London. The vibrant, beating heart of the United Kingdom. It’s one of the world’s most popular destinations for tourists, and for business travellers too. The amount of commerce that goes through London is staggering, with a financial centre 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 opportunities for business are clear.
With the UK strategically positioned for the business traveller 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 with the exception of 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 north east; 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 centre. Researching which airport is closest to your destination can save you time, effort and money.
However, whether you’re a business traveller flying from within the UK or from 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 travelling 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 travelling 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 travelling 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 travellers, particularly between financial centres).
Each airport is served by comprehensive rail and road infrastructure, providing business travellers with a variety of 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 traveller, chauffeur services are also available, and with the exception of London City Airport, each also offer direct helicopter transfer into the heart of the city.
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 west of the city 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 does not always suite everyone’s travel budget. The standard ‘Express’ single journey ticket costs £21.00 (€25.00 / $35.00), but business travellers 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 travellers considerably more leg room, 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, and if your budget can afford 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 travellers, 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 travellers, 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 – of between 23 and 27 minutes from terminals 1, 2 and 3, Heathrow Connect is more than adequate for business travellers 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 traveller 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 traveller nears Central London. Starting on the Piccadilly Line, the service connects all five Heathrow terminals and provides frequent trains into London, stopping at a considerable amount of outlying stations before arriving in the capital’s centre. 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 traveller 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 (06:30am to 09:30am), financially the Underground is an attractive option. 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 traveller 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. As such 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 travellers who choose this option run the risk of having to stand up the entire journey if travelling during peak hours. If the carriage is full to squeezing point (as is often the case at peak time) managing your luggage can be a challenge. 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.