Originally published 28 October 2017
You've gotten your tickets, done your first transatlantic flight (unless you're coming from somewhere else in the world), and have arrived in London. If you're coming from the states, London is a great choice as a place to start. It is one of the main air hubs coming into Europe and there are many flights from many places. Competition makes flying into London pretty cost effective, with many deals and many choices. You can also pick up discount airline flights out of London to nearly anywhere.
You haven't had much sleep on the plane, and you land, clear customs and realize you are just a tad "punchy". Dealing with jet lag is real, and getting acclimated to your new time zone and surroundings will take a little time. Starting out in a country where you don't know the language is quite doable and I've done it several times. But for a first time, it is easier when you can read signs, figure things out, and work with your own language. If you're comfortable starting out in a foreign language then go for it! I just found it easier to start out in a language I could speak my first time abroad.
The two big airports coming into London are Heathrow and Gatwick. Both have many international arrivals and departures and one may have better ticket deals than the other. Heathrow is on the western outskirts, around 15 miles from Central London. Gatwick is further, 27 miles due south of Central London. There are multiple options in how to get to and from the airport to Central London, and I'm going to discuss many of these. So let's get started!
Rental cars-DON'T DO THIS.
London is a large and crowded city with superb mass transit. Unless you're independently wealthy AND enjoy frustration and hassle, DON'T DO THIS. I cannot stress this enough. Parking is quite expensive, there is a daily charge of 11.50 pounds (15 dollars US) for the "congestion" fee. This is required for anyone driving from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and if not paid, will result in a fine of 65-195 pounds (85-250 US dollars). I can't say this enough.......DON'T DO THIS. In case I've been unclear.......DON'T DO THIS! Laurie says to say "It's worse than driving into Manhattan! Don't do that!"
We'll start with an option I have never used from the airport, and that would be by taxi. A taxi from Heathrow to central London will run from 45-70 pounds (60-90 US dollars) and takes around an hour. A taxi from Gatwick to central London will run from 60-100 pounds (80-130 US dollars) and takes about 1.5 hours. Traffic can be a factor, driving the rate up. Not having recently hit the lottery, we have not used cabs from either airport.
London cabs are fine for a short jaunt in town, due to bad weather or a heavy load of packages. We have only taken a cab under these circumstances. They tend to be clean, well taken care of, and the cab drivers are incredibly knowledgeable. They are NOT cheap. Expect 15-23 pounds (20-30 US dollars) for a four mile trip. London is an expensive city to own a taxi cab business and the fares reflect this.
Inside of Victoria Station, departure point for the Gatwick Express
Express trains-Express trains are an option to and from the airports. They are fast, have few if any stops, aren't affected by traffic or weather, and are quite comfortable. While less expensive than a taxi, they are not cheap. Bargain options will be addressed later in this post.
The Heathrow Express (Heathrow Express Link) costs between 9-25 pounds (12-33 US dollars) depending on how far in advance you purchase, time of day you travel, and other factors (one way). It leaves Heathrow and goes to Paddington Station in central London and runs every 15 minutes. Travel times run 15-20 minutes depending on your Heathrow terminal.
The Gatwick Express (Gatwick Express Link) runs from Victoria Station to Gatwick Airport. It runs every 15 minutes and takes around 30 minutes. Costs for a standard ticket are 18-32 pounds (23-42 US dollars) (one way).
If you don't have flexibility in your schedule or other issues require it, express trains are a great option. You skip traffic, weather doesn't affect you, and it lets you off right in the terminal. If you're scrambling to make a meeting, catch a train, etc. and need to be there quick, there is nothing faster. Just be aware that they are not the most cost effective choice.
Before we go any further here.....let's talk about something called an "Oyster Card" (Oyster Card Link). The Oyster Card is a credit card sized refillable electronic ticket, that can be used on the tube (subway), buses, and some trains. It is by far the best and most economical way to get around, into, and about London. Once you use it, you will agree.
The Oyster Card has an electronic chip in it that is read by a reader. Any time you get on or off a bus, subway, etc. you "swipe in and swipe out". It costs 5 pounds (6.50 US dollars) to get a card, and if you turn it back in, they will refund your 5 pounds. It's not a fee, but a deposit. You then load the card with money. You can do this at the ticket window when you get the card, from a machine, or from almost any news stand in the city. You give them cash, they load it, and when you take a ride, it is deducted from the balance on your card.
