Flying to London
Located 15 miles west of central London, Heathrow (0870 000 0123; www.heathrowairport.com) is the UK’s major airport and a key connection to New York City. It has five terminals: Terminals 1, 2 and 3 (within walking distance of each other), and Terminal 4 and the new Terminal 5. Terminal 2 has been closed since 2009 for rebuilding - work on it has begun, but it isn't due to reopen until 2014.
Like Stansted, Heathrow is run by BAA. A hub airport that claims to be the world’s busiest, it's used by around 90 airlines, with an even split between long-haul and domestic services. For details of Heathrow carriers and their terminals, see http://tinyurl.com/csvg9a.
The chaotic opening of Terminal 5 in spring 2008 was a PR disaster, but the terminal seems to be running smoothly now. By raising overall terminal capacity to an annual 90 million travellers (Heathrow served 66 million passengers in 2009), it has alleviated some of the airport’s chronic overcrowding problems. However, long-running arguments about the addition of a third runway have been resolved: one of the first actions of Britain's incoming Lib-Con coalition government in 2010 was to veto its construction.
There are left-luggage facilities in each terminal, minimum charge £8 per bag for 24hrs, as well as shops and eating and drinking venues, but the only public showers are in Terminal 4 (departures).
Terminals 1 and 3, within walking distance of each other, are served by Heathrow Central station. Terminal 4 and Terminal 5 each have their own dedicated station.
All the terminals are well connected to central London by the London Underground (020 7222 1234; www.tfl.gov.uk). Using the Piccadilly Line (dark blue on the Transport for London maps), the service runs every few minutes from about 5am to just before midnight daily (roughly 6am to 11pm Sun), gets you into central London in 50-60 minutes and costs £4.50 single (£2.40-4.20 with a pre-paid Oyster card). For tips on how to save money on the trip, Oyster cards and using the London Underground, see my How to get around London page.
There are also train connections. The Heathrow Express (0845 600 1515; www.heathrowexpress.com) runs from Heathrow Central (Terminals 1, 2 and 3) and Terminal 5 stations every 15 minutes direct to Paddington. It costs £18 single (cheaper online, more expensive on board) and takes 15-20 minutes. Heathrow Connect (0845 678 6975; www.heathrowconnect.com) runs to Paddington from Heathrow Central and Terminal 4 every half an hour, stopping at five National Rail stations (none of them are very useful for visitors). It costs £7.90 single and takes 25-30 minutes.
Coach links to central London run from the central bus station at Terminals 1 and 3 and are operated by a variety of companies. National Express (0871 781 8178; www.nationalexpress.com) runs coaches to London Victoria every 20-30 minutes from 5am to 9.35pm, costing £5 single. The N9 bus offers a useful all-night alternative, running after rail, coach and underground services have finished. The N9 departs every 20 minutes from around midnight to 5am, and costs £2 single (£1.20 with Oyster).
Taxis are available at all Heathrow terminals. The journey to central London is metered, costing £40 to £70, and should take 30 minutes to an hour, depending on traffic.
Driving your own car to central London should also take 30 minutes to an hour, with access to the A4/M4 from Terminals 1 and 3, to the A30 and M25 from Terminal 4, and to the M25 from Terminal 5. Be aware that the Congestion Charge (www.tfl.gov.uk/roadusers/congestioncharging/) is levied on cars driving into central London, and that parking is often very difficult and expensive in the centre of town. For details on car rental, see my London car hire page.
Located 28 miles due south of London, Gatwick (0845 748 4950; www.gatwickairport.com) is the second biggest airport in Britain, and the busiest single-runway airport in the world. Like City Airport, Gatwick is run by Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP), who plan to finish major improvements to both terminals by 2013.
Gatwick mostly runs low-cost and scheduled services, both domestic and European. The older South Terminal, used by Flybe, Ryanair and Virgin, is where you’ll find the train station. The North Terminal is home to easyJet and British Airways. For details of Gatwick carriers and their terminals, see http://tinyurl.com/yf537sc.
