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Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted: Which London airport do I pick?

Posted July 28

London's status as a world aviation hub extends far beyond Heathrow. The UK's capital is served by six airports in total, some stretching the geographical definition of London to the limit.

Whether you're arriving on a budget flight into Luton or taking a long-haul trip out of Gatwick, our airport guide for London will tell you how to get in and out of town and what to expect when you're in the terminal.

Prices are provided for rough guidance, but are likely to change from the ones listed here, which were accurate as of 2017.

1. Heathrow (LHR)

Heathrow Airport, London's main hub, is also one of the world's busiest airports, with 75.7 million passengers passing through in 2016.

Spread across five terminals and just 14 miles west of central London, it's the easiest airport for getting into town.

The Piccadilly Line on the Underground metro system serves three tube stations (Heathrow Terminals 1, 2 and 3; Terminal 4; and Terminal 5 -- all in fare zone 6), with trains running every two to three minutes during the day, with a journey time of around 45 minutes from zone 1.

Fares cost -5.10 at peak times (6.30 a.m. to 9.30 a.m., 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., Monday to Friday) and -3.10 at off-peak when using an Oyster card or contactless payment card. This rises to -6 for a paper ticket at all times.

Alternatively, there's a train direct connecting to Paddington station in west London. The Heathrow Express takes 15 minutes to Terminals 1, 2 and 3, with the on-the-spot fares starting at -22 for a single ticket and -37 return.

Long dubbed the UK's most expensive train journey, heavy criticism has led to the introduction of cheaper advance tickets, starting as low as -5.50 when bought 90 days ahead of a weekend trip and -12.10 for a weekday.

Thirty-day advance tickets cost -8.80 for weekends and -14.30 for weekdays, while 14-day advance tickets cost -12.10 at weekends and -16.50 on weekdays.

National Railcard holders can also get a 34% discount on advance tickets.

Business Class tickets, offering more legroom, cost -32 one-way and -55 return.

The Heathrow Connect service, which stops at intermediate stations between Paddington and Heathrow, costs -10.30 for a single ticket and -20.70 for a return. National Railcards are also accepted on this service.

National Express operates 51 coach services per day from Victoria coach station, a five-minute walk south from Victoria train station. Turn-up-and-board tickets cost -10 single, with -5 advance tickets available.

An open return costs -26, while fixed returns can be secured for as low as -14. Journey times are optimistically advertised as 35 minutes, although London's notorious traffic often means it can take twice as long.

A traditional black cab can take you to and from Heathrow meaning you don't have to deal with public transport. But depending on traffic, journey times can be anywhere between 30 minutes and one hour, with prices set between -46 and -87.

Taxis can take five passengers, with some larger vehicles able to accommodate six, plus wheelchairs and buggies.

Ride-share services and minicabs -- as pre-booked cabs are known in the UK -- can be booked for private trips and will cost less. However, the likes of Uber are not allowed to send their drivers into the terminal to greet you, meaning more traditional methods are more stress-free.

While Heathrow can at times feel like a shopping mall with an airport attached, it's unquestionably the best-served airport in London.

Every major airline flies here and the facilities are largely excellent. The fact it runs at 99% capacity, though, means it's often extremely busy. Non-European Union arrivals should prepare for long queues at immigration.

MORE: Why is Oslo Airport called the world's greenest?

2. Gatwick (LGW)

At around 25 miles from the city center, Gatwick is more mockney than cockney. Spread over two terminals (North and South), which have been mercifully refurbished in recent years, Gatwick handled a massive 43.1 million passengers in 2016.

That hefty distance from the city center means it can be both costly and time-consuming to get to and from Gatwick if you don't book transport in advance.

Thanks to the UK's somewhat opaque rail ticketing system, it's all too easy for first-time visitors to wind up with the wrong ticket and on the wrong train.

Gatwick's train station is served by Gatwick Express, Southern and Thameslink trains. Gatwick Express trains run non-stop to London Victoria every 15 minutes and take half an hour, while Southern services run to Victoria, with journey times between 35 and 50 minutes. Thameslink serves London Bridge, as well as London Blackfriars and London St Pancras, with trains taking up to 60 minutes.

Gatwick Express charges -17.80 single from Victoria if you book online. An open return costs -31.80 when booked online. Alternatively, you can also use your contactless payment card or Oyster card to get to the airport without buying a paper ticket. This costs -19.80.

