Stranded: Surviving the Storm at DIA |

Stranded: Surviving the Storm at DIA

by Kelly J. Hayes


Last year, over 54 million travelers made their way through Denver International Airport. While most arrived at their ultimate destinations on time, a few, and you know who you are, were subjected to lengthy cancellations and delays.

Here are seven tips for keeping your sanity when the worst-case scenario becomes reality.


When you are stuck, info is king. Be sure to refer to your airline, hotel and rental car apps when you first sense a problem. The United app will show you where your flight is coming in from and if it is delayed. It will also show the next departures to your city and what seats are available. Use it and you’ll know before your fellow travelers what your options are.


Whenever I am stuck and I foresee terrible trouble, I head straight to the main counter in the terminal instead of the lines in the concourses. The folks at the front desk are usually empowered to provide lodging support and will have information about your travel options. This is especially true if you have any status with your airline. Take a name and make a friend in the front of the house.



If it is looking like the snow will fall for a few days and you absolutely, positively have to get there, check in and book a van with Colorado Mountain Express. Especially with their new Sprinter vans, these are the easiest and most comfortable alternatives up and over the pass. But if you are going to catch a ride, be sure to grab some water and snacks, and juice your phone. Even CME can be delayed by the weather.


If you can’t book a CME van and the runways are closed and you still have to get to Aspen, the next best alternative may be renting a car. But that has some qualifications, as well. It can be expensive. There will almost always be a drop charge that exceeds the cost of the rental. And if the flights are canceled then the roads are likely to be icy, too. If you are going to do this, check with your fellow travelers and find someone who might be willing to share expenses and driving. And make sure you get a four-wheel drive vehicle. And check the CDOT app. And charge your phone. And take snacks and water.


So you’ve resigned yourself to your fate and you know you are going to be there for a while. Now is the time to book a room. That Westin is nice and close, but it may be sold out. I recommend the Hotels Tonight app. You sign up, put your credit card on file, and with a keystroke you can book a room nearby. Usually at a discount.

There are hotels on Tower Road and in the Gateway Park sections of town which are accessible by hotel shuttles. I personally prefer the Aloft. It is affordable, clean and simple. Now you can also access downtown Denver’s Union Station via the train in just 37 minutes — provided it is running — and take advantage of the hotels there.


So it’s all gone south. Flights are canceled. The roads are closed. There are no longer rooms at the inn. It’s time to find a place to get comfortable. This is a moment to be humble and to take what you can get. I prefer upstairs in the center of the terminal. You will be close to food and drink. Not far from the trains and in a position to react once things start operating again. If you belong to the United Club there are two locations in Terminal B, but be warned. They have a tendency to close after operating hours.


Once you’ve resigned yourself to camping out at DIA, it’s time to treat yourself to a little sustenance. My suggestion? Go big and go to Elway’s in the center of Concourse B. A fine meal kind of takes the sting out of being stuck. As does a cocktail. And the best one of those can be found upstairs in Concourse B at the 5280 Lounge.


We have all been there.

Stuck at Denver International Airport as a storm reduces visibility at Sardy Field. Grounded by an early fall Front Range snowstorm that snarls the traffic at DIA. Or reduced to waiting overnight while the airlines work out technical glitches and/or crew issues.

Yes, a lot can go wrong for the Aspen traveler.


“We have found that we have a number of Aspen guests who have missed that last connection to Aspen. They may be really frustrated when they get here but our goal is we want them to feel better when they leave than when they arrived.” — Tom Curley, general manager, Westin Denver International Airport

On Feb. 28, 1995, United 1062 to Kansas City became the first officially scheduled flight to depart Denver’s new airport. Built at a cost of $4.8 billion dollars, the airport opened 16 months after its originally scheduled date and was centered 25 miles from downtown Denver. Immediately it became clear that when air traffic was interrupted, travelers would need hotel accommodations. But, inexplicably, it took over 20 years for a hotel to open on site at the airport.

In the interim, a collection of hotels on Tower Road, 8 miles away, were the first option for guests who were inconvenienced by weather delays. If you couldn’t get a room there then the next collection of hotels were even farther down the often icy roads, 12 miles away. For years, all the stranded Aspen flier could do was … take the bus.


But that all changed 14 months ago when the Westin Denver International Airport welcomed its first guests. Just 100 paces away from the main Jeppesen Terminal at DIA, a new day dawned in November 2015 for those who were forced to spend a night or choose to buffer their trips with an extra evening before or after their departures and arrivals. Now, instead of waiting outside in the cold and wind, watching buses from other hotels collect and dispatch passengers, those with reservations can simply walk to one of just 34 AAA Four Diamond properties in the state.

“We have found that we have a number of Aspen guests who have missed that last connection to Aspen,” said the hotel’s general manager, Tom Curley. “They may be really frustrated when they get here but our goal is we want them to feel better when they leave than when they arrived.”

Just arriving will make the stranded traveler feel better. Consider the sleek architecture, the Heavenly Beds and the magnificent views. Then there are amenities, including the cozy Grill and Vine tavern, a health club and a swimming pool. Pretty much all the things a stuck soul could ask for.

