A Very Plane Hotel: A Review of the Atlanta Airport Renaissance Concourse Hotel
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There are your standard airport hotels, and then there are airport hotels that put you really close to the runways, with a view of the takeoffs and landings that often can't be matched. The former tend to be bland, utilitarian places designed to help travelers relax on a layover, all business and no pleasure — but the latter can be paradise for aviation enthusiasts. One of those is the Renaissance Concourse Hotel at the Atlanta airport, whose location right by the runway at the world's busiest airport by passenger numbers can't be beat for people who love to watch airplanes.
Marriott's Renaissance brand has another property, the Gateway, right by the airport, but it doesn't have the expansive view of the runways that the Concourse does. Known as "The Renny" by pretty much all aviation lovers who gladly call themselves AvGeeks, the Concourse is so well-known among them that people fly into ATL for the sole purpose of spending a day or two there. So it's only fitting that we spent a weekend at this hotel that offers AvGeeks great views of the aviation action.
I booked a weekend in late June directly on the Marriott site, paying $386.42 for two nights in a Concierge-level room on the top floor of the hotel, the 11th. All south-facing rooms feature a balcony overlooking the airport, an important feature if you plan to do airplane photography. Don't get a north-facing room if you're there for the planes, or you'll be looking at a parking lot.
The Concierge level meant I would have lounge access even as a Silver member, the lowest tier of Marriott Rewards elites, which otherwise would not guarantee entrance into the lounge. Unfortunately, upon checking in at noon on a Friday, I learned that the lounge was closed on weekends. The affable front desk staffer who checked me in gave me breakfast vouchers to use at the hotel's restaurant instead.
I paid with my Chase Sapphire Reserve, which offers 3x points on travel purchases. After my final $541 bill, including food and beverages, I earned 1,624 Chase Ultimate Rewards points, worth about $34 at TPG's current valuations.
My stay also earned me 925 Marriott Rewards points. I was surprised, upon checking my Marriott account, that I had received no elite bonus — as a Silver, I would have been entitled to 20% extra points.
Four days after checking out, I called Marriott's customer service to find out what had happened. After a really long wait time, the agent told me to call back "in three to five days." No thanks, I replied — could they please get someone able to give me an answer right away? A long hold on the phone later, I was told that I was actually earning Delta SkyMiles from my Marriott stays, not Marriott Rewards points. I had set that preference long ago in my Marriott account, and forgot that I had. So those were 925 SkyMiles, not Marriott points. Customers who choose to earn miles instead of points, I was told, earn two airline miles per dollar spent on qualifying purchases, but do not get elite bonuses. (Nor do they get the extra points for declining housekeeping that I thought I would be awarded.)
Those 925 miles appeared very quickly in my SkyMiles account, just one day after I checked out.
The hotel is really as close to the planes as you can get without having an airside access permit. If you are landing in a westerly direction, as is most often the case at ATL, you'll see the unmistakable shape of the Renaissance out of the right-side windows even before touching the ground.
With its looks reminiscent of a Babylonian ziggurat, the Renny does not win any architectural prizes. It wouldn't be out of place in a collection of Soviet-era Brutalist buildings, but with that location right on the runways, who cares?
To get there from the airport, walk to the airport shuttle collection area outside the South terminal, head to Zone 2 — the pickup spots for each hotel are indicated clearly on overhead signs — and wait for the shuttle minibuses that depart every 20 minutes. The Renaissance Concourse shuttle will stop at a couple other hotels along the way.
The location isn't really convenient to many places of interest except the Delta Flight Museum, a 10-minute walk that's totally worth it. You can see some of the planes on display at the museum, including a 757 in classic Delta colors and a 747, from the windows at the end of the hotel's east-facing hallways.
There's a Walmart a 10-minute walk away, and Delta's headquarters is close, too. You'll also find some restaurants within walking distance, but this is not a pedestrian-friendly area.
I checked in smoothly at 1:15pm with a friendly employee who recognized my Marriott elite status, and handed me the vouchers in lieu of lounge food. Upon opening the door to room 1129 on the top floor, I admired its perfect location relative to the runways, but I noticed immediately a stale smell. It didn't bother me very much since I spent most of my time on the balcony, but others might have requested a room change. Other than that, the room did very well what I needed it to do: Provide a comfortable base for a weekend of unabashed plane-geeking.
A mini-fridge under the tv provided cooling for beverages. You will definitely want to keep hydrated if you're standing outside in the summer sun in Georgia.
The vestibule led to the bathroom on one side, and had a capacious closet on the other.
The bathroom was basic and felt dated, but left nothing to be desired. The shower might not have passed our TPG shower test — i.e., comfortably usable by a person as tall as 6'7'' TPG — but for 6'2'' me, it was all right.
Besides a perfectly fluffy bathrobe in the vestibule closet, there were very nice Aveda toiletries, like in all Renaissance hotels. I wasn't a fan, however, of the fake bookshelves, featuring books with blank spines. If you're going to paint a trompe-l'oeil bookcase in a hotel bathroom — but why? — at least try to inject some life into it.
Something that might bother guests more than the bathroom decor is the noise. Despite the thick glass panes, the room was really noisy. That's not surprising, when you consider how close to the runways the hotel is — this was the view from my balcony, overlooking the pool, the ramp where Delta parks some of its aircraft between flights and the private-jet area on the left. Two of ATL's five runways are directly outside your window.
