Everything you need to know about London’s 6 airports
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Large cities will often have more than one airport.
There might be a main international airport and a smaller, domestic/regional-only airport. London is so big that it actually has six official airports. They are located in very different parts of the city, serve different purposes and largely offer flights to differing destinations.
Note that the COVID-19 pandemic has seen many airlines temporarily cease operations from London airports altogether. This has also led to multi-terminal airports consolidating their operations into fewer terminals. Check with the airline or airport to determine if terminal and flight arrangements differ from the descriptions below.
Located 14 miles west of central London, Heathrow (LHR) is the busiest airport in the U.K., and one of the world’s most famous aviation hubs. This is where you are likely to land if you’re arriving on a long-haul flight into London on a full-service airline. Many foreign airlines only service Heathrow in London.
In normal times, the airport sees 80 million passengers pass through its four different active terminals (2 through to 5). Terminal 1 been decommissioned.
The terminals are split as follows:
- Terminal 2: Most Star Alliance airlines as well as Aer Lingus;
- Terminal 3: Most Oneworld airlines (including some British Airways flights), Virgin Atlantic, Delta and Emirates;
- Terminal 4: Most SkyTeam airlines, plus non-aligned Middle Eastern and Central Asian-based ones including Etihad and Qatar;
- Terminal 5: Most British Airways flights, plus Iberia. American Airlines has temporarily switched from T3 to T5 and may remain there permanently.
Check Heathrow’s website to see which terminal any other airline not listed here uses.
As a “full-service” airline airport, you can expect modern facilities with plenty of upmarket shops, duty-free and dining. Terminals 2 and 5 are quite new and very modern. There are also dozens of luxurious airport lounges operated by various airlines, as well as independent lounges welcoming paid entry and members of Priority Pass. With the number of passengers Heathrow processes each day, outbound security is usually very efficient, though you may experience very long immigration wait times at Heathrow if you cannot access the eGates.
Transport: The Heathrow Express connects you directly with Paddington in central London in 15 minutes. A cheaper, slower journey can also be taken on the Picadilly line Tube service into the city. The Tube makes three stops at Heathrow — Terminals 2/3, Terminal 4 and Terminal 5. Make sure you get off at the correct stop, as it can be time-consuming to switch between terminals otherwise.
Buses and taxis will take around an hour to reach the city center, depending on where you are headed.
Heathrow is particularly convenient if you are living or staying west of the city because of its location. Many international travelers dislike Heathrow, especially for its complex, unglamorous terminal transfers. For me, noting the long journey west, once you are at Heathrow, it’s quite an efficient and modern operation. I especially like Terminal 2.
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Long regarded as London’s second airport, Gatwick now sees a mix of full-service carriers like Virgin Atlantic, Emirates and China Airlines and those low-cost carriers that can absorb the slightly higher landing fees than Stansted and Luton.
It’s located 24 miles south of London city center.
Pre COVID-19, both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic operated some long-haul flights from Gatwick, primarily to premium leisure destinations like Florida and the Caribbean. Gatwick is also home to Norwegian’s London operations, with short- and long-haul flights usually offered. Leisure operators like TUI operate from Gatwick to “summer sun” destinations in southern Europe.
With slots at Heathrow so scarce, some airlines used Gatwick to operate extra flights to London where they cannot manage extra services into Heathrow. The likes of Qatar Airways and Cathay Pacific have operated this dual Heathrow plus Gatwick operation.
There are plenty of flights to short-haul leisure destinations from Gatwick — EasyJet has its largest U.K. base at the airport.
The airport has two terminals — North and South — and there is a free shuttle service between them. British Airways, Norwegian, TUI and Vueling are among the major airlines in the South Terminal. EasyJet, Emirates, Virgin Atlantic and WestJet are major airlines in the North Terminal.
There are numerous lounges there, both airline-run and independent.
Transport: You can take the Gatwick Express to Victoria station in central London in just under 30 minutes. Note that the National Rail service takes only around five minutes longer but is cheaper if you aren’t in a hurry. Depending on traffic, a bus or cab will take around 80 to 90 minutes depending on where in the city you are traveling to.
If you’re staying south of the Thames, Gatwick is a good location for your airport of choice. Servicing so many leisure destinations, Gatwick can become extremely crowded in summer, as a huge amount of people pass through various bottlenecks. There are a number of facilities in both terminals, and I especially like the new British Airways lounge at Gatwick. It can also be a long walk from security to some of the farthest gates.
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By far the closest airport geographically to central London, just seven miles from the center, tiny London City Airport has traditionally connected business travelers located in nearby Canary Wharf with European business hubs like Zurich (ZHR), Frankfurt (FRA) and Amsterdam (AMS). The now-discontinued BA1 all-business-class service to New York (JFK) also operated from the airport until recently.
The airport has also commenced services to some leisure destinations, particularly on weekends when there is less demand for business travel. Note that the airport is closed for flights between 1 p.m. Saturday and 12:30 p.m. Sunday to give some noise relief to local residents.
With all flights located in a small single terminal, it’s an airport designed to spend as little time in as possible. You can check-in as late as 15 minutes before your flight and then take the short walk to your plane. There are no lounges at London City Airport.
Transport: Being so close to central London, there is no express transport option. You can take the Docklands Light Railway to Bank in just 20 minutes where you can connect to various places across Greater London. By car or bus, you’re looking at just a 30- to 40-minute journey, depending on traffic and where you’re headed.
