London. The vibrant, beating heart of the United Kingdom. It’s one of the world’s most popular destinations for tourists and business travelers too. The amount of commerce that goes through London is staggering, with a financial center second only to New York and service industries that cater for both the UK, European and international markets. As the world’s most multicultural city – there are over 300 languages spoken by a population of over eight million people (twelve million if you include the metropolitan area) – the business opportunities are clear.
With the UK strategically positioned for the business traveler on the western edge of Europe, London is a global hub for air travel, providing easy access to mainland Europe and a stepping stone to the United States. Primarily served by five airports – Heathrow, Gatwick, City, Stansted, and Luton – London is easily reached from anywhere in the world. But except London City Airport – smallest of the five and located in East London, close to the business district of Canary Wharf – the other four airports are satellites evenly dispersed around the city. The most popular, Heathrow, is located to the west of London; Gatwick is situated to the south; Stansted to the northeast; and Luton to the North West. Knowing this before you make your travel plans can be useful. Since the greater metropolitan area of London covers over 1,000 square miles, your final business destination may not be right in the center. Researching which airport is closest to your destination can save you time, effort, and money.
However, whether you’re a business traveler flying from within the UK or overseas, your starting destination may often determine the airport you arrive at. Other factors, such as your chosen time of travel, budget, and availability, will also make a difference. For example, if you’re traveling with a major international carrier from a major city, such as New York, the chances are you’ll arrive at Heathrow or Gatwick (Stansted also receives flights from New York but is the smallest of the three). If you’re traveling locally from within the UK with a budget carrier, you’re more likely to arrive at Stansted or Luton (though not exclusively). And if you’re traveling from a major European city, particularly a financial capital, such as Frankfurt, London City Airport is a likely arrival point (the airport was created specifically to cater for short-haul business travelers, particularly between financial centers).
Each airport is served by comprehensive rail and road infrastructure, providing business travelers with various options to enter London. All five airports offer direct rail travel into the heart of Central London, coach travel to the main Victoria terminus, and hire car, mini-bus, licensed black cab, and taxi services by road. If you’re a VIP business traveler, chauffeur services are also available. Except London City Airport, each also offers direct helicopter transfer into the city’s heart.
London Heathrow Airport
The busiest of the five airports is London Heathrow. Located less than twenty miles from central London, Heathrow is situated to the city’s west within the M25 motorway metropolitan boundary. The fastest route into London is via the Heathrow Express train service, taking just 15 minutes from terminals 1, 2, and 3 to Paddington station (located on the western side of Central London). If your flight arrives at either terminal 4 or 5, it’s a further four and six minutes travel time, respectively, and you’ll need to transfer on to the main London-bound service at terminals 1, 2, and 3.
The service is excellent, offering comfort and convenience, but it does not always suit everyone’s travel budget. The standard ‘Express’ single journey ticket costs £21.00 (€25.00 / $35.00), but business travelers can get better value when purchasing a return ticket, priced at £34.00 (€40.00 / $56.00). The ‘Business First’ ticket is more expensive, with singles costing £29.00 (€35.00 / $48.00) and returns £52.00 (€62.00 / $86.00), but it does afford business travelers considerably more legroom, the privacy of a ‘single seating’ layout, and a fold-out table. The experience is akin to that of air travel. All passengers across both pricing structures enjoy access to electrical sockets, USB ports, and free Wi-Fi. The overall quality of service and passenger experience generates a ‘wow factor. If your budget can afford it, it is certainly the smoothest, quickest, and most convenient way to travel into London from Heathrow. Trains run regularly every fifteen minutes in both directions, particularly useful for last-minute dashes to the airport.
There are two further rail options available to business travelers, both considerably less expensive, though this is reflected in the quality of service. That’s not to say either is not a good solution for business travelers, just that there is a noticeable difference in convenience and comfort.
With a service typically running every thirty minutes and a journey duration – depending on the time of day – between 23 and 27 minutes from terminals 1, 2, and 3, Heathrow Connect is more than adequate for business travelers who are not in a hurry. Like the rival Express service, Connect also arrives at Paddington station, but unlike its faster rival stops at up to five other stations before reaching its terminus. The ‘inconvenience’ of this less direct journey is compensated for by a considerably less expensive ticket price. Single journey’s cost £9.90 (€12.00 / $16.00) while a return is £19.80 (€24.00 / $32.00). There is no saving to be made from purchasing a return ticket. While the convenience and comfort of the traveler experience cannot match the Express, the Connect business travel solution is an acceptable compromise that suits a greater number of travel budgets.
The third – and least expensive – rail option is the London Underground ‘tube’ network. Despite the network’s name, the majority of the journey from Heathrow is overground until the business traveler nears Central London. Starting on the Piccadilly Line, the service connects all five Heathrow terminals. It provides frequent trains into London, stopping at many outlying stations before arriving in the capital’s center. This continually ‘interrupted’ journey – there are seventeen stops between Heathrow terminals 1, 2, and 3 and Paddington Tube station (the nearest equivalent tube terminus for a fair comparison) – and takes approximately fifty minutes journey time on average, considerably slower than its more direct rivals. This journey comparison also requires the inconvenience of a transfer between lines.
