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The Ultimate Guide To London’s Airports

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7 months ago

Being the commercial, financial and cultural capital of the UK (and, I dare say, Europe), it’s no surprise that London has five major international airports to service its residents and visitors.

I fly in and out of London so often that I’m in one of these airports at least once a week. I have picked up a lot of know-how over the years which will make your experience a whole lot smoother.

When you’re planning a trip to London, choosing the best airport in London is essential for starting off your trip right – and it’s a question that still causes much heartache for Londoners.

Where are London’s airports?

London’s airports are conveniently located on the north, northeast, south, east and west ends of London. But just because they seem physically closer on a map to your destination than another airport, it doesn’t mean it’s the right airport for you.

In short, the answer to which airport is closest to London’s city center and downtown is not the same answer as which airport is best for you.

For example, London City Airport is the closest airport to London’s city center and downtown so you’d be right to assume that it would be quicker to get from London City Airport to Liverpool Street in Central London. But it’s not the fastest airport to central London!

The Elizabeth Line can get you to Bond Street Station (right in the heart of London) from Heathrow Airport in just over 30 minutes – and the Elizabeth line services are much more frequent!

I absolutely hate getting to the airport more than 70 minutes before any flight (and I’ll do even shorter if I’ve just got carry-on luggage). Let me show you how to have the most efficient and stress-free journey through any and all of London’s airports.

Read on for your complete guide to London’s airports, with all the secrets tips and insights from a London local. 

A word on how to understand London

Just a word on parts of London before you begin reading this guide so that it makes a lot more sense: Londoners break out into Central, North, East, Southeast, South, Southwest and West London. Even our postcodes are determined on this basis.

Central London

Central London has the vast majority of things to see and do in London, and most transport links are designed to get you into and out of Central London.

Central London (London’s downtown) includes the areas of Mayfair, Marylebone, Oxford Circus, Piccadilly Circus, Westminster (think: Big Ben), Bloomsbury, Fitzrovia, Soho, Covent Garden, the Strand, Clerkenwell, Farringdon, the Barbican, Bank and the City of London. 

North London

North London is the home of the famous King’s Cross, the up-and-coming Angel and Islington, bustling Camden Town (with one of the best outdoor markets in London), and leafy Hampstead. 

East London

East London is the coolest side of London with Shoreditch, Spitalfields, Dalston, Hackney, Bethnal Green, Stoke Newington and Hoxton. 

Southeast London

Southeast London is home to corporate Canary Wharf, St Katharine’s Docks and historic Greenwich

South London

South London is the area below the Thames river, including London Bridge, Bermondsey, Brixton, Elephant & Castle, Peckham and Waterloo. 

Southwest London

Southwest London is traditionally the more expensive part of London as it is has the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. In Southwest London, you’ll find upper-class Kensington, Chelsea, Belgravia, Battersea, Clapham and Fulham. 

West London

West London is also a traditionally more expensive part of London. Its flagship areas are the globally renowned Notting Hill, Paddington, Hammersmith, idyllic Shepherd’s Bush and White City.

London’s Airports

1. Heathrow Airport (Airport Code: LHR)

The biggest airport in Europe, and the hub of British Airways. If you’re flying into London from outside of Europe, chances are that you’ll be flying into Heathrow. We’ve summarized the key points below, but if you’re looking for more detail and the latest things to know, check out our comprehensive guide to Heathrow Airport

Best for

Central London, Southwest London, West London (and, you wouldn’t guess it, but with the opening of the Elizabeth line in 2022, Heathrow has great connections to pretty much all of London now, so it’s the best for a lot of East London, too), as well as Oxford and the Cotswolds. Although if you are trying to get to Oxford, you’ll want to first read our guide to the closest airports to Oxford.

Transport links

Heathrow Express (direct to Paddington), the Piccadilly line on the underground and the Elizabeth line

Key information

Heathrow is actually in London (it’s in West London, not west of London) so it’s the closest to central London other than London City Airport. Because of its amazing transport links, it’s usually the best option for pretty much any onward destination in London.

