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Airport Guide: London Heathrow Airport

By John Walton     Filed under: london, Heathrow, heathrow airport, airport guide

The latest stop in our series of 'need to know' airport guide for the business traveller is London Heathrow, one of the world's busiest airports -- and a candidate for one of its worst.

The basics

London Heathrow (LHR) is the UK's primary international airport and a major European transit hub. You're likely to fly here if you're heading to the UK or connecting to Europe.

Qantas delivers most of its Europe-bound passengers to Heathrow, to be distributed around the continent by British Airways flights.

Heathrow is on the site of an old village (called Heath Row, hence the name), 22km west of Central London.

There's no free airport-provided wifi, and the paid networks are a pain to deal with. Our tip: wait until you're in the airline lounge and use theirs.

Apps

There's a free Heathrow Airport Guide mobile app available for iPhoneAndroid and BlackBerry smartphones. It includes live flight updates, terminal maps, shop and restaurant listings, an 'airport journey planner' plus flight timetables for every airline.

You can also get the latest from Heathrow on Twitter.

Major airlines

It's a rare airline that doesn't fly into Heathrow.

British Airways spills over from its Terminal 5 hub into Terminal 3, which is the home to BA and Qantas' Australian flights, plus most other oneworld airlines.

Other airlines with connections from Australia include: Air China, Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacific, China Eastern, China Southern, Emirates, Etihad, Japan Airlines, Korean Air, Malaysia Airlines, Qatar Airways, Royal Brunei, Singapore Airlines, Thai, United and Virgin Atlantic.

Layout, terminals and connections

Overall, Heathrow is a horrible outdated nightmare that mostly deserves its reputation as one of the world's worst airports, made only slightly better with the construction of the 2008-era Terminal 5.

Heathrow has five terminals, but terminal 2 has been knocked down and is being rebuilt, hopefully to re-open in 2014. T1 will then be demolished as a T2 extension. 

T1, the under-construction T2 and T3 are in a central cluster connected by a labyrinthine series of dismal underground walkways before security and airport buses after security. T4 and T5 are stuck out across the airport. To connect to them once you've passed through security, use either the Heathrow Express, the London Underground (Tube) or a local bus.

Most Heathrow hotels sit on or near the Bath Road on the north side of the airport, with the notable exceptions of the Sofitel at T5, the Hilton at T4 and the "T5" Hilton that's a fairly long bus ride away. Get to all airport hotels by taxi or using the overpriced and dreadful "Hotel Hoppa" bus system. 

Connecting at Heathrow is fine if you're in the same terminal but a pain if you're changing terminals -- as most passengers to and from Australia will be. Try to avoid legally entering the UK if you can and head for the signs marked Flight Connections on your arrival.

That way you'll be able to take the "airside" transfer bus without passing through immigration and customs while your bag makes its way magically (and hopefully unmolested by the "Thiefrow" lot) to your connecting flight.  

For detailed information and locating, check out the airport's maps page.

Airlines by terminal

If you're unsure, check the airport's Which Terminal? page.

As a general idea:

T1: Some Star Alliance, Aer Lingus and BMI

T3: Some Star Alliance, Virgin Atlantic, oneworld (not Iberia), Qantas, British Airways to Australia (and a few other destinations)

T4: SkyTeam, some United flights (ex-Continental)

T5: British Airways (note: some flights use T3), Iberia

Airline Lounges by terminal

We've rounded up our pick of the business class lounges in Heathrow by terminal:

T1: You're likely flying Star Alliance. Pick the top-notch BMI Great British Lounge over the dreary Star Alliance Gold lounge.

T3: Virgin Atlantic's Clubhouse is a top pick. Emirates' lounge is an excellent option. If flying oneworld, pick Cathay Pacific's lounge -- we've reviewed all the oneworld lounges in T3 and Cathay's is the best.

T4: Since T4 is the home for SkyTeam airlines, head into the shared SkyTeam lounge or your airline's own lounge if they don't use SkyTeam's.

