Transatlantic flights almost always land at Heathrow, Europe’s busiest international airport (17 miles west), or Gatwick, perhaps the most disliked (31 miles south). With a few minor exceptions, the other four airports, Stansted (37 miles northeast), Luton (34 miles northwest), London City (in London’s Docklands area), and Southend (42 miles easy) serve flights from Europe, and they’re where cut-rate flyers and executive jets tend to go. Rail service doesn’t start until around 5am. So don’t book flights that depart at 6am unless you’re prepared to a) grab a £80 hotel room near the airport, b) splash out on a taxi, or c) suffer highly infrequent night bus services.
Happily, getting to and from all of the airports is easy and clear. Every airport offers some kind of rail connection to the central city, and that’s the smart way to go. Tickets can be bought at windows in the arrivals halls, at machines, or online, where you get a discount. You’ll rarely have to wait more than 20 minutes for the next train.
The business-class-level Heathrow Express (www.heathrowexpress.com; [tel] 08456/00-15-15) zooms to Paddington every 15 minutes. First Class is a waste of money; Express Saver, the cheapest option for purchase online or at vending machines, is plenty plush. Heathrow Connect (www.heathrowconnect.com; [tel] 084/5678-6975) is designed to give access to local stations, so it takes twice as long (almost 30 min.—still not long at all) and costs half as much. It uses commuter-style carriages and leaves half-hourly. Both trains arrive at Paddington, where you can hop the Tube system or a taxi (above Platform 12).
Gatwick Express (www.gatwickexpress.com; [tel] 084/5850-530) runs from Victoria. On First Capital Connect (www.firstcapitalconnect.co.uk; [tel] 08456/76-47-00), you can get to Gatwick via Blackfriars, Farringdon, St Pancras, or London Bridge stations in 30 to 50 minutes—service ends at 11:45pm.
Stansted Express (www.stanstedexpress.com; [tel] 0845/600-7245) runs from Liverpool Street station. Luton has rail service from St Pancras station, Blackfriars, London Bridge stations by First Capital Connect (www.firstcapitalconnect.co.uk; [tel] 0845/026-4700; four times hourly). The correct stop is Luton Airport Parkway Station, linked by a 10-minute shuttle (5am–midnight) to the terminals.
City Airport is linked so expediently and affordably by the Docklands Light Railway that it doesn’t support commuter rail or coach service. Southend Airport, too, is so well-connected to a shiny new station by Greater Anglia rail from Liverpool Street that buses don’t bother to go, and public city transport doesn’t reach it.
Should you take a car from the airport? Well, should you pay more and take longer than you must to get in from the airport? If you insist. The cheapest coach and van services for each airport are listed in the chart, and they all drop you off at standardized stops such as major train stations. For Gatwick, Stansted, and Luton, in addition to the usual National Express coach options, there’s the no-frills easyBus (www.easybus.co.uk). Unless you book far in advance, it may not beat the National Express prices.
Finding the Lowest Airfare
The central question is when to go. London is such a popular destination (it’s served by more flights from the United States than any other European city) that plenty of airlines vie to carry you across—although the ones that are not American-run are usually of higher quality. If you’re not redeeming frequent flier miles (book very far ahead if you are), there are five rules to finding bargains:
1. Fly on days when traffic is lightest. Some airlines post calendars that show you when their best prices are, or test fare trends on a site such as Hopper.com.
2. Depart after dinner. This saves you from paying another hotel night, since you’ll arrive in the morning. You’re also likely to find lower fares, because business travelers like day flights.
3. Go off-season. London’s weather isn’t extreme, so there’s really not a no-go month. November through March yield the lowest airfares and hotel rates, although the late December holidays and the last week of November (American Thanksgiving) can be busy, too. Summer prices (June–Sept) soar over a grand.
4. Search for fares for or on a weekend. Many major airlines post lower prices to fly then. You might also save money by booking your seat at 3am. That’s because unpaid-for reservations are flushed out of the system at midnight, and prices often sink when the system becomes aware of an increase in supply.