Travel tip: Take a train to and from Heathrow wherever you can, and specifically the Elizabeth line.

It’s brand new, so the trains are super comfortable – and it’s cheaper than the Heathrow Express and about the same travel time to central London (when you factor in having to change trains at Paddington if you take the Heathrow Express).

If you’re traveling with a family or with a lot of luggage, we recommend that you book an airport transfer. It will be cheaper if you’re at least three people (and a lot easier if you’ve got luggage).

Heathrow is big. Leave plenty of time if you need to transfer between terminals for connecting flights. They make it easy, but you’ll need to be conscious of time.

2. Gatwick Airport (Airport Code: LGW)

Best for

South London, North London (direct train to King’s Cross), and Brighton (only 30 minutes with a direct train from Gatwick).  

Transport links

Gatwick Express, ThamesLink and Southern Rail. 

Key information

The Gatwick Express is only a good option if you’re traveling to Southwest or West London (but that would mean you’d be better off flying into Heathrow). Otherwise, the Thameslink will get you into London Bridge in South London in about 35 minutes or St Pancras International in North London in about 45 minutes

Travel tip: Gatwick is too far from most of central London so driving really isn’t an option.

Journey times are over 70 minutes to the start of Central London. The train from Gatwick Airport to Central London can be as short as 30 minutes but averages about 45 minutes. 

Unless you’re in West or Southwest London, it is almost always better to take a ThamesLink train from St Pancras International, Farringdon or London Bridge to Gatwick Airport rather than the Gatwick Express from London Victoria.

3. Stansted Airport (Airport Code: STN)

Best for

East London, Cambridge and Norfolk. 

Transport links

The only real option is the Stansted Express from London Liverpool Street Station. It is a little pricy at over £20 for a one-way ticket but it’s still the cheapest (and fastest) way from Stansted Airport to London’s down (much better than taking a taxi).

The other option is a National Express bus service, but given London’s traffic between 6 am and 10 pm every day, it’s almost always better to take the Stansted Express. 

Key information

Though Stansted is in northeast London, Luton or Heathrow are much better choices if you’re traveling to North London

Travel tip: If you’re flying out of Stansted Airport, leave more time for security than you would at all other London airports.

The staff at Stansted Airport are the least efficient, and there’s always far too few security lanes open. This would probably be the one airport in London that I would pay extra for faster security screening (you can buy FastTrack online on Stansted Airport’s website for £7-10). 

You have to book a separate train ticket for the Stansted Express. You cannot tap your card or use Apple Pay/Google Pay as you can with all of the other direct-to-airport trains. The Stansted Express app is buggy so you shouldn’t wait to buy your ticket at the gate – buy them online now.

4. Luton Airport (Airport Code: LTN)

Best for

North London. 

Transport links

This is the only one of the London airports which does not have a train that gets you directly to the airport. However, as of summer 2023, London Luton is now a breeze to get to and from.

There is a direct train service from St Pancras International in North London (connected to King’s Cross Station) to Luton Airport Parkway, and then you can walk from the platform to the Luton DART which is a train shuttle from Luton Airport Parkway directly to the airport itself. 

Key information

Because of traffic in North London, journey times by car from Luton Airport into Central London can be anywhere between 1.5 hours and two hours. Avoid taking a car if you can. 

Travel tip: Luton Airport also offers a fast track through security service, but a lot of easyJet flights offer this service included in any fare class that is above the standard fare (usually Flexifare and Plus).

Make sure to check if you have fast track already so you can avoid paying extra for nothing. Also, the free WiFi is terrible in Luton Airport so be prepared with an eSIM for the UK before you land. 

Luton Airport is a no-frills airport that is intended for destinations in and around Europe. You’ll only find low-cost airlines here.

5. London City Airport (Airport Code: LCY)

Best for

Canary Wharf and inner East London.

