Heathrow, a user guide
Heathrow (Airport code LHR) is my second least-favourite London airport. For those of you who are interested, London City (LCY) is by far the best of London's five airports. Gatwick comes second, but only because it is geographically close to my home. I rarely use London Luton, but the few times I have, it has been bad. I try to avoid Stansted at all costs. I fly reasonably often, so I use airports both for landing and/or take off somewhere between twenty and fifty times each year.
Overall, when Heathrow works, it's not a bad airport. It's big and it's busy, but the staff know how to deal with crowds and they have systems set up to deal with the constant flow of people and bags. The problem is that when a glitch happens, there are so many people coming through the airport that the glitch can quickly magnify into long delays for passengers.
* StrawberryFrog says, "Heathrow's runways are said to operate at 98 percent of capacity, so you can appreciate that if there is any delay, there are going to be knock-ons for the rest of the day. "
The main drawbacks of Heathrow are due to the size of the place and the number of travellers trying to get through an airport which started as a prefabricated shed on a green field west of London. First, then is the time taken to get through the large complex of buildings and then to get out to London.
Second problem at Heathrow is the high probability of flight delays. These are particularly bad on evening inbound flights, but can also affect morning outbound flights. Heathrow skies are crowded and landing slots are limited. If Heathrow has a problem, then it becomes a big problem for passengers. Landing at 6pm on a Thursday or Friday evening often involves a 60-minute delay
The third main problem is immigration and baggage collection. Like most frequent flyers I travel light (hand baggage only), I expect to wave goodbye to Heathrow around 30 - 35 minutes after the wheels touch the runway. If I have checked-in bags, this doubles to 60 to 90 minutes.
At London City, by contrast, I am usually out of the airport just 10 minutes after the wheels hit the runway. That doubles to a mere 20 mins if I have checked-in bags.
I'm approaching this write up from the perspective of someone who arrives in the UK through Heathrow, stays here for some time and then departs again through the same airport.
Flying into Heathrow
There is no doubt about it, the final 10 minutes before landing at Heathrow is spectacular. Even after hundreds of flights, I still love staring out of the window during final approach. If the wind is blowing from the west – as it almost always does -- then the approach is over central London, and for anyone who is not used to large cities, you get some idea of just how big London is.
Personally, I think the best time is during dusk, when there is still plenty of traffic yet the lights are on and you can still make out the shape and colours of the many different buildings.
* StrawberryFrog says, "The best seat in the house for a landing is IMHO on the right hand side of the plane, behind the wing. If the scenic route is taken, you get good views of the lights, Gherkin, Millennium dome, river, bridges, Regent's Park etc as the plane wheels over the city."
I have lived in and around London for the last 30 years or so, and I like to identify specific landmarks: stations, buildings, parks and so on, but for the first time visitor, the key landmark is the river Thames. Adjacent to that, all London's famous sights are visible, ranging from the Houses of Parliament, to the Buckingham Palace, the Gherkin, Tower Bridge and the London Eye.
As the plane progresses steadily lower and closer to the airport, the buildings become less imposing, until the plane touches down. Incidentally, the stoic Brits don't applaud a successful landing. We'd be more likely to complain to the pilot after a crash.
Finally, the plane turns off the runway and begins its long taxi to the stand. Again, for anyone who took off from a small or regional airport, Heathrow is huge. Unless you have come in from one of the modern Asian airports, the number of large, wide-bodied jets will be a surprise. The variety of tailfin designs and insignia will surprise almost all travellers.
The taxi is your first introduction to the problems of Heathrow. It usually takes 10 - 15 minutes from touchdown until the plane stops at the stand. It can be longer. For the first-time visitor, this is not a problem, as there is so much to take in.
The good news is that planes at Heathrow usually get to dock directly with the umbilicals at the terminal. It's relatively unusual to have a bus ride at Heathrow, so the savvy traveller can get off the plane quickly and aim to get to immigration ahead of the crowd.
