The tale I’m about to tell is a jetlagged traveler’s nightmare. It took me three full hours to get from Heathrow to London, from stepping off the plane at Heathrow Airport to stepping inside the doors of my hostel in central London. That’s more than half the time it took me to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. Think about that for a second.
If you don’t care to read my horror story and just want the tips, skip to The Right Way to Get from Heathrow to London.
Starting Off Right
I had a great flight with British Airways going from Chicago to London. My 7.5 hour flight turned into a 6.5 hours thanks to a strong tailwind, and it was one of the best overseas flights I’d had. The seats were relatively comfortable and there were tons of included free perks. I had my own entertainment screen with movies, tv shows, and games, two in-flight meals, a snack box in the back of the plane full of goodies to munch on, and free alcohol for all passengers. When I landed in London at 7am, I almost felt refreshed.
The Wrong Way to Get from Heathrow to London
Filled with adrenaline, carry-on bags in hand, I powered off the plane at Terminal 5 and made for the Heathrow trains connecting to London. I bought a ticket for the Heathrow Connect, the cheaper train, and went to find the platform. Not finding the platform, I asked around and found out the Heathrow Connect only stops at Terminal 3. By the time I figured this out, the train connecting to Terminal 3 had just left. I waited the 15 minutes for the next train.
Getting off at the station for Terminals 1, 2, and 3, I looked for signs for the Heathrow Connect. Not seeing any, I thought I must be in the wrong place. Maybe the station is in a different part of the terminal. I followed the signs for Terminal 3, and entered the main airport. With no signs for the Connect in sight, I asked information and sure enough, I should have just stayed where I was. They told me the next Connect train was arriving in a few minutes. I rushed back to the station – not a short walk, by the way – to see the Connect train waiting at the platform, its doors closing. The train (mockingly, it seemed) sat at the platform with its doors locked shut for a full minute before I watched it pull away without me.
I overheard someone saying that the next Connect train wouldn’t arrive for another hour. At that point, I didn’t care which train I got on, as long as I got from Heathrow to London. I boarded the next train, a Heathrow Express, and hoped I wouldn’t be kicked off for having the wrong ticket.
Sure enough, I was caught. I had to pay the difference in ticket price between the Connect fare (£10.10) and the Express fare (£21.50). Just 15 minutes later, I arrived at Paddington Station.
Maybe it was the jetlag or the fact that I hadn’t slept, but I couldn’t figure out how to get out of Paddington station. I think in a more normal state, I would have walked right out, but I wandered the station for 20 minutes making a full loop around and several backtracks until I realized I’d walked right past the exit I wanted.
Finally out, and feeling really stupid, I walked down the street to try and find a bus stop. With no luck after a few blocks I went back to Paddington Station and asked a parking attendant for directions. The bus stop was just half a block in the opposite direction. At the bus stop, I studied the map and figured out which route I wanted, and waited until it pulled up. When my bus arrived, I wasn’t allowed on board. It turns out you can’t just hop on a bus in London and pay cash. I needed an Oyster Card, London’s transit card, in order to pay the fare. Back to Paddington, I went.
I lugged my bags down the stairs to Paddington Underground Station. Armed with my new Oyster card, I trudged back out to the bus stop, just to watch my next bus pull away without me. That was getting old really fast. I waited for the next bus as it started to rain.
Another bus came in a few minutes, and I was shuttled off toward my hostel. I got off at the right stop and walked from Oxford Street up Great Portland. Ironically, an elderly couple stopped me for directions. Thinking I knew where I was going, I gave them somewhat misguided advice. Sure enough, after 20 minutes of walking, I realized I must have been lost. When I asked for directions I discovered I had walked half a mile past my hostel. Doubling back, I finally crossed the threshold of YHA London Central.
From deplaning at Heathrow to planting myself on the couch in the lobby, it had been three hours. Wow.
The Right Way to Get from Heathrow to London
No matter how much you travel, sometimes it gets the best of you. I felt like one of those teams on The Amazing Race that wastes hours getting lost because they can’t read signs properly. I desperately needed some breadcrumbs to follow that morning in London. So hopefully if you’re reading this, you can learn from my mistakes! Here are all of the things I should have done to get from Heathrow to London:
- You’ve just gotten off the plane and collected your bags. Use Heathrow’s free wifi to load the map for your hotel/hostel onto your phone. Open up google maps and find your destination. Zoom out to fit the entire area you may need, then type “ok maps” into the search field. You’ll be asked if you want to save the map. By saving the map, you will be able to access the map anywhere, even when you have cellular data turned off.
- If you’re in Terminals 4 or 5, take the free airport transfer train to Terminal 3, running every 15 minutes.
- Buy a ticket for the Heathrow Connect (£10.10). If a Heathrow Express train comes earlier you can pay the fare difference on board (an extra £11.40). Heathrow Connect travel time is 26 minutes, Heathrow Express travel time is 15 minutes.
- Get off at Paddington Station and follow the signs for the Paddington Underground Metro Station.
- Buy an Oyster Card from a ticket machine.
- Study the underground map to figure out which lines to take. Then use your Oyster Card to enter the station.
- Take the tube to your destination. Once you’re off, exit the station by swiping your Oyster card at the turnstiles.
- Walk to your hotel/hostel, using your downloaded map and GPS on your phone if you get lost.
Once you get the hang of it, the transit system in London is easy to navigate and quite functional. I had no trouble once I had gotten some sleep. If you’re like me, though, you may need a little assistance your first time, especially if you’re jetlagged! I hope this helps you get from Heathrow to London!
Have you ever had a transit nightmare? Share your story in the comments!