I like the Oyster Card for several reasons. London subways are some of the most expensive on the planet......EXCEPT if you use the Oyster Card. Cash fare may be 5 pounds (6.50 US dollars), but if you use the Oyster card, it may be 2.25 pounds or something similar. You get HUGE discounts if you use the Oyster Card. If we are going to be in London for a few days we will put 20 pounds or such on it.
Another reason is that the Oyster card keeps track of your trips. Most trips that visitors take in London will be covered by the basic zone 1-3. Every time you take a trip, it deducts it from the balance on your card....until it reaches 7.70 pounds. After that, it is capped for the day and all rides after that are free! The most you can spend in zones 1-3 is 7.70 a day no matter how much you ride. I once rode the tube 10 times one day, with a total cost of 7.70. Cool, right?!?!
A third reason is if you're leaving London and have no plans to return. You turn in your card at a ticket window and they refund any balances you have left. If you're leaving, you get all your money back. Personally, we keep our card. The money credited to it never expires, and the next time we're in London, we're ready to go. Consequently, I'm able to post the above photo of our cards. Now we can move on to our next way to get from Heathrow to Central London..............
The tube runs both above ground and underground. This is from the South Ealing platform, on the Picadilly line.
Everybody takes the tube in London. Well.....everybody but the queen. It doesn't have delays like buses or driving, it is underground, and the network is quite extensive. The tube goes all the way out to Heathrow, which is NOT in the zones 1-3 mentioned above. The cost to take the tube from Heathrow to central London is 5.70 pounds (7.50 US dollars). Wow! That's way cheaper than cabs and the express train to Heathrow! Travel time is around 50 minutes.
Now you are in central London, and you can take the tube almost everywhere. You already have your Oyster card so hopping on board is quick and easy. You go to the turnstile, and there is a big yellow disk on the top of it. You just swipe your Oyster Card over it and the turnstile lets you in. At the end of your journey, you swipe to get out of the turnstile and it computes your fare and deducts it from your balance. So much easier and so much more cost effective than other means. Gotta love the tube!
A double decker London bus
Many bus companies have service from central London to both airports. While I personally like the tube to Heathrow, you can save a couple of bucks taking an express bus. There are many companies that run buses to the airports, and while the tube is easy from Heathrow, there are no other budget options to and from Gatwick. We have used two different bus companies and I'll talk about those as they are what we know.
National Express has buses running from central London, usually from Victoria Station (Link for National Express webiste). Be aware that Victoria coach station (they call them coaches and not buses) and Victoria train station are NOT the same thing. We once crawled all over Victoria Station looking for the bus departure area, to find it was a block away. It's not far, but they are NOT the same place. National Express buses are cost effective at 10 pounds (around 13 bucks). They take around an hour and 15 minutes.
Easybus (Easybus website) is a fantastic bargain option with tickets starting at 2 pounds (2.70 US dollars)! You have to buy way in advance to get the 2 pound tickets, but if you're on a bus that is not at a peak time you can still get one on short notice. The most expensive peak price short notice buys are around 8 pounds. We have ridden Easybus many times and were quite pleased, especially for the price. You just can't beat them, and we'll be using them no fewer than 6 times on our next trip. They are the best deal on transportation in London.
A couple of the bus lines still run the old school buses from the past. It's more of a nostalgia thing, and not due to lack of a proper replacement.
We have used regular London buses from time to time around town, but usually as a lark, and a way to actually see the city. London does have parts that are more easily reached by bus so it is still a great way to travel. You don't have to swipe in and swipe out on the bus.....only swipe in. When you get off the bus, you just get off. It deducts one bus ride from your account.
Buses in London are cool. The best place for a long ride are the front seats on the top floor of the double deckers. Not all London buses are double deckers, but a lot are. If it is a long ride, sit back and enjoy the view. If you are up top and in front, it's the best seat in London!
There are many websites on London. I have found a simple website called London Toolkit (Link to London Toolkit) quite helpful. Also use the old fallbacks like Rick Steves (Rick Steves Link), Lonely Planet (Lonely Planet Link), any of the London tourism websites. There are infinite sources of information on London.
While pricey in places, London can be done on a budget. It is a fantastic place to visit, and a must see for any traveler to Europe. Get your guide books, start reading, and let's travel!