5. Don’t buy last-minute. Desperation bleeds wallets dry.
Hotwire’s TripStarter tool (www.hotwire.com/tripstarter/index.jsp) tracks how much the airlines charge, and when. Monitor airline newsletters, sale pages, Twitter accounts, and sites such as Frommers.com and SmarterTravel.com. Both Airfarewatchdog.com and Yapta.com spit out emails when airfare drops.
Primary websites that collect quotes from a variety of sources (whether they be airlines or other websites) include Ebookers.com, Expedia.com, Kayak.com, Lessno.com, Mobissimo.com, Momondo.com, Orbitz.com, and Travelocity.com. Always canvas multiple sites, because each has odd gaps in coverage because of how they obtain quotes. Always compare your best price with what the airline is offering, because that price might be lowest of all. Some sites have small booking fees of $5 to $10, and many force you to accept non-refundable tickets for the cheapest prices. If you’re hitting a wall, search for transatlantic itineraries that allow for one or two stops, since routes that include stops in Reykjavik or Frankfurt (on Icelandair or Lufthansa, respectively) can produce hidden bargains. No matter which airline you go with, prepare yourself for added taxes and fees, which are usually $500 or higher round-trip from the USA—London’s airport fees are truly noxious.
Most times of year, the least expensive way to reach London is with an air-hotel package, which combines discounted airfare with discounted nights in a hotel. Most air-hotel deals will allow you to fly back days after your hotel allotment runs out, and at no extra charge. Keep in mind that solo travelers always pay a little more, typically $200.
Don’t! Roads are clogged. In bad traffic, a trip from Heathrow to the western fringe of London can take 2 hours. And once you’re in the city, just about every technology is deployed against you (see “Getting Around,” below). Roads are confusingly one-way. Cameras catch and ticket your honest driving errors. Parking is a fantasy. I heartily beseech you to get into town by rail alone. Many North Americans think of cars as the default transportation mode, but not in London.
The M25 highway that rings the city is prone to major time-eating traffic jams at any time of day -- but especially between 7:30 and 9am, or 4 and 7pm, on weekdays, and on Sundays from mid-afternoon onward. And once you're in the city, just about every technology yet imagined is deployed against you. On top of that, and despite the complaints and grumbles of Londoners, the public transportation system is pretty efficient.
If you insist upon wheels, reserving ahead from home yields the best prices. Try to return your car outside the congestion-charge zone to avoid charges and aggravation. You will find similar rates among Nova Car Hire (www.novacarhire.com), Auto Europe (www.autoeurope.com), Europe By Car (www.ebctravel.com), Europcar (www.europcar.com), and Holiday Autos (www.holidayautos.com). Also check the major names like Avis, Hertz, and Budget, in case they can do better. Air conditioning, something you won’t need, adds about £5 to the daily bill. Fuel, or “petrol,” is even more expensive than at home, and although most rentals include unlimited mileage, not all do. Also: Many rental cars are stick shift models.
Not all routes into the city have been created equal, and road maps can be deceiving. From the north, the M1 and A1 converge at London's North Circular Road (the A406), and then proceed in a fairly orderly fashion into the center, with the occasional bottleneck and inevitable jam. It's horribly clogged at peak traffic hours, but otherwise a reasonable route into the north of the city. From the west, both the M40/A40 and M4/A4 routes into the city are similarly efficient. (Remember, we're talking in relative terms here; no one averse to sitting in stationary traffic should attempt any of these routes at peak times.) From the east and northeast, take the M11 or A12 roads into the city. Approaching the city from the south is much more problematic, however. London's supposed South Circular Road (the A205) is that in name only. It's little more than a collection of linked high-streets for much of its length, and very slow going. Roads from the south into the center are similarly tortuous. From Kent and the Channel ports, the A2 usually clips along satisfactorily outside rush hour, although the bottleneck at the Blackwall Tunnel creates long queues every weekday. From the southwest, it's usually quicker to head clockwise around the M25 to enter London via the M4 or M40 , unless you're heading for a southwestern suburb such as Richmond, Kew, or Twickenham. From Brighton and the south coast, the arrow-straight M23/A23 route might look inviting, but it's incredibly slow. You're usually better advised to head anticlockwise around the M25 to pick up the A2 for the City and East London, or clockwise to the M4 for the West End -- even though that looks insane on a roadmap.
