The Budget Traveller’s Definitive Guide to Getting to Central London from the Airport

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Arriving in London can be a bit tricky for the uninitiated traveller. Unless you’re arriving via the Eurostar to King’s Cross St. Pancras, chances are you are flying into one of London’s several airports, most of which also happen to be a little ways outside of the city proper. London is huge, the tube map can be a bit of a maze, and after a multi-hour flight, getting from the airport to your final destination in the city can be a little overwhelming. If your instinct is to jump in a cab and head off to central, THINK AGAIN. Seriously, please do not take a cab.

When I first moved to London I took a cab from Heathrow to Shepherd’s Bush, not knowing any better, and was charged nearly £80. And Shepherd’s Bush is in West London, the side of the city closer to the airport. Now, I think that I was overcharged because I clearly looked young, pathetic and desperate with my giant suitcases all on my own (which I was), but still, even if you don’t get ripped off, a cab to anywhere in central London will be ridiculously expensive, and there is simply no reason to waste so much money before your trip properly begins. Another trap I’ve seen countless tourists young and old fall into is the Heathrow Express. I see it again and again, every time I pass through Heathrow arrivals. The Heathrow Express is touted by sign after sign as “the best way to get to central London!” “Heathrow to London in 25 minutes!”. Yes, the Heathrow Express will take you to central in about 25 minutes. Resist. I promise you there are better and cheaper ways to get to central London. Keep on reading for a breakdown of your options for getting into town, no matter which airport you fly into.

Heathrow Airport

Heathrow is London’s biggest and busiest airport, and chances are, if you are flying a long-haul flight, you will be landing in Heathrow. I’ve already talked a little about the Heathrow Express. Here’s why it is not your best bet for getting into the city. The Heathrow Express costs between £21.50 and £26.50 depending on whether you buy it at the ticket kiosk, or if you get flustered and buy it on board. ONE WAY. A return ticket cost £35-£40. Presuming you are planning to come back the way you arrived, this is a lot of money to blow on a train fare (a little over $50 for the lower end return fare). Heathrow Express does get you to Paddington Station in central London, but unless you are staying in the area, you still will have to buy another ticket and get on the Tube to get to your final destination. Paddington Station is connected to the District, Circle, Bakerloo, and Hammersmith & City lines. Sounds great, but in reality, not the greatest of lines. I may be expressing my own biases here, but I always find the District and Circle lines to be numbingly slow, and the Bakerloo and Hammersmith & City lines never really take me anywhere I’d particularly like to go that I can’t get to on a quicker, more convenient route. Finally, although you do get into central in 25 minutes, the fact that everyone neglects to tell you is that the Tube actually gets you into central in 50-60 minutes. Yes that’s right, you can take the Tube direct from the airport to central London, for the steep price of £5.10 (this is more expensive than the usual fare because Heathrow is in Zone 6) and an extra half hour of your time. The Piccadilly line takes you straight from Heathrow (follow the less prominently placed London Underground signs) to central London, passes right through the heart of Zone 1, and has great transfer links to most of the other Tube lines. Taking the Tube into central from Heathrow is a no-brainer. Please, save your money and don’t waste it on the other options, the Tube will do you just fine.

Gatwick Airport

The second most popular airport is Gatwick, which is located a bit outside London. Gatwick is a little trickier as the Tube actually doesn’t run there. You can take the Gatwick Express single fare for £17.70 or £31.05 return, making it a bit cheaper than the Heathrow Express. The Gatwick Express delivers you to London Victoria, and the Victoria line, I maintain, is the fastest and best Tube line in the city. It will literally take you from one end to the other in about 22 minutes. Alternatively, you can take the National Rail. The Thameslink National Rail will take you to London Bridge for about £10 single and £18 return (Or to Victoria for a similar price). These prices fluctuate a little bit depending on the day and availability, but more or less should come out to around there. And the time? Believe it or not, about the same as the Gatwick Express. Both take about a half an hour to get to central. The savings are less extreme here vs. taking the Tube instead of the Heathrow Express, but you do stand to save about £15 if you get a good rate.

Stanstead Airport

Again, if you book the day of, the Stanstead Express is going to be about £18 single and £30 return. Alternatively, you can book a National Express coach (aka a bus) for about £10 single and £18 return. The Stanstead Express takes a little under an hour and the coach a little over an hour.

Luton Airport

Luton is an airport similar to Stanstead, but is marginally harder to get to. I’ve actually never flown into Luton as it’s a bit of an obscure airport, but a quick search shows that the National Express coach is about £12 return, and takes an hour and a half. If you take the train from Luton Airport, it can take only 25 minutes to King’s Cross St. Pancras, or an hour to Blackfriars and will cost between £25-£30 return. Luton is a toss up between money and time, I’ll leave that one up to you. I usually avoid flying into Luton for the simple fact that it is such an annoyance to reach.

London City Airport

As the name would suggest, London City is actually fairly close to central London all things considered. This is an easy one. Take the DLR overground train. The airport is in zone 3 and you can take the DLR to Bank in 22 minutes for about £3, and as long as your destination is on the Tube in zones 1-3, no more than £3. Because I booked a budget flight, I’m actually flying into Dublin, and then flying from Dubs to London City. I’m pretty excited about the easy transit into central. Don’t even consider the other options on this one, there is literally no competition.

There are a few other London airports, but honestly, these are the main ones you’re likely to encounter. It can be hard to know the best way to get into a new city, and no one likes forking over a fresh stack of bills for an expensive transit to your destination, only to discover you could have actually made it for a fraction of the price, if only you had known a few of the less-advertised tricks, and taken a minute to chill out and not hop into the first cab in the taxi stand.

Does anyone have any additional bits of information for travelling to London I am missing? Similar insider tips for other destinations? The more we can share with each other, the better!

Happy Wandering! -xo

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