There are shops and restaurants in both terminals, as well as left-luggage facilities (South Terminal: open 24hrs; North Terminal: open 5am-9pm), minimum charge £8 per bag for 24hrs (01293 569900; www.left-baggage.co.uk). You can also book a minimum of four hours in one of Yotel’s cabins (020 7100 1100; www.yotel.com) for a bit of shut-eye before your flight.
The airport’s train station is attached to the South Terminal. From there, services run to London Bridge and London Victoria. The Gatwick Express (0845 850 1530; +44 1732 378 746 from outside Britain; www.gatwickexpress.com) is the quickest service, leaving every 15 minutes and taking 30 minutes. It costs £16.90 single. Regular trains cost £15 single and run every 15 minutes, but take around 60 minutes.
National Express coaches (0871 781 8178; www.nationalexpress.com) run to central London from outside the North and South Terminals, costing £7.50 single and taking around 60 minutes. There’s also an easyBus (www.easybus.co.uk) service running from the North Terminal to Fulham Broadway every 15 minutes through the night. It costs from £2 single.
Taxis are available at both North and South Terminals from Checker Cars (0800 747 737; www.checkercars.com). The journey to central London is metered, usually costing around £90, and should take just over an hour, depending on traffic.
Driving your own car to central London should also take an hour, with access to the M25 via Junction 9A on the M23. Be aware that the Congestion Charge (www.tfl.gov.uk/roadusers/congestioncharging/) is levied on cars driving into central London, and that parking is often very difficult and expensive in the centre of town. For details on car rental, see my London car hire page.
Some 30 miles north-east of London, Britain’s third-busiest airport has a single, purpose-built passenger terminal. Stansted (0844 335 1803; www.stanstedairport.com) mostly offers low-cost services to Europe, including flights from easyJet and, especially, Ryanair. The three sets of departure gates are quite a distance from the main terminal, with two connected by a driverless train and the third within walking distance of the departure lounge.
Like Heathrow, Stansted is run by BAA. Huge expansion of low-cost travel has meant that around 22 million passengers a year now use the airport, even though it was only designed for 15 million. Lord Foster’s much-praised original design, which allowed passengers to flow freely through the terminal from carpark to departure gate, has become as clogged up as any of London’s airports. Terminal expansion work at the end of the decade has done a little to alleviate the problems, however, with the arrivals hall feeling much more spacious than before.
Left luggage is between check-in zones G and H. You’ll pay a minimum charge of £8.75 per bag for 24hrs. There are also various shops and places to eat and drink. Public showers are available through security in the departure lounge and in arrivals; pay a small charge at the information desk for access and a towel.
The quickest way to central London is on the Stansted Express (0845 748 4950; www.stanstedexpress.com), which leaves for London Liverpool Street rail station every 15 minutes. The journey takes 45 minutes and costs £18 single. There are also regular rail services each hour from Monday to Saturday that cost £17 single and take 60 minutes.
Coaches from a variety of operators run to central London. National Express (0871 781 8178; www.nationalexpress.com) takes 85-100 minutes to Victoria Coach station and costs £10.50 single. (If you’re staying in east London, consider the £8.50 single to Stratford, which only takes 45-60 minutes.) Other services on offer are Terravision (01279 680 028; booking.terravision.eu) to Liverpool Street (55 minutes, £9) or Victoria (75 minutes, £9), and easyBus (www.easybus.co.uk) to Baker Street (75 minutes, from £2).
Taxis can be booked within the main terminal. The journey to central London is metered, costing up to £100 depending on destination.
If you’re driving yourself to central London, get on the M11 at Junction 8A. Be aware that the Congestion Charge (www.tfl.gov.uk/roadusers/congestioncharging/) is levied on cars driving into central London, and that parking is often very difficult and expensive in the centre of town. For details on car rental, see my London car hire page.