A paper ticket single bought at Victoria or Gatwick will cost you -19.90. Gatwick Express also offers -25.50 off for two people traveling together using its Web Duo tickets, available online only. This works out at -45.50 for both passengers.

Gatwick Express also offers first class tickets, costing -29.70 at the station or -26.50 online for a one-way fare. Returns cost -57.50 regardless of where you buy, but if you get one online you'll also get free airport lounge access. First class offers a cordoned-off area on the train, but seats are identical to standard and there's no on-board catering.

Southern trains offer singles for -15.70 from Victoria, a return costing -31.40. These fares can be as low as -12 one way if booked in advance. Thameslink tickets are much cheaper, with singles from London Blackfriars and London Bridge starting at -10.40 single and -19.80 return.

National Railcard holders can get discounts on all three services.

Be aware that boarding a Gatwick Express train with a Southern or Thameslink ticket can leave you liable to a penalty fare. Gatwick Express trains are red, while Southern or Thameslink trains are either green and white or purple.

This train line is also regularly hit by disruption, thanks to aging tracks and signals, industrial action and a generally poor service. Southern is statistically the UK's worst train operator.

Gatwick Airport train station is cramped and queues can get very long, so buy online and print tickets at home if you can.

If all that seems stressful (and even for Londoners, it truly is), Gatwick offers its own taxi service to central London, with prices starting at -22.50 based on four people sharing. A black cab will cost up to -125 depending on traffic, with journey times taking up to 90 minutes.

Coaches run from Victoria coach station to Gatwick and are much more affordable than the train. easyBus offers advance tickets from as little as -2 and also drops off at London Waterloo, while National Express tickets start from -5. The latter has kiosks in both the North and South terminals.

For the brave (or just the foolhardy), Gatwick has impressive cycle access. It's on National Cycle Route 21, which runs from Greenwich in south London, and has bike parking as well as bike lifts for getting in and out of the South terminal. Ideal if you're off on a two-wheeled trip.

Gatwick's security is much swifter than Heathrow's and immigration lines tend to move fast thanks to automatic gates. Its restaurants have also improved markedly in recent years. However, the overabundance of shops, much like Heathrow, means spaces to sit and relax before take-off are at a premium.

MORE: London's oldest pubs

3. Stansted (STN)

With more scheduled flights to Europe than any other UK airport, Stansted is hugely popular with those taking budget flights to and from the continent.

Originally a World War II airfield, it has a two-mile long runway designed to accommodate US Air Force Flying Fortresses, although today's planes are a lot smaller and far less menacing (molten in-flight Ryanair toasted sandwiches notwithstanding).

Thirty miles equidistant between Cambridge and London and set in leafy Essex countryside, Stansted is easiest to reach from the east of the city.

The Stansted Express train service runs every quarter of an hour and takes 45 minutes to and from Liverpool Street in London's financial district. It also stops at Tottenham Hale for connections to the London Underground Victoria Line and the center of town.

Single journeys cost -16.60 from Liverpool Street, with return fares costing -28. From Tottenham Hale, tickets cost -26 return and -15.70 single.

Advance fares are available online, staring at -7 single from Liverpool Street and -6.50 from Tottenham Hale.

National Railcard discounts apply here also.

The Stansted Express also offers first-class tickets, which come with a fast-track pass allowing you to skip the line at security. Singles cost -27.10 from Liverpool Street and -42.10, -25.30 and -41.10 from Tottenham Hale. Advance first-class tickets are available from -24 online. First-class seats are wider than in standard, with more legroom. A catering trolley offers refreshments for all passengers.

National Express coaches run to Stansted Airport 24 hours a day on four different routes into town, dropping off at 18 different locations across London. Fares start from as little as -5 one-way when bought online, with returns costing -10. Journey times can be as fast as 50 minutes, but traffic in and out of the city can easily clog up, pushing trips closer to the two-hour mark.

Pre-booked cabs -- known as minicabs -- from the center of London to Stansted Airport can cost as little as -60. However, hailing a black cab to take you the full 30 miles will cost in excess of -100.

Stansted only has one terminal, an award-winning design by Norman Foster which opened in 1991.

Its original spacious, bright concept has been critically undermined in recent years, however, due to the unbending British obsession of turning every free space in an airport into a shop. As such, the terminal can feel cramped.

4. Luton (LTN)

Like Gatwick and Stansted, London's fourth airport, at Luton, is nearly 30 miles from the city center. Yet despite being the same distance from town, it's the quickest of the three to reach by train (not including the shuttle bus to the terminal).

