Travel and Fashion Writer Evelyn Franklin gives us the low down this week on one of the world’s busiest airports, and how to navigate its complex organised chaos
It can be an oasis in the desert or your worst nightmare but, at some point, you will likely encounter Heathrow Airport. It is the world’s busiest international airport serving more than 90 airlines and over 70 million passengers annually. It is also a major gateway to Europe, the United Kingdom, and of course, London. But depending which terminal you are funneled through, your experience could range from bearable to utterly tedious or even just plain ridiculous. For any that have used it, it should come as no surprise why it’s often rated one of the world’s most hated airports.
With horribly long walks to boarding gates and lengthy lines at security and border control, passengers might just find themselves taking a longer time to navigate their way out of Heathrow than it would take to fly to Spain. The airport suffers from a chronic inability to cope with the masses of travelers. The city of London is served by four other major airports including Stansted, Gatwick, Luton, and London City. But if you find yourself on a flight bound for Heathrow from one of the more than 180 destinations in 90 countries that is directly connected to the airport, we’ve got a few tips for you to help suppress any notions of air rage.
Understanding Heathrow: Know Your Terminals
Heathrow Airport is practically a city unto itself with four different terminals and a fifth on the way scheduled to open this June. Because of its vast size, security requirements, and that development has failed to keep pace with growth, the airport has earned a reputation for being overcrowded, inefficient, and full of delays. The airport operates at 99 percent capacity on a daily basis with a take-off or landing every forty-five seconds. The airlines at Heathrow seem to enjoy playing a constant game of “musical terminals” as they continuously shift operations from one terminal to another. As a passenger, you are advised to check the Heathrow website for the latest terminal updates and information. The long-term plan is to dedicate a specific terminal to each of the airline alliances in order to minimize the number of connecting passengers that will need to change terminals. The airport has uniformed volunteers in pink attire to assist travelers navigating the airport.
Top Travel Tips for Heathrow Airport
- Family-Friendly Travel: If you are travelling with children, Heathrow offers special security lanes with staff that are specially trained to work with less experienced flyers and able to accommodate families with strollers as indicated by the rainbow symbol above the detectors.
- Power Naps: If your connecting flight is delayed or you have a long layover and need a couple of hours of sleep, Heathrow offers a couple of options for travelers that need a few hours of shut-eye. Single bedrooms can be rented at the No. 1 Traveller and Yotel for a modest amount.
- Central London in a Rush: If you need to reach the city center in a hurry, the Heathrow Express train can get you to Paddington Station in just fifteen minutes for about £25. It’s an express train with no stops along the way.
- Save Cash on the Tube: It will take nearly an hour to reach central London on the Underground but it is one of the best deals in town at just £6 off-peak to anywhere in London that is served on the network. The biggest battle will be the lack of space for luggage.
- Stay Charged: All travelers like to keep their mobile phones and laptops fully charged for the journey ahead but few airports were built with that in mind. If you find yourself in a part of Heathrow that lacks power sockets, search for any sockets hidden in the floor that are typically used by cleaning staff. Alternatively, you could also bring along an adapter that converts one socket into two so that you can share outlets with other passengers.
- Beat the Security Lines: Unlike in the United States, you don’t need to present a boarding pass while passing through the metal detectors. You also don’t need to remove your laptop but be prepared to place all loose items in a tray and don’t travel with liquids.
- Eat Before You Go: Depending which terminal you are in, Heathrow offers a wide range of dining options. However, they also come at a price. You would be much better to pick up a sandwich for a pound or two at a convenience store to eat on the way.
Getting Through Passport Control
The long lines to cross the UK Border can often give passengers additional time to finish those last few chapters on their Kindle that they couldn’t finish on the flight. Frequent flyers to London know that this is to be expected as immigration officers grill passengers with five to ten questions about their intentions in the UK. If you want this process to go smoothly and quickly, there are a few things that you should know:
- Always carry proof of a return flight out of the country as you may be asked to produce one by the officer. If you do not have one ready, you may need to go through the tedious process of getting your airline to do it for you which will mean proceeding through security and into the long passport line for a second time.
- Know where you are staying as it must be written onto your entry form and the border officers may ask you where you plan to reside while in the United Kingdom. That means you should not head to London without a hotel booking. Memorize the name and the street of the hotel or carry a copy of your hotel reservation with you.
- Be able to converse in English because if you are unable to competently answer the questions posed by the immigration officer, you could be automatically diverted to another line for additional questioning and potential rejection.
Flying Out of Heathrow
If you are headed to the airport to board your return flight out of Heathrow or if you are one of the lucky folks that managed to grab a hot last minute deal on a cheap flight from London, you should be prepared to navigate Heathrow if you want your journey to get off to a seamless start. As Heathrow is an incredibly large airport, it is important to know your terminal before you depart and to allow sufficient time to check-in, get through security, and travel to your boarding gate. The recommended check-in time is typically at least three hours prior to departure. However, some passengers have reported waiting in line for up to 1.5 hours just to receive boarding cards. If you would like to save time, try to check-in online and print your own boarding card if your airline offers this service. You will also want to ensure that you are wearing comfortable walking shoes for the lengthy journey ahead.
If you are a foreign tourist and planning to take advantage of the VAT Refund, you will need to present your goods purchased and the necessary forms to UK Customs prior to checking in your luggage. You should consider whether it is worth it prior to jumping in line as some queues can take over an hour. Once you have cleared check-in and security, you can proceed to the departure lounge. It is here that you will find the majority of shops and dining outlets. You can purchase items here to bring on the aircraft with you. Take note that there are few if any shops near the boarding gates so you will want to ensure that you complete your shopping before leaving the departure lounge to avoid a lengthy walk back and forth. Some gates can take as much as forty minutes to reach and boarding commonly starts forty-five minutes prior to departure so you will need to allow yourself plenty of time otherwise you risk being left behind. Be prepared for one last line to check your boarding card before being permitted entry into the boarding lounge.
Additional Gateways to London
Heathrow’s central location makes it a convenient airport for many travelers. But if you have the opportunity to use one of London’s alternate airports, it may be a worthwhile choice that can save you a lot of time, hassle, and even money depending where you are headed in the United Kingdom. Gatwick and Stansted Airport are not nearly as busy as Heathrow and are home to less expensive charter flights. In addition, you will enjoy less congestion, shorter walks, and faster security lines. While the number of connections to London aren’t as abundant, there is always a direct link by train to the city.