Adding London to your list of must-see destinations is a no-brainer; between the theater, the food, the free museums, and all the royal family-related activities, this is a place travelers don’t want to pass on. But getting to London properly can be tricky; the British capital has six major airports for travelers to choose from. London Heathrow is the most popular of these six, but it isn’t always the best choice depending on your ability to cope with crowds and your lodging location. Before you book your flights, make sure you weigh your options carefully by checking out this practical guide to all the airports in London.
1. London Heathrow (LHR)
Heathrow is London’s biggest and most popular airport. It serves about 90 airlines, and it offers transportation to and from 185 destinations in 90 countries. It consists of four passenger terminals (numbered 2 to 5), which are interconnected via a series of underground trams.
Due to the sheer size of this airport, there are often long lines in customs for international travelers. If crowds aren’t your thing, or if you’re the type who only arrives one hour before boarding an international flight and likes to make a speedy exit, this may not be the best choice for you.
Heathrow is located about 15 miles west of central London, and it is connected to the city by both the subway (Piccadilly line) and the national rail services (Heathrow Express to Paddington Station). The fares for either of these methods can vary dramatically, depending on the time of day and method of payment. For instance, the Heathrow Express costs £22 ($28.50) during off-peak times and £25 ($32.39) during peak times. However, you can sometimes book tickets online at reduced rates — for as low as £5.50 ($7.15) on weekends and £12.10 ($15.70) on weekdays. If you know exactly where you would like to arrive in London, you can use the transportation website’s single fare finder to determine the cost of a ticket — overground, bus, or subway — to your destination.
The Piccadilly tube line is a great transportation option for many central destinations like Piccadilly Circus and Covent Garden, as well as neighborhoods in the West End (such as South Kensington). The Heathrow Express is ideal if you are staying in the Paddington or Bayswater areas, which are located just above Hyde Park.
2. London Gatwick (LGW)
London Gatwick is 29 miles directly south of central London. This airport has two terminals, North and South, and it offers regular services for over 55 different airlines. It is the primary airport used by EasyJet for transportation to and from London, so if you’re traveling on a budget, this may be the best airport for you.
Gatwick is generally less crowded than Heathrow so there is a reduced risk for long border control queues. If you’re pressed for time, or if you simply hate waiting in lines, you can also pay £9.99 ($13) in advance for Gatwick’s Premium Passport control service, which guarantees you expedited entry in a lane that is limited to 50 travelers per hour.
Gatwick is connected to London via the national rail service on the Thameslink line. Tickets between Gatwick and central London are £15.50 ($20.10) during peak times (weekdays between 6:30 AM and 9:30 AM), and £8.50 ($11) for off-peak times and weekends. You need an Oyster card for these tickets, which you can purchase at any of the checker windows in the Gatwick airport rail station. The Thameslink is a great option if you are staying near London Bridge in the Southwark neighborhood (exit the train at London Bridge), or if you are staying near St. Paul’s Cathedral (exit the train at the Blackfriars stop or City Thameslink stop).
Additionally, the Gatwick Express runs directly between Gatwick and London Victoria Station. These trains run approximately four times an hour, and prices start at about £17.80 ($23) for a single fare. This is a good option if you are staying near Westminster and St. James’s Park.
3. London City (LCY)
London City Airport is the closest to the city of London, just seven miles east of the center. This is a relatively small airport, and it currently only serves 10 airlines. London City is mainly used by business travelers, as it is close to the London Docklands and financial district. However, it is steadily gaining traction as an airport for leisure travelers, as it recently opened routes to coastal destinations such as Málaga, Spain. London City is busiest during the winter months, because two of its main airlines — British Airways and Swiss — fly to ski resort destinations such as Zurich and Geneva in Switzerland.
If you are able to find an airline ticket to London City for your trip, this airport is difficult to beat in terms of its simplicity and ease of access. It is serviced by the DLR (Docklands Light Railway), which has easy connections to the Jubilee, Central, District, and Circle lines. This means you can easily reach any destination or neighborhood in London. Plus, you are less likely to be bogged down by crowds and long customs lines.
4. London Luton (LTN)
London Luton Airport is located approximately 28 miles north of central London. It serves about 20 airlines, and it offers flights to around 85 destinations. Most of Luton’s airlines are low cost, and it serves as a base for EasyJet, Ryanair, and Wizz. Like Gatwick, this airport may be a good option for budget travelers.
Luton is connected to London by the National Express railway. Tickets between Luton and Finchley Road Station in northern London cost £11 ($14.35), and the ride lasts approximately one hour. Finchley Road Station is a bit far from central London, but this is a convenient stop if you’re staying in Camden Town, Primrose Hill, or Swiss Cottage. Each of these neighborhoods is within 20 minutes by bus or tube from the train station.
5. London Stansted (STN)
London Stansted Airport is a bit out of the way, as it is located 42 miles northeast of central London. There are about 20 airlines flying in and out of Stansted Airport, and they offer services to around 150 destinations.
Stansted is connected to the city via the Stansted Express service on the Greater Anglia line. The total journey time from Liverpool Street Station is about 45 minutes, and it costs £19.40 ($25.25). Liverpool Street Station is close to the Shoreditch neighborhood, as well as other trendy locations like Brick Lane and Spitalfields Market in London’s East End.
6. London Southend (SEN)
London Southend Airport sits about 36 miles east of the city center. This is the smallest of London’s six international airports, but it has repeatedly won awards that claim it is “London’s best airport” due to its friendly customer service, short queues, and clean facilities. London Southend mainly serves as a hub for low-cost airlines such as EasyJet, Ryanair, and Wizz.
The only thing working against London Southend is its distance from central London. Southend is connected to the city via the Greater Anglia rail line. The total journey time from Liverpool Street Station is one hour, and it costs £17.80 ($22.70). Liverpool Street Station is close to the Shoreditch neighborhood, Brick Lane, and Spitalfields Market. If you don’t mind the extra travel time and are staying in the East End, London Southend might be a good, stress-free flying experience for you.