Arriving at one of London’s five major airports often feels like it’s just the beginning of your journey. You still need to navigate your way through the city’s 1,572 square kilometers, while attempting not to waste time and money. But the time it takes to get from the airport to your hotel can increase massively as the price reduces.
So ask yourself what your priorities are—is it worth that extra £20 to get yourself to hotel check-in as swiftly as possible and make the most of your visit to London? Or do you have time on your side and would rather save those £££s on transportation, so you have more money to burn when you’re out and about in the city?
We’ve saved you the lengthy research by weighing up the best fast and cheapo options below!
Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport. Photo: Curt Smith
If you’re arriving in London on a long haul flight, chances are you’ll wind up at Heathrow, which sees almost 200,000 passengers arriving and departing each day. There are five terminals, all fairly easily accessible. Terminals 1, 2 and 3 are walking distance apart, whereas for Terminals 4 and 5 you may find you need to jump on the Underground or the Heathrow Express train.
Fastest: If you’re on a short jaunt in London and want to maximize your time in the city then the Heathrow Express is the best option for you. Sleek and uber comfortable trains with tons of space for luggage depart every 15 minutes from the airport and take just 15 minutes from terminals 1, 2 and 3 to Paddington station in central London. Add on four or six more minutes to the journey time if departing from terminals 4 or 5.
It’s not the cheap option, with adult tickets costing £26 for a single and £39 for a return when purchased onboard, but you can knock £5 off the cost of each ticket when you buy online or at the ticket machines and ticket desks in the station, making a single £21 and a return £34. Get organized and you’ll get an even better price as well, with regular advanced booking deals available online, particularly for kids and group bookings.
Cheapest: If saving those pennies is the most important thing, then by far the best option is to take the London Underground into the city center, which takes around one hour depending on where your final destination is. The Piccadilly Line has a stop for Terminals 1, 2 and 3, another for Terminal 4 and another for Terminal 5, so no matter where you land you’ll be able to access the Tube.
The airport is located in zone 6 and a single ticket into zone 1 (central London) will set you back around £5.70. However, if you read our guide to public transport in London and get yourself an Oyster card, this will be reduced by a few pounds.
The Gatwick Express train gets you to Victoria Station in 30 minutes. Photo: Vera Blossom
Officially located in Sussex, Gatwick Airport is London’s second biggest air hub and covers the largest number of destinations of any airport in the country. There are two terminals; North and South, which are walking distance apart.
Fastest: The quickest way into London is from the well-located train station at the airport. However, unlike from Heathrow, the official “Gatwick Express” service which runs every 15 minutes to London Victoria only shaves around five minutes off your total journey time when compared to the notably cheaper, Southern Trains service. The former will set you back around £18 for a single and £31 for a return, while you can bag a return on the trusty Southern Train for a mere £15. If London Bridge or St Pancras are more convenient for you, opt for the Thameslink train for a similar price.
Cheapo tip: If you’re arriving and departing from Gatwick then be sure to buy yourself a return ticket, it’s only a few pence more expensive that the single!
Cheapest: If time is on your side then take the bus to central London. National Express has regular departures from both terminals to London Victoria from as little as £8 each way online. On average the journey takes an hour and a half, but be patient—London traffic is always unpredictable. Alternatively, Stelios’ easyBus has services to Waterloo and Earl’s Court which take between 60-90 minutes. Buses run every 15-20 minutes and start from as little as £2 each way when booked in advance online.
There are several affordable bus options from Stansted Airport. Photo: Steven Hughes
London’s third busiest airport is Stansted. Serving shorter haul destinations, you may well find yourself here if you’re flying to other countries in Europe with a low-cost airline.
Fastest: The handily located station makes it very easy to hop on the train from the airport. The Stansted Express departs every 15 minutes and takes around 35 minutes to Tottenham Hale or 45 minutes to Liverpool Street station. Given the trains are often pretty packed, the £21 single and £32 return feels pretty steep, but you can cut this price massively if you book early, with fares from £8 when booked 30 days in advance and £12 when booked seven days in advance. There are also discounts for groups and two adults traveling together.
Cheapest: Again, if you really want to save those pennies then the bus will be your best option. From Stansted you can catch National Express or Terravision buses to Victoria or Liverpool Street, while the easyBus goes to Old Street and Baker Street. All buses depart regularly and take between one and two hours. Fares start from £2 each way and the best prices are found when booked in advance online.
Many low-cost airlines fly into Luton. Photo: NATS Press Office
Again, you’re most likely to find yourself at Luton if you’re flying low-cost to a nearby destination, and most Londoners try and avoid this airport like the plague. Not because it’s unpleasant when you get there, but because the lack of an on-site train station makes it a whole lot more awkward to get to and from. If arriving very late at night, I would pay the extra flight price to land somewhere else, as the onward journey from Luton is not so straightforward.
Fastest: Rail is still (just) the quickest way to central London, but the difference isn’t as huge as when compared to Heathrow and in this instance I would probably just go for the cheaper bus route. All visitors must catch the shuttle from outside the airport to the rail station. The journey takes around 10 minutes and the buses leave fairly regularly. Your rail ticket can be bought at the bus stop and includes the surcharge for the shuttle. If you don’t pay it you will be charged £1.60 to take the shuttle bus. On arrival, Thameslink runs trains to Blackfriars, Farringdon, and St Pancras, which take between 40 and 60 minutes and cost around £15 single and £24 return.
Cheapest: Both easyBus and National Express serve Luton Airport and take around 90 minutes to Victoria coach station. EasyBus just launched its direct service to Liverpool Street last month as well, which it claims takes one hour and five minutes, but I would always recommend leaving a bit longer. Single tickets can be bought from as little as £2 if you get them in advance.
You can easily take the Docklands Light Rail to connect with the Tube from London City Airport. Photo: Tom Page
Finally, if you’re touching down at London City Airport then you’re very lucky indeed! Designed for business travelers to have easy access to the city, you won’t be swamped with mind boggling options here—simply up your Oyster card and hop onto the DLR (Docklands Light Railway) and connect to London Underground’s Jubilee Line at Canning Town in just three stops.
Have a tip for a fast or cheap way in from any of London’s airports? Share with us in the comments section below!