Apart from the walk up the umbilical, Heathrow is not bad for walking between the various places you need to go. There are no trains or mass transit systems through the airport: it's all walking. And Heathrow is a big airport. The aisles are wide, so there is room to pass, if you want to hurry. Signs are in general quite good and it's quite hard to get lost. There are moving walkways along many of the routes. Visitors should be aware that the custom in the UK is to use the right hand side of moving walkways or escalators for standing still, leaving the left hand side for those who like to walk or climb. People will tut and harrumph at violators of this rule. Occasionally those who block the left-hand side will get a rather testy, 'Excuse me'.
Heathrow operates centralised immigration for each terminal. All the passengers arriving at Terminal 1 pass through the single large immigration hall. Similarly with the other terminals. This means it can be a bit of a lottery as to how long the queues are. In practice, UK Immigration has a great deal of practice at operating this service and it's rare to queue for more then 10 minutes or so.
All terminals operate separate queues for EU and UK nationals on the one hand, and everyone else on the other. The EU queue often looks longer, but moves faster. If you hold a UK / EU passport, do not attempt to use the seemingly shorter queue for 'other passports' You will be sent back to the correct queue with no sympathy. UK Immigration officials are not unfriendly, but they are firm.
* StrawberryFrog says, "immigration - if your spouse holds an EU passport, you can accompany them to the short queue."
The queue for foreigners is a single queue with many immigration desks, so there is no concern about selecting the 'right' or 'wrong' queue. We're Brits: we know about queueing.
More recently, all the main UK airports, including Heathrow, have brought in biometric systems -- retina scanners -- to permit fast entry and exit. If you are a frequent traveller, then it might make sense to spend 10 minutes having a retina scan and passport check. Brits do this before departing on a trip, but within the airport buildings. Once registered with this voluntary programme, the passenger is then free to walk through the retina scan booth at UK immigration at any airport. This programme is so new that few people are registered and I have never seen a queue for the retina scan stations.
This varies greatly with terminal number. The hall at T1 is at least reasonably logical, but it is old and tatty. T2 is more modern and follows the more standard pattern of a large hall immediately below the immigration area. Once through immigration you turn either left or right to descend into the bag collection area. I can't remember how T3 and T4 work, and initial reports from T5 are pretty grim, despite the super-special dual-redundant baggage handling system.
In any case, I can't remember ever going through Heathrow and waiting less than 30 minutes for the bags to come through. If you have bags to collect, take your time going through the airport, and don't worry about immigration delays. No matter how long you wait at UK immigration, you'll still be waiting to pick up the bags.
UK Customs do not seem so bad. Maybe I don't look like a smuggler, but I can't remember ever being stopped, except once, many years ago after AspieMum and I came back from a shopping trip to Dallas, when we declared some goods we had bought over the paltry £40 limit one is allowed to bring in before paying tax.
My perception is that Heathrow customs are highly focussed on drugs. It's relatively common to see sniffer dogs in the baggage and arrivals halls. Personally, if I had to choose an airport to use for smuggling drugs, then Heathrow would be one of my last choices. They have a large, well-equipped staff who know what they are doing and have seen every type and kind of drug smuggler.
On the way in, the security is not at all obvious. In the UK our police are not routinely armed, except at airports. When the security status is high, then armed police are a regular and obvious presence at Heathrow. Personally, I find that a little un-nerving. Others will have a different perception.
Leaving the airport
Once through customs, the passenger is free to leave the airport. Personally, I try to get away as quickly as possible without spending any more time than necessary at Heathrow.
There are five main choices for getting out of the airport.
Unless I can arrange for a friend or AspieMum to pick me up in a private car, I use the tube. I never use a black cab, even if someone else is paying. It's outrageously expensive (allow £50 / $100 into London, when the traffic is quiet. Half as much again at busy times) and, like all road services around London, subject to severe delays depending on traffic conditions. Shared between four (the maximum allowed in a black cab) it might just be worth it, but for an individual, no way.
StrawberryFrog says, "leaving Heathrow I usually use a pre-booked minicab. The kind where the driver has a sign with your name on it. To NW11 it generally costs £32. reliable, and can be fast at the right time of day, and goes right to your door. And I put it on expenses."
