Most of us have been there.
We've booked a cheap no-frills flight abroad only to find the departure time is so early that we have to stay at the airport hotel. Or our flight has arrived so late that we have to stay the night there. In each case, the choice is between sleeping (or not) on a plastic check-in lounge chair or shelling out the equivalent cost of the holiday for an airport hotel. If you choose the latter, then you're likely to encounter the full strength of this captive market.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Just as airports are reinventing themselves, seemingly as shopping centres with a sideline in flying, so airport hotels are catering for different markets and even upping their game to try to get guests to check in for the duration of their stay at their final destination.
One of the most eye-catching developments will open towards the end of this year, when the Hilton group (hilton.com) opens two hotels at Frankfurt airport above the terminal's high-speed train station, just 15 minutes from the city centre. The Hilton Frankfurt Airport hotel will offer 248 rooms, and, along with the Hilton Garden Inn's 334 rooms, will be based in the futuristic Squaire building (thesquaire.com/en/) designed by JSK Architects.
A spokesman for the Hilton Group suggested the industry has to keep on its toes to remain competitive, as witnessed by the recent £800,000 refurbishment of the lobby at the Hilton, Gatwick. Hilton this year spent £300,000 refurbishing parts of its Edinburgh airport hotel, and signed an agreement to build a hotel at Istanbul's Ataturk airport.
And there are some surprises. This November will see the latest Radisson Blu hotel (radissonblu.com) open by the M1, servicing East Midlands airport. The five-storey, 216-bed hotel will acknowledge its location near the National Forest with timber features, along with an aviation-themed canopy with curved aluminium panels. Reflecting the increasing green awareness of many travellers and environmental requirements, the hotel will use a rainwater harvesting system and other techniques that have given it a rating of "excellent" from Breeam, the most prominent environmental assessment for buildings.
According to Pedro Raposo, a senior director at Rezidor, which owns the Radisson Blu hotel chain, airport hotels have had to improve standards dramatically in recent years. "Airport hotels have had to move away from being places where people have to stay, to places where they look to stay," he said. "This has a lot to do with the products offered by the airport hotel industry. In the past, when people stayed because they had an early flight, there was not much innovation or many ancillary services. But the huge increase in leisure and business travel means airport hotels have created different products, such as spas."
And before long, airline passengers will detect another shift, as the airports they fly to promote themselves as destinations in their own right. The thought of a holiday at Los Angeles's international airport or Dubai might sound grim indeed, but a number of airports and hotels are not deterred.
The word on the industry's lips is "aerotropolis" – a term invented by Professor John Kasarda, a transport expert at the University of North Carolina – defined as the sub-city that surrounds an airport, offering residential accommodation, hotels, shopping and entertainment for travellers, airport staff, pilots and cabin crew. Atlanta recently announced plans to develop an aerotropolis on derelict industrial land, and others are already moving apace, including Seoul-Incheon in South Korea, Dubai (where Dubai World City is being built around the ever-expanding airport), Shanghai and Hong Kong. Seoul, for example, is constructing a vast settlement that will house everything from hotels to shopping centres, an amusement park and studios for fashion designers. It even plans to build a hospital on the site to draw on the market for medical tourism. Seoul is not alone. Bangkok's new airport on reclaimed swampland at Suvarnabhumi aims to house more than three million residents and tourists in a similar settlement within 20 years.
Dubai's mini-version will arrive a little more quickly. A 293-room luxury airport hotel will be opened by the Jumeirah Group, Dubai's luxury hotel company and Dubai Duty Free, later this year. "The hotel's proximity to the airport and the wide range of sporting and leisure activities in the vicinity are expected to make the hotel popular with high-end business and leisure travellers, as well as local residents," said a spokesman for Dubai Tourism.
Until such a vision arrives, most of us will be stuck with striking what deals and modest benefits we can from the overnight airport stay. Not surprisingly, the hotel industry rejects accusations that it can get away with wildly overcharging what is effectively a captive market, one of the most common gripes from those who stay at an airport hotel. "Pricing between airport hotels is very competitive – it's all about supply and demand," said Mr Raposo. "Of course you get unusual circumstances, such as industrial action or heavy snow, but in normal conditions rates are competitive."
There's still good money to be made from the weary traveller, though, as Mr Raposo acknowledges. "Airport hotels are key to any company that aims to be big in any region," he said. "They give you high visibility. If you are lucky enough to be able to build on land near an airport, then believe me, you have a strong market for years to come."