When you’ve flown into Heathrow airport on an overnight flight, you want the quickest or cheapest way to get to central London. If you’re flying from the US chances are you’ll be landing at Heathrow. However some international flights (Norwegian and Icelandair) now fly into Gatwick.
My preference is Gatwick; it’s quick to get around and with only two terminals, easier to navigate. Having the train station outside of Gatwick’s South terminal is a huge bonus to be able to quickly get into London, down to Brighton or wherever your trip takes you. I’ve been able to land, go through customs, pick up bags and be at the train in under 45 minutes!
Heathrow airport is approximately 16 miles due west of London via the M4 motorway. Heathrow is served by underground and overground train service to central London. So how do I get from Heathrow Airport to central London?
How to get to central London from Heathrow Airport
1. HEATHROW EXPRESS
Quickest and most direct train to north Central London
Best for: If you’re staying near north Central London (Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens) or taking a train from Paddington station to points west
- 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. It only travels between Heathrow and Paddington. You’ll need to get off at Paddington to make ongoing connections.
- From Paddington you can connect directly to the Central, District Hammersmith/City or Bakerloo Underground lines. Map of the underground here.
At Paddington, you can also hail a taxi or use Uber to get to your final destination. We paid about £20. for a taxi from Paddington to the Westminster area.
- If you choose to go on to your hotel using the underground/tube, be aware you’ll need to navigate stairs and many turnstiles. If you have heavy luggage, a taxi will be easier.
- Trains run every 15 minutes
- You can book a ticket online at Heathrow Express.
Cost: From £5.50 ($7.15) One way advance purchase
Pay: Credit cards, Oyster card or contactless as of Feb. 2019
2. UNDERGROUND | TUBE
Direct overground and underground service may take up to an hour to central London
Best for: If you’re staying in central or south London and need to get off between the airport and central London
- Heathrow Airport is served directly by the Piccadilly line (Underground/Tube). which connects to South Kensington, Green Park and Kings Cross-St. Pancras stations directly.
- 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.
- Make changes at any tube stop to get to your final destination.
- If you change to another line, keep in mind your luggage may be tricky to maneuver through turnstiles and up stairs.
Cost: £6 ($7.80) one way to central London cash pay or with Oyster card £5.10
Pay: Credit cards, Oyster card or contactless
3. TAXI OR UBER
May take up to an hour or more depending on traffic.
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 or a local friend to book a taxi or car service for you.
- When you book your taxi give the service your airline and flight arrival or departure details. The driver of our car service waited for us to come out of customs. If they need to park in the garage if your flight is delayed this should be included in the quoted rate. Your driver will meet you outside the final customs gate with a sign with your name.
- Uber is an alternative and may or may not be cheaper depending on the time of day.
Cost: £80 -100 one way + gratuity
Pay: Credit/debit cards, cash
How to get from Gatwick Airport to central London.
Gatwick is approximately 26 miles south of central London via the M23 motorway. It’s served by mostly European based carriers but some airlines like Norwegian use it to fly to the US. Although Gatwick is further from London, it’s a quick train ride, taking only 30 minutes.
How to get to central London from Gatwick Airport
- Unlike Heathrow airport, Gatwick has it’s own train/rail station. This makes travel into London or the rest of Great Britain by train easy. The station is located at the South terminal with a shuttle running between the North and South terminals every 15 minutes.
- When you come into the South terminal you’ll see signs for the rail station.
- There’ll be a bank of ticket machines on the right (collect your prepaid ticket here or purchase) and then a row of turnstiles on the left. Slip your ticket into the slot,wait for it to pop up and the gates to open. Walk through.
- Be sure to check the departure and arrival board above the turnstiles for the platform you need.
- Look for lifts down to the platforms for schlepping lots of luggage.
1. GATWICK EXPRESS
Gatwick Express is the most direct rail service to central London from the airport. 30 minutes to Victoria Station
Best for: If you want to hop on a train and be in London in a half hour
- Gatwick Express is a non stop train into central Londons’ Victoria rail station. This is conveniently located in Westminster, home to Westminster cathedral, Buckingham Palace and Tate Britain.
- Make connections here to other rail services, the Underground/Tube, buses, coaches or taxi.
- Gatwick Express usually leaves Gatwick station from platform 13 or 14 but check the arrival/departure board or ask a rail employee. If you’re using the Trainline app, it should give you the correct platform.
Cost: Ticket prices start at £18. for a single
Pay: Book online with Trainline, or book on Gatwick Express
2. TRAIN – How to get to central London by train
Regular rail service costs less than the Gatwick Express. The train has stops, but if you book one of the direct routes you won’t need to change. London Victoria in 30 minutes.
