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Fly me to the moon: A night at the retro-masterpiece TWA Hotel

I stayed in an iconic building from the start of the Jet Age, transformed into a modern hotel with style. And I loved it.

Geoffrey Morrison Contributor
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
4 min read
Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

It's the early 1960s. The Jet Age has begun. The de Havilland Comet and Boeing 707 are revolutionizing travel, making the world a smaller place and opening up air transport to more people than ever. TWA, short for Trans World Airlines, is one of the largest airlines in the world. The company chooses New York International Airport, commonly known as Idlewild and now known as JFK, as its new transatlantic hub.

But TWA needed a building, and not just any building. Something grand and sweeping to evoke the excitement of flight itself. It turns to Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, already a pioneer in the style that would become known as midcentury modern. His bird-like design for the new Flight Center would become an icon.

Fast-foward to the 1990s. TWA is failing and, like so many buildings of the era, the Flight Center is outdated and nearly impossible to renovate. Its entry into the National Register of Historic Places saved it from the ignoble fate of its PanAm contemporary. Finally in May of 2019, after an extensive renovation and plans that came to nothing, the TWA Flight Center was reborn as the TWA Hotel.

Yep, you can spend the night there. And I did. Here's what it's like.

Now boarding for 1962: A night at the retro TWA Hotel

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Flight time: Minus-60 years

There's a 1964 Lincoln Continental convertible out front. The valets are dressed like skycaps. If it weren't for the modern cars in the parking lot, it'd be easy to think you'd stepped back in time. Inside, the big split-flap display board clack-clack-clacks fictional updates of flight arrivals and departures.

When I check in I feel a mix of nostalgia and modernity. Touchscreens lead me through the process and provide room keycards, while hotel employees, dressed in TWA-inspired uniforms, assist with baggage or questions.

Saarinen's soaring design is the still the star of the show. It's all curves and angles, held aloft by only four pillars. Never has concrete and tile seemed so weightless. Bars and restaurants are scattered throughout, as are little '60s touches like rotary-dial payphones and a room dedicated to Twister (the game, not the movie). Everyone walks around as if in a daze, staring at every corner and cranny of this gorgeous building, taking it all in.

Connecting tunnels that once brought you to your aircraft now lead to your room, save for one, which connects to the modern Terminal 5. The rooms themselves, thoroughly modern but in a '60s style, are in separate buildings that cradle the Flight Center. Wings, if you will, in a literal and figurative sense. Depending on the room, the soundproof floor-to-ceiling windows either give views of the legendary building itself, or better yet, the tarmac and runway of the airport. I picked the tarmac view, splurging on a king-size bed to watch flights arrive and land. Midcentury modern chairs and sofa inspire me to redo my house.

I only have one night to enjoy the hotel, so I grab my camera and lenses, and proceed to get photos of the Lockheed Constellation out back. Known as Connie, it once flew with TWA and is now the hotel's cocktail lounge. I also explore the roof-top infinity pool, only dipping my hand in the warm water but enjoying the view. Looking in one direction there's an arriving A380; in the other, the distant New York skyline.

From Hughes to Saarinen

The TWA Hotel doesn't seem like something that should exist. It's big-budget fan fiction, clearly a labor of love for architecture nerds and fans of the era. As someone who neatly fits that demographic, I absolutely loved it. At $200 a night for the cheapest room, it's actually not that bad for New York City. Granted, you're in Queens and getting into Manhattan will still take you an hour or so, but still. My Runway View King Suite was listed at $269, but with taxes and such, this ultimately came to $323. However, as a unique experience it was totally worth it. 

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Better still, you don't have to stay overnight. If you have a layover, you can get a room for a few hours in the morning or afternoon, or if you're nearby you can take the airport train to Terminal 5 and explore the hotel and the various exhibits throughout. In the mean time, check out the gallery above for a look inside.

As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarinesmassive aircraft carriersmedieval castles, epic 10,000 mile road trips, and more. Check out Tech Treks for all his tours and adventures.

He wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-size submarines, along with a sequel. You can follow his adventures on Instagram and his YouTube channel.