When planning your first trip to London, you need to know the best way to actually get into London.
This section of our London Guide for Beginners 2019
- Helps you determine which airport to use
- Answers how to get from the airport to the city center
- Has advice for those coming to London by train, car or bus
As most of our readers are international visitors; let’s start with London’s international airports.
General Tips for Getting into London
- Don’t rent a car. Public transport is easy, cheap and often the best way to get around.
- If you plan on driving to other areas in the UK, plan London for the start (or end) of your trip. Go to London then come back to the airport for a rental vehicle.
- The trains are typically the best way to get to into the city from the airports.
- Airport express trains have luggage hold areas in the carriages. Standard underground and national railway lines usually don’t.
- Try to travel outside of “peak hours” (Monday – Friday 6:30 to 9:30 am & 4 to 7 pm). Fares are at their highest and trains are the most crowded.
- Public transportation delays and closures are common. Check Transport for London‘s status updates page before setting out.
- Most tourist attractions are on or within the Underground’s Circle Line and in zone 1.
- Transport for London has a fantastic journey planner. It gives you the price, estimated time and route for your journey. You can even edit your preferences for the way you want to travel.
Worried about dragging around luggage on public transportation?
Airportr offers baggage handling services. Drop your bags off at their office in London Heathrow, Gatwick or Luton airport. Airportr will deliver your bags to any address in London at a drop off time you choose. They will also pick up your bags and deliver them to your flight when you’re leaving.
Which airport is the easiest to get to London?
London has six international airports. In order of distance, there is London City, Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, and Southend.
All international airports have public transportation routes into the center of London. However, which airport is the easiest for you depends on where you are staying and if you plan on traveling elsewhere in the UK.
London City Airport
London City is the only airport within London proper. It is relatively small, with few shops and exorbitant food and drink prices.
Until recently, the airport primarily serviced UK and European business travelers. There are direct flights to around 46 UK and European cities. Currently, New York is the only non-European destination.
With its expansion into leisure travel, its reputation for being London’s best airport is changing. Complaints about crowding, and long security and baggage lines are now common.
The ease of getting into the city, is why most travelers still love this airport. It is located on the east side in the Docklands, public transportation Zone 3. From the London City Airport Docklands Light Railway (DLR) station, it takes approximately 35 minutes to Piccadilly Circus in the center. This airport is very convenient for the east side of the city; however, most journeys will require changing trains at some point.
Heathrow is London’s largest and busiest airport. It is located on the west side of the city near the main motorway systems. This makes Heathrow easy to get into London, and convenient if you plan on driving west or north-west toward Bristol, Oxford or Manchester. Most major (non-budget) carriers will fly to Heathrow.
Flights are sometimes more expensive compared to London’s other airports. Rental cars tend to be cheaper from Heathrow than other airports. There are a lot of facilities in the airport, making it very easy to grab a meal or pass time on a layover.
It can be very crowded. Security checks and immigration lines can be long. Though, they are constantly upgrading technology to enhance security while making efficiencies. We used Heathrow on a recent trip and were surprised at how much they had improved since the last time we were there.
For more detailed information, see the section below on getting to London from Heathrow.
Gatwick is London’s second busiest airport. It is on the south side of the city and is a little further out than Heathrow. Gatwick is very convenient if you plan on traveling to Brighton or driving to Kent.
There are plenty of stores and restaurants to keep you entertained for a short time, though the main terminal areas can be quite crowded.
Despite the proximity of Heathrow to London, most locals prefer using Gatwick. Though it is also a very busy airport, things just seem to work a bit smoother and lines are a bit shorter.
For more detailed information, see the section below on getting to London from Gatwick Airport.
London Luton, Stansted and Southend Airports
Stansted, Luton and Southend are smaller international airports that primarily service budget airlines traveling to and from Europe. As they are smaller airports and most travelers are from within the EU, lines have historically been relatively quick for security and immigration.
Stansted airport is great if you are staying in the east side of London’s city center. The Stansted Express runs every 15 minutes to London Liverpool Street and takes less than 50 minutes. Purchase discount tickets ahead of time from the Stansted Express website. There is Underground access from Liverpool Street Station.
Luton airport is northwest of London. From the airport, take the 10-minute airport shuttle bus to Luton Airport Parkway train station. From the station, hop on the Thameslink train headed to St. Pancras, 27 to 43 minutes. St. Pancras and Farringdon connects to the northern side of the Underground’s Circle Line. Alternatively, stay on the train until Blackfriars on the southern side of the Circle Line. This same train line goes onto Gatwick Airport and continues further south to Brighton.
Southend airport is the smallest and furthest away from London’s center. It also has the least convenient public transportation links. Greateranglia provides train services from Southend Airport to London. Take the train to Stratford and change to one of the Overground or Underground lines to get into the center of London. The train also goes to Liverpool Street Station in 1 to 1.5 hours where you can also change to the Underground.
Getting to London from Heathrow Airport
There are several options for getting into London from Heathrow Airport. Your best option depends on where specifically in London you want to go.
Heathrow Express Train
The Heathrow Express is typically the fastest option into the city. It takes 15 minutes to Paddington Station. From Paddington it is easy to reach the Underground and make your way around London.
You can catch the train from Terminals 2, 3, or 5. Wi-fi and power sockets are available onboard.
