Do you know how to enjoy a layover in London and still stay on budget? The first thing to enjoy is your view on final approach.
Maybe if the weather cooperates and the flight path is similar, you will be able to take a few pictures. Although there are other area airports, most of the time your London layover will start or finish at either Gatwick (south of Central London) or Heathrow (west of Central London). Gatwick has a north and south terminal, while at Heathrow the terminals are numbered from one to five.
Together, these two airports handle an estimated 100 million passengers a year, with both Heathrow and Gatwick ranking among the top passenger airports in the world. Don't assume your scheduled 11 a.m. landing will have you inside the gate at precisely that time. It's also important to know which terminal you'll be entering and how to find your way around each airport. That task is made simpler by two airport websites for Heathrow and Gatwick.
Allow Time in the Terminal
This is Heathrow Terminal 5, the newest and perhaps most impressive section of the airport. In many places it looks more like an upscale shopping mall than a busy international crossroads for air travelers. All those people you see waiting on the first level already have cleared security and are awaiting word on a gate for departure. In my experiences, security lines at Heathrow move along efficiently. But you can only go so quickly when the lines are long, which is the case here almost every day. So allow plenty of time to depart the terminal (usually a fairly long walk or bus ride is involved) and time at the other end of your layover to board the outbound flight.
If you'll be leaving luggage, there are places to store it here. You'll pay dearly for the privilege: at Heathrow, it's £6 for up to two hours, and £11 for 2-24 hours, £18.50 for 24-48 hours. Gatwick prices are about the same.
While no one likes paying these left luggage costs, hauling your luggage through a whirlwind tour of London is even less appealing. Some hotels will allow you to leave luggage after checkout, and a few will even do so for free. Just be sure the hotel is convenient to your path back to the airport.
Train Options to Central London
For most budget travelers on a London layover, trains offer the best combination of efficiency and economy for a trip into the central city. By contrast, cab rides between Heathrow and central London range from £46-£87 ($56- $106). Gatwick fares are roughly £130 ($159 USD) each way. Yes, a 10 percent tip is expected on top of those fees. Most budget travelers say "no thanks" to these prices.
Fortunately, train travel options are efficient and convenient. The more expensive choices will save valuable time, and in a London layover situation, that might provide the best value. It's important to choose the best option for your budget and layover length.
The Gatwick and Heathrow express trains connect both airports with Central London, Gatwick-Victoria Station and Heathrow-Paddington Station. The Gatwick Express starts at about £20 ($25 USD) single for a 30 minute ride; The Heathrow Express runs £22-25 ($27-$31 USD), depending upon whether or not you travel at peak times. Note that buying tickets online entitles travelers to a small discount.
The London underground or "tube" trains also run from Heathrow to Central London and cost much less, but they take twice as much time because they make many stops along the way. For that reason, it always pays to get express tickets when your layover time is limited. This is not a place to economize. Save the time for sightseeing.
If you do take The Tube, use the Picadilly Line and expect to pay about £6 ($8.50 USD) for a one-way single ticket. Americans without chip credit cards should note that the ticket machines are set up for chips. The Chip and Pin security measures are common throughout Europe. If this is a problem for you, take advantage of the traditional ticket windows.
There are no London underground options from Gatwick, but there is a somewhat slower train called the Southern which costs £20 single ($25 USD) for an average journey time of 50 minutes.
There is a coach line that makes the trip from Heathrow to Central London for about the same price as the tube trains, but it is subject to the notoriously heavy road traffic in this area.
A few words of caution: all the travel times here are rough estimates and probably best-case scenarios for the most part. Pad these travel times considerably as you make your London layover plans.
Overnight Budget Options
Many a London layover takes place during a 24-hour day with no need for overnight accommodations. But in some cases, you'll need to spend the night. Some in this situation prefer to travel into Central London and enjoy the benefits of being in the heart of one of the world's most important cities. Others opt for a budget hotel near the airport from which they will depart. The second option usually results in a smaller bill, but some of these so-called airport lodgings take an hour to reach even though they are only a mile or two from the terminal. Shuttle buses travel congested roads and make many stops along the way. Hoppa Buses serve Heathrow and local hotels for £6 direct ($7.30 USD).
Accor Hotels, including Ibis have airport hotel facilities, but you can also search hotel prices for hotel prices along the Picadilly Line, which might prove more convenient at times.
London Layover - Changing of the Guard
The time-honored Changing of the Guard tradition usually is the first thing London layover travelers investigate. Why not? It costs no money, but it will cost some time getting into position to see it. Speaking of time, it occurs at 11:30 a.m. daily outside of Buckingham Palace during the summer months. At other times of the year, it is every other day. The entire ceremony there lasts about 45 minutes.
We suggest visiting the Guards Museum prior to the ceremony. There is a small entry fee, but you'll leave with a better understanding of what is about to take place.
Note that there is another nearby ceremony referred to as "changing of the guard" in London. Horse Guards Parade is the scene for an 11 a.m. ceremony (10 a.m. on Sundays).
Sights Near Westminster Station
For someone who has spent little or no time in London, it might be best to take the London underground to Westminster Station. When you emerge to the street level, you'll be near familiar landmarks such as Big Ben, The London Eye, Parliament and Westminster Abbey. Nearby, you can stroll along the Thames and see the Tower Bridge and the Tower of London. This is where you will find one of London's greatest concentrations of iconic attractions.
