UPDATED: July 2023
What’s the best way to get to central London if you’re flying into Heathrow or Gatwick airports?
Heathrow and Gatwick are the two major airports serving London and the southwest and southeast of England.
Neither London Heathrow or Gatwick airports are in London! Heathrow is about an hour to the west of the city and Gatwick is almost two hours south of London.
Gatwick is about 30 miles south of London via the M25. The train station outside Gatwick’s South terminal makes it easy to quickly get into London or make onward connections.
Heathrow airport is approximately 16 miles due west of London via the M4 motorway. Heathrow is served by underground Tube service to central London but doesn’t have a dedicated train station like Gatwick.
How to Get to Central London from Heathrow Airport
1. The Elizabeth Line
The Elizabeth Line is a shiny new underground train service connecting Heathrow to east and central London (London Paddington train station) and points beyond (with connections).
Serving Terminals 2, 3, 4 and 5, the Elizabeth Line connects Heathrow with London, and Reading and Essex via a change.
- To connect to Reading rail station for onward journeys to the west, take the Elizabeth Line to Hayes & Hartlington station (east) and change to head (west) to Reading.
- To connect to London Paddington (serves southwest of England) take Elizabeth line to Paddington.
Heathrow airport receives six Elizabeth line trains per hour all day. All trains stop at Terminal 2 & 3, with four trains per hour continuing to Terminal 4, and two per hour continuing to Terminal 5 (International arrivals).
Travel on the Elizabeth line costs £12.80 at all times of the day, for a journey to or from Heathrow airport, where that journey starts, ends or goes through Zone 1. Use this fare cost calculator. Pay by contactless payment or Oyster card (except through West Drayton).
Cost: From £12.80. ($16.00) One way purchase
Pay: Credit|debit, Oyster card or contactless
2. Heathrow Express to Paddington
Non stop train to north Central London’s Paddington Station (now mostly replaced by the Elizabeth Line )
Best for: You want a non stop service to Paddington.
- Heathrow Express is a dedicated overground train that runs non stop from Heathrow airport terminals 2 + 3 to Paddington rail/tube station in north London. Get off at Paddington to make ongoing connections.
- From Paddington, connect directly to the Central, District Hammersmith/City or Bakerloo Underground lines. Map of the underground here.
- Trains run every 15 minutes
- You can book an advance fare ticket online at Heathrow Express.
Cost: From £5.50 ($7.15) – £25. One way purchase
Pay: Credit|debit, Oyster card or contactless
2. Picadilly Line to Kings Cross | St Pancras
- Heathrow Airport is also served directly by the Piccadilly line (Underground/Tube). which connects to South Kensington, Green Park and Kings Cross-St. Pancras stations directly. This is NOT a non stop service.
- There are underground stations at Heathrow Terminals 2 & 3 (between the terminals) and Terminal 4 and Terminal 5 which are in the terminal basement. Look for signage.
Cost: £6 ($7.80) one way to central London cash pay or with Oyster card £5.10
Pay: Credit|debit, Oyster card or contactless
3. Taxi Service or Uber
It may actually take longer to be driven into central London, depending on traffic and time of day.
Best for: If you need help with bags, have mobility issues or prefer a hassle free experience
- If you prefer to be picked up at Heathrow, ask your hotel to book a taxi or car service for you.
- When you book, give your airline and flight arrival details. If they need to park in the garage if your flight is delayed, this should be included in the quoted rate. Your driver should meet you outside the final customs gate holding a sign with your name on it!
Cost: £60 -100 ($75.-125) one way + gratuity
Pay: Credit|debit, cash or contactless
How to Get to Central London from Gatwick Airport
Gatwick is approximately 26 miles south of central London via the M25 or M23 motorway. Trains from Gatwick into London take approximately 30 minutes.
- Gatwick has it’s own train/rail station to make it easy to get into central London
- The station is located at the South terminal. A shuttle runs every 15 minutes between North and South.
- Before entering the station, check the departure/arrivals board to find the right platform for your train to London.
- Lots of luggage? Look for lifts/elevators down to the platforms.
1. Take the Gatwick Express Train
Gatwick Express is the most direct rail service to central London from the airport.
Best for: If you want non stop service to London.
- Gatwick Express is a non stop train into central London Victoria rail station, conveniently located in Westminster.
- Make connections at Victoria to other rail services, the Underground/Tube, buses, coaches or taxi.
- Gatwick Express usually leaves the station from platform 13 or 14 but check the arrival/departure board or ask a rail employee. The Trainline app will also give you the correct platform for your train
Cost: Ticket prices start at £18. for a single
Pay: Book online with Trainline, or book on Gatwick Express
2. Use Regular Train Service to Central London
Although it’s not a direct non stop service like Gatwick Express, regular rail service costs less and may still reach London Victoria station in 30 minutes. Be sure to book a direct route so you won’t need to change trains.
