London is by far my favorite city and you can always find something new to see or do, no matter how many times you have visited. This is a great destination for shorter or longer trips. Being a city I know well and where I’ve been countless times, I’m sharing my suggestions for arriving, getting around, sleeping, eating&drinking, and touristing.
Reading all the information on London can easily leave a newbie overwhelmed. So here I will focus on the ways that, over the years, I have tried and tested and can recommend.
First off, consider your itinerary as a whole and do not choose a flight and accommodation separately. London is full of good hotels, so choose your flight (where you can have big price differences) and then find accommodation accordingly. You want to avoid arriving late at night or leaving early in the morning and have to cross the entire city to reach your hotel or catch your flight! Not only do you waste time but a taxi to the airport can easily offset any economy you had before.
ARRIVING in London
London is super well connected, you can arrive by flight, international train, bus or car. Here I will explore the most convenient choices if you start your journey from anywhere besides Scotland: flights and the Eurostar.
Served by no less than 6 airports (Heathrow, Gatwick, City, Stansted, Luton, Southend), it’s easy to get lost.
Tip! Do not search for flights to “London (All Airports)”. Yes, you could find a cheaper ticket flying into, say, Stansted. But the cost of the rail ticket, plus the time you will lose from and back to the airport are not worth it. Stick to Heathrow, Gatwick or City, as the others are quite far and not so easily connected to the center.
Remember: Avoid buses or taxis, unless there’s a very good reason for it. Making the most of your time and fitting trips into busy schedules means not having too much extra time for transit. So the most important factor when fixing an itinerary is reliability. Trains are usually faster and you don’t run the risk of traffic jams. This is especially important in a chaotic city like London.
- Heathrow (LHR): the main airport, has the most diversified links to the city.
My favorite connection to the center is the Heathrow Express train. It runs every 15 minutes and takes 12-15 minutes from Terminals 1, 3 & 5 (if you are using another terminal, you will use a free connection within the airport terminals). Nothing beats this travel time when we are dealing with any of the London airports.
Depending on where you are staying, the Tube could also be an option. The Jubilee line tends to get crowded and it’s not so nice to hold a suitcase for 40+ minutes but it’s the cheapest option.
Even if you use the Heathrow Express, if you arrive at Heathrow, just buy your Oyster card already. More on that in the “getting around” section.
If not Heathrow, then…
- Gatwick (LGW): This airport serves some low-cost airlines and it’s an option when the prices into Heathrow are too expensive. Before making this decision, check the rail ticket prices, as the flight savings can easily be offset here, leaving you at a further away airport for minimal or no advantage.
The connection is easily made with the Gatwick Express (journey time: 30-35 minutes) or Southern Railway (journey time: 35-40 minutes). Both are operated by the same company, run every 15 minutes and make the same route, with this slight difference in journey time. There’s a price difference so you might as well go for the cheaper here, no losses.
- City (LCY): This airport is mainly for business travelers from major European cities, as it’s close to the City’s financial district. But if you find good deals, it’s a great option, since the transit from/to this airport is very easy with the DLR. At only 10km away, it’s also a convenient choice to use a taxi.
The most famous route of the Eurostar is between Paris and London, but it also connects Brussels, Lille, Avignon, and others. It’s a great option for the Paris-London route when you factor in the time saved, taking you from center to center in only approx. 2h30.
The check-in procedure is different from the traditional European trains. It will actually remind you of airport check-in, with passport control and bags going through x-ray scan.
You will arrive at King’s Cross-St. Pancras and connections from there are plentiful. I’m not a fan of the area around this station but you can easily reach all parts of the city from there.
GETTING AROUND London
First: Get used to the tube map. Second: Get an Oyster card and never let it go! Don’t even think about renting a car for this city, pure headache. Although taxis can be convenient sometimes, they are expensive and you still get stuck in traffic.
The public transport can seem overwhelming but it’s easy to get around the touristic area. The subway is the most self-explanatory ever: if you can manage to have a rough idea of the tube map in your head and know if you need to go right or left, up or down in relation to it, bingo! All lines go west-east or north-south and you will notice that the station signs do not point to the last stop of a line, but to these directions.
In practical terms, if you are at Earl’s Court Station and want to go to Leicester Square, you need the blue line “going right”. So when you are in the station, just look for Piccadilly Circus/blue line, eastbound. Easy peasy!
The Oyster Card
Now about that Oyster card. Get one and never let it go! I have mine for years and never had to change it. Just put more money and go. To make things easy, whenever I arrive, I go to the counter and tell the clerk some key information so s/he knows how much to top up on my card:
- that I want unlimited travel within zones 1-2 (it’s enough for a visitor);
- how many days I’m staying;
- if I plan to go to any station beyond zone 2, for example, Wembley Stadion, Wimbledon or the airport.
In my experience, they will understand which is the best way to give you what you need and you won’t need to worry about going out and about during your stay. If you wanna know more about the Oyster card system, check their official website.
TIP: TfL now offers a Visitor Oyster card. It’s not available in London, only as pre-purchase, so it works if you are planning your trip in advance. Additionally, there’s a bunch of special offers and discounts for holders too.