For travellers on tight budgets (like me) early flights are a huge headache. You shop around for the cheapest fare and end up flying at the crack of dawn, only to discover you can’t get there without spending a night at the airport. Do you splash out on a swanky hotel and blow all the cash you’ve saved, or do you book a ghastly ‘no frills’ hotel and wish you’d stayed at home? Either option is pretty useless (I should know – I’ve tried both) but for anyone flying out of Gatwick there’s now a decent alternative: a hotel which combines the best of budget and boutique.
Bloc Gatwick opened three years ago, in an old office block in the South Terminal. It’s right beside Security, just upstairs from the train station – the monorail to the North Terminal is downstairs. I’ve stayed here several times, and each time I’ve been airside a few minutes after checking out. So, top marks for location – but what’s it like inside? Well, the Bloc concept is to chuck out all the stuff you don’t need, and make all the essential stuff much better. There’s no gym, spa or restaurant – just lots and lots of beds. With no expensive extras, Bloc can afford to invest more money in the bedrooms, and still sell these rooms for under £100 a night.
These bedrooms are built off site, to a standard flat pack design. That means more units in a smaller space, and cheaper rates. The rooms are compact (starting at ten square metres) but everything fits together, and what you lose in terms of wriggle room you gain in deluxe basics: free Wi-Fi, flat screen TV, Egyptian cotton sheets… All the electronics are controlled by a hi-tech tablet. If you’re pushed for time, you can even use this tablet to check out. For me, the only bore is the walk in wet room (I’m not a big fan of showers and toilets in the same space) but I guess in 10m2 you can’t have everything. If you want more space – for more money – the corner bedrooms are larger. If you’re travelling with kids, there are family rooms with bunk beds. No in-house restaurant? No problem. Guests get 10% off at Giraffe and Caffè Nero (next door) and M&S (downstairs).
The prototype for this hotel is Bloc Birmingham, which opened in Brum back in 2010. The basic bedrooms are just the same, and there are new apartments with lounges and kitchenettes – ideal for longer stays. The hotel has discount deals with local restaurants – including Lasan, one of Britain’s finest curry houses. Located in the heart of Birmingham’s trendy Jewellery Quarter (Londoners: imagine a quirky cross between Soho and Shoreditch), it’s an ideal base for exploring Britain’s Second City.
If you’ve not been to Birmingham recently, you’ll be amazed. Sure, it’s great for shopping, but there’s more to Brum than Selfridges. The Custard Factory is Birmingham’s answer to Covent Garden (but much funkier and far less touristy) and the Ikon and the Barber Institute are bastions of contemporary and traditional art. Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery boasts one of the world’s best collections of Pre-Raphaelites, and the new library is a fantastic rendezvous – a sleek centrepiece for this rapidly improving metropolis.
Start your evening with cocktails at Jekyll & Hyde, a gin palace in the city centre, and wind up at the Rose Villa Tavern, a beautiful Victorian pub adorned with stained glass and antique tiles. Bloc is just a short walk away. I’ve stayed in plusher hotels, in Birmingham and Gatwick – but if I’m spending my own money, Bloc is the place I’d chose to stay.
Three more airport hotels to try…
Radisson Blu, Manchester International Airport
A large luxury hotel with facilities including a swimming pool and a health spa. Deals include a ‘grab and run’ breakfast for those catching very early flights and the airport is easily accessible via the ‘Skylink’ walkway. www.raddisonblu.com
Like Bloc, this hotel, situated in Heathrow’s Terminal 4, aims to make luxury affordable, and it does this by squeezing in bedding, a flat screen TV, a pull-out workstation and en-suite bathroom into small cabin rooms. Overnight stays start from £72. www.yotel.com
A gym, 24-hour room service and spacious rooms are on offer at this huge four-star hotel next to Terminal 4. Dinner and drinks the night before your flight is well taken care of, with three restaurants and two bars to choose from. www.sofitel.com