You’ve landed at one of London’s airport for a visit and probably need to get to accommodation in central London. By now, you’ve probably realised you are nowhere near where you are staying. You could get a taxi, which could cost you over £100, or a slightly cheaper Uber. But with London already being an expensive city, you might be looking to take our (slightly complicated) public transport system. But what’s the best way to get to central London from each airport?
One of the first things I always do when I travel somewhere new: map out exactly how to get from the airport to the area I’m staying. I think nothing is more stressful than landing in a new place and having no idea how to get out of the airport without being massively overcharged for a taxi.
London technically has six airports and only one, London City Airport, is actually inside London. I’ve travelled to/from all but Southend. After visiting Derry a few weekends ago and flying out of Luton for the first time, I realised that even a local sometimes needs to do a bit of research on the best way to get to and from London’s airports.
Then a few weeks ago at my full-time job, we hosted some guests from various European cities who all took a different route in, and I kept getting the same question – what’s the best way to get to your offices in central London from the airport? While I tried explaining each route off the top of my head, I started thinking about how much I would have liked to have the below guide to send to them instead! Here’s my recommend routes on public transport from each of London’s airports:
Heathrow is London’s biggest airport and the one you are most likely to be landing in if you are coming in on a long flight. It’s located west of London and is the closest to central London besides London City airport in distance.
Budget option to get from Heathrow to London
The Piccadilly line of the London Underground calls at all five of Heathrow’s terminals, running through central London. Expect carriages to get busy as the train approaches central London and avoid peak times of 7:30-9:30 and 5-7pm where possible, but recommended if your accommodation is nearby a Piccadilly Line stop, such as South Kensington, Covent Garden, Hyde Park, etc.
Pay: On Oyster or Contactless. Fares to zone 1 are about £3-£5 depending on whether you are travelling during peak hours or not.
Average journey time: to reach Leicester Square takes about 53 minutes. The Piccadilly line runs from Heathrow 24 hours on Friday and Saturday night, otherwise, the last train leaves about 23:45 and the earliest you can get to Heathrow on the Piccadilly line from central London is about 6:40.
Luggage-friendly from LHR to central London
National Express coaches are good if you have a checked bag as it can be stored under the bus rather than lugging it onto a crowded train. Coaches run to Victoria Coach Station. Although, because of London traffic, I probably wouldn’t recommend this route going to the airport unless you’ve left plenty of extra time. Pay: In advance online for an eticket. You can use a mobile ticket on your phone. Tickets start at £12. You can find the timetables to and from London airports here.
Fastest route from Heathrow
Heathrow Express: Runs from the airport straight to London Paddington where you can change to the tube (Bakerloo, Circle, District and Hammersmith & City) to your destination. Pay: At the ticket machine at Paddington. A single journey costs about £22/£25 but you can purchase them in advance and sometimes get a deal. Average journey time: As little as 15 minutes from Heathrow to Paddington.
Located south of London, Gatwick is London’s second-biggest airport and is actually my favourite to fly from, mostly because I find it quite easy to get to as a south Londoner. Trains are the main option from Gatwick to Central London and they run around the clock to and from London Victoria.
Budget option from Gatwick (recommended)
From South Terminal, you can take one of the Southern rail trains towards London Victoria, where you can change for the District/Circle and Victoria lines. The average journey takes about 34 minutes, leaving about every 10 minutes. Pay: You can either buy a train ticket from the machines, online at trainline.com or use an Oyster card/contactless at the gates at around £12 for a single journey. You usually save a couple of pounds using Oyster/contactless.
Fastest route from Gatwick
The Gatwick Express leaves from South Terminal to London Victoria and takes about half an hour. Tickets start at £17 for a single journey and can be purchased either at the South Terminal or ahead of time online. There’s not much of a difference apart from they tend not to stop anywhere else so are slightly faster and are usually less crowded.
London City (LCY)
London City Airport is the easiest airport to get to from central London, but also the smallest, meaning you are least likely to be landing here.
If you do, you have an easy journey ahead. Simply get the tube to any of the stations connected to Docklands Light Rail (DLR). Change at Bank (mind the crowds and try to avoid at rush hour) for the Northern, Central, District/Circle and Waterloo & City lines, or change at Canning Town if you need the Jubilee Line. It’s also the best airport for getting a cab/uber to or from depending on where you are staying.