So why would the business traveler consider using the tube from Heathrow to Central London? Simple. The frequency of service, the array of destinations, and the cost. At a cash price of just £5.70 (€6.80 / $9.50) for a single journey in either direction during peak hours (06:30 am to 09:30 am), the Underground is an attractive option financially. At nearly half the price of the Heathrow Connect, and at just over a quarter of the price of the Heathrow Express, this service is comparably good value for money. Further value can be found if the business traveler purchases an ‘Oyster Card,’ the ‘cashless’ electronic ticketing system beloved by so many Londoners. Available to purchase at Heathrow London Underground stations, this useful option allows you to get tickets cheaper than for cash – in this case, a reduction to just £5.00 (€6.00 / $8.30). Off-peak travel with an Oyster Card offers even greater value, with Heathrow to Paddington in either direction costing just £3.00 (€3.60 / $5.00) per journey. The Oyster Card can also be used for unlimited travel on buses and trains throughout London, with a maximum daily spend capped at £17.00 (€20.00 / $28.00) peak time and just £8.90 (€10.60 / $15.00) off-peak for a six-zone ticket (destinations across London are divided into six main zonal rings. Travelling from Heathrow to Central London crosses all six zones).
The Underground is primarily a city-wide mass transit system rather than a ‘train’ service. The level of comfort and convenience is substantially less than that of both the Heathrow Express and Connect services, and at peak hours can be considerably uncomfortable. Having endured a recent flight, business travelers who choose this option risk standing up the entire journey if traveling during peak hours. If the carriage is full to the squeezing point (as is often the case at peak time), managing your luggage can be challenging. It should also be noted that the tube network – which, as the world’s first urban mass-transit system is over 150 years old – is often prone to signal failures and delays. If the time between your arrival at Heathrow (don’t forget to factor in clearing immigration control, luggage collection, and customs) and your business appointment is tight, particularly during peak hours, it is not unfair to say that you are taking a risk if you choose to use the Underground.
Compared to using rail, traveling by road into Central London is far less convenient. Like every major city around the world, traffic congestion plagues the streets of London. The M4 and A4 route from Heathrow into London is always busy and, in parts, can be slow-moving at times. No matter your road transport method, the business traveler is vulnerable to the risk of delays and accidents.
Buses and coaches are plentiful. The dominant carrier is called National Express. They operate services between Heathrow Airport and London Victoria, the main coach terminus in London. From here, travelers can travel to many other destinations around the UK. The coaches run from Heathrow Airport Central Bus Station, located between terminals 1, 2, and 3. It’s a good sign posted so easily found. If you’re arriving at terminals 4 or 5, you’ll need to take the Heathrow Connect train to the central bus station. From Victoria Station, you can get to any other part of London with ease, via the Underground, plentiful buses, local trains, and licensed black cabs/minicab taxi services.
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Single journey tickets start from £6.00 (€7.20 / $10.00), while returns cost £11.00 (€13.20 / $18.00). Although you can purchase your ticket at Heathrow, it is advisable to do so in advance and online. This will ensure you have a guaranteed, reserved seat on your coach of choice and also provide you with the opportunity to select a time of departure and/or return that best suits your needs. Typically this service runs three coaches per hour to and from London Victoria coach station. The journey time ca
n vary, dependent on the route taken, the time of day, and traffic conditions, but you can typically expect your journey to take between 40 and 90 minutes.
National Express also offers business travelers a Heathrow hotel transfer service to and from the airport, known as the Heathrow Hoppa. With hundreds of services each day running around the clock, it’s a clean, comfortable and affordable way to get about, costing £4.00 (€4.80 / $6.60) for a single journey and £7.00 (€8.40/ $11.50) for a return journey. This service is beneficial if your business appointment is located close to Heathrow and you have no need to travel into Central London.
An alternative to coach travel is taking a bus. This can be particularly useful if you arrive at Heathrow late at night. Depending on the day of the week, the N9 night bus runs approximately every 20 minutes to Trafalgar Square in Central London, from 11.30 pm to 5 am. The journey time is approximately 75 minutes, subject to traffic delays. It’s a very affordable service, and as part of the Transport for London infrastructure, a single journey can be paid for with an Oyster Card (£1.40 (€1.70/ $2.30) or by cash (£2.40 (€2.90/ $4.00).
If your journey into London requires the freedom to choose to travel whenever you want, to wherever you want, or you require privacy, then private hire transport is readily available at Heathrow. If you’re just interested in getting from A to B and back again, without any other journeys in between, taking a licensed black cab or minicab taxi may suit your needs. Traveling in an iconic licensed black cab into Central London will take approximately 45-60 minutes, subject to traffic delays, and can typically cost between £50.00 (€60.00/ $83.00) and £80.00 (€96.00/ $132.00). If you find yourself delayed in traffic, the journey will cost more since black cab meters also charge for waiting time when not moving. Black cabs are readily available at all hours, and good signposting at Heathrow means they’re easy to find. At a squeeze, up to five business travelers can be accommodated, though if you all have large luggage, it will be a problem.
An alternative private hire to black cabs is licensed taxi services. This could be a better option for the business traveler, particularly if several people with luggage are traveling together. An array of vehicle types are available, ranging from standard 4/5 seater saloon and 6/7 passenger cars, up to 15 or 17 seater minibusses, and even coach taxis. An added advantage is you can book your vehicle of choice in advance and at a fixed price. With so many different companies offering these services, prices – and quality of service – can vary. Still, typically for a single journey, the business traveler can expect to pay a fixed, advance price of £40.00 (€48.00/ $66.00) for a saloon car; £50.00 (€60.00/ $83.00) for an estate car; £55.00 (€66.00/ $90.00) for an executive car; £55.00 (€66.00/ $90.00) for a people carrier; £65.00 (€78.00/ $108.00) for an 8 seater minibus; £80.00 (€96.00/ $132.00) for an executive people carrier; and £165.00 (€198.00/ $272.00) for a 16 seater minibus. Savings can be made on all tariffs if a return journey is booked in advance.