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Getting stuck in an airport when planes are delayed by weather is one thing, being forced to stay if you are "stateless" Tom Hanks in The Terminal is another. But choosing to stay when you don't have to is so unusual, the folks at the Miami International Airport Hotel couldn't handle it. I wanted to spend some time in South Florida recently before pushing onward, and figured "the world's only hotel in an airport terminal," as the MIAH claims, would be the most convenient place to park my three bags and my personal bulk for two nights.

When I checked in, they didn't ask for my credit card, which struck me as unusual, but since I had prepaid for the room, I figured this was normal. It wasn't, however, as I discovered after entertaining a local contact for lunch and signing for the meal. Halfway out of the restaurant, the maitre d' caught up with me to point out the front desk didn't have any record of my card number. After paying the bill, I asked at reception and they told me that "nobody ever stays long enough to use the restaurant."

As the food at the seventh-floor Top of the Port was fine and the service excellent, I figured that was the loss of many travelers. When I insisted the front desk take my credit card for any future expenses, they marveled again, one clerk commenting, "Nobody ever stays TWO nights!"

"World's Only"

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of hotels located on or near the property of airports around the world. If Miami's claim is correct and its hotel, right on Concourse E, is unique, I am happy for them. There is not enough time to check out the websites of every airport on the globe to prove or disprove this statement. I can say I've never seen one like it in my many years of circling the Earth, often without hotel reservations and frequently looking for lodging the minute I land someplace. But having a hotel right inside the terminal -- past the security gate -- is worth its weight in gold, or taxi fares, or something.

The hotel has several unusual amenities, one being a sushi bar in the lobby, open to the concourse like any of the many fast food places nearby. Another is free Internet access in a corner of the restaurant. The fitness center on the eighth floor is closed for renovations, as is the adjacent rooftop swimming pool and its snack bar. When it is open, however, the gym and pool can be used by non guests of the hotel, for a healthy fee of course.

But the hotel's rooms need some work. They exhibit the d¿cor of an average Holiday Inn 20 years ago, with accoutrements to match. (My room directory's phone numbers for airlines still listed Pan Am and Eastern, long, long gone, and internal phone numbers were misprinted or just not working as well.)

The location can't be beat, especially if you are changing flights. Simply roll your bags up escalators or elevators to the main (departure) level, which is Level Two, then get yourself to Concourse E, in the center of the terminal, and check in. If you have to walk between distant concourses, say from A to E or from H to E, you can take an elevator up to the third level Skywalk, with moving walkways to ease your Long March blues.

The rooms are on four floors, ranging in price from $129 up, for two persons. There are also day rates, from 10 to 6. Children under 12 stay free in the same room with an adult, maximum 2 kids per room. The hotel is owned by Miami-Dade County, as is the whole airport and terminal, in fact.

MIA Land

The Miami International Airport claims that more airlines use it each day than any other airport in the Western Hemisphere, as it is the major connecting point for flights between the two Americas and the Caribbean. Again, this is hard to verify, but the throngs on Level Two rushing between gates and restaurants, lounges and shops, makes MIA seem as frantic as Chicago's O'Hare, considered to be America's busiest (along with Atlanta's airport).

Bags in transit used to go missing so often in the Miami International Airport that critics (including me) said the airport's ID, MIA, really meant "missing in airport," referring to lost luggage. That particular problem has improved, South Floridians tell me, but I can confirm that the terminal is still not really user-friendly. The signage is particularly deficient, making it hard to get from the baggage area to anywhere else in the vast building.

As to bags "missing in airport," I decided to look in on the only Lost & Found office there, located near toilets on the right side as you enter the E concourse security area. To my surprise, I saw there thousands of suitcases and hundreds of laptops. When I questioned the nice woman behind the counter, she told me that some people deliberately leave behind suitcases, she had learned, because they intend to file lost baggage claims for them and then collect from the airlines or from insurance companies. As to laptops, she pointed out, they were all old ones, and were, she supposed, left behind so their owners could also claim insurance on them in order to buy new machines. Who knew?

The terminal has four levels and eight concourses, lettered A through H. In addition to the hotel restaurant (Concourse E), there are nearly 50 restaurants, fast food counters, snack bars, lounges and bars in the concourses, most of them at the departure level, Two. Level One is for arrivals, Level Three for the Moving Walkways, accessible by elevators throughout the terminal, if you can find the right signs, that is. The small Level 4 has an Armed Forces office, a chapel, a bank and an auditorium for press conferences and the like.

Food & Drink

Among the 50 or so places to eat or drink, I found a handful worth mentioning: the Top of the Port Restaurant in the hotel ranks first, followed by two branches of La Carreta, a buffet-style Cuban restaurant (owned by a famous downtown spot). Next would be the three branches of Caf¿ Versailles, also a branch of Calle Ocho's most famous Cuban restaurant, and then Casa Bacardi, a Caribbean style restaurant and bar.

To find the restaurants and all other facilities of the airport, get a copy of an airport map at the Information Desk in Concourse E, staffed by genuinely friendly and concerned people, when I visited, at least. It's open daily from 6 AM to 10 PM, they told me. There is also a good map in Tourist News, a free paper distributed throughout the terminal. (There are said to be volunteers around the difference concourses, especially at the arrival level, whose job it is to assist travelers with directions, information and advice, but I was never able to find any.)

You can find many kinds of shops and services at MIA, including a baggage room (E) where you can leave your luggage between flights or before checking in. (Be prepared for a long line at certain times of the day.) There's a unisex hair salon in Concourse E, next to a shoeshine stand, and numerous newsstands, gift shops and souvenir stands scattered throughout the different concourses. There's also a machine in the lobby near Concourse E that wraps your entire suitcase in plastic, making it impossible to open without a sharp knife. (When I asked how you got these wrapped pieces through the TSA security system, the sales person wasn't able to explain adequately to me, but one TSA screener said simply, "We cut them open on the spot.")

Getting to and from MIA

If you don't have too much luggage, buses are the way to go. If you are going to nearby destinations, such as one of the other "airport hotels," you can take a blue taxi (in a separate line one lane farther out than the regular taxis), with a standard charge of about $10. Going to Miami Beach can be expensive by taxi, running in my experience around $40 to $45 each way. (Published zone maps show rates from $28 to $46 for "the Beach.") Taking a Super Shuttle small bus would run from about $17 to $21.

For more information on MIA, go to www.Miami-airport.com.

And a Word from the Visitors Bureau

A late development for Miami junkies: the Visitors Bureau has just launched its first interactive website, which lets you see the town live in real time, with three cameras (two active now, one later) scanning views of the bay and the port, Lincoln Road in South Beach, and live ocean and beach scenes from a hotel rooftop. Go to www.seemiamilive.com. Information on the Greater Miami area can be found at www.miamiandbeaches.com or by phoning 877/846-4264 or 305/447-7777.

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