Depending on where you live, this is a good option. From where I live, they charge £80 each way, so I don't do it.
The tube costs around £5 / $10 per person for a one-way journey into central London. Allow an hour to include delays and connections, though the journey to Piccadilly Circus can take as little as 45 minutes.
The heavily-marketed alternative is the Heathrow Express, which for twice the price promises to whisk you into London Paddington in 15 minutes. Well, yes. But. The Express journey time is exactly 15 minutes, but it takes a long time to get to the station at the Heathrow end, as that is buried deep underneath the terminal buildings.
The trains are less frequent than the tube, so if you just miss one, you might wait 15 minutes for another. And Paddington is not really in central London. Unless Paddington is your final destination, allow another 20 -30 minutes to get into the heart of London. Overall, the only benefit of the Express is maybe 15 minutes of comfort, and a saving of five minutes or so. A poor reward for the extra cost of the ticket, in my view.
The tube, then. There are three tube stations at Heathrow. Terminals 1,2,3 are served by the main station in the centre of the airport. All tube trains going through Heathrow also stop here. Terminal 4 and terminal 5 each has its own station, and trains from each get to London via T123, but do not stop at the other station.
If someone is collecting you
If you are being collected from Heathrow (any terminal), then my best advice is to arrange to meet at the Departures area for your terminal. Traffic management staff at Arrivals do not allow cars to stop or wait. At Departures, drivers can sometimes wait a few minutes pretending to be dropping someone off or saying goodbye. And there is usually more space at the departures area.
Tell the person who is meeting you the flight details and encourage them to check the live arrivals board available over the internet, and to see when your flight lands. Let them know if you are travelling light (cabin bags only) or have checked-in bags.
Mobile phones are useful here. Let them know when you land, and then when you have picked up the bags. If you have bags, then allow 60 - 90 minutes from landing until pickup. If you have only cabin baggage, allow 30 - 45 minutes.
After leaving customs, find your way to the check-in area for your terminal. Outside the terminal, near the check-in area, there is a roadway where passengers are being dropped off. Traffic flows only in one direction, and the road is divided into two or three parts. If you can walk with your bags to the far end (as the traffic flows) of that roadway, where the different roads join back together, and stand there, it is a convenient meeting place. Expect to wait 5 - 10 minutes.
The driver should monitor the live arrivals board and time their arrival at the airport to be about 5 minutes after the passengers get to the meeting point. The reason is that it is better for the travellers to wait for the driver than the other way around. Cars are moved on quickly and efficiently at Heathrow, and it can take 20 minutes or more to do a single loop of the terminal, having been moved on once.
Drivers should follow signs to the correct terminal and then head for the departures area and the set-down points. Drivers should try to avoid car parks, but if you end up in the wrong lane at set-down area, it should be OK, as you can drive through and provided you have been in the car park area for less than a few minutes, there is no charge to exit. Parking at Heathrow is expensive.
Flying from Heathrow
Allow enough time to get to the airport. I am a frequent traveller, know my way around Heathrow, and don't mind cutting things fine. Even so, I try very hard to set out in time to arrive at Heathrow at least than 60 minutes before the scheduled departure time. That gives a spare 20 – 25 minutes slack in case of delays or problems.
Check-in desks usually close 30 minutes before scheduled departure. Once closed, that is it. Check-in clerks have too much experience of people failing to get there on time to listen to excuses. Online check-in means one can leave maybe 10 minutes later, but it still takes 30 minutes or so to get through the airport.
My colleague who travels more often than I do, aims to get there 2 hours before the flight is scheduled to leave. Many airlines recommend getting there three hours ahead.
Heathrow is well served by public transport. The tube works well, and the cost is not outrageous -- around £5 / $10 per person. If you have an oyster card, it will be cheaper than using cash. There are three stops for Heathrow: one for Terminals 1, 2, 3 and a second stop for T4 and a third for the new T5. Coming from central London, trains will go either to T4 and then round the loop to T123, before returning to London, or to T123, then on to T5 from where they shuttle back to T123 and then on to London. Getting from T4 to T5 is difficult and extremely time-consuming, so it is important to know which terminal you need before leaving for the airport. If in doubt, get off at T123, and hope for the best.