East Midlands trains run fast, hourly services from London St Pancras to Luton Airport Parkway, taking just 25 minutes. Thameslink runs a more regular service from St Pancras, at intervals of every 15 minutes at peak times, with journey times between 30 and 35 minutes. Tickets cost -27.50 return, with one-way fares at -15.70. First-class singles cost -25, with returns at -47.30. First class is rudimentary, however, and does not represent great value for money.

Thameslink trains also run to London Blackfriars, Farringdon and City Thameslink, with access to connecting trains and Tube services.

National Railcard discounts apply.

Visitors should remember to buy a ticket to Luton Airport rather than Luton Airport Parkway. The latter is the nearest station to the airport, with all passengers required to take a shuttle bus to the terminal. This adds 10 to 15 minutes to all journey times. Failure to buy the correct ticket means having to pay a -2.10 bus fare.

National Express coaches pick up and drop off at 30 different locations in London from Luton Airport, with one-way tickets from -5 online.

You can pay a -5 add-on which allows you to get on any available coach 12 hours before or 12 hours after your planned departure time. Journey times from Victoria coach station can take as long as two hours during rush hour, although that falls to around an hour at peak times.

A pre-booked taxi costs from around -50, with a black cab costing around -100 depending on traffic. Luton Airport is next to the M1 motorway, so traffic can get heavy, especially during early mornings and evenings.

The airport itself is basic, with a lack of ample seating space after clearing security. The preponderance of budget airlines such as Easyjet means that a lot of flights leave very early, with crowds building from around 4 a.m.

Passengers often have to queue in corridors to board rather than waiting in a dedicated seating area.

The airport is going through a huge redevelopment, due to be finished in 2026.

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5. City (LCY)

Arguably London's most convenient airport, City is nestled in the heart of the Docklands area, six miles from the City financial district and a stone's throw from Canary Wharf.

Flights into and out of City tend to be short-haul hops to Europe for business travelers, although BA1, British Airways' 32-seat business-class-only flight to New York gives it the edge among bankers and suits working down the road.

City doesn't have a mainline train station, but can be accessed via the Docklands Light Railway (DLR). You can travel directly from Bank in the heart of the City of London in 20 minutes.

Alternatively, you can take the Jubilee Line to Canning Town, from where it's just a seven-minute DLR ride to the airport. City Airport is in Zone 3, with a single fare costing -2.80 off peak or -3.30 at peak times, as long as you use an Oyster card or contactless payment card. A paper ticket costs -4.90.

Black cabs from the City take around 40 minutes and can cost more than -40 depending on traffic. A pre-booked taxi from central London costs from -27. Local bus services also drop off at the airport, although these understandably take circuitous routes through surrounding areas and are best avoided if you're in a rush.

City Airport is small, with a handful of restaurants and lounges. However, the relative lack of flights taking off and landing mean that it rarely feels crowded. Its dinky size also means that it's a short walk from the DLR station to arrivals and departures.

6. Southend (SEN)

History shows that city boundaries are fluid. But not so fluid to include an airport that sits a massive 42 miles from the center of London.

Southend is a town deep into Essex, where the Thames opens out into the North Sea. But its little airport has managed to become an important hub for visitors using budget airlines to fly to and from short-haul destinations across Europe, largely in France and Spain.

Greater Anglia trains operate from London Liverpool Street direct to Southend Airport, with a journey time of 53 minutes. Tickets cost -16.20 for a "super off-peak" single (super off-peak runs from 12 noon until 4 p.m., and then from 7 p.m. until the end of service).

An Anytime single costs -17.10 and a first-class single costs -27.50. Return tickets cost -25.00 at off-peak times, -34.29 for an Anytime fare and -52.30 for first class. Cheaper advance tickets using specific services are available online. National Railcard discounts apply.

Southend's small size means it's not as easily reached by bus or coach. The X30 service runs between Southend Airport and Stansted Airport, which is handy for connections. A single ticket costs -16 and a return -23. A group return ticket costs -50. All are available to buy from the driver.

Pre-booked taxis cost around -70, while a black cab will cost as much as -150 when factoring in distance and the heavy traffic getting out of London.

The airport itself is basic, but modern, with just a couple of restaurants and a newsagent. It may not be as stressful as Heathrow, but amenities are inevitably lacking by comparison.

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