Sure, they come at a price (the current rate for a room on the night of this paper’s publication on the Westin website begins at $283), but there are discounts available on other booking sites and with Starwood points. And in a pinch, i.e. — a snowstorm — nothing could be better than knowing that your bed will not be the carpet at gate B88.


Perhaps the most significant aspects of the Westin Denver International Airport Hotel are the soaring steel and glass “wings” that define the exterior of the building. The structure bonds well with the concepts of flight that are so entrenched in its location and purpose.

While the airport was already well known for the white, tent-like exterior, Gensler, a global architecture firm with Denver offices, was tasked with creating a signature space that would enhance the airport’s design visual without overpowering it. The building also needed to integrate a new transportation hub hosting an electric train system that is the new lifeline between Denver and the airport.

For the designers, an additional goal of tying the Rocky Mountains, which rise in the distance, to the property was paramount. Gensler Co-CEO Andy Cohen, FAIA, opined when the building opened, “I think what guests will remember is what they can do here that they can’t do anywhere else. Being able to enjoy a meal outside on a plaza at the airport is wonderful.” He continued, “But what makes it unforgettable is that you’re surrounded by great architecture and art as you watch planes taking off with Pikes Peak in the background. That’s incredibly special, and something that you can only do here at Denver International Airport.”

The glass structure reflects the white tents of the terminal on one side and captures vistas of the mountains on the other. There are 519 guest rooms with 35 suites and a 82,000-square-foot patio space sitting atop a subterranean rail station that is a combination of European design and Western efficiency. A vast glass canopy allows the sun to pour in where the train arrives and passengers exit onto a platform that offers access to the terminal and the 14-floor hotel structure above.

Architectural Digest recently wrote a review of the “14 Airport Hotels for the Design-Savvy Traveler” and the only American entry on the list was the Westin Denver International Airport.


A stay at the Westin Denver International Airport is a bit different from the everyday hotel experience. Begin with the kinetic views of the massive jets as they arrive and depart, one after the other, on the runways just outside the windows of the rooms. Of course, all of the rooms are heavily soundproofed, so you can barely hear the rumble of the massive Rolls-Royce engines that propel the planes.

The floor-to-ceiling windows in the rooms are equipped with blackout shades that can be raised and lowered with the flick of a switch. And due to the unique shape of the hotel, the windows in the corner suites are tapered downward from top to bottom, providing dramatic vistas. You almost feel as though you are hanging on the edge of the structure as you look at the terminal below or the mountains in the distance. And many of the rooms feature exposed columns emphasizing an organic, structural motif.

The clean, sleek decor defines futuristic, and each room is equipped with a working desk and audio-visual center that ensures guests who have missed flights or are in the hotel for meetings maintain their digital touchstone with the rest of the world. It seems as though you are in a pod at a transportation hub that has been created to meet the needs of a professional traveler.

The refined technological aspects of the hotel are also reflected in the keyless entry program that is available for members of the Starwood Preferred Guest Program. For those who have the app it is easy to sign in and check in using a smartphone or Apple Watch as a key.

Westin is well-known for the trademarked Heavenly Bed and Heavenly Shower programs. The beds, with pillow top mattresses that now are regularly purchased by homeowners who discovered them in their travels, are extremely comfortable. And the showers, designed by Kohler specifically for Westin, feature overhead rain showers and hand-held wands. Just the thing for getting the travel grime out of your hair.

The vibe is “modern travel” and while you might not go to the Westin Denver International Airport for a get-away stay, you could be both happy and efficient if stuck for a couple days in a monster storm.


“We are all about preserving wellness in travel,” general manager Tom Curley emphasizes, and to that end the Westin offers a number of opportunities for exercise. The premier workout feature is an 11th-floor swimming pool. Laps at the airport are an experience few have had, but this pool, bounded by a massive window bifurcated by a structural curved beam, provides a sublime workout experience.

The fully equipped fitness club sits overlooking the tents at DIA and there are maps for guests who want to get out and run, albeit in the general parking lots, at the airport. If you forget your exercise gear or simply choose not to travel with it, there is a special program where guests can use New Balance shoes and clothing for their workouts in a “gear lending” program.

Once done, dinner and drinks beckon and the Grill and Vine tavern is the main sanctuary. While there is also a lobby bar at the check-in desk and a serve-yourself coffee bar on the main level, Grill and Vine is the quintessential casual gathering place.

On any given evening you’ll find an eclectic crowd of travelers from all over the world who have come to indulge in food, wine and, mostly, conversation. Jeremy Sullivan, the director of restaurants and bars at the property notes the emphasis on local beers.

“We have six Colorado brews on tap at all times and we rotate them every 90 days” as well as select spirits, he said. The handcrafted cocktail program features artisan distilled products ranging from Leopold Bros. to Breckenridge Bourbon.

Though it took 20 years, it would seem that the Westin Denver International Airport has filled a niche for the wayward Aspen traveler.


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