The original railway builders plowed their stations to every town of size, making it easy to see the highlights of the United Kingdom without getting near a car. The British whine about the declining quality of the service, but Americans, Canadians, and Australians will be blown away by the speed (and the cost, if they don’t book ahead) of the system. Find tickets to all destinations through National Rail ([tel] 08457/48-49-50; www.nationalrail.co.uk/cheapestfare) or the indispensible TheTrainLine.com. Seats are sold 12 weeks ahead, and early-bird bookings can yield some marvelous deals, such as £26 for a 4-hour trip to Scotland (£125 last-minute is common). When hunting for tickets, always search for “off-peak” (non-rush hour) trips going or coming from London in general, not a specific London station, because each London terminal serves various cities. Unfortunately, not every train company website accepts international credit cards; TheTrainLine does.
Tickets bought reasonably in advance will still be cheaper than what you’d pay for the same trips on a BritRail pass (www.britrail.com; [tel] 866/938-7245 in North America) and few tourists ride the rails with the near-daily regularity and long distances that would make a timed pass pay for itself. Check prices against the U.S. seller Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com; [tel] 800/622-8600), as quotes vary.
For trips to northwestern Europe, the train is more dignified. Unlike taking a flight, you won’t need to set aside extra hours and pounds to get to and from airports; train stations are in the middle of town. We’re living in marvelous times: The Channel Tunnel opened two decades ago (although they still seem to be working out the kinks), so you can reach Paris in an incredible 2 hours and 15 minutes from London. You can literally ride both the Tube and the Métro before lunch. In fact, you can ride both a black taxi and Space Mountain before lunch, since the Eurostar train alights in the middle of Disneyland Resort, just east of Paris. Eurostar links London’s St Pancras station with Paris, Brussels, Lille, and Calais, and from there, you can go just about anywhere using other trains.
Book via Eurostar (www.eurostar.co.uk; [tel] 08432/186-186 in the U.K. or +44 1233/61-75-75; phone bookings are £4 more) itself or the U.S.-based Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com; [tel] 800/361-7245 in North America), which also sells European rail passes. Check both sites, since prices can differ, but do it early, because rates boom as availability decreases. Pay attention to the special offers on Eurostar’s site; using them, prices go as low as £69 round-trip in summer. Seat61.com has up-to-date tips for booking European train travel.
Precisely which of London's many mainline stations you arrive at depends on where you start your journey. Paddington station serves Heathrow Airport, and also destinations west of London -- including Oxford, Reading, Bath, Bristol and Wales and Cornwall -- as far as South Wales. Marylebone station is used mostly by commuters, but also serves Warwick and Stratford-upon-Avon. Euston station serves North Wales and major cities in northwest England, including Liverpool and Manchester; trains also depart from here to the Lake District and Glasgow, Scotland, via the West Coast Mainline. King's Cross station is the endpoint of the East Coast Mainline -- trains arrive here from York, Newcastle, and Edinburgh. Liverpool Street station is the City's main commuter hub, but also links London with Stansted Airport, Cambridge, and Norwich. The City's other mainline stations -- Cannon Street, Moorgate, Blackfriars, and Fenchurch Street -- are also heavily used by commuters from the neighboring counties of Hertfordshire, Essex, Kent, Surrey, and Sussex, as is Charing Cross station, close to Trafalgar Square. Waterloo station serves the southwest of England: trains from Devon, Dorset, and Hampshire terminate here, as do Salisbury services. Victoria station serves Gatwick Airport, as well as cities and towns across southern England, including Brighton. South of the River Thames, London Bridge Station is another busy commuter hub, and also serves Brighton and Gatwick Airport. Each of London's mainline train stations is connected to the city's vast bus and Underground networks , and each has phones, sandwich bars, fast-food joints, luggage storage areas, and somewhere to ask for transport information.
