The metropolitan area of London is served by six international airports. They make the busiest airport system in the world by passenger numbers and they are second only to Beijing by aircraft movements.
So, it is very easy that the question “Which airport should I use?” pops up if you are planning to visit London.
We will discuss them under 4 aspects:
3. Passport control
4. Overall rating
This below is a map of London metropolitan area with the airport marked on it
It is clearly visible that most of the so-called London airports are, in reality, not in London. In fact, only London City and Heathrow are actually located in Greater London.
As we have seen above, a long commuting between the airport and the city is something that cannot be avoided in London. But how long does it take to get to/from the airport?
The table below contains the average commuting times between the airports and some main spot in the city:
In details, the public transport from/to the airports are as below:
London City airport
It is served by the DLR (Dockland Light Rail). The station is directly linked to the airport, practically, the station is an extension of the airport.
The DLR is connected to multiple Tube stations, the main being Bank and Stratford, respectively 20 and 15 minutes away with no changes needed.
The cost is the same as a normal journey on the Tube, so, around £3.30 for one-way to Bank and £1.70 to Stratford.
Heathrow is served by 3 Tube station of the Piccadilly line. All the trains stop at “Terminal 2&3” but not all will stop at “Terminal 4” or “Terminal 5”, as they are two separate branches. A Journey to Piccadilly Circus will take about 50 minutes and would cost £3.10 off-peak and £5.10 at peak time.
An alternative to the Tube is the Heathrow Express that connects Heathrow Terminal 2&3 to Paddington station in about 15 minutes. The cost is £25.00 one way and £37.00 for a return ticket.
London Gatwick is served by Thameslink and Southern rail. The train station is located in the South terminal. There is a shuttle train between the North terminal and the South terminal.
The cost is £16.20 to Waterloo and Victoria. Gatwick Express takes a few minute less to get to Victoria but the price is £19.90 (not worth the price difference).
London Stansted is served by Greater Anglia train and National Express coaches.
The train station is located just below the terminal and connects the airport to Liverpool street in about 55 minutes with a cost of £17.00 one way and £29.00 for a return ticket.
The National Express coach stop is located outside the terminal and connects the airport to Stratford station and Liverpool street station respectively in about 50 and 75 minutes. The cost for the ticket is £12.00 one way and £17.00 return. A very good point for the coach is that they travel also during the night, so it is ideal for an early morning or late night flight.
Luton airport is served by East Midlands Trains and Thameslink for what concerns the rail; National Express for coaches.
The train station is located 4Km away from the airport terminal. A shuttle between the rail station and the airport is in service and the price for it is included in the train ticket ONLY if your destination or departing station is “Luton airport”.
The ticket from Luton Airport to London St Pancras costs £16.90 one way and £29.60 return. It takes about 50 minutes including the shuttle.
The alternative to the train is the National Express coach that brings you from the terminal to different stops in London, finishing its journey at the Victoria Coach station.
The cost for the ticket is £12.00 one way and £18.00 return. The journey takes about 75 minutes.
The only way to get to Southend airport with public transport is with a Greater Anglia train. It takes about 45 minutes for a journey from Southend Airport station (5 minutes walking from the terminal) to Stratford station. The price for a single ticket is £13.60, the return costs £25.00, although it is possible to find some limited tickets for as little as £5.00 one way.
As a couple who travels quite often, the passport control at the airport is one of the most painful moment, especially considering the fact that we need to use the non-EU queue.
It is a tiny airport and as consequence it is never very busy. This means speedy passport control.
The average time for EU/EEA passport check is about 15 minutes, considering also the presence of eGates. The time jumps up to 40 minutes if you are a non-EU passport holder.
Our worst experience has been a waiting of over 1 hour, with the very annoying experience of seeing people passing in front of us because the UK has agreements with some countries for a “maximum waiting time”.
The queue in Gatwick has never been very bad. We used this airport a lot of times and we can say that excluding some exceptional cases, the non-EU queue has been quite fast, about 25 minutes on average. Our worst experience has been about 40/45 minutes.
For EEA passport holders, I have seen sometimes a 0 minutes queue, meaning that people walked directly to the eGate and passed through it straight forward. The average time though is around 5 minutes.
London gatwick also has a Premium service for the cost of £7.00. We have never tried it, but it may be worth if your plane lands at peak time and you are in a hurry. It must be pre-booked though. More infos here: Premium Passport Control
On a ‘normal’ day the average waiting times are about 25/30 minutes for non-EU passport, 20 minutes for EU passport and 10 minutes for eGates.
This is by far the worst. Passport control in Luton is literally a nightmare if you need to use the non-EU passport queue. It takes at least 45 minutes to be done and most of the times we have waited over 1 hour. It seems like the priority at this airport is to serve EEA passport holders. There are usually only 1 or 2 Border Force Officer(s) for the non-EU queue, with other picking up if and when the EEA queue is empty.
The average time is 55 minutes for non-EU and 15 minutes for EU.
We used this airport only once and the passport control was fast. It took us no more than 20 minutes in the non-EU queue. We also need to say that we arrived with a late night flight, so this may have played a role in the short queue.
This is usually considered a business airport. The reason is the fact that the airport is mainly used by flag carriers, with FlyBe being the only low-cost company. It is difficult then to prefer it because of the costs of the flights, but for some special offer it is a quite good choice.
Overall this is a very small airport and as so, there are not really many amenities.
Vote: 3 out of 5
If you are flying long-haul, you are very likely going to use this airport. This is a massive airport with 4 terminals and for this reason you should always allow a bit more time than usual.
Overall the terminals are well connected with bus/shuttle and the tube, so if you need to move between terminals for some reason, that is not going to be a big issue.
This airport has some very high-end shops and restaurants, including Rolex, Cartier, Tiffany & Co. and major clothing brands. There is also the “Gordon Ramsay Plane food” at the Terminal 5, if really cannot compromise quality of food.
Vote: is 4 out of 5.
This airport is very likely the best London airport. It is not too big, it is not too far away from the city, it has long haul low cost flight and the security operations are almost always flawless.
Shopping in Gatwick is quite ‘standard’ with the usual UK shops and restaurants.
Vote: 4.5 out of 5
This airport is not very different to Luton, as it gives the same ‘sad’ feeling. One negative note for this one is also the fact that the security is usually slow, and I have to say that it is almost never airport staff’s fault. It could be the fact that this airport serves East and South European countries with a lot of people with a very poor English knowledge coming to visit their relative and slowing things down.
There is one main square in the terminal where restaurants and shops are located. Next to the square there is a shuttle-train that brings passengers to additional gates.
It is slightly better than Luton just because of Passport control being a bit better and the fact that the train is located just below the terminal.
Vote: 2 out of 5
This airport is a mess, starting with the fact that even just to drop-off or pick-up someone, you need to pay at least £3.00. Everytime we arrive at this airport there is never anything that makes us feel good, especially the idea of the passport control. When we are departing, it feels chaotic, like being at a construction site. This could be why mainly low cost company (Wizz Air, Ryanair and easyJet overall) flight to/from this airport.
Vote: 1.5 out of 5
This airport is an ok one. It is very small and the number of passengers is relatively small, this makes security operations quite fast. There is one main food place and a few small shops, not really much to do once in the gates area.
Vote: 3 out of 5