Best for: If you want to save money, or need a choice of London Victoria rail station or London Blackfriars as your central London destination.
- 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
TRAIN WARNING: 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)
Look for train cancellations or delays on the announcement boards in the stations. Ask a rail employee if they know status of a train.
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 from Heathrow or Gatwick Airport to outside Greater London
1. RENTAL CAR
A rental car offers you flexibility but driving can be a hassle if you’re not familiar with driving on the left. You’ll have to pay to park at most locations and gas (petrol) is expensive.
Best for: If you’re going to a location not served by train or with few public transportation options (Isle of Wight for ex)
- If you’re hiring a rental car at Heathrow or Gatwick, have a map and GPS (Satnav) ready to go. Most hire (rental) cars should have built in GPS for navigation. Plug in your destination before you leave the airport.
- I recommend a paper map as mobile or cell signals can drop. A map will give you a good overview of where you’re going.
- Using your cell phone to navigate? Pair it with the car’s Bluetooth so you get directions hands-free.
- Consider the timing of your arrival and departure. 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 afternoon rush hour, consider booking an airport hotel for the night before or after. If you have a very early flight, this is a great option. At Gatwick Airport there are several hotels located right in the airport, easily walkable.
2. NATIONAL EXPRESS
Inexpensive option that serves small and large towns and cities across Great Britain. Similar to Greyhound.
Best for: If you’re not in a hurry and want to save money.
National Express is a large national coach service which operates coach buses to most airports, such as Heathrow and Gatwick. Buy tickets online or on the Trainline app ahead of time for the best pricing.
For example if you’re flying out of Heathrow and need to get to Brighton, the journey will take about 2 hours and cost approx. £26 one way.
3. NATIONAL RAIL
Not the best option from Heathrow as there’s no rail station there. However Gatwick Airport is ideal for rail travel to points beyond London.
Best for: For travel from Gatwick to points beyond London.
Although it’s called National Rail, Britains’ rail system is made up of regional operators, such as Southern, South West, Great Western.
You’ll need to take a coach or bus from Heathrow airport to participating stations like Guildford, Reading and Woking to pick up a train.
Gatwick has it’s own rail station where you can make train/rail connections to anywhere in Great Britain.
Best Way to Get Around Central 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. By all means explore the London bus system with your Oyster card.
- Get an Oyster card (like a travel debit card). The Oyster card is the easiest way to pay for the tube and get you anywhere you need to go in greater London. Walk into any underground (or overground) station and look for a bank of what look like ATM’s. This is where you’ll buy an Oyster card using your debit or credit card. US credit cards may require a signature. Grab a TFL employee for help if you need to.
- You can buy the card in any amount and then continually “top it up” as needed. If you’re in London for a week or more, start with £20. You can use these machines to check your balance too. Just swipe your card against the magnetic disc at the turnstiles or at the ticket machine.
- Each time you go through a turnstile, swipe the card against the card reader disc to open the gate. You’ll swipe again as you leave your destination station. Make sure to swipe to “close out” each leg of your journey otherwise you’ll be charged for a full day.
- Get a little map of the Tube when you first get to London (you should find them in the stations, just ask) or store one on your phone.
- I recommend carrying a small street map which shows the Tube stations AND streets so you can plan your route. I used the map from my Frommer’s London Day by Day guide.
Buying Train/ Rail tickets for Travel In and Around London
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.
There will be bank of ticket machines clearly marked for ticket pickup. Keep the CC you used to buy handy, you’ll need it to collect. Tap on Collect Prepaid Tickets and swipe your CC (it won’t be charged again it’s just an identifier) and key in the reservation number from your ticket. If available, select the e-ticket option when you buy. Then you just download and store it in Apple Wallet.
- You get the best deals a few months in advance on Trainline. Routes typically aren’t offered up more than 3-6 months in advance. For example, I booked a one way ticket for £5. from London to Brighton in January for travel in March. If I’d booked it as close as a week ahead that same ticket would have been £20+.
- In the UK, tickets are released 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. A single or one way ticket can be as much or more expensive than a round trip
Transportation Signage In and Around London
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 services. You may find yourself needing to get from one rail station to the other. Your options will be by tube, bus or taxi. Unless you have a lot of luggage I would recommend the tube. If not, 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 around 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
These are my personal recommendations based on my own travel experiences. I know there’s a lot to take in when discovering the best way to get around central London. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to ask in the comments, I’m happy to help!
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