Forget Disney World. For travel lovers, the most magical place on earth is the TWA Hotel, a land where enchantments conjure the mythical golden age of jet-setting. There’s the Connie, a grounded vintage propeller plane turned swanky cocktail bar. There’s the runway-adjacent pool, where you can dog-paddle as planes launch into the sky. Then there’s the faux ski chalet, the mini-skating rink, the vintage ‘60s cars and luggage carts. And a departure board that now flutters up a grid of emoji-like smiles instead of flights. Once a closed terminal, this JFK airport hotel has all the glamour of golden-age travel, yet it takes you nowhere. And maybe that’s a good thing.
All of this is a first-class case of art imitating life. The TWA Hotel began as an airport terminal designed in 1962 by the famed architect Eero Saarinen. While it was an impressive, aerodynamic space, it was also a functional one, playing the role every airport terminal does of guiding travelers to their flights. The terminal was closed in the 2000s and reopened as a hotel in 2019, arguably to give shelter to those in transit. But from what I saw, the public spaces thronged with day-tripping New Yorkers. Even in route to TWA, it was easy to spot the locals versus the travelers. Everyone else on the AirTrain bore the stamp of real travel — a rumpled, ashen, exhausted look I’ve worn at the end of every flight. Unlike these road-weary passengers, the staycationers were bright-eyed and giddy, ready to join the hordes of people visiting the airport for what can only be described as “funsies.”
If, as the saying goes, it’s about the journey and not the destination, then this outing takes that one step further. Why jet off to another location if what you truly love is the glamour of being on the road? Why leave the runway at all?
There are dozens of activities in the complex — swimming, ice skating, drinking, dining, reading, browsing — but the most popular activity by far is posting on social media. TWA may be a midcentury throwback, but it feels built for our Instagram era. Every corner is tricked out for a photo-op: the backdrops, the climb-aboard vehicles, the retro props, the dress-up costumes. And it’s working; a quick scan of the #TWA hashtag reveals 667,000 posts and rising.
All of which leaves me to wonder if this could be the future of travel.
Does that sound sad? For travelers that prize cultural enrichment, this theme park-ish hotel could seem like a hollow facsimile. But I’d counter that cultural enrichment isn’t why most people travel. More and more travel has become a series of merit badges we’re collecting, a checklist where we all snap the same photo in front of the same places, a symbol of status, #noFOMO. Consider the dozens of tourists posed identically to prop up the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the lines that snake in front of Nashville murals expressly put up as Instagram bait for tourists’ selfies.
At its worst, social media has transformed globetrotting into a perverse kind of one-upmanship, with the truly awful side effects of over-tourism and treating another person’s home as our movie set. (Just ask the residents of Savannah’s Rainbow Row, who are subjected to entitled trespassers on the regular.) All this comes at the expense of our planet’s resources, which has given rise to the “flight shaming” movement, reminding us that our carbon footprint inflates to jumbo-jet proportions the moment we put our tray tables in the upright position.
So ultimately what do we really want from travel? Bragging rights? A moment of glamour? An adventure? The TWA Hotel does all that. In a way, the TWA experience could be positioned as a solution that’s the opposite of “flight shaming,” but here the tactic used to keep folks grounded is pleasure, which in my experience always wins out over shame.
To clarify, no one at the TWA hotel seemed like they were uncultured cretins, quite the opposite. Patrons were wistfully recounting trips on Turkish Airlines, dining on cheese plates, and tipping back Champagne-laced drinks. In other words, they seem like sophisticated travel junkies looking to satisfy their wanderlust on home turf. And I was very much one of them, just as eager as the next person to snap my picture climbing aboard the Connie as I nonsensically shouted “bon voyage to me!” (a person that has no “voyage” coming, “bon” or not).
As I rode public transportation home, still giddy from a day of travel make-believe, I reflected on the TWA complex and what it really offered. When we want culture, we’ll always have Paris (or Nepal or Mexico City). But when we want Instagramable fun, we’ll have the TWA.
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