I still remember arriving at London Heathrow, nearly 20 years ago, and feeling completely overwhelmed by how HUGE the airport was.
At first glance it seemed like a disorganised tangle of staff and travellers and suitcases, but on closer inspection I realised it was very cleverly set up and ran remarkably smoothly – especially when you had a bit of insider knowledge to steer you in the right direction.
There are many ways to travel to and from the city’s international airports (including black cab, minicab, shuttles and Uber), but, arguably, the quickest, easiest and most reliable method is via train.
Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted Airports all have dedicated express trains, while Luton has fast trains that travel regularly through central London; here is your quick guide to where and when to catch them.
The Heathrow Express is by far the simplest and fastest way to get from Heathrow to Paddington rail station, in central London. If you’re arriving in at Terminal 4, a free shuttle bus will transport you to the departure platform located by conjoined Terminals 2 and 3. If you’re travelling with British Airways you’ll arrive at their dedicated Terminal 5, where the express also has a stop; as it’s further away you should add another six minutes to your journey.
You can buy tickets up to 90 days before you travel, and you’ll nab the best fares online if you buy in advance. Multi-trip carnet tickets are available, and children aged 15 and under travel for free.
London Underground: If you know the nearest tube station to your destination (check out the London tube map here), you might prefer to take the underground. It will take you longer, as there will be a lot more stops and you might also need to change lines, but it should bring you closer to final destination. Terminals 2,3, 4 and 5 are all stops on the Picaddilly line (marked on the map in dark blue). You can either use a contactless card to pay for your journey (tap the card on the reader at the turnstiles – but check that your card is accepted first) or buy an Oyster travel card, which can be loaded with funds to allow ‘pay as you go’ travel.
This 20-minute Gatwick Express takes you from the South Terminal (if you arrive at the North Terminal, there’s a two-minute transit shuttle to bring you over), right through to London Victoria. From there, you can take an onward journey via the Underground, mainline train system, or the Victoria bus station next door.
You can order and buy Gatwick Express tickets from outside the UK, and pick them up at the station. If you’re planning to make London your base and travel back and forth, you can buy a multi-trip Carnet train ticket, and get 10 single journeys for the price of eight.
Once you clear customs at Stansted Airport it’s a five-minute walk to the Stansted Express platform. The train takes you to Tottenham Hale (36 minutes), then change to travel on to Statford (a further 13 minutes), or continue direct to London Liverpool Street (47 minutes).
Trains run between 5.30am and 12.30am, and leave every 15 minutes.
Catch a 10-minute shuttle bus from just outside Luton Airport Parkway, then travel by south by Thameslink train to St Pancras International, Farringdon, City Thameslink or London Blackfriars. Fast trains go every 10 minutes during peak times, and take between 24-40 minutes, depending on your final destination (remember to factor in the 10-minute shuttle ride). There is a limited service overnight.
All train stations are clearly marked within all the airports but if you do have trouble locating them, a staff member would be happy to point them out to you. Jump onboard and relax, and let your holiday begin.