If you’re anywhere near Canary Wharf or east London, then London City is ideal, but you will be limited with a small number of destinations.
If you’re an AvGeek and have the option of a flight to or from London City, it’s a really unique flying experience and feels really cool taking off and landing right in one of the world’s most famous cities. Without low-cost airlines operating there, you can expect to pay more for a flight than you would from the likes of Stansted and Luton.
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Located 42 miles north-east of the city in Stansted Mountfitchet, this low-cost airport is the largest base of European powerhouse Ryanair. Ryanair operates nonstop flights to well over 100 destinations from Stansted alone to popular cities like Barcelona (BCN), Lisbon (LIS), and Prague (PRG), through to lesser-known destinations like Kalamata (KLX), Trieste (TRS), Wroclaw (WRO) and La Rochelle (LRH).
Stansted is a true low-cost airport with very basic facilities. There’s only one lounge at the airport, the Escape Lounge, reflecting the fact the airport serves very few full-service airlines, though full-service carrier Emirates flies to Dubai (DXB). All flights depart from the one terminal building, though you can expect long walks to some gates.
Jet2 has also built sizable operations at Stansted — it operates to holiday destinations likes Spain, Portugal, Cyprus, Turkey, Greece and Italy.
Transport: There is no Tube service from Stansted, so you are forced onto the fairly expensive Stansted Express service if you are headed into Central London, which reaches Liverpool Street in around 50 minutes. You can expect a bus or cab ride to take 60 to 70 minutes, depending on traffic and where you’re headed.
If you are located north of the city, Stansted can be convenient. For most travelers, they tolerate the long journey to the airport in exchange for a very affordable ticket on a low-cost airline.
I’ve enjoyed some astonishingly cheap flights to and from Stansted thanks to Ryanair (I’m talking $13 a flight). The airport experience isn’t great though, I admit. I recommend leaving enough time to head to your gate, as some are a good 20-minute walk from security.
A true ultra-low-cost airport, this is probably the least pleasant airport experience as a passenger. There’s no train from London to the airport, you’ll have to take a frustrating shuttle bus from the local train station.
Wizz Air is now the king of Luton Airport, offering bargain-basement fares to all sorts of destinations in Eastern Europe, as well as some popular holiday destinations likes Spain, Greece, Portugal and others. If you’re looking to travel to lesser-known destinations in Eastern Europe like Kosovo or North Macedonia, Luton is a good place to look for cheap flights with Wizz.
EasyJet’s headquarters are located immediately next to the airport terminal, though it now has a much larger presence at the more premium Gatwick.
Luton has a couple of independent airport lounges, which can be accessed with Priority Pass.
Transport: There is no easy or quick way to get to or from Luton. You need to take a shuttle bus from the terminal to the local train station and then a 35-minute National Rail train into St Pancras. By road, it’s 60 to 70 minutes, depending on traffic and destination.
The main terminal at Luton has had a recent makeover to make it a more pleasant airport, but it’s still basically a big shed a very long way from London. This is only an airport to choose if you score an amazingly low price or you’re already well north of the city.
Located almost 36 miles east of London in Essex, you may see Southend missing from some lists of London airports. However, it is technically London Southend Airport (SEN) and has seen huge growth in the past few years as a low-cost alternative. Ryanair has been flying to an impressive number of destinations in mainland Europe from Southend, with Wizz also growing its services.
Southend saw around two million passengers in 2019 — less than half of the number at London City and a fraction of even Luton, which handled more than 16 million passengers for the same time period.
The advantage of flying into or out of Southend Airport is its size. It’s small, which means fewer passengers, queues and wait times than you can expect at a larger airport like Heathrow. The train station is a very short and easy walk from the terminal, and you’re likely to be checked in, through security and at your boarding gate with few steps.
With its random mix of destinations, it could make sense to choose Southend if you can get a great deal on a flight. Do note that any destination served from Southend is likely to already be served from Stansted and/or Gatwick, so choose carefully based on where you’re located.
The single terminal has one shared airport lounge, which can be accessed with Priority Pass.
Transport: There is no express train from Southend into central London, so you’ll need to spend almost an hour on a National Rail service to Liverpool Street. By car or bus, you’re looking at a journey of at least 70 minutes, depending on traffic and your destination in London.
While it takes a long time to travel to or from Southend, once you’re there, the experience is great as a passenger. It’s small, easy to navigate and efficient.
There’s no perfect airport in London.
If you’re flying long-haul into London, you’re likely to land at Heathrow (or maybe Gatwick). If you’re looking for a cheap flight to mainland Europe, you will be met with a dizzying array of options — many destinations will have flights from four or more London airports.
Heathrow, Gatwick and City are considered more premium passenger experiences, while Stansted, Luton, and Southend are very much budget terminals. Where you are going in central London (or coming from) should influence your choice of airport. If you’re located closer to one, it can make sense to choose an airport that might not be so premium and an airline you might not normally fly.
You could easily spend longer traveling to or from an airport than the length of the flight itself, so regardless of the airline or terminal, it makes a lot of sense to choose the airport the closest and easiest to get to. You might also spend more money traveling to or from the airport than the cost of your flight!
Featured photo by Mohd Syis Zulkipli/Shutterstock
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