A London layover of just a few hours could allow visits to several of these places, but note that not all of them fit into the budget category. For example, the London Eye is among the world's largest observation wheels with a maximum height of 135 meters (440 feet). But you're likely to spend some time in line with the 10,000 daily visitors and you'll pay a single rate of £22.45 ($27.35 USD). There are higher-priced tickets for fast-track entry.
The Tower of London is another pricey attraction that might better be visited when you have time to enjoy it: entry fees are £63 ($77 USD) for a family and £25 ($30.45 USD) for an adult. Note that you save money when you buy these tickets online.
On a short layover, you can make a walking tour that allows photographs of the major attractions. If you choose only one, be certain you'll have enough time to see everything it offers for the admission price.
If your timing is right and you don't mind some time in line, it is possible to visit British Parliament for free. There is a public queue (line) outside the St. Stephens entrance. About.com's London Travel Guide advises arriving about 1 p.m. on the days Parliament is in session to avoid the longest wait times. The House of Commons Information Office can provide updated information for what might be happening on the morning or afternoon of your London layover.
Walking Tours of Central London
Those in need of an inexpensive but informative primer on Central London can invest £6 ($8.50 USD) for an audio walking tour of London from Head to Foot Audio Tours. One tour is called "Corridors of Power" and includes Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, Westminster. Another at the same price is titled "Palaces, Processions and Piccadilly" and includes Trafalgar Square, The Mall, Buckingham Palace, Royal Parks and (as you might imagine from the title) Piccadilly.
The talks are recorded in sections which you download from the Internet onto your MP3 player. You also download a map marking the route.
For those who like a traditional walking tour with living, breathing guides, consider London Walks which charges a modest £10 ($12 USD) and £6 for seniors age 65 or older. No need to make reservations with London Walks. Watch a video that explains the procedure and make your plans accordingly.
Churchill War Rooms
Perhaps you've been to London several times and you've seen all the major attractions. Maybe you only have three or four hours total before you need to get back to the airport. Here is a fascinating activity that you can only experience in London: a tour of the Churchill War Rooms.
At a fairly steep admission price of £19 ($23 USD) per adult, it's not the cheapest option for a London layover. But if you have an appreciation for 20th century history and at least an hour of free time, it's worth the price.
Churchill and his brain trust conducted the war against the Axis powers from a basement below Whitehall. It was not a bunker. It was simply a basement with some reinforced walls and steel plates for protection. Guides say a direct hit from a German bomb would have killed everyone inside.
After the war it was mostly untouched for decades. In the late 1970s, preservationists began to renovate and restore the area for the benefit of generations that had only read about the hardships.
You'll see the "map room" which was staffed 24/7 for the entire length of the war. Troop movements and fronts were marked with push pins and yarn. You also see Churchill's private quarters and the desk from which he made some of his most inspiring radio addresses.
In the gift shop, you'll see replicas of the red sign that is now becoming fashionable around the world but in Churchill's time was meant to steady the nerves of Londoners facing frequent bombing raids during the Battle of Britain. It simply reads "Keep Calm and Carry On."
The Household Cavalry Museum
A short distance from the Churchill War Rooms is another lesser-known attraction that could be added to a London layover visit: the Household Cavalry Museum and grounds.
These well-trained horses are part of the Queen's Life Guard. It's a great place to understand the pageantry behind some of the ceremony at Buckingham Palace. Admission fees are nominal.
At the very least, you can walk through the grounds on your way to Westminster Station from Whitehall. In front of the building, you will witness the scene depicted above--one wonders how many times someone ventured too close and suffered the fate about which the sign warns -- being kicked or bitten by a frightened horse.
Hours for the museum are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, but be sure to arrive prior to 4:45 p.m., which is the cutoff point for tours. The museum is closed Dec. 25-26 and Good Friday each year.
Walking in London Parks
This scene was taken on an early July day in St. James's Park, which is adjacent to Buckingham Palace and not far from British Parliament (Tube stop: St. James's Park). Londoners retain much civic pride when it comes to their parks, and with good reason. St. James's Park is one of several magnificent places to stroll on a London layover. In fact, parks are among London's best free attractions.
Another famous green space worth savoring is Hyde Park, one of the Royal Parks that is home to several points of interest, including "Speakers Corner." This is the space dedicated to free speech, and ever since 1872 it has hosted anyone who wants to speak about anything, so long as they don't use obscene language.
Ever heard of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon? The closest thing to this ancient wonder in London is Kensington Roof Gardens, which hosts 70 full-sized trees, an English Woodland garden and a stocked flowing stream. It's the largest rooftop gardens in Europe. Although there is no admission charge, the site is closed to the public when someone books a private party here.
Booking a bus tour in London can be expensive for a budget London layover. Expect to pay about $40 USD for a single adult ticket that is good for 24 hours of hop on and hop off privileges. Since you don't have that long to spend here, it's tough to take full advantage of the benefits.
But many visitors to London love riding double-decker buses, and it's possible to do so at much less than what you'd pay for a sightseeing bus. Here's how to do it: purchase a paper bus ticket in Tube stations for under $10 USD and you'll have unlimited use of the red double-deckers for 24 hours. You can find maps for London bus routes online and print those that could be of use to you.