Located just over 35 miles north of central London, Luton (01582 405100; www.london-luton.com) is the city’s fourth largest airport, taking some 10 million passengers a year to European and some intercontinental destinations. EasyJet is based at Luton, but Ryanair, Monarch and Thomson also run regular services.
There are left-luggage facilities on Level 1, as well as places to shop, eat and drink, and bureaux de change.
A shuttle bus runs to Luton Airport Parkway station every 10 minutes between 5am and midnight. Get a through-ticket when you buy your train tickets and the shuttle service is free; if you don’t, it costs £1 each way, rising to £1.50 each way if you don’t have any kind of train ticket.
Trains run to London St Pancras and take 20-35 minutes. East Midlands trains (0845 712 5678; www.eastmidlandstrains.co.uk) run every 10 minutes and cost £11.30 single. First Capital Connect trains (0845 026 4700; www.firstcapitalconnect.co.uk) run hourly (every 10 minutes during peak periods) and cost £13.80 single.
Green Line (0844 801 7261; www.greenline.co.uk; £14 single) and easyBus (www.easybus.co.uk; from £2 single) run direct coach services to Victoria Coach station from Luton, departing from from Bays 10 and 11. The trip takes about 70-90 minutes.
Taxis are available outside the terminal. Contact Alpha Taxis Luton (01582 599499; www.alphataxisluton.com), Cabco Taxis Luton (01582 737777; www.cabcotaxisluton.co.uk) or Luton Taxi Association (01582 735555; www.lutontaxis.com) for price information and likely journey times.
If you’re driving yourself to central London, get on to the M25 via the M1 Junction 10A. Be aware that the Congestion Charge (www.tfl.gov.uk/roadusers/congestioncharging/) is levied on cars driving into central London, and that parking is often very difficult and expensive in the centre of town. For details on car rental, see my London car hire page.
For a long time the only London airport that was a pleasure to use, a prized secret among its mainly business customers, City (020 7646 0000; www.londoncityairport.com) has got busier and consequently less pleasant for travellers over recent years. City currently serves some 30 British and European destinations.
Opened in 1987 beside a huge decommissioned dock, City is London’s smallest commercial airport and the only one in London proper - only nine miles east of the centre of town and six miles from the City of London. It is only able to operate so centrally because it uses small, low-noise, STOL (short take-off and landing) aircraft from its relatively short runway. The combination of central location and low approaches mean you get some terrific London views when approaching City up the River Thames, especially at night.
The facilities in the public area before customs are pretty basic and without much by way of seating. There is a newsagent, bar-restaurant and café, as well as car rental desk and bureau de change. Left-luggage facilities are in Zone A, costing £5 per bag for 24hrs.
Things are a bit more comfortable through security in the departure lounge, where there are further shops and eating options, as well as free Wi-Fi and laptop power points. Until expansion work is complete, it’s all still pretty squeezed in.
The Docklands Light Railway (020 7222 1234; www.tfl.gov.uk) is the best option for travelling from City. It runs every 8-15 minutes from 5.30am to 12.30am (7am to 11.30pm Sun), costs £4 single (£2.40-£2.70 with Oyster) and takes around 20-30 minutes to Canary Wharf (change to the Lewisham-bound DLR at Poplar) or a bit more than 20 minutes direct to Bank or Tower Gateway. All three stations interchange with the Underground network, providing easy connections anywhere in central London. For tips on how to save money on the trip, Oyster cards and using the DLR, see my How to get around London page.
Taxis are available from a rank outside the terminal. The journey to central London is metered, usually costing £30 to central London, less to the City or Canary Wharf.
If you’re driving yourself into central London, the carpark is just outside the terminal. Be aware that the Congestion Charge (www.tfl.gov.uk/roadusers/congestioncharging/) is levied on cars driving into central London, and that parking is often very difficult and expensive in the centre of town. For details on car rental, see my London car hire page.