Travel Tips

London's Heathrow Airport Guide: Tips to Enjoy Your London Layover

Filed Under: Airports, London

As a world hub, Heathrow Airport attracts more than 67 million passengers each year, a third of whom are just passing through on the way to somewhere else. Heathrow is therefore well-equipped to handle layovers and connecting flights at its 4 working terminals. Terminal 1 is mainly for domestic flights within the UK or to other European cities. Terminal 3 handles long-haul destinations, including Africa, Asia and the Middle East (as does Terminal 4), while Terminal 5 is exclusively for British Airways. Wherever you end up at Heathrow, here are some tips to make your layover more enjoyable.

Coming and Going
The most reliable way to get into London’s city center is to take either the Piccadilly line on the metro -- known as the Tube -- or the Heathrow Express train. The latter is best if you have a layover of less than 6 hours, but is substantially more costly than the Tube. Pick up a shuttle bus from just outside the various terminals if you wish to travel to nearby hotels. If you need to travel between terminals, walk between terminals 1 and 3 or use the free trains and buses to access terminals 4 and 5. If you want to go somewhere other than London it’s best to use a taxi.

The Overnighter
There are many hotels within and around Heathrow Airport, catering to all budgets. Yotel is a pod-style hotel situated within Terminal 4 and modeled after a first-class airline cabin. You can rent rooms by the hour, making it a good option if you have a layover and need to catch up on some sleep. If you need to stay overnight, then Sofitel Heathrow has direct access to Terminal 5; you can get there from other terminals via a courtesy train link. The Hilton is accessed by a covered walkway from Terminal 4. Cheaper options within 5 minutes of the airport include the Premier Inn and the Holiday Inn.

Day Tripping
If your layover is 6 hours or more, consider making a journey into town. The center of London is just an hour away on the Tube (or 15 minutes on the express train). By the Tube, consider places with direct access to the airport (any stop along the Piccadilly line). Try Knightsbridge to shop in Harrods or South Kensington for a walk around the Natural History Museum, Science Museum or V&A, museum of decorative arts. Covent Garden, with its shops and cafes, is on the Piccadilly line, as is Leicester Square, with its famous cinemas. Windsor, with its historic castle and the famous public school Eton College, is just a 20-minute taxi ride away, while the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, are about the same distance away in the opposite direction.

Killing Time
The terminals at Heathrow resemble giant shopping malls, and if you want some tax-free bargains, there are plenty of shops to distract you for a few hours. Shops at Terminal 3 include Glorious Britain for souvenirs; Burberry, Mulberry and Paul Smith for English fashion; and Smythson of Bond Street for luxury stationery. Restaurants include a caviar house and seafood bar, a TGI Friday’s steakhouse, Chez Gerard for French cuisine and a YO! Sushi. There are also cafes and coffee houses, including Starbucks, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts and UK-favorite: Pret A Manger. If you want to unwind, buy a day pass for the spa at the Sofitel hotel. (Steam room, sauna, Jacuzzi and gym are included in its facilities.) And if you fancy a blast of culture, check out the Terminal 5 Expo, an exhibition showcasing British artists, including sculptors, painters and photographers.

Going Mobile
There is no free wireless internet at Heathrow Airport. It instead provides Boingo, a pay-as-you-go wireless option. You will also find computers with wired internet connections at each terminal, but these also come with a charge. If you pay to access an executive lounge, however, you will have complimentary internet access. Airport Upgrades A recent investment of $160 million has improved the Terminal 3 experience. The check-in area has been extended and now has self-service kiosks, while the security area has also been enlarged to allow for easier movement through to the departure lounge.

Antonia Windsor is a London-based freelance journalist specializing in travel. Her work appears in the Guardian, the Observer, the Financial Times and various travel-related magazines. She is a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers.

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