Best for: Saving money, or if you need a choice of London Victoria rail station or London Blackfriars
- There are luggage storage areas on each train but they tend to fill up fast.
- Use the Trainline app to book your ticket, collect it at the station or use the e-ticket option to store your ticket on your phone.
Cost: Ticket prices start at £12.80 for a return/round trip ticket
Pay: Book online with Trainline or at ticket kiosk in station
GOOD TO KNOW: Avoid weekend travel if possible or check to be sure your train is on schedule. Trains routinely shut down for maintenance on weekends. Trains out of London may be delayed for; signal failure, other trains running late or a jumper on the line (yes it happens often).
Rail strikes are still ongoing in 2023. Look for train cancellations or delays on the announcement boards in the stations. Ask a rail employee if they know status of a train if you’re not sure. Check Trainline to see if your train’s been cancelled. You’ll still be able to travel on an alternate route at a different time same day at no extra cost.
How to Get outside Greater London
1. Rental/Hire Care
A rental car offers you maximum flexibility if public transportation isn’t convenient, but driving can be a hassle if you’re not familiar with driving on the left. Look at rental car deals here.
Best for: If you’re going to a location not served by train service
- If you’re hiring a rental car at Heathrow or Gatwick, it should be equipped with either Car Play (Bluetooth) or a GPS (Satnav).
- Consider the timing of your arrival/ departure and try to avoid peak rush hour. Exiting Heathrow airport takes you on two of the UK’s busiest freeways, the M4 and the M25. Gatwick exits onto the M23.
- If your flight arrives or departs during early morning or very late, consider booking an airport hotel for the night before or after. Several hotels are located right at the airport and easily walkable to terminals.
2. National Express
Nationwide coach/premium bus service. Inexpensive option serving towns and cities across Great Britain.
Best for: If you’re not in a hurry, want to save money or if it’s the only public transportation option.
National Express is a large national coach service which operates coach buses to most airports, such as Heathrow and Gatwick. For best fares, buy tickets online or on the Trainline app ahead of travel.
3. National Rail
National rail is the catch all for all regional train services for onward journeys from London Heathrow or central London:
- Go into central London to one of the major rail stations such as London Paddington or London Victoria
- Or go to Reading rail station west of London using Railair bus service connecting Heathrow to Reading, Guildford, Woking rail stations.
For rail services for onward journeys from Gatwick Airport, use Gatwick rail station for travel to points beyond London (you may need to go into a connecting rail station in London.) Book your train tickets here.
Buying Train/ Rail tickets for Travel In and Around London
I recommend getting around central London on the tube or overground train/rail service run by TFL (Transport for London). Buses are readily available but I think the tube is easier to navigate and quicker.
For 2023 and beyond strikes planned by TFL on London’s tube service, check here for updates.
Trainline. Get the app, it’s the easiest way to buy a train ticket to anywhere in the UK and EU. Search and buy your ticket on the app, purchase it with a credit card (which can be stored in the app) then pick up your ticket at any station.
My advice? Select the e-ticket option when you buy. Then you just download and store it in Apple Wallet or use Google Pay on Android.
- You get the best deals a few months in advance on Trainline.
- In the UK, tickets are only released up to 12 weeks in advance, so don’t be surprised if you can’t book a ticket further ahead.
- A return or round trip is always the most cost effective way to buy a ticket.
What’s a Tube?
Transportation options are well signed but it can be confusing for a traveler to know what service to look for.
All rail stations in central London (such as London Victoria), will have connecting underground “Tube” services. If you need to get from one rail station to the other, your options will be via Tube, bus or taxi. I would recommend the Tube unless you have a lot of luggage. If so, get a taxi. Most taxi ranks will be just outside each station.
- RAIL – Trains that run above ground on a national network such as National Rail. Look for the track symbol.
- OVERGROUND Trains – Trains that run above ground in central London to locations not served by the tube such as Heathrow Express and TFL overground. Look for the circle with a horizontal band.
- UNDERGROUND – also known as the Tube. Subway trains that run mostly underground throughout 6 zones in central London Look for the circle with a horizontal band.
- BUS – Bus service that runs throughout central and greater London or in local areas and towns
- COACH – National or long distance coaches that service most large cities and smaller towns in Great Britain
Common Travel Terms
For the benefit of visitors from the US here’s a translation of common terms you’ll come across traveling. British > US !
Hire care = Rental car
Taxi = Cab
Satnav = GPS
Mobile = Cell phone
Coach = Large tour bus
Return = Round trip
Single = One way
Tube = Underground subway
Lift = Elevator
Trolley = Luggage cart
I hope you can gain benefit from my experience. I know there’s a lot to learn to get around London! Oh and when is the best time to visit? Here’s my opinion. Of course if you have any questions don’t hesitate to ask in the comments, I’m happy to help!
Don’t miss my favorite travel resources. Bon voyage!