So, you’re thinking a little summertime in London might be nice. And you’re right. All those divine parks to walk in, gorgeous spring fashions to buy, and delicious pints of lager to drink outside on a warm evening. Not to mention the fish and chips, mushy peas and spotted dick to eat. (Settle down, it’s a pudding: chocolate sponge log with currants and/or raisins in it, served with custard.) But before these joys unfold, you have to get into the country. Even trickier, you then have to get out again.
So here a few tips on London airports. I’m afraid this might prove to be fairly joyless because, let’s face it, border security these days is tight and anything but fun. Still… off we go.
Five terminals. Yes, five. Not such a problem coming in, but make sure you know which one you’re flying out of because it can be a bit of a hike against the clock if you get the wrong one and have to move between them.
Even moving within a terminal can be a long, footsore prospect. On arrival, don’t despair – you will eventually find the Passport Control area, even if you walk for nearly half an hour! And departing: there’s signage telling you how long the walk is to each gate and take notice of this. Don’t get so distracted by the fabulous shopping that you have to run to the plane.
Terminal 5 has just opened and is the largest free standing structure in Europe, which may be why they can’t find anyone’s suitcase. After trying to send luggage to the wrong destinations for the first day, they just gave up and told passengers they couldn’t take anything with them. This went down very well with the public and of course gave the British media a chance to use lots of puns around the word Terminal. T5 is dedicated to British Airways flights – use that information as you wish, but I’m sure they’ll fix the problem soon.
After you land at Heathrow, and once you get your luggage (if you get your luggage*) you have a number of choices for getting into London. Read Rod’s blog post — London Heathrow Airport Shuttles & Airport Transport — for a complete rundown.
Either way, check online or by phone that the Piccadilly line or Heathrow Express are running if you are planning on using either. I once got to Paddington Station with my Express timed down to the minute for check-in and the train had been cancelled for the day. As the Tube takes a lot longer, my only option was a black cab. I shared with a stranger I met on the cab rank but it still cost us a fortune. And remember, the Tube can malfunction so leave plenty of time if you’re going out to the airport by Underground.
Heathrow has finally realised that the one piece of hand luggage rule was ridiculous in this era of laptops, so you can now carry two pieces of hand luggage through security. You will most likely have to take off your shoes so wear good socks, and your belt, so wear pants that won’t fall down. And of course the 100ml liquid rule applies with all your bottles in a ziplock bag.
*Actually, I’m being unfair: I have never had any luggage lost at Heathrow. Touch wood.
Gatwick Airport Transport
I prefer Gatwick because it’s less busy than Heathrow. South of London, Gatwick has a North and South Terminal, linked by a free shuttle train. The shopping is not bad, and the general amenities must be fine because a man was recently evicted after living in the South Terminal for five years. He only ever left Gatwick to sign on for his unemployment benefit. He was not trapped a la Tom Hanks, just by bad life circumstances.
- Gatwick is not served by the Underground. Strike that idea.
- The Gatwick Express to/from Victoria Station, very central, £17 pounds one way, £29 pounds return.
- Two different overground trains go to Gatwick, either to/from Victoria Station or Kings Cross Station. They also stop at any number of stations on the way.
- The bus goes from the South Terminal is probably your cheapest option and goes to Victoria Station. It can be slow though.
- A private car company. If you have a lot of luggage, this is a great option because many, many London train stations have only stairs so if you plan to catch an overground train, you can end up with arms five inches longer than you started the day with. I speak from bitter experience here. And type from across the room.
- A Black Cab. About an hour and around £70.
Luton Airport Transport
North of London and easily reached by Thameslink train from lots of central London stations: Blackfriars, St Pancras (next to Kings Cross), Farringdon, West Hampstead etc. There is no dedicated express, but some of the trains do miss a lot of stations and make it there fast. Leave plenty of time because, although the trains usually run on time, rain can be challenging to them, as can leaves on the track. I am serious. And yes, that is leaves from trees.
You go to Luton Airport Parkway (direction of the train is either Bedford or Luton), and then you get on the shuttle bus to the airport itself. Make sure your rail ticket takes you all the way to Luton Airport and not just Luton Airport Parkway, or you will have to pay an extra £1 on the bus. The shuttle bus is every 10 minutes and goes from right outside the station to right outside the airport. No one helps you with your luggage which you take onto the bus with you, but this is England – get used to it.
Check-in is fairly simple at Luton. Well signposted. I’ve never struck much of a queue there probably because so many people check-in online and only take handluggage for their drunken weekends in Eastern Europe on the cheap airlines. But. Be warned! Security at Luton is a nightmare! Oh, the queue. And it’s still strictly one piece of hand luggage per person. And you have to buy plastic bags for your liquids from a coin-operated machine.
A friend of mine was refused check-in because they said he would not get through security in time for the plane. And I believe them. He had to wait six hours for the next flight – not recommended. Luton is not a fun time for shops like the bigger Heathrow and Gatwick, although the food is okay. He ended up catching a train to nearby St Albans and looking at Roman ruins. So there’s an itinerary if you get stuck!
Arriving at Luton, the key to remember is the cheaper the airticket, the longer the walk. A really cheap ticket will actually see you walking across the tarmac: no airgate for the budget traveller!
Stansted Airport Transport
Way north of London. Again, home to lots of the cheaper airlines and thus many drunk students. Also home to Ryanair, who charge you to check in at the airport but only let EU or EEC identity holders check in online. Take this seriously because they might cancel your ticket if you happen to be American, Australian, or whatever else and have the cheek to check in online.
Stansted also has the double security surprise. You go through, sigh your relief, then bang: a second barrier. Shoes this time. Wear good socks.
And Stansted continue to torture the flying public with the “one piece of hand luggage” rule. It only applies going through security so as long as you can shove it all together for the guys and gals in uniform, you can take two pieces onto the plane. I take out my laptop and Ziplock bag of liquids before security, which makes just enough room for my handbag to go into my overnight or computer bag. So far it’s worked. The good news is that you can take a musical instrument as a second piece of cabin baggage – violin case full of books and cosmetics anyone? Although be warned, you might have to buy it a separate seat.
- There is a train to Stansted. An express they call it but that’s only because it misses some stations. It still takes 45 minutes. It goes from Liverpool Street Station, not one of my favourites, but it does have quite a few underground connections.
- Bus. There are a couple, one from Liverpool Street Station and one from Victoria Station, the latter non-stop and cheaper.
- Black cabs will not be seen dead out this far. Although if you hail one in central London, he might well drive you there while planning his retirement in Spain on your dime.
- Or try a private taxi from Stansted, which costs about £45 per person for a group of three.
So congratulations, you’ve made it into London. Now, spotted dick, anyone?
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