There’s one main way to get to Luton from central London, take the airport shuttle bus or the 100 bus to the train station to Luton and get a train to St. Pancras or Blackfriars and take the tube to your destination. Pay: Train ticket to/from Luton Airport Parkway, which includes the shuttle, start at about £7 and can be purchased in advance through trainline.com or at the station kiosks.
Stansted Airport is located in Essex, North East of London, about 40 miles from central London and is a popular hub for Ryanair flights. I always avoid flying in or out of this airport if I can because the options for getting from Stansted to central London aren’t great.
You do almost have to take the Stansted Express to get to/from Central London, about £20 for a single journey, which gets you to Liverpool Street station in about 50 minutes. When you arrive in central London, you’ll likely need to jump on the tube westbound (Central, Circle, District, Hammersmith & City, Metropolitan) depending on where you are staying. Alternatively, you can get off the Express at Tottenham Hale and grab the Victoria Line southbound.
Can’t afford the Stansted Express? There is a National Express coach, A9, which leaves from Stratford City Bus station (reachable from Stratford station on the Jubilee line). It supposedly takes about an hour but again, leave more time for London traffic, and I can’t say it’s a route I’d recommend. Tickets cost £5 and you should book in advance if you use this route.
This is the one airport I’ve not personally flown to/from, and it’s a bit of a stretch to say it’s a London airport at over 40 miles away. It doesn’t stop airlines as advertising it as such, or in one case from a certain budget airline, trying to route a stranded Southwest Londoner on an 11 pm flight there after her flight was cancelled back from Venice (cheers for that, and thank goodness I managed to get on a Gatwick flight in the end). You can only really get to/from Southend Airport by train to Liverpool Street station, at about £17. It takes about an hour. There are airport buses but I would not recommend – I’ve heard they can take three hours.
How to pay for tickets to central London
Ticket desks with an actual person working at it are few and far between in London these days and even more rare for early/late arrivals. In addition, many ticket machines no longer accept cash. Make sure your card is set up to be able to be used in the UK to buy a ticket at the airport train station. You can also purchase tickets ahead of time from National Rail or Trainline and pick up using the code and by inserting the card you paid with.
For Gatwick and Heathrow via non-express services, paying by Oyster or contactless is often cheaper and easier, just be aware of what your bank will charge you for a foreign transaction if you use contactless and that it usually is not possible to get an Oyster card from the airport. You can choose to get an Oyster card or travel card ordered before you arrive and have it sent to your home address from here.
Avoiding Travel Disruptions
If you haven’t been to London before, you may be thinking, wow, this place has such amazing transport. And it does usually. Except when something breaks, which happens A LOT. Trains and underground routes are subject to planned closures for improvement works, strikes, and a whole lot of
excuses reasons for unplanned disruptions like signal failure, person ill on the train, leaves on the line, weather too hot, the list goes on. ALWAYS leave with plenty of time and I’d suggest mapping a backup route on your way back to the airport when leaving London.
Mapping and other options
I’ve said it a few times before here and here, but I’ll say it again: download Citymapper before you come to London, it’s not the easiest city to navigate and I still use this app constantly to find the best routes in London. You can download your journey offline and it is usually decent for informing about disruptions.
Luggage and accessibility
Even carry-on bags can be a bit of a challenge on public transport in London as you navigate crowds, escalators, stairs, and lack of space to put your bag on the tube/train carriages. Don’t block aisles and if you take your carr- on bag on the escalator, be careful and make sure to stand on the right with your bag in front or behind you. Don’t block the left, this is tube etiquette rule #1 (for more on how to act like a London local check out this post). Crowds are an issue, especially at peak times, and if possible, I’d recommend avoiding the Northern and Central lines all together during these times.
Anything bigger than a carry-on, I’d recommend sticking to step-free stations and use the lifts. As mentioned, National Express can be a great option if you don’t want to deal with your bag during the journey. You could always get an uber or taxi from Victoria/the nearest stop to your accommodation.
If you need a step-free station for any accessibility reason, you can find a guide on TFL’s website here. All airport stations in this article also have step-free accessible.