Get some kip at the best airport hotels
Starting the summer holiday with an early-morning flight?
The opening of Heathrow's newest terminal may have been a sorry affair but the new Sofitel at Terminal 5 aspires to break all previous records for luxury accommodation at a British airport.
This exceedingly cool hotel pays homage to the five continents, resorting to relatively subtle theming. Thus guests checking in at the minimalist lobby dominated by a fountain thundering on to floodlit ice blocks will not necessarily realise they are standing in Antarctica. Theming is a little more overstated in the Asian tea lounge with its abundance of red lacquer (but how nice to have a luxurious, pukka tea lounge in which to meet friends at the airport), Albert Roux's fine dining restaurant positively drips French glamour while the Zen garden and spa pay more than a nod to Japanese serenity.
But who cares about design inspiration when the raison d'etre of an airport hotel is to offer convenience for passengers with early departures, coupled with a high a level of comfort. The best thing about Sofitel T5 is its step-through access to the terminal in an airport notorious until now for the difficulty of reaching its distinctly distant hotels. For those not arriving by car, it has long been necessary to take a shuttle bus, all serving different terminals and often charging an outrageous £4 flat fee for the short journey.
In this respect, Sofitel's business-oriented sister, the Arora International, really scores: it is closer to the terminals than most other hotels and is reached by free buses from Heathrow's central bus station. Rooms are luxuriously furnished and dead quiet, with the same beautifully comfortable beds on which Sofitel has built its reputation, and the hotel fields a hair salon, nail bar and computer stations.
Gatwick already has a luxurious Sofitel of its own, again with step-through access from the south terminal and a glamorous atrium lobby, but not every major London airport is so lucky.
Luton, from where Thomsonfly's low-cost flights to Israel depart, has a much-improved terminal with some good shops but, until this month, when the UK's first Hilton Garden Inn opened (with 157 stylishly decorated bedrooms and 10 meeting rooms), the hotel offering was a pair of two-star hostelries. Of these, the pleasant and well-priced Ibis, which was extended and refurbished with renovations completed earlier this year, is better than the dismal Holiday Inn Express, whose entrance is a steep walk up from the main road where the free buses to the terminal stop.
Stansted does have one hotel right next to the terminal - a Radisson SAS with all the facilities one can expect of an international business chain (and a week's parking on offer for only £20 over the cost of one night's stay) but a lovelier choice is the Down Hall Country House Hotel at nearby Bishop's Stortford.
This 16th-century mansion offers spaciousness, calm, elegance and an extremely good breakfast - and their Park & Fly rate allows for up to 15 days' parking.
Northerners living in Leeds and beyond may find Manchester Airport too far a drive for an early morning flight, but it is well-catered for in terms of hotels close to the terminal. Of these, the utterly charming Etrop Grange is a destination in its own right, a former Georgian coaching inn far removed from the often faceless world of chain properties. Great comfort, great service and proper waiter-service cooked breakfast with not a hot-tray in sight and just a three-minute ride from the terminal by courtesy car.
Manchester Airport's Crowne Plaza is super-swish with all the facilities, but lacking in character, with a grim buffet breakfast that is far too pricey for the quality. But it is good value for the level of comfort and the walk-through access to the terminal.
Before you fly it is worth investigating the various booking options. Nearly all hotels have attractive park-and-fly packages which can make a night's stay followed by a week (or sometimes two weeks) parking as cheap (or even cheaper at Gatwick Sofitel) as the stay alone. Low room-only rates are also available on the internet, both from the hotels themselves and from airport "concierge" services like Holiday Extras, who may also have good parking deals.
(First figure is double room per night;second is one night plus free parking.) Sofitel T5 (020/87577647; www.sofitel.com) £151; £282. Arora International (020 8759 7777; www.arorainternational.com) £58; £105. Sofitel Gatwick (01293/567070 www.sofitel.com) £229, £149. Ibis Luton (01582 424488; www.ibishotel.com) £65. Holiday Inn Express Luton (0870 400 9670; www.hiexpress.co.uk) £49; £131. Hilton Garden Inn (www.hilton.co.uk; 01582 435300) £95. Radisson SAS Stansted (01279 66 1012; www.radissonsas.com) £119; £135. Down Hall (01279 731 441; www.downhall.co.uk) £104; 129; Etrop Grange (0844 600 8718) £99; £155. Crowne Plaza, Manchester Airport (0870 400-9093; www.crowneplaza.com) £79; £99. Check Holiday Extras (www.holidayextras.co.uk) for special deals