Flying into London can be an incredibly confusing experience for first-time travelers, as there are five airports serving Greater London and they are not exactly close to one another. Most long-haul international flights will arrive at one of either two airports, Gatwick or Heathrow. Otherwise Intra-European British Airways flights are likely to use London City, while budget airlines are usually based out of either Stansted or Luton, though EasyJet does have a large hub at Gatwick as well.
[Also see our travel article “The World’s Best Airports“]
[Also see our travel article “The Ten Busiest Airports in the World“]
Heathrow is the UK’s busiest airport and each year over 60 million travelers pass through its five terminals. Unfortunately, it’s also infamous for delays, lost luggage and every other thing frustrating to travelers. Things have been looking up a bit, though, since the completion of Terminal 5 in 2008, which is one of the world’s largest terminals and is used exclusively by British Airways and Iberia. The airport’s other prominent airline, Virgin Atlantic, flies out of terminal 3.
Heathrow is situated 15 miles west of central London, but the journey isn’t too difficult as the Heathrow Express (£20) operates four trains per hour direct to Paddington Station, which is only a stone’s throw from Hyde Park and Kensington. For door-to-door service consider reserving a shuttle transfer (approximately £20), as they offer an economical and easy way to reach central London.
Thirty miles south of London is the city’s second airport, Gatwick. This is the world’s busiest single-runway airport, which, as you can imagine, is not exactly a compliment. With 34 million passengers using its one runway each year, delays are common and lengthy.
Thankfully the airport terminal itself is adequate, and it has pretty good connections to central London as the Gatwick Express (£20) makes the journey to London Victoria in just 30 minutes.
London Victoria is convenient for travelers as it’s on the London Underground and is right in the thick of touristic London, near the Buckingham Palace and the Palace of Westminster.
London City is the most conveniently situated of the London airports, as it occupies a space on the River Thames just east of Canary Wharf. Its close proximity to both the City of London and to Canary Wharf makes it the airport of choice for business travelers, as it’s possible to cab it to the city’s business districts in only a few minutes. For those without a corporate expense account access to the London Underground is provided via the Docklands Light Railway which connects to the Tube at Canning Town only seven minutes from the airport.
London City is, however, quite a small airport and it is primarily served by regional British Airways flights to destinations in the United Kingdom and continental Europe, though Air France and Swiss Air also fly out of the airport.
With Luton, which is 35 miles north of the city center, we’re now getting into London’s secondary airports. Luton is primarily served by budget airlines and, indeed, there are some great deals out of the airport with airlines like EasyJet and Ryan Air. There are also a number of seasonal flights from the airport to summer holiday destinations by the charter airline Thomson Airways.
Getting to London from Luton can be a bit of a pain, as first travelers must take the 10-minute courtesy shuttle from the airport to Luton Airport Parkway where rail service by First Capital Connect (£25) transports passengers to St Pancras International in an additional 45 minutes, not including waiting time.
St Pancras International is convenient, however, for those staying near Regent’s Park, Camden or the West End.
Forty miles northeast of the city is Stansted Airport, which is the largest hub of low-cost carrier Ryanair. Other airlines with operations at the airport include charter airlines like Thomson Airways and Thomas Cook Airlines.
The rail journey into central London takes 45 minutes on the Stansted Express (£22.50), but as almost 18 million passengers traveled through the airport in 2012, there’s no shortage of traveling companions. The Stansted Express hails at Liverpool Street station, which is connected to the London Underground and relatively convenient for those traveling onward to London City or the West End.