Transport links

London City Airport is serviced by the district light rail (or the “DLR”, as Londoners call it) which you can think of as a tube line on the London underground (except that it’s overground). You can take the DLR directly to Bank in Central London. 

This is the only airport in London from which I would suggest taking a car into London’s city center and downtown. It’s very close to Central London so the car journey times tend to be short and therefore cheap by airport taxi standards (usually £20-£25).

London City Airport is also the best airport to land in London if you want to see an incredible view of London from the sky. It’s truly a special experience – especially if you land at night!

Key information

You won’t find many flights from London City Airport, but security is super fast. I routinely arrive 30 minutes before my flight and still had time to sit down at the gate. It feels more like a small bus terminal than an airport.

It’s definitely the most central London airport, but it’s not the most convenient of London airports for most travelers. 

Travel tip: London City Airport is intended for frequent business travelers.

Because of this, you’ll find that the cost of flights from London City Airport is almost always more expensive than a flight to the same destination from another of London’s five airports.

Always check to see if there are flights available from one of the other airports first because you could save yourself a lot of money. 

London City Airport can seem easy to get to via public transport on Google Maps but there are often changes involved, and the DLR directly to London City Airport can often be quite slow.

Essential things you should know about London’s airports

Passport Control: Entering the UK

Queues at passport control in London’s airports are incredibly fast. Expect to spend no more than 5-10 minutes at passport control. If you’ve ever flown through New York’s JFK airport where queues to enter the U.S. can be upwards of three hours on a normal day, you’ll wonder why everywhere else can’t be as efficient as the UK. 

Americans, Canadians, Australians and Europeans – and many other nationalities – can use the e-gates. If you see a long queue, don’t fret: the e-gates move very quickly. You’ll be out before you know it.

Passport Control: Exiting the UK

Unfortunately, you are still required to put all liquids over 100 ml in a separate plastic bag. I’ve been told by several airport staff that this rule will be abolished in the next couple of years. But until then, be ready to take out your liquids and your laptop. 

If you’re American (and don’t have TSA pre-check) or Canadian, you will be glad to know that you are not required take off your shoes when passing security in UK airports (unless they have metal) like you do in the U.S. and Canada.

Connecting flights at different London airports

We would always warn against booking a connecting flight in another London airport on the same day. The airports are far from each other, and there’s no easy way to get from one to the other. London’s transport can be hit by sudden delays, and you’ll be scrambling to get to the next airport.

If you do need to transfer between two airports in London, there is a direct bus between Heathrow and Gatwick that runs every hour, and a direct bus between Luton and Stansted that runs once every two hours.

Travel tip: You will really want to leave a lot of time if you’re going to attempt transferring between two London airports on the same day. 

Boarding passes on your phone

All London airports are equipped to read boarding passes on your phone. If you check in at least two hours before your flight, you’ll have get boarding passes on your phone. 

Travel tip: If you’re American, Canadian or Australian and you’re travelling to Europe on a Ryanair flight, you will have to get your passport checked at the check-in desk before you pass security even if you have an e-boarding pass.

Leave at least an extra 45 minutes for this (especially if you’re flying from Luton Airport). Europeans and British travelers won’t have to do this. We should mention that, as far as we know, it’s just Ryanair that requires this – you’ll be fine with other airlines, including easyJet and Wizz Air.

A quick word on Southend Airport (Airport Code: SEN)

If you’re savvy, you might have heard of another airport close to London called Southend Airport. When you look up flights on aggregators like Kayak and Skyscanner, they won’t include SEN in the list of airports searched when you search for flights in or out of London. 

Southend Airport isn’t actually so far from London. It’s only about 1.5 hours on a direct train from Southend Airport to Liverpool Street in Central London. At the moment, there are very few flights from Southend Airport, so it’s unlikely you’ll be flying into or out of Southend Airport. One day it will become London’s sixth airport, but right now it’s not a great option for travelers.

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