The airport is also served by a fast rail link service from Paddington in west London, called the Heathrow Express. This is being marketed heavily to business travellers, but in reality offers few benefits, except, perhaps comfort. For twice the price of the tube you can save a few minutes' travelling time. People travelling from north or west London will save up to 15 minutes, but those coming from south or east London will save much less. I travel from the Croydon area (south London) and the journey time is almost identical by the tube or by the Express.
Heathrow also has a range of bus services which are cheap and perfectly adequate, but like all road-based travel in the London area, journey times are far from predictable, except between midnight and 6 am, when road is the only option.
Private car is possible, but parking charges are high and traffic can make journey times unpredictable.
Motorbike is by far the fastest and most reliable method, as there are bike parks close to each terminal, where one can park a bike for a few days at no charge. These often get crowded, as they are used by staff as well as the travelling public. Also, these parks are unguarded, so security can be an issue.
Taxi is possible, but can be outrageously expensive. A black cab from the centre of London will cost £60 ($120). More if the traffic is bad. If you pre-book a private mini-cab, the cost can be a bit lower, but a taxi - whether black cab or mini-cab is my very last resort for getting to/from Heathrow, even when I can claim the fare back as a business expense.
StrawberryFrog says, "I book a cab by phone the day before, I leave NW11 at 5:15am, I am at LHR T1 before 6am, £29 later (no parking fees for a drop-off). The company reimburses me at the end of the month."
Depending on where you live, this is a good option. From where I live, they charge £80 each way, so I don't do it.
There are five terminals at Heathrow. Each has its own character and issues.
T1 is used mainly for domestic flights and short-haul international flights by UK-based airlines
T2 is used mainly for flights to Europe by European carriers
T3 is mainly used for long-haul flights by non-UK carriers.
T4, until a few days ago was the main centre for BA's long-haul flights
T5 is the new terminal, used exclusively by BA.
Travel between terminals 1,2 and 3 is straightforward and you can get from one of those to any of the other three in 15 minutes or so on foot, via the main tube station. Getting to T4 is more difficult and hence time-consuming. T5 is, as yet, a bit of an unknown.
Know which terminal you are heading for, as they can be treated almost like different airports.
Check-in is fairly standard at all terminals. As with most airports, airlines are adding more facilities for self check-in and more airlines are permitting passengers to check-in over the internet before departing.
If this facility is offered, I always take advantage of it. Looking at my fellow passengers, most still use the check-in desks, so internet check-in or at worst, self check-in saves time.
The new T5 is unusual in that the desks (in theory) allow passengers to drop their bags and then walk forward to the departure gates. T1 is the most crowded, followed by T2 and T3. In my experience, T4 and T5 are usually not too bad.
Security at Heathrow and other large UK airports is a pain. It is designed to appear both tight and intimidating. And in many cases, it is secure. However it is my personal view that much of the 'security' at Heathrow is more window-dressing to reassure infrequent passengers that their flight is safe.
To this end, staff will insist that all liquids (including toothpaste, medicines, shower gel etc) are carried in a re-sealable plastic bag. and that the bag is carried through security separately from one's hand baggage, with a capacity limit of 100ml. Laptop computers also need to be presented separately*. These rules are upheld every time through Heathrow. If you get away with less, count yourself lucky.
* StrawberryFrog says, "Oh, and if your journey involves a transfer at another airport, you are advised not to buy a big bottle of booze in duty free - it may fall foul of the 100ml bottle rule at your transfer point. "
* StrawberryFrog says, "Last time the body scanner beeped on me, I asked them what set it off, so I could avoid it next time; they said nothing that i could do, it is supposed to go off randomly for random searches. Maybe it's true. "
* StrawberryFrog says, "as of Jan 2008, Laptops stay in bags."
* StrawberryFrog says, "Security procedures will surely vary over time. Sad that the website's not up to date, so there's really no way for the infrequent traveller to be sure what's allowed."
