplane during my stay at Yotel, and neither will you. However, just like snuggling under the covers in a rainstorm, there’s a satisfying feeling in bunking down in comfort in the middle of the world’s busiest airport.