St. Pancras station is the London hub for high-speed Eurostar services to Paris and Brussels, as well as some domestic services to the East Midlands and South Yorkshire. Restored and reopened in 2007, it connects England with Belgium and France through the multibillion-pound Channel Tunnel. Recent upgrades to the line mean you can now reach London from Brussels in about two hours. It is also served by six Underground routes -- the Victoria, Northern, Piccadilly, Circle, Hammersmith & City, and Metropolitan lines -- as well as seven rail companies. In the U.K., you can make reservations for Eurostar (www.eurostar.com) or Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com). U.S. visitors arriving from Continental Europe should remember that the validity of the Eurail pass ends at the English Channel. You'll need to purchase a separate BritRail pass if you plan to tour the U.K.; visit www.britrail.com.
The least expensive way to get from city to city in Britain (but not the fastest—that’s usually the train) is via coach, and because the country’s not very big, it rarely takes more than a few hours to reach anyplace. Even Scotland is only 5 hours away. National Express (www.nationalexpress.com; [tel] 08717/818-8178) is a major carrier with scads of departures, but the best-priced is Megabus (www.megabus.com; [tel] 090/0160-0900 or 0871/266-3333), which serves more than 60 cities across Europe, and charges as little as £1.50 for early bookings, although £19 to £45 for Edinburgh is a more typical rate. It accepts bookings 2 months ahead; book online to avoid phone fees. Both coach services depart from the miserable Victoria Coach Station, located behind Victoria railway station.
What’s the best place to hear about inexpensive ground tours? Hostels. Drop into one; most of their lobbies are papered with brochures. Don’t neglect their bulletin boards, either, since you may catch wind of a shared-ride situation that’ll often cost you no more than your share of the gasoline (in Britain, petrol).
A few coach companies also travel to Europe, usually crossing the Channel with a ferry. Because of the pressure put on the market by mushrooming no-frills airlines, rates are extremely low. You’ll pay as little as £21 one-way to Paris via Eurolines (www.eurolines.co.uk; [tel] 08717/81-81-78; 8–10 hr. each way). Brussels or Amsterdam are £25 with a 7-day advance purchase. The trade-off: It can take all day, sunrise to sunset, to reach Paris by this method.
Young, social adventurers should investigate Busabout (www.busabout.com; [tel] 8450/267-514), a coach system that follows set loops from London to France and Spain, Austria, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany and the Czech Republic. Passengers can hop on and hop off as they please. Some other companies arrange full-on organized tours of Europe’s greatest hits—but never for less than you could do independently; choose one only because you’d enjoy having company: Contiki (www.contiki.com; [tel] 866/266-8454) is geared toward a party-hearty under-35 crowd, Tucan Travel Adventure Tours (www.tucantravel.com; [tel] 855/444-9110) is for social scrimpers, and Fanatics (www.thefanatics.com; [tel] 020/7240-3233) is for followers of organized sports.
Most buses terminate at Victoria coach station, 164 Buckingham Palace Rd. (www.tfl.gov.uk), although many offer intermediate stops in the capital too.
No ferry to Europe sails from London. For those, you’ll have to get down to the Southern coastal towns of Folkestone and Dover (for France), or Portsmouth (for Spain). Unless you have your own car, it’s hard to use the ports of the France-destined lines; most people take them in conjunction with a coach trip booked from London. Advance purchase can be from £35 each way with a car and including taxes (150 min.) on P&O Ferries (www.poferries.com; [tel] 08716/64-21-21), and the aggregator DirectFerries.co.uk sells routes throughout Europe from a rapidly diminishing roster of companies. Given the proliferation of low-cost airlines, ferry travel has become outdated, and it’s mostly used by people who need to transfer cars.
If you despise flying, one ocean liner still makes the storied 7-day trip between New York City and Southampton, which connects by rail to London in an hour. That’s the Queen Mary 2 (www.cunard.com; [tel] 800/728-6273), intermittently scheduled. Fares start around $900 per person, including all your food.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.