Official information seems to be confused on this one. The BAA advice is still dated Sept 07 and says laptops, MP3s and other electrical items need to be presented separately. Also, flying through Gatwick twice so far this year (Feb and March), they asked to see the laptop both times. It's probably best, when in the queue, to ask one of the security people if they need to see it.
Approaching security, then, I have my hand baggage and my normal clothing. In the hand baggage I carry one transparent polythene bag with my toothpaste, medicines, shower gel etc, and a small soft bag for all the stuff I normally carry in my pockets: (cash, wallet phone, pens, iPod etc).
In the security queue, I remove all the stuff from my pockets and put it in the soft bag and put that in the case. I remove my laptop and the liquids bag and then close the case. Then I remove my jacket, which carries any small essentials as well as my ticket and passport. All these go into the trays that pass through the X-ray machine.
Sometimes the security staff insist that passengers remove shoes, watches and belts. Sometimes they don't. In any case, I usually take off my watch before passing through the body scanner. Roughly half the time, despite these precautions, the body scanner will go off and there is a body search to go through.
It's no longer a big deal; just adds to the delays.
Finally, once through security, I take all my bits - laptop, liquids, watch, belt, etc - off to one side and take a few minutes to re-assemble everything into its proper place.
Into the departures area
The company which runs Heathrow -- BAA -- prides itself on the amount of money it generates through shopping each year. A cynic might say that the airports are designed to extract the maximum they can in terms of each individual spending money on refreshments, clothing and parking. It is certainly true that the new Terminal 5 has more shopping space than the other terminals. On the first few days of chaos after the terminal opened, the shops and their tills were working efficiently, even if the baggage handling system -- supposedly with dual redundancy -- would not work at all.
Personally, I avoid spending at all in Heathrow -- or the other major airports -- if I can avoid it. Prices are not significantly better than the high street and usually much worse than on-line.
In any case, the departures area is prime shopping space. If you want it, you can probably buy it there.
I get mixed up with the executive lounges at Heathrow. Like everything else, they can get crowded prior to a big flight departure. But then, Frankfurt and Düsseldorf have the same problems with over-crowding.
If I don't have access to an executive lounge (and sometimes, even if I do) I tend to try to find a quiet corner and listen to the iPod while keeping an eye on the departure screens.
Getting to the gate
Heathrow is a big airport, and getting to the gate can take 15 minutes or more.
* StrawberryFrog says, "The "gate closes at 6:30" text on your ticket is generally a complete fiction. This actually means that check-in closes at 6:30. With smaller planes (e.g. 50-seater Embraer) boarding at the gate will only start 10-15 minutes before the notional take-off time (assuming you're on time). With larger planes (e.g. long-haul 747, it's more like 20-25 minutes)."
* StrawberryFrog says, "And at the "take off time" more likely than not, you'll be trundling somewhere between gate and runway."
All good poiunts, but some carriers - notably the budget airlines - do close the gates on time and passengers are advised to take note of the timings on the ticket / boarding card.
A note on terminal 5
I have not travelled through T5. Personally, I try very hard to avoid BA, so I don't expect to go through T5 any time soon. Iceowl's problems aside, once the teething problems have been sorted it should be a good experience.
In theory, the terminal has two independent baggage handling systems. One is high tech and sophisticated. That was the one which failed on its first couple of days. The other is lower-tech and there as a backup in case the fancy one goes wrong.
In practice, the high tech system was let down by human failure on the first couple of days. Baggage staff were unable to get to the right places; check-in staff were insufficiently trained and the high-tech baggage system went completely bonkers.
Another potential issue with T5 is that the people who run it are going security-mad. They want to insist that all passengers are finger-printed. The excuse is that in-bound and out-bound passengers can mix, and they want to ensure terrorists don't switch in the various lounges.
To me, that's either terrible design, or an excuse.
Whatever we might think, T5 represents the future of mass air travel. It's been designed to handle large – huge – numbers of passengers. And it's been built in one of the most terrorist-hit cities in the world. Even while it was being designed, the architects knew it would be a high-value terrorist target. Security was a major part of the design of the a new terminal.