Largely the Truth

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So You Want to Go to England: Surviving Heathrow Airport

25 May 2012  ·  by Brennan Storr  ·  Be the first to comment!

Tagged under guides travel England Heathrow

You made it

Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport, widely considered to be the safest in the world, uses a sophisticated passenger screening system headed by college graduates who coolly screen travelers for “micro-expressions” which may hint at nefarious intent – by contrast, the U.K. Border Agency (and the TSA in America, for that matter) employs a network of po-faced ungulates still seething over not being invited to prom. So don’t take it personally when, upon your arrival in England, the U.K. Border Agency treats you like you’ve just arrived from Malawi with several sticks of T.N.T., a pound of cocaine and eight undocumented immigrants concealed somewhere on your person. Or like you're Madonna.


"You guys still believe I'm English, right?"

When dealing with customs agents it’s important to pretend you checked your sense of humor along with your baggage; these people see thousands of passengers a day and have heard every joke you can imagine at least three times. Be prepared to tell them exactly how long you plan on being in the country, where you’re staying and why you’re going – even first-class passengers can count on getting the third degree. In a way, that’s the beauty of airports - how many other places in the world offer you the opportunity to be treated like a king and a sheepstealer within the same sixty minute span? It’s like living through The Prince and the Pauper if it had a scene where another man roughly probes Prince Edward’s “Hendon Hall” looking for controlled substances.


Yes, that means exactly what you think it does.


With an area of 12.3 square kilometres (4.7m2) Heathrow Airport isn’t even a tenth the size of Saudi Arabia’s King Fahad International, the world’s biggest airport (780km2/301m2), but in 2011 it was the third busiest in the world with some 69,000,000 passengers. For the die-hard statisticians out there, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has been number 1 in passenger volume since 1998 with almost 90,000,000 arrivals and departures in 2011.

King Fahad. Is it an airport? A shopping mall?
No one cared enough to ask

What all this means is that once you clear Blue Peter at customs you will be buffeted by thousands of confused passengers from all walks of life who are eager to get on with their lives. Some will have friends or family waiting for them to arrive, others will be lonely buggers like you, nursing indigestion and towing a mountain of Samsonite cases as you shamble sadly towards the transit exits.

Getting from Heathrow into central London is relatively easy and cheap, depending on your level of patience. Below I’ll list the major options along with some pros and cons. Be aware that if London is not your first stop then the best thing you can do is a catch a bus from Heathrow’s Central station; it saves you wasting the time going all the way into central London only to come back out again. Bus options are covered below

The Underground:


At approximately £5 one-way, the London Underground, or tube (“chewb” if you speak the Queen’s) is the most cost-effective way into the city. The stations are located on the lower level of the central area between Terminals 1,2,3 and Terminal 5 (follow the signs from the arrivals area) and ticket machines are similar to those used for transit in most major cities, accepting both cash (U.K. only) and credit card. Room for luggage is not generous so this is a poor option if you’ve brought your steamer trunk full of Cashmere sweaters. Travel time is approximately 50-60 minutes.

Heathrow Connect

Heathrow Connect is a direct rail service between Heathrow Central station and London’s Paddington Station. Cost is £8.50 and travel time is 25 minutes. If your flight lands at Terminal 5 you’ll want to take the Heathrow Express train to the central station and change onto the Connect. Taking the Express into the city is considerably more expensive but travel between terminals is free.
The Heathrow Connect offers the best balance between cost and travel time.

Heathrow Express

At 15 minutes, the Express is the fastest option for travel between Heathrow and Paddington. The cost (£18 one way/£32 return) is more than double that of the Connect but buys you a more comfortable ride, wireless internet, abundant baggage space and, according to their site, the option of using your mobile phone while traveling through tunnels. I’m suspicious of how many tunnels you could possibly pass through in 15 minutes but that’s just me.

National Express

For those of you not visiting London, National Express, England’s premier coach service is your best choice. To be clear, “coach” is what the English call a “bus”; this service does not help you meet Craig T. Nelson.

Maybe that's not such a bad thing

Fares vary by destination but all tickets can be booked online at the National Express site and either printed or picked up at the Heathrow Central Bus Station. If you’re flying with BA and arriving into Terminal 5 you’re better off printing your ticket as otherwise you’ll have to get off the bus at Central and have it printed.


A taxi into central London will take about an hour and cost from £40-£70 ($65-$113), making its only real advantages door-to-door service and not having to run the Proletarian obstacle course that is public transit. London cabbies have a reputation for being chatty and that may take some adjustment if you’ve become accustomed to taxies driven by Indian men shouting into their cell phone as they ignore you.

Now, after 5-10 hours of being violently shaken in a flying metal tube you may not feel all that social but that will make little to no difference to your driver. Once I took a cab to the emergency ward at one of London’s hospitals and as I clutched myself in agony the driver helpfully explained the history of every building we passed.

Now that you’re on your way into London the fun can begin.  You're on your own from here.

Part 1: Getting Started

Part 2: Before You Go

Part 3: Getting There - Air Canada

Part 4: Getting There - Air Transat

Part 5: Getting There - British Airways

Part 6: Getting There - Freighter Cruises

Part 7: Surviving Heathrow Airport


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