Booking tickets through the Heathrow Express website at least 14 days in advance gives deep discounts; the further out, the bigger the discount. Make sure you purchase tickets on the platform or online before boarding as the price goes up to £27 if purchased on the train.
- Single £22 (off-peak) £25 (peak)
- Return £37
- Kids under 15 free with paying adult
Piccadilly Underground Line
The Piccadilly line goes straight through the center of London without any changes. It is also the cheapest option. The catch is, it can also be the slowest. Plus, there is no designated space for larger luggage.
To get from Heathrow to Piccadilly Circus Underground Station using the Piccadilly line will take 50 minutes on average. It can cost as little as £3.10 contactless or Oyster (£6 cash) for a single off-peak ticket. Let’s put it in perspective. If you took the Heathrow Express, then the Bakerloo Underground Line to Piccadilly Circus it would cost around £25 (off peak) but take 35 minutes, including changing trains.
The Piccadilly line picks up from all terminals (except Terminal 4 on Fridays and Saturdays). For purchasing your tickets, it is important to know Heathrow is in Zone 6. The city center is in Zone 1. More on understanding London’s transportation zones in our post on Getting Around London.
Bus, Taxi, or Uber from Heathrow Airport
National Express offers bus services to and from Victoria Coach Station in 35 minutes, starting at £6 one-way. This is a great option if you are staying somewhere easily accessed by Victoria’s Underground lines.
Though taxis and Ubers are available, we do not recommend them for getting into London. They are usually not the fastest option as driving in London can be horrendous and slow. Since fares are determined by mileage and time, they can often be a very pricy slow option. Also be aware of issues with very lengthy lines waiting for Uber drivers at Heathrow.
If we wanted the comfort of a car, we’d opt for a chauffeur service with fixed prices. There are no services we can personally recommend, but Heathrow Airport’s website has a few recommendations.
Getting to London from Gatwick Airport
Gatwick Airport is a little further from London than Heathrow but still has easy access routes into the city.
Train to London from Gatwick airport
Both the Gatwick Express and the Southern Railway take around 30 minutes to get to London Victoria Station.
If you take the Southern Railway, make sure to catch the train that only stops in East Croydon and Clapham Junction. If you get a train with several stops, it can take an hour to get to London Victoria. From London Victoria, pick up the Underground lines to get around the city.
Gatwick Express leaves every 15 minutes where the Southern Railway leaves according to a frequent but varying timetable. Southern Railway is usually cheaper but the Gatwick Express does offer discounts through their website.
Other than price, the biggest difference between the two trains is space. The Gatwick Express is made for airport transfers. Therefore, there is space for luggage and you will more than likely find a seat. The Southern Railway is a commuter train. These can get very crowded and do not have a place for luggage.
Both services accept Oyster Pay as You Go. More on Oyster in the Getting Around London section.
Use ThamesLink railway for trains to the eastern side of the city. London Bridge, Blackfriars, Farringdon and St. Pancras are all on the direct line. It takes from 45 minutes to an hour to get to St. Pancras which is on the other side of London. This is also a commuter train, so can get very busy in peak hours. It is roughly the same price as taking the Southern Railway.
Bus, Taxi, or Uber from Gatwick Airport
Our advice is the same as taking a taxi or Uber from Heathrow Airport, which you can see above. Basically, do not do it. If you do, choose a chauffeur service with fixed prices, but know that most places are faster to reach by train.
Getting to London by cross-country or international train
If you are traveling to London by train, then you want to arrive at a station with a London Underground station (aka the Tube) nearby. Most long-distance trains will end at one of the primary stations near the Circle Line. For example, if you are traveling from Bristol or Bath you will go to Paddington Station. If you are traveling from Manchester you will go to Euston Station. These work out great for transferring onto the Underground lines.
Coming to London from mainland Europe? The Eurostar goes to St. Pancras on the north side of the city. This is a perfect spot to transfer onto the Underground lines. In addition, St. Pancras station has a lot of facilities with plenty of shopping and restaurants.
For more information on what to do when you get to the Underground lines, see our post on Getting Around London.
Driving to London
We seriously do not recommend driving in London. Yes, it is possible but between the taxes, parking charges and general hassle factor it really is not worth it.
However, depending on where you are coming from, driving to London may be your best option. If this is the case, we recommend finding a station just outside London and taking the train in from there.
For example, the train from Bristol to London is quite pricey especially for multiple people. So, sometimes we drive to Slough. Park at the train station there, buy a cheap Day Travelcard which includes the return trip from Slough to London plus all London public transport. For two or more people this usually works out the cheapest.
You may need to do some research on which station works best for the direction you will be coming from. Consider stations with a direct train line into the center. Something going into Paddington, Marylebone, Euston, Victoria, Liverpool Street, etc. Some Tube lines with parking facilities also work very well and can be very cheap for parking on the weekends. Note that most Tube lines stop at every station so can be deceivingly slow.
Taking a bus to London
The UK has plenty of bus services to choose from. These can often be much cheaper than the national rail services but are usually a little slower.
We have occasionally used Megabus and National Express to go from Bristol to Victoria Coach Station in London. The prices are a tiny fraction of the train costs. Technically it takes an hour or so longer, but since the train drops us off in the north and the bus goes to the south side, the timing is relative to where in London we are specifically going.