Air travel is arguably the most convenient way to visit a foreign country, which is why huge numbers of travellers headed to London choose to arrive via Heathrow Airport.
This airport is also a frequent point of departure for British tourists travelling abroad. Some guests with longer layovers even choose to stay in a budget hotel near Heathrow while awaiting the next leg of their trip or, for short-stays, opt to stay nearby for easy access.
No matter in which direction your journey is headed or how much time you are spending at or near Heathrow, it’s easier to navigate the largest air hub in the United Kingdom with just a little bit of preparation.
This list of practical facts will help you make the most out of your experience at this bustling airport and will (hopefully) help you avoid any unfavourable mishaps.
1. Never arrive last minute for your flight
Some people make it a habit of arriving for check-in at the very last moment. Whether that’s to cut down on your waiting time or because you tend to procrastinate when it comes to packing, Heathrow is not the right place for such strategies, due simply to its size and the volume of traffic it sees on a daily basis.
Be aware that check-in lines might be a little longer than you expect, the gates are located a little further than your average airport, and it’s not hard to make a costly wrong turn if you are in a rush. When travelling from Heathrow, you should never arrive less than 2 or 3 hours ahead of the take-off time – or you might end up missing your flight and – worse! – delaying your holiday.
2. Security is taken seriously at Heathrow
These days, all airports are ramping up security and Heathrow is certainly not an exception.
All passengers are subjected to thorough scans, while the rules regarding what’s allowed in hand luggage are applied very strictly. It goes without saying that you can’t take any weapons, explosive substances or incapacitating sprays like pepper spray aboard a plane either, but many people forget that any liquids in excess of 100 ml or common items such as scissors or razor blades are forbidden as well.
Travel-size shampoo anyone?
Breaking any of these rules whether on purpose or accidentally can lead to a time-consuming and potentially embarrassing situation with the security staff, so it’s better to read up on what is and isn’t allowed before you start packing.
3. Heathrow has four different terminals for different flights
Your flight could be routed through any of the four active terminals at Heathrow, so it’s essential to be sure which one you need to attend.
The terminals are labelled Terminal 2 to Terminal 5 (there used to be a Terminal 1 until it was closed in 2015). Each air carrier is assigned to a specific terminal, but the assignments change over time and it’s necessary to make sure you know which one your flight operator is currently using. That means checking texts and e-mails before heading to the airport and, upon arrival, having a look at departure boards.
If you do make a mistake, the terminals are connected to each other. But, the distances are great enough to cause a pretty serious delay and can be a drag, especially if you have a lot of luggage.
4. London is not far, but the ride there could take a while
Heathrow Airport is located just 15 miles from Central London, which doesn’t seem like much until you consider the amount of traffic shuttling between Britain’s capital city and its busiest international airport.
Catching a cab, calling an Uber, or arranging a private car pick-up can actually all be a bit slower than you might expect. Instead, we recommend the Heathrow Express train which is the fastest (but also most expensive) option.
5. There are plenty of places to stay near Heathrow
There is a wide range of accommodation near Heathrow Airport to choose from, so it’s very convenient to stay overnight and catch an early flight out of town. This includes luxury and more budget-friendly options, and hotels like Park Grand Heathrow are well-equipped for travellers looking for a comfortable night sleep before catching a flight out of Heathrow the next morning. Even if you plan on paying a visit to the capital, Park Grand Heathrow is well-positioned for easy access.
6. There are plenty of attractions to see near Heathrow
Travellers who are not in a hurry can take advantage of favourable Heathrow hotel deals and stay for several days, spending their time visiting local attractions.
Some of the most impressive sights you can easily reach from Heathrow include Windsor Castle, Twickenham Stadium and Kew Gardens, to name just a few popular tourist spots. All other attractions in the London metropolitan area can be conveniently visited from a hotel near the airport too, so it’s perfectly viable to enjoy a short holiday from a base outside the city.
7. You can log on to free Wi-Fi while at the airport
Let’s face it, it’s important to stay connected. Whether you have business to take care of, family to stay in touch with, or just want some entertainment while you wait for your flight, it’s good to know that Heathrow Airport provides free (and fast!) Wi-Fi service for all passengers.
You can connect to the Internet as soon as you arrive and check your social media accounts, share your latest selfies, search for directions or respond to e-mails while you are walking through Heathrow’s long corridors.
8. Be prepared for the border controls
Depending on your country of origin, you might be subjected to passport controls or even need a visa when entering Great Britain. Forgetting your passport or failing to file the proper paperwork before you arrive could be a costly mistake that could land you on the next flight back home.
Bear in mind, that’s the worst-case scenario!
But, even with your passport, you might be forced to wait in a long line and will almost certainly have to have information about where you’re staying, who you’re visiting, and how long you plan on staying to hand. While this is an important process, there’s absolutely nothing to worry about – chances are you will be on your way soon into the city before you know it.
9. Be aware of the exchange rates
Pound Sterling is the only official currency accepted in Britain, so you will have to change your money before you leave home or upon arrival. It’s possible to withdraw money from an ATM or pay with a card, but in this case, your funds will be automatically converted to pounds, often at less than favourable rate.
Exchange offices, bank, and post offices all generally offer exchange services, but you should know the going rates so you can pick the place that offers the most. Top tip: only paper notes can be exchanged – any foreign coins you might have are nearly impossible to convert into pounds.
10. You can get last-minute gifts at Heathrow
We have all been guilty of forgetting to buy presents for our close friends and family members, so last-minute shopping at the airport is often a last resort for travellers. Luckily, we have good news!
If your return flight takes you through Heathrow, you won’t have to settle for thoughtless gifts. There are a lot of high-end stores at Heathrow as well as souvenir shops, so you will be just as well-served as you would be if you visited a shopping area in central London.