Wouldn't it be wonderful if airlines actually scheduled flights at times that normal human beings who don't live on the doorstep of the airport might actually aspire to catch without getting up before they've even gone to bed? Sadly the reality of travel is that more often than not early starts are just part of the game. I'm no stranger to early starts and rolling into airports in the wee small hours of the morning but when faced with what was likely to be a 3 am departure from home in the East Midlands in order to get to Stansted for a flight to Estonia, I decided that it was almost certain to ruin at least the first day of my holiday if I was dead to the world. Possibly the only thing that stops the Estonian capital of Tallinn being totally over-run by British stag parties is that you can only get a budget flight there from Stansted.
I generally loathe airport hotels with the exception of the Radisson at Stansted but a night there would have made my cheap weekend not a cheap weekend at all. I hunted through the hotel booking sites and was uninspired so I used 25000 of my Priority Club awards (the loyalty scheme which covers Holiday Inn hotels) and booked a night at the Holiday Inn Express at Stansted after I learned that it was right next to the Mid-Stay car park. First of course, as you'd expect, I made sure I could get a good deal on the car parking too. To park at the HIE would have cost me £15 a night which was well over what I was prepared to pay. So I booked 3 nights at the Mid-Stay through www.holidayextras.co.uk for just £19.50. Result!
We were due to fly at 07.40 on the Friday morning and I wasn't really intending to spend any longer than necessary at the hotel so we didn't arrive until after 10.30 on the Thursday evening. We checked exactly where the hotel was then parked up in the Mid-Stay, breaking all the rules and guidance on where to park by sneaking into the L-section which, unlike most of the 'closed' sections of the car park, isn't barred to traffic because it's also where all the disabled parking is located. Don't even think of asking - of course we didn't park in the disabled spaces.
We dragged our bags out of the car park, across to the middle of the roundabout and down the ramp towards the hotel. It's pretty safe to say that this is not standard behaviour and not to be recommended especially if you have kids in tow. Fortunately I had nothing more than a teensy wheelie bag. The hotel were also clearly quite baffled about how we'd arrived without using their car park but they were too polite to ask for details.
Check in was quick and easy. Since the hotel is set up with no minibars or other paid for services that might need to be added to your bill, I don't think I even had to leave a credit card. We were told when breakfast was available (from 6 am) and that coffee and juice were available even earlier. If we wanted the shuttle bus the times were clearly displayed and after taking our lives in our hands getting from the car park we decided to take the bus the next morning instead of dicing with death on the roundabout again. The roads around airports are dangerous places for pedestrians especially when you consider the foreign rental car drivers who are experiencing life on our side of the road for the first time and all the returning drivers who've not had enough sleep or have had too much booze.
The reception area and lounge were large, clean and filled with sofas and armchairs in numbers far greater than you could ever imagine might be required unless the entire airport shut down in and emergency and everyone had to spend the night in the lobby of the HIE. There's a small bar and even a pool table but nothing to tempt us - we just wanted to get to our room.
The room was pretty much what I expected from Holiday Inn Express. It was clean and functional rather than particularly stylish. The carpet was striped in shades of blue and cream whilst the rest of the room was decorated in shades of red and ginger - not exactly the combination I'd have expected given the carpet. There was a large squishy sofa-bed that looked as if it would probably eat you alive if you dared to sit on it and the main double bed was alarmingly untethered in such a way that the moment we sat on it to watch TV, it shot away from the wall and had to be hauled back into place. Texturally it was a bit like a cross between a waterbed and a bouncy castle. The two pillows were marked up with one allegedly soft and the other hard though there was no discernible difference between the two. Spare pillows were in the storage/hanging unit but I was too tired to worry about the precise hardness of my pillow. In addition to the bed and sofa-bed, the furnishings consisted of a small desk and chair with an old-fashioned television on top offering even fewer channels than we have at home. However, we lived in Suffolk for 6 years and are used to the lousy television signals of East Anglia. There was a bag stand (always important, I think), a hanging rail crossed with a sort of open-fronted storage contraption which included the tea and coffee tray and a hair dryer. The bathroom was small with a strange arrangement by which the bathroom door folded back to become the door of the toilet cubicle which was sort of separated from the rest of the bathroom. There was a shower but no bath which I always find a bit disappointing since there's nothing to make you want a bath more than not having the option.
I set the alarm for 5.30 and we dragged ourselves out of bed, into the shower and off to the breakfast room. HIE breakfasts are always self-serve but I have to admit I wasn't impressed by the choice. The coffee was poor, the juice was 'juice-drink' rather than the real thing, and the selection of food wasn't very exciting. There were small croissants, pains au chocolat and raisin whirls, or sliced bread and an evil looking contraption for toasting it, or cereal and milk.
With our room prepaid, all we had to do was throw our room key onto the reception desk and head out to the bus. The shuttle fee was £2 each which I find a touch on the cheeky side given that there's not a lot of choice about how else to get to the airport unless you fancy your chances getting to the mid-stay car park. Personally I'd rather see the shuttle fee built into the room cost - especially when I'm not actually paying for the room. The bus runs to the airport on the hour and half-hour and back again on the quarter-past and quarter-to. Anyone who's been exposed to the Heathrow shuttle (which often entails stopping round half a dozen hotels on the way to the airport) will be pleased to hear that the bus doesn't dither around - it just heads straight to the airport.
So all in all, not a bad choice. The hotel did all that we needed it to, we slept like logs in our very quiet if slightly basic room and at least coffee and juice-ish drinks were available nice and early. I wasn't looking for much or expecting anything fancy and that's pretty much how I'd sum up what we got. I've been to better HIEs on less Priority Club points but for what we needed, the HIE at Stansted Airport was entirely adequate.
I really like the Express By Holiday Inn hotels but the one at Stansted is one of the best, partly because of its location. It's very good how you can see the aeroplanes take-off out of the window but there not really close so you can't sleep at night. I've stayed a night in this hotel three times and every time it has been great. Each time the room has been very clean and tidy on arrival and the rooms also have quite alot of space. I don't feel that it is the best hotel at Stansted though it is a very good one. The breakfast in the morning is very nice, though they are at every Express By Holiday Inn hotel but at some, the breakfast rooms are too cramped, which is certainly not the case at the one at Stansted. Busses go to the terminal at Stansted from the hotels front doors regually and only take 5 minutes. I recommend this hotel if your just looking for quite a reasonable priced room and a good quality hotel to stop in if you have an early morning departing flight or a late evening arriving flight at Stansted.