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Three London Airports in Three Days

Carol Sottili

I recently arrived at London Heathrow on a Saturday, flew out of Gatwick on the same day, flew back into Stansted three days later, and then went back to Heathrow to get home. Whew.

Some quick impressions and observations:

Heathrow: Know which terminal you're in before you go -- find out at here -- especially if you're taking mass transit. (Virgin Atlantic and United operate out of Terminal 3, and British Airways uses Terminal 4.) If you're going straight into central London, don't bother paying all that money for the Heathrow Express. Take the Picadilly Line: It takes a little longer to get into London, but it costs about $8 compared with $29 for the Heathrow Express. By the way, you can plan your transportation routes in advance by going to Journey Planner.

We arrived at Heathrow at about 7 a.m., took a train and bus to visit my daughter in Camberwell (south London), and then got to Gatwick to catch our 3 p.m. flight with plenty of time to spare. If you're going straight to Gatwick from Heathrow, the bus is the best bet - use the journey planner tool. An aside: Buses are cheaper and go just about everywhere throughout London.

On to Gatwick (28 miles south of central London): I have never been so hot, sweaty and uncomfortable in an airport. The place reminds me of an old-school crowded bus station. Friends explained that it was the start of the school holidays the day we arrived, so maybe I'm not giving it a fair shake, but it was a total free-for-all, with long lines at every restaurant, shop, restroom. The best was one packed-to-the-gills restaurant where ear-splitting techno dance music made life even less pleasant. Lots of charter flights use Gatwick, so huge groups of people form, blocking easy movement.

We flew Monarch, a discount airliner, to Alicante -- the backs of the seats were literally straight up and down, making me feel as if I were pitching forward. And nobody put their seats back -- felt like an unwritten rule, probably because you could break the knees of the guy behind you.

Stansted (located 30 miles northeast of London): On the way back from Alicante, we took Easyjet to Stansted. Much better experience, even if the flight attendants were dressed like prison road crews. Easyjet flight was comfortable. All discount airliners in Europe sell everything, including water and lottery tickets. I felt as if I were on the set of a QVC program. Stansted is clean, calm and easy to figure out. You have to get on a train to get to the main terminal, but it's much better than the Star Wars-like transport at Dulles.

Heathrow again: If you're flying out of Heathrow, check in online before you go. Give yourself plenty of time: three hours is not unreasonable. Don't panic at security lines - within 45 minutes, you'll be through.

Anyone have other thoughts on the London airports/discount airlines? Luton anyone?

By Carol Sottili |  February 23, 2007; 1:57 PM ET  | Category:  Carol Sottili , Tales from the Road
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"Don't bother paying all that money for the Heathrow Express????"

Wow - spoken like someone who has no clue on travel. The Heathrow Express takes 15 minutes from the airport to Central London. The Picadilly Line takes over an hour on a good day. Not to mention the need on the Picadilly to get up and down massive flights of stairs with luggage, sit in a packed subway car with your bags and deal with the scorching summer heat of the tube. It's almost impossible to even get through the turnstiles with luggage.

As a regular traveler to London, the addition of the Heathrow Express was the best improvement to travel in and out of the airport in decades. It runs every 15 minutes on trains specifically designed to accomodate travelers (wide doors, storage, etc..)

If $29 is going to break the bank for you, it's not a great time to travel to London.

Posted by: Chuck | February 23, 2007 2:23 PM

British airports get less and less comfortable as the budget airlines own the skies. European airports ARE bus stations because so many people fly. So the airports are tortuous to deal with, but on the bright side you can leave the damp of England and land in wonderful Portugal (or countless other places) a couple hours later for $100.

I've used Luton a few times and it was fine. Worst UK airport I've been in, Manchester, by far!

And I'll ALWAYS pay to take the Heathrow Express. Faster, more room for luggage, cleaner, less crowded, gets you in to convenient spot (Paddington). I'd only take the Tube if I was staying in far SW London (west of Kensington).

Posted by: Kev | February 23, 2007 2:38 PM

I've had good luck with Gatwick, passing through when it wasn't busy. One of the food places upstairs always has those cucumber, tomato and Camenbert sandwiches. Or something similar.

I haven't been to Stanstead, but I understand it was designed by Norman Foster's firm, and that the wonderful new Hong Kong airport embodies many of the ideas first used at Stanstead. It even has a train.

Posted by: Dave | February 23, 2007 3:09 PM

Have to differ on Heathrow Express. It is a life saver, especially with heavy luggage. The Picadilly line gets crowded and very awkward with suitcases, plus the stairs issues at the other end. I'm in and out of London and have used the Express nearly every time.

If you are in a group, however, it is cheaper to split a cab. Three people in a cab is cheaper than three Express tickets.

There is another train now called "Heathrow Connect". Four or five stops to Paddington, but a bit cheaper than the Express (£13 round trip).

As for airports, LHR's security lines are a bit silly. BAA has a case of 'security guard-do this, do that' that seems to change every day. I've never had a 45 minute wait (20 tops) but I have been hit with silly things like 'your carry on is too big (eventhough it would fit in the test thing easily and was underweight) to having to take off my coat only to be told to put it on again and then sent back through the line again with it off. Quite an annoying lot BAA.

Posted by: Andrew | February 23, 2007 3:12 PM

I think the choice of Heathrow Express vs. Picadilly Line depends entirely on one's destination in London. For a recent visit to London, I used the Journey planner at tfl.co.uk and learned that the Picadilly line would provide a non-stop trip without transfers to our hotel in 50 minutes, whereas the Express would have involved 2 transfers and travel time of 48 minutes. Also, we bought travel cards at Heathrow and had an entire day of travel on train, bus and tube for $13. For us, it didn't make sense to take the Express. Compare your options.