T5: It's all BA all the time here. Pick the main lounges as a general rule, although if your flight is departing from the T5 satellite terminals (T5B or T5C) consider heading there if (but only if) the main lounge is busy.

Hotels

Most Heathrow hotels sit on (or north of) the Bath Road on the north side of the airport, with the notable exceptions of the Sofitel at T5, the Yotel at T4, the Hilton at T4 and the "T5" Hilton that's an annoying long bus ride away.

The T5 Sofitel and the T4 Hilton are great, but we have yet to be truly impressed by any other Heathrow hotels. (Got any recommendations? Share your experiences with other readers in a comment at the bottom of this article.)

Get to all airport hotels by taxi or using the overpriced and dreadful "Hotel Hoppa" bus system. 

To and from the airport

Always check whether the London public transport you're planning to use is in the middle of engineering works when you need to use it -- especially at weekends and on a Monday morning.

Here's the rundown of the best ways to get to and from Heathrow.

Heathrow Express train: around twenty minutes from all terminals into Central London's Paddington station -- but for a price (18 GBP one-way online, 19 GBP one-way at the station, or £34 GBP return no matter where you buy it). Good if you're heading to Paddington, but connecting from there is a pain. It has an app (iTunes | Android | BlackBerry) with arrivals, departures, maps, security info and London travel information.

London Underground (the Tube): forty-five minutes on the Piccadilly Line, with several stops in central London. Relatively inexpensive  but a bad idea with luggage or at rush-hour. You'll want a Zones 1-6 ticket to head into Central London, which is 5.30 GBP in cash, 4.80 GBP during peak times (0600-0930 and 1600-1900) with an Oyster card or 2.90 GBP during off peak times with an Oyster card. More fare info from the Transport for London fares page, or check out our article on the Oyster card for a backgrounder.

Taxis: black cab and private hire "minicab": London has two sorts of cab: the iconic black ones, which are now usually wrapped in advertising colours, and regular car-shaped ones called minicabs. You'll probably get a black cab into town, which promises a driver who knows where you're going (there's a famous exam called The Knowledge, so it's a decent promise) and a decent standard of car. Minicabs are a bit more pot-luck. London's largest firm is Addison Lee, which some travellers swear by and others swear at. It's usually cheaper but less reliable and easy-to-use than a black cab. 

Heathrow Connect train: runs along most of the same tracks as the Heathrow Express, but doesn't reach terminals 4 or 5. A free transfer on the Heathrow Express from the same platforms at Heathrow is available, though.

Coach/bus: unless you're heading straight to the Victoria area of London, skip the idea of taking the bus to the Victoria Coach station -- it's only £5 but it's a pain. Only Oxford and Reading make some sense for the coach, and only if you're already at the central T1-T3 coach station area (plus T5 for Oxford).

For more information and further links, check out the airport's "transport and directions" page.

Insider tips and tricks

  • Heading for Heathrow on business this summer? Check out the worst dates to fly before and after the Olympics -- and what to expect.
  • On arrival you can pick up a local SIM card for your phone or tablet from several networks, many of which have kiosks or shops in the various terminals. We recommend going straight to the five big networks (in alphabetical order: 3, O2, Orange, T-Mobile, Vodafone), whose deals tend to be much of a muchness, although 3 usually has the best data plans.
  • Heathrow's "Thiefrow" label is mostly undeserved these days, but it tends to be an airport where we make sure our bags are locked properly even so. 
  • In Terminal 3, the buy-your-way-in No1 Traveller lounge isn't an especially good deal compared with the airline lounges, but if you aren't in business and don't have lounge-access status, you might appreciate the lounge if the terminal's busy. 
  • Most terminals have one (or, frequently, more) outlets of Boots, a chemist/pharmacy that also sells very reasonably priced sandwich-drink-etc-style meal deals. Consider picking up something if flying to Europe or in long-haul economy. Marks & Spencer just outside Terminal 5's arrivals hall is a good choice too. 
  • Want to reclaim the UK government's GST equivalent, VAT, on your purchases? Here's how the VAT reclaim system works.
  • If you're passing through T5, consider eating at the terminal-side Sofitel's restaurant, La Belle Epoque -- it's great food and you can drop your luggage off at check-in before heading over for a bite.
  • Also at Terminal 5, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay's Plane Food restaurant is another pick if you're not a fan of the British Airways lounges (or don't have BA or equivalent Qantas/other oneworld status)
  • The Terminal 4 Hilton is a perennial favourite among travellers, with a walkway connecting you to T4 and a popular Chinese-Thai restaurant. The T5 Hilton, however, is nowhere near Terminal 5 and requires a bus connection.
  • Terminal 5 passengers needing an overnight hotel stay should hit the Sofitel connected to the terminal by a walkway

