Can I admit something? I hate flying. Most of my reasons are irrational, but among those that aren’t, I have pinpointed that my relationship with an airport is one of those things that can calm or break my stress levels while trying to catch a flight.
Over my many years flying into and out of London, I’ve come to learn that each airport has a distinct personality. The reality is that some of them welcome you with a cup of English tea and a warm scone, while others want you to get out as soon as possible.
So, I have compiled a guide to London’s six airports and ranked them from best-to-worst so you can plan your next London trip in a way that respects your travel-style and stress-levels.
Gatwick – “London’s unsung hero”
Gatwick is the only other serious contender to Heathrow as a true international airport hub. While Heathrow is the most traveled and most mentioned, no one takes the time to appreciate the many things that make Gatwick the best airport for travel in and out of London.
For starters, it has the second largest selection of airlines offering flights overseas and onto the European continent. Even better, you can get discount flights in and out of Gatwick with EasyJet, Ryanair, and other low cost airlines in Europe, while enjoying the amenities of a large international airport.
In terms of location and accessibility, the Gatwick Express only takes 30 minutes, non-stop, between the airport and London’s Victoria Station. If you are looking to save lots of money, you can take the coach services to and from the airport via Easybus and National Express.
The airport itself is pretty straightforward; with only two terminals (North and South) there’s not a lot of stress navigating the airport. When it comes to things to do, the North Terminal has much more going on than the South.
Hands down, Gatwick beats Heathrow when it comes to border control waiting times as it has a much more efficient system and a smaller passenger load.
In recent years Southern Railways have seen a series of strikes, which, if not planned around, could affect your trip.
Heathrow: “London’s airport metropolis”
Heathrow is the largest airport in the UK and one of the busiest airports in the world. While major budget airlines are mostly absent, Heathrow can get you anywhere you need to go.
The best thing about Heathrow is the array of travel options in getting there, in case transportation strikes, underground maintenance, or traffic jams happen occur. First, there is the Heathrow Express that will take you to/from the airport in 15 minutes non-stop and Heathrow Connect, which takes about 30 minutes with a few stops, with both operating out of Paddington Station.
All five Heathrow terminals are also accessible by the London Underground on the Piccadilly Line. To and from London city center, the journey takes around 50 minutes (expect more if during rush hour as the underground is packed).
The airport itself is huge. Make sure you know which terminal your flight is departing from as this could be detrimental to your stress levels. The airport has the luxuries of any other megalopolis central airport. Heathrow’s terminals 2 and 5, in particular, have been recently renovated and have spacious and abundant seating.
Heathrow’s major pitfall is its border control. Waiting queues can last from 45 minutes to 2 hours and this is considered normal. I feel compelled to advise that border agents do not care how long the wait is, as they are notoriously understaffed and overworked. At the end of the day, you want to get into the UK and not into the boxed off area where they place you if they find an issue.
If you take the Underground into London, buy an Oyster Card immediately. The fare will be higher than traveling within central London as you will be traveling across multiple fare zones and there is no flat rate coming from the airport.
London City: “The only airport in the city of London”
London City Airport is the only true airport within the city limits of London. Based near Canary Wharf, the airport serves mainly the business crowd. As a result, it is incredibly easy to get to and exceptionally efficient.
In terms of airline selections, there are really no budget airlines to choose from and the airlines based at London City are quite expensive. The airport is served by the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) which is a comfortable way to get to and from the airport to wherever you need to go in the city.
The best thing about London City isn’t the ease of transport so much as it is the accessibility of the airport because it is so small. Additionally, the people who usually utilize London City are experienced travelers so the atmosphere is quite calm.
While you aren’t likely to be waiting at the airport for long periods of time, the downside to traveling out of London City is the lack of seating available and things to do.
Domestic travel can even be a bit pricier but it’s worth considering given that you wouldn’t be paying train fares to travel to the airport.
Stansted – “Where customer service goes to die”
Stansted is, perhaps, the best of the budget airline airports (the others being Luton and Southend). The airport has recently streamlined itself which has increased efficiency.
Stansted is the capital of London’s budget airline community, which means a number of things, both good and bad. First, you can expect to find popular budget airlines at Stansted, like Ryanair, EasyJet, and WOW air, with lots of destinations to choose from.
However, transport to and from Stansted is limited and time consuming. The Stansted Express runs between Liverpool Street Station and normally takes around 45 minutes. Otherwise, the airport is served by National Express coaches that run 24/7.
Though there is only one terminal, the airport can be pretty stressful as many customers are battling with airline representatives over the fine print charges that come with budget airlines. As a result, you may find airline representatives at Stansted apathetic if your carry on bag is too heavy or too big.
Often carry on backpacks aren’t actually checked by gate agents for their weight and size.
Southend: “Are we still in London?”
I have a hard time calling Southend Airport “one of London’s airports.” It feels incredibly far away given that there is no sort of express service or streamlined way to access the airport. As a result, it’s one of the least mentioned of the city’s six airports.
In terms of airline selection, a handful of airlines operate out of Southend, including Easyjet, and Flybe (budget regional airline). As this small airport has its own train station, it has a rail connection to Liverpool Street Station in London, via Greater Anglia trains, which usually takes around 50 minutes. Otherwise, Southend is connected to London via the X30 bus.
Since this one-terminal airport is small and not very busy, it is closed during the night between 12am and 4am.
Luton: “Bring hand sanitizer”
Luton Airport, like its budget airport family, is best utilized for the purpose of lowering the cost of your trip. Easyjet, Ryanair, and Wizz AIr fly out of Luton, as do a number of other budget and charter airlines. Very inexpensive flights can be found out of Luton Airport.
The airport is connected to London through a 25-minute train journey from London St Pancras Station to Luton town station where you then board a shuttle to the airport. National Express buses are a more affordable option, but will take from 1-2 hours depending on London traffic.
The problem with Luton airport, that sets it apart from the other five, is its facilities. Common complaints about Luton center around its dirtiness and overcrowded halls. Moreover, for those sleeping over, there are reports that there are unusual characters walking around the airport at night.
Gatwick is the best airport in London
Given its accessibility, range of both budget and regular airlines, easy navigability, and shorter border control waiting times, this one is top of the list.
Heathrow is the UK’s gateway to the rest of the world
Be prepared to spend lots of time in Heathrow given how long it takes to travel to the airport, within the airport, and length of border control lines.
London City is small
This airport has expensive airline options, but is easy and efficient to use given its business-oriented vibe and central location.
Stansted is budget airline hub of London
The airport is easy enough to use but can be stressful given that budget airlines are strict in implementing fine print charges.
Southend is the smallest
Southend is a budget airline airport and the hardest to reach.
Luton has the worst reputation
Of the six airports, Luton has the worst reputation due to its poor facilities. However, it has some of the most affordable flights and is relatively accessible from central London.