Which airport to pick when travelling to London

Like many major cities, London has more than one airport. Six to be precise. Not all airlines fly to all airports, so depending on your route you might not always have a choice. However sometimes you do, so I thought it would be helpful to learn the pros and cons of London airports.

What airport is best for London?

I don’t think there is a straight forward answer here. They all have their advantages and disadvantages and which airport is best for a trip to London varies depending on your travel itinerary and final destination. They are all located in different areas, so it might be silly to pick a flight to one of the northern airports if you have to go south of the river (for example).

London Heathrow (LHR)

Heathrow is London’s biggest and busiest airport (in fact it is one of the busiest airports worldwide and certainly the busiest in Europe). Heathrow is London’s main international hub.

Heathrow used to have five main terminals, however Terminal 1 was closed a few years back and will now gradually become part of Terminal 2, with Terminal 6&7 apparently in the planning for the coming years… along with that much needed third runway.

Heathrow is one of only two London airports (City Airport being the other) actually located within the Greater London area and with direct link into town via the Tube (there are 3 stops on the Piccadilly Line serving Heathrow airport).

If you have time to kill, Heathrow certainly is your best option. Depending on the terminal you have plenty of retail options (including a wide array of luxury labels in T5) as well as restaurants.

As the main hub, all the big airline alliances have their lounges here as well.

London Heathrow is located to the west, so ideal for anyone staying in Notting Hill, Kensington, Hammersmith and beyond.

Whereas if you start your journey from North London or the City, this might not be your ideal airport, as it can take a while to get.

If you don’t fancy taking the tube (which is convenient and cheap, but can also be very crowded at times and might take forever, depending on where you need to go), there is a fast train directly to London Paddington, which will only take about 15 minutes (but you will have to buy an extra (and dare I say pricy) ticket for it.).

With Heathrow being so big and busy, the disadvantage is the long time it may take to go through… Heathrow basically runs at breaking point at the best of times. Which means additional time for lengthy boarding and taxi procedures and wait times for stands to become available. And the minute anything goes wrong (be it due to technical faults or weather) this very fine line is crossed and the back lock will be felt all day. Also depending on time of day the queues at passport control can be rather long, so be prepared to stand in line for a while when flying into Heathrow (although I personally am absolutely convinced this is a homemade problem, since they have plenty of e-passport gates, but I have yet to see them all open at the same time).

London Gatwick (LGW)

Gatwick is located to the south of London, not actually anywhere near London itself. It is convenient for anyone travelling towards the south coast. But if you want to get into London itself, you have the choice of either a bus journey (cheap but lengthy) or a fast train directly into London Victoria. Again this will require a separate ticket (or actually you can use your Oyster card nowadays, but it is not part of your daily / weekly travel card, you will be charged an extra ticket for it).

Gatwick is less busy than Heathrow, but I find it also runs less smoothly (or maybe I am just very unlucky anytime I use it).

As Gatwick is the furthest away from where I live (and always has been), I usually try to avoid it best I can. But this doesn’t mean you should. If your accommodation is anywhere near Victoria, Kings Road, Chelsea or Battersea, Gatwick might be the airport for you.

As with Heathrow, Gatwick has plenty of shopping and restaurants, so you can certainly spend some time here if you fancy (or have to).

Gatwick serves a mix of airlines, including low cost airlines like Easyjet.

London City (LCY)

London City does exactly what it says on the tin. It serves the City.

It is probably the smallest airport out of all of them and it sits in a very confined space right next to the Thames. So you are certainly in for some amazing City views when taking off or landing.

Like Heathrow, City Airport is directly connected via the Tube network, just a quick 20 minute DLR ride from Bank or Stratford. So if your journey starts in the City of London, this is the airport for you (fly on a Thursday evening and you will see what I mean, as the airport is swamped with City workers in three piece suits commuting between London and Frankfurt).

As it is such a small airport, it has less of a choice in terms of restaurants and shopping and it also totally lacks any airline lounges (which is something that always puzzles me, as this is an airport so frequently used by business travellers). But then again, it is quick to get through, so maybe you don’t need to sit there for hours.

City Airport has recently undergone refurbishments to make the gate area a little wider and more comfortable (they have also added some more restaurants at the same time).

Due to the lack of space and the short runway, the planes here are smaller than elsewhere, so most of the time the internal layout is 2 seats either side of the aisle rather than the usual 3 on other short haul flights.

On a flight to Antwerp last year I even had a plane so small that I had a window and aisle seat at the same time (as it only had one seat on one side of the aisle and two on the other side).

Downside of the small planes is the amount of hand luggage you can take on board. If you are not one of the first twenty(ish) people to board the plane, chances are your hand luggage will not fit in the overhead locker and will have to go into the hold instead. Which means you will have to wait at the luggage conveyor once you’ve landed. Which obviously means a little extra time upon arrival.

Also there are no jetties at City Airport. You will have to walk the few paces from the terminal to the plane and will embark via stairs (so be aware that you will have to carry your hand luggage up and down a few stairs along your trip).

London Stansted (STN)

As we moved out of London a few months back, Stansted is now my nearest airport. Doesn’t mean I like it any more than I did before…

Stansted has grown quite a bit in the last decade and it is currently London’s third busiest airport after Heathrow and Gatwick. It is located to the North East of London, a good 20 miles outside London.

Stansted is the biggest base for Ryanair, but it also serves other airlines, mainly low cost.

As so many of those low cost airlines fly really early in the morning, Stansted can be an absolute nightmare in the early hours (as in BEFORE dawn and before your first cup of coffee). So allow sufficient time (yes this means getting up even earlier). I would advice to spend a little extra and get yourself a priority ticket for security, minimizing the wait time at security quite dramatically. Come to think of it… ignore my advice. If you all go ahead and buy a priority ticket, the queue gets longer and I am stuck waiting again, if and when I take a flight from here. So please be so kind and queue, so that I don’t have to.

If you have a really early flight, getting to Stansted can be a little tricky. So you should bear this in mind when booking your flights. During the day it is fine though. There are several coaches between Stansted and London or you can take the Stansted Express train, which takes around 40 minutes to Liverpool Street station. You will have to buy an extra ticket as Oyster cards are not valid on this journey.

London Luton (LTN)

As Luton has been a building site for a while now, it is an absolute nightmare to actually get there. Whether it is someone picking you up or a cab dropping you off, you will end up having to walk forever, as they would have parked miles away (and paid through the nose for that luxury).

Luton is another one of those London airports that is mainly served by low cost airlines. It is located north of London and connected via a fast train from King’s Cross. The train station at Luton is not directly at the terminal, so even though you have a fast train from London, you will then have to change into a shuttle bus taking you the last bit from the station to the actual terminal.

Luton always seems to be terribly busy, so wait time at security can be rather long. Better make sure you are there on time, to minimize the risk of missing your plane.

London Southend (SEN)

I have never been there, so can’t really comment. But if you ask me, Southend really isn’t in London… (even less so than any of the other supposedly ‘London’ airports.

The airport has been around for a while, but it’s only been in the last few years that Southend has been on the radar as a ‘London airport’ and to this point the amount of flights is still fairly limited.

If you are bound for a flight from Southend, there is a direct train from Liverpool Street station.

So what is your experience with the London airports?

Which one is your favourite? Which one do you loath?

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