AusBT reader tips

If you're a frequent victim traveller at Heathrow, or even if you've just discovered a nifty trick about the place, now's your chance to share your insider knowledge with other AusBT readers.

Leave a comment below or join the conversation on Twitter: we're @AusBT.

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About John Walton

Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.

 

Have something to say? Post a comment now!

1 on 19/4/12 by Ksmith

Regarding hotels, if the one you're staying at is on Bath Road, then don't bother with taxis or the hoppa buses.

From T1 or T3 it's a very short walk through one of the underground walkways to Heathrow Central Bus Station, and from there you can then get a free ride on any regular London bus service within the 'free travel zone', which covers most of the main airport hotels along Bath Road (the Ramada and the Travelodge are just outside this free travel zone, but the likes of Mariott, Sheraton, Ibis, Radisson, Renaissance, Park Inn, and two Holiday Inns are all within it). There is a bus every couple of minutes during the day, and even at night there are several buses each running every 10 minutes. These are not only cheaper and more frequent than the hoppa buses, but usually faster too since they don't divert round every hotel. With bus stops every few hundred yards along Bath Road, you'll not have to walk far.

Connections to T4 or T5 are less frequent, but still available for free.

If travelling with a partner this can easily save you £16 in hoppa bus fares, if not far more in taxi fares. For the sake of a couple of minutes walking, that has to be worth it.

1 on 20/4/12 by John

Ksmith, I sometimes do that if travelling alone -- and only if I weren't jetlagged. (In fact, these buses aren't just cheaper and more frequent, but absolutely free within the radius of pretty much all the Heathrow hotels!) 

Doing it for the first time is a bit of a pain, though -- I know the Renaissance in particular has a very convenient westbound stop but the eastbound one is further away.

It's a no for me if you have anything more than a rolling carry-on too -- and certainly a no if there's more than one of you, when a taxi works out much better in terms of unit cost!

All in all, I reckoned that it was a little bit too much for the business traveller to deal with. If price is that important, the budget probably means taking the Tube into town and staying in Earls Court or somewhere anyway.

2 on 19/4/12 by Rufus

Especially if you've just missed a Heathrow Express, the Heathrow connect is only marginally slower and about a third the price.

I haven't been through Terminals 3 and 4 for a while, but I'm in 1 and 5 a lot.  It's a bit unfair to describe them as a "horrible outdated nightmare".  T1 can be a bit of a labyrinth, but the only thing you can say against T5 is it's a bit of a pain if you have to get the train to the B or C satellite, and the north lounge (business and first) is a bit of a hike from security.  Oh, that - and the fact that you're subjected to the Spanish Inquisition coming through immigration.  And you can stand in the immigration queue for half an hour.  And your luggage can take an eternity to appear. 

OK, maybe it is horrible after all...

1 on 20/4/12 by John

See, I've spent what feels like half my life in Heathrow. And there are corners that are great: I really like the BMI Great British Lounge in T1, Virgin's premium entry and Clubhouse in T3, BA's T5 lounges (though the enforced shopping trip is a real pain), and the SkyTeam T4 lounge is a great idea.

But apart from T5, they're ancient, dark, overcrowded, miserable terminals that are ten years past the knocking-down stage.

(And T5's "fast track" security I'll take umbrage with, and the enforced shopping trip, and the fact that you STILL queue forever getting to the border patrol, and that the luggage takes FOREVER, and...)

 

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