The noise is made worse by ATL's status as the world capital of MD-80s. Delta still flies more than 100 of these '80s-vintage jets, powered by two extremely loud engines. Most of them fly every day into the airline's ATL home base, and landings are especially noisy because of the thrust reversers that help slow down planes. You will most definitely hear the angry roar of a landing MD-80, even before you see the plane roll in front of your window. Music to AvGeek ears, but no fun for anybody else.
Delta plans to phase out this short-haul workhorse in 2020, but even with more modern airplanes the noise will never cease to be an issue at the Renny. If that's a concern, make sure to get a room on the quieter north side of the building. That said, watching an MD-80 land gracefully right under your eyes, leaving a puff of burnt rubber in its wake, is a pleasure.
The 387 rooms open onto balconies and overlook a vast inner space, with the restaurant at the bottom and the hall at one open end. The atrium colors and decor carried a strong whiff of 1990s upper-mid-range hotel design — it was built in 1992, in fact.
The hall lets in lots of natural light, helping give guests a feeling of airy spaciousness when they first enter the property. (Christian symbols were being projected on the marble wall at left because of a religious convention taking place at the hotel.)
And because the hotel is in the very center of Delta territory, glass cases in the hall display models of Delta planes, including one of those noisy MD-80s.
There are even framed photographs of Delta jets hanging in the hallways, like this 737 taking off in front of the hotel.
Food & Beverages
In keeping with the aviation theme, the Renaissance Concourse calls its restaurant the Concorde Bar & Grill. It features a large area at the center of the building, and a smaller area near the bar.
My breakfast coupons were valid for the buffet, but not for à la carte dishes. On offer was the bog-standard American hotel-buffet food centered around bacon, sausages, scrambled or hard-boiled eggs, slightly burned biscuits and a selection of fresh fruit. À la carte options were more varied, but I stuck to the buffet.
At the bar, I found a pretty basic selection of beers and wines, heavy on the mainstream brands, plus a fairly extensive food menu. My first day, I had a late mid-afternoon lunch at the bar, with two perfectly chilled Pacifico beers and a mediocre seared-tuna salad, for $51 including tip. That evening, two Cokes and a plate of nondescript shrimp and grits amounted to $42. Not exactly cheap prices, but the bartenders were friendly and the service fast.
The following evening, I sat at a table for dinner instead of at the bar. For $44, I had a pulled pork sandwich and a kale salad, both better than the previous day's choices but nowhere near interesting. The menu, expensive for the quality of the food, exuded a Southern-generic vibe, rich in unchallenging versions of local classics. Then again, you're not at the Renny for the food. Most guests are either in transit, or they're there for the planes, and those don't disappoint. Boeings and Airbuses 50 feet from my plate were a perfect side dish for me.
24-hour room service was available, too, with a pretty similar menu, but I didn't order it.
Fast, solid Wi-Fi is an imperative for a hotel catering heavily to business travelers, and the Renny delivered on that front. Wi-Fi is free for all Marriott Rewards members, and those at Gold level or above get free high-speed. It was plenty fast at the basic level I got as a Silver — enough to stream World Cup matches and keep tabs on airplane traffic with sites like FlightRadar24 and FlightAware.
Located next to the gym and indoor pool, the outdoor pool is small, but was never crowded during my stay and offered amazing proximity to the planes, an Airbus A330 and a Boeing 767 in the case of the image below.
Speaking of which: What about the airplane photography?
You're really, really close. You won't need a giant lens to photograph the planes here. And with an expansive view to the south, you will have a privileged outlook on the dramatic skies produced by summer storms.
Keep in mind that, because of the angle of the sun, the Renny is best for photography in the summer, when that southern exposure yields the best light. Atlanta's hazy air will often be swept clear by a rainstorm, producing beautiful skies when the sun peeks out again. You'll be greeting it on your balcony with a cold drink.
With a lens that affords a bit more reach, you'll be able to zoom in on interesting details, like this ramp worker washing a Delta Boeing 777.
To photograph takeoffs and landings like a pro, you will need ideally a lens with a focal length equivalent to 300 mm at least. The only downside here is that Delta dominates traffic at ATL, so you won't see a lot of unusual airplanes. Colorful, eye-catching special liveries, like this one on a JetBlue Airbus A320 — or pretty much anything that isn't Delta — are a rare sight here.
Even when you photograph other airplanes, chances are you'll see Delta tails in the frame. The airline has almost 900 aircraft in its fleet, and a lot of them are based here.
Thanks to your privileged location, you can go on shooting from the Renny even after dark. I photographed this rarely seen Airbus A318, a VIP airplane that used to fly for British Airways, with a tripod at night. It had ferried in some important guests from England, in relatively discreet fashion thanks to the nondescript all-white exterior. TPG editor at large Zach Honig flew on its sister ship across the Atlantic earlier this year.
By the time I checked out at 2:00pm on Sunday — I had asked for, and been given with no fuss, a late checkout — even I, as hardcore a plane fanatic as any, had had my fill of airplanes, and was looking forward to a night's sleep undisturbed by jet engines. But if you're a devotee of the AvGeek religion, do not hesitate: Coming to this place is a pilgrimage you should go on at least once. If you aren't, you want to get a north-facing room, or maybe to find less noisy options near the Atlanta airport. That said, the Renny did its job as a no-nonsense, layover-friendly airport hotel just fine, as the sight of airline crews checking in and out during my stay reminded me.