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.
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.
There's a free Heathrow Airport Guide mobile app available for iPhone, Android 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.
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Overall, Heathrow is a horrible outdated nightmare that mostly deserves its reputation as one of the world's worst airports, made only slightly better with the construction of the 2008-era Terminal 5.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.
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.
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.