Posted by: Jay | February 23, 2007 3:30 PM

Heathrow Express fans, do you stay near Paddington? How do you get from Paddington to your hotel? Cab, I would assume, since you hate stairs. Do you stay at hotels only with elevators? And Paddington has never been a "convenient location" for me.

For the record, I used to live in the borough of Southwark. Nothing is convenient to that side of the river.

Posted by: MB | February 23, 2007 3:39 PM

I stay in West London and take a cab after the Express train. It's especially convenient to my preferred neighborhoods (Marylebone, Notting Hill, Kensington, Shepherds Bush). When I lived in Brighton, I always flew to Gatwick on US Air. If I lived in South London, I would fly to Gatwick. Getting to and from airports is such a pain, it effects my choice of airline.

Posted by: Kev | February 23, 2007 4:05 PM

I take the Heathrow Express and stay in the Hilton in Paddington Station. It does not get more convenient than that!

Piccadilly Line is better for south London, this is true.

And Gatwick? Forget it.

Posted by: andrew | February 23, 2007 4:10 PM

If you arrive at 0600 and are staying in London, why hurry? You can't check in until 1400, and you'll be using the tube to get places duing the wait anyway. And so the Tube makes sense. Even if staying in the City. Even if schlepping bags up and down stairs. Unless, of course, you have a morning meeting and time is money.

If you connect through downtown London, Paddington express plus Stansted or Gatwick express plus tube or taxi in the middle will eliminate ANY savings on those cheap flights. There are express bus's from Liverpool street to Stansted, there are less expensive (and slower) trains and bus's to Gatwick. there is a train station about a mile from the Luton terminal with a shuttle bus.

If you are taking the bus from LHR to other airports, remember that the M-25 (outer belt) can (and does) back-up into a parking lot periodically. You may allow 4 hours for a 1 hour bus trip, but you may also miss your flight.

Of the 4 airports, Stansted is the nicest, Luton is the smallest, Gatwick is quite convenient to the trains, and Heathrow is a world unto itself.

Posted by: LA- ex-London | February 23, 2007 7:51 PM

I'm w/ LA ex-London. The tube works for me, particularly as I stay at hotes that usually don't let me in before 2 or 3. As to the luggage issue, just how much luggage are you folks bringing? There are places to clean your clothes in London, you know. I think that sort of thing, going to laundries, shopping in neighborhood stores, etc. adds to my trip.

Posted by: Alice | February 26, 2007 12:06 PM

Take the Heathrow Express.

Posted by: Jeb's Boehner | February 26, 2007 6:24 PM

I tried to take the Heathrow Express once, to Stansted. They must have been having a bad day. The bus didn't show up. The next bus didn't show up either. The third bus showed up, but when I tried to get on the driver said "sorry this ticket was for an earlier bus" and wouldn't let us on. "You should have got here on time," he said. When I told him that the other buses had not arrived, he said "Well, you pays your money, you takes your chance."

I will never, ever take Heathrow Express.

Posted by: Dave | February 26, 2007 7:28 PM

um.. Heathrow Express is a train, not a bus..

Heathrow Connect is also good option - took very little time and it was very comfortable. I took the tube back to Heathrow as I had time and also I used my Oyster bus pass to get a discount fare - just 1 pound from Earl's Court. I was in London all of last week and found the buses to be very easy to use. A week long bus pass costs 14 pounds - about 27 dollars and the discounts on the tube are worth it.

It seems that most tourists take the tube and it always was uncomfortably crowded.

Posted by: holler slide fan | February 27, 2007 11:22 AM

Heathrow Express is a great time saver. My time is worth the extra charge, and not having to deal with full tube carriages.

I've also recently did a 3 airport trip through London...arrived at London City, departed through Gatwick, returned via Luton, and departed again through London City.

LCY is the best kept secret in all of London. Yep, it will require a change of planes somewhere, but consider 1)very short immigration queues, 2)access to the DLR and tube -- which is faster than the Picadilly line from LHR, and 3)less than 5 minutes for bags to arrive.

I was able to combine a 10 hour layover in Amsterdam ticketing to LCY, which was only $10 more than flying via Minneapolis to Gatwick. I got a side trip to The Hague nested in, and my arrival at LCY was less complicated than my arrival at some smaller airports in the United States...within 20 minutes of disembarking, I was waiting for the train! Try that at Heathrow or Gatwick.

Shh! London City Airport. :)

Posted by: Chris | February 27, 2007 5:43 PM

whoops, forgot to comment on Luton. I flew easyJet into Luton from Berlin, and took the GreenLine 757 bus into Central London, booked in advance for GBP10. Buses run every 20-30 minutes, and takes just a bit over an hour to get to Victoria coach station. I'd use Luton again, thought I have to say I've not departed from Luton, which could be a different story.

As for discount European carriers, easyJet is great, and ended up costing me less than Ryanair whose fare was nearly 10 euro less...easyJet doesn't charge to check your first bag, and the transport from Luton in was cheaper than from Stanstead in. I'd definitely use easyJet again. Similar to, but not nearly as annoying as Southwest. No flight attendants doing comedy routines for safety briefings or smart ass comments from the cockpit.

Nobody looks good in Orange uniforms, but that'll be changing soon, easyJet crews are getting uniforms that make them look more like human beings than traffic cones.

Posted by: Chris | February 27, 2007 5:50 PM

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