London Heathrow Airport

IATA Code: LHR

The best reason to fly British Airways may be to have the opportunity to pass through the new Terminal 5 at London's Heathrow Airport. Photo © 2011 Aaron Saunders

It’s big, it’s busy, but London Heathrow offers connecting flights to nearly every corner of the globe. Photo © 2011 Aaron Saunders

OVERVIEW

The busiest airport in the United Kingdom and the 3rd busiest airport in the world in 2012, London Heathrow Airport is owned and operated by Heathrow Airport Holdings. It is a primary hub for British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, and is served by daily long-haul flights from nearly every corner of the globe.

Chances are good that even if your final destination isn’t in the United Kingdom, you’ll find yourself passing through this sprawling “airport city” at some point in your travels.

TERMINALS

Earlier: waiting for my connecting flight to Cape Town at London Heathrow's Terminal 5. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The gorgeous new Terminal 5 at London’s Heathrow Airport. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Originally a small air base constructed in the late 1920’s, Heathrow is a sprawling metropolis in its own right today. A major refurbishment programme has been ongoing at the airport for several years now as entire terminals have been demolished and are in the process of being rebuilt, so expect to see a large amount of construction equipment on-site and/or changes to passenger flow.

Heathrow currently has five terminals, four of which are in operation. What is most fascinating about the airport, due to its sprawling size and decades of construction, is how different each of the terminals are from each other in terms of décor, amenities, and services. Some have lounge access; others do not. Some have direct rail connections and on-site hotels; others do not.

  • Terminal 1: opened in 1968, Terminal 1 is utilised by some, but not all, Star Alliance airlines, including United Airlines, US Airways, TAP Portugal, South African Airways, Aegean Airlines and Lufthansa. It is set to close in 2014 following the completion of the new Terminal 2 building.
  • Terminal 2 – Not Operational: When completed in 2014, Terminal 2 will house All Star Alliance airlines, including those that currently reside in Terminal 3. The original Terminal 2 was demolished in 2010.
  • Terminal 3: Currently the base for Air Canada, American Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, and select British Airways flights, Terminal 3 will exclusively house Oneworld alliance airlines once Terminal 2 is completed to facilitate better connections between airline partners.
  • Terminal 4: Home to members of the SkyTeam airline alliance (Delta, Air France, KLM and others), Terminal 4 can even accommodate the A380 at two gates.
  • Terminal 5 is primarily the domain of British Airways, with the exception of a few Iberia flights. It is the newest terminal at London Heathrow, and actually includes two Satellite Terminals: Terminal 5B and Terminal 5C, both of which can be accessed by an underground people-mover system.

CONNECTIONS

Where do you want to go today? How about London Heathrow! Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Connecting flights can require complicated terminal changes, so it is important to pay attention! Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

At a minimum, you should allow no less than 90 minutes to connect at London Heathrow. Depending on your airline alliance and onward destination, you will likely have to change terminals via bus or people-mover system.

All guests arriving from an international destination to the UK will have to re-clear security and a simplified passport check before proceeding to your connecting flight. Depending on the time of day, this can make or break your flight, so it is crucial to proceed to your staging area as quickly as possible. Don’t stop, don’t dally, don’t even use the bathrooms if you can avoid it until you are past both security and the simplified passport check when connecting to another flight.

Because of on-going construction work and an increased effort by the airport authority to streamline connections, pay attention to all connecting flight signs and follow the directions of staff members. Heathrow can be a great airport to transit through, but it requires a lot of patience and attention.

HIDDEN GEMS

Arriving in a new country for the first time can hold unexpected surprises - if you haven't done your research. Photo © 2011 Aaron Saunders

Arriving in a new country for the first time can hold unexpected surprises – if you haven’t done your research. Photo © 2011 Aaron Saunders

  • Terminal 5 is worth flying on British Airways just to experience. Far nicer than Heathrow’s other terminals, enormous banks of glass windows give you a stunning view of operations at LHR. It’s open, spacious, and filled with more amenities and natural light than other terminals.
  • Yotel – Terminal 4 is a small, pod-style hotel situated right within Heathrow Terminal 4. It’s perfect for short stays in between long connecting flights, but it is worth noting that it is located outside the security zone, meaning you’ll have to clear UK Customs to stay here. Still, it may beat sleeping on a bench for five hours…

CUE THE SCREAMING…

  • Connecting within Terminal 5 can take up to 90 minutes or more, just to change planes within the same terminal building. This is due to having to re-clear security and a simplified passport check that can absolutely bog down if too many international flights (almost all of which are operated with Boeing 747 or 777 aircraft) arrive at the same time. Of course, there are excellent reasons why you must do this before your connecting flight; rounding the corner after an 11 hour flight and seeing a queue that stretches nearly a thousand people deep still makes us want to scream.
  • Passport & Immigration Controls can be a particular kind of tortuous hell at Terminal 3. We’ve cleared it in as little as 10 minutes, and have had it last as much as four hours. In short, there’s no consistency here. Pack your patience.

CRUISE PORTS & TRANSFERS

Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Head to Southampton to board Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, among other great cruise ships! Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

  • To Southampton: bus transfers are available on National Express Coaches, with an average duration of about two hours. It’s affordable and economical…but personally, we always use Woodford Chauffer Cars when travelling from LHR to Southampton; they cost more than the coach, but nothing – I mean, nothing – beats having your own drive pick you up after a long flight. Worth every pence.
  • To Dover: There is a myriad of options to get to Dover, from rail services to National Express coaches. If you can, purchase transfers directly from the cruise line; chances are it will be cheaper in the long run. Still, if you can swing it, a car service is the way to go. A full list of options can be found on this excellent website.
  • To London: the most economical way to get to London is via the London Underground, but unless you’ve done this before, we don’t recommend it – particularly if you have a lot of luggage. Express service is offered via the Heathrow Express that runs into London’s Paddington Station, but for ultimate ease you’ll want to hire a cab or a car service.

USEFUL LINKS

 

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