If I had a Tardis, this wouldn't be a problem...
April 16, 2012 2:50 PM   Subscribe

On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being "very safe" and with going-to-11 being "the most crazy," how insane is it to try to get into London from Heathrow to do some light sightseeing on my way back home to the US. (I've read the previous questions, but needed some clarification about some of the issues!)

Complexity Level: 6.5 hours (arriving 8am, departing 3:30pm for the US/home) + Olympic Games opening a week later.

Mitigating factor(?): I'll be flying from Paris to London that morning, rather than flying into Europe from the US or elsewhere. Could a "domestic" European flight hasten my departure from the airport to grab one of the many modes of transit into the city center? Or is it pretty much one-size-fits-all passport-check and customs stuff no matter from whence you've come? Will Olympic travel make this a totally bad idea? I'll be there July 17, so just before the games begin.

Really, I'd just like to jog by the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum. I'd like to take a picture of a guard at Buckingham Palace. I'd like to see Tower Bridge and Big Ben. Eat a meat pie or something. And if I run into Hyacinth Bucket or Dawn French, then that would just be icing the crumpet.

I don't think I'm asking for all that much, really. Just a little taste of London. I'm a big boy. I can handle myself on public transit. I am flying solo, so I can move as quickly as my little legs will carry me. Worst case scenario, I'll just book a lounge at the airport for six hours and it wont be the end of the world. But I'd really like to make this happen if it is possible given the constraints of the time-space-travel continuum.
posted by jph to Travel & Transportation around London, England (39 answers total)
This is totally do-able. There's slight risk so I'd give it a 7.

Take the Heathrow Express to Paddington then hop on the Tube from there.
Do the same to get back. Heathrow Express is a 15 min. ride. That lands you in West Central London. Its about 20-30 min on the Tube to get to, say, the British Museum.

Or is it pretty much one-size-fits-all passport-check and customs stuff no matter from whence you've come?

One-size-fits-all, sorry. You'll be in the same line as Americans arriving from the US.
posted by vacapinta at 3:00 PM on April 16, 2012

Well, you're supposed to be the airport 2hrs before departure for intl flights. So you really only have 4.5hrs. And that assumes that you're free to run out the front doors of the airport at 8am when you land...which is really more like +30min. So at the best you now have 4hrs to see anything.

Next, what's the pain of missing your flight home? If it's no bother, and you can shrug your shoulders and go on the standby list for another flight and eventually get home and aren't concerned about possible extra costs/fees, then do it.

OTOH, why not just schedule a real layover of 24 (or 48hrs)? Crash at a hostel (or don't sleep) and see everything you can in 24hrs.
posted by jpeacock at 3:04 PM on April 16, 2012

Heathrow advises checking in three hours before an international flight- we always left it until two hours. Then figure about 45 minutes round-trip with the Heathrow Express, with some leeway to buy your ticket &c. so you have more like 3.5 hours. Customs there has always been an agonizing hellhole (as an American), I doubt I've made it out in less than 45 minutes. I think you could choose one thing to do, and be fine. If you actually just have to check in at 3:30, then you can do two things.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:06 PM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

... and by "hellhole" I mean standing in a winding line with crying children and people with 3 tons of luggage pushing from behind. The customs officials are generally efficient, and have frequently been friendly. Haven't checked a bag in years so can't comment on that.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:10 PM on April 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

British Airways warns you not to do this unless your layover is over 6 hours. You're at the threshold. I wouldn't risk it - especially during the Olympics craziness.
posted by veryblue1 at 3:13 PM on April 16, 2012

I think you can do it - but you have to pick one thing. British Museum OR Buckingham Palace OR Tower Bridge OR Big Ben/Parliament.
posted by Amplify at 3:17 PM on April 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

Have you booked your flight from Paris already? If you take the Eurostar instead, you arrive in Central London at 8:30am.

I know that doesn't sound better but it is much, much better. Immigration is done before you get on the train. You have your luggage. So you just walk off the train at 8:30 am and into Central London. The British Museum is a few blocks away from the station.
posted by vacapinta at 3:22 PM on April 16, 2012 [12 favorites]

You're realistically not going to be on the station platform to catch the Heathrow Express until 9am. I have an EU passport and I have stood in the passport queue at LHR for 40+ minutes coming off your average early morning European flight full of business travellers who all know how to navigate airports quickly. And you'll have to be back in your security queue for 1.30pm. So unless you're very near Paddington you'll need to start heading back to the airport at 12.30. Also bear in mind that the train station for Heathrow is not exactly near the departure halls so allow 10 minutes to walk between the two.

I guess what I'm saying is if you are going to do this aim very low here - do one thing only and head back to allow yourself enough time to make your flight.
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:22 PM on April 16, 2012

I did something very similar to this. Flew in to Heathrow and out of Gatwick. I had time to eat and take the riverboat tour of the Thames (where you get a decent crack at seeing just about everything).

It is the broad and shallow option but it worked wonders for me.
posted by milqman at 3:23 PM on April 16, 2012

I don't think anybody really knows what the Olympics will do, so while I'd say "yeah, go for it, live a little!", that might turn out to be terrible advice during the horrors of London 2012.

I will also just put in another plug here for Chiswick. Get the Underground to Chiswick Park via Acton Town – a journey of about 40 mins - and wander the shops, cafes and parks or check out Chiswick House. It's London, and it's very "London" in a certain way, but it's also very close to Heathrow.
posted by oliverburkeman at 3:25 PM on April 16, 2012

UK Newspaper warned this week that queues at security could be 3-4 hours this summer.

If you do go for it, you can walk from Paddington to the museum in 30 minutes, get an A-Z or smart phone map. It's a nice walk too.
posted by biffa at 3:29 PM on April 16, 2012

I would totally try to do this. Obviously you are going to have to be a little flexible—if your flight is late and it takes ages to get through immigration you should just go right back into the airport.

Taking Eurostar instead of flying, as vacapinta suggests, would be best.

I don't think anybody really knows what the Olympics will do, so while I'd say "yeah, go for it, live a little!", that might turn out to be terrible advice during the horrors of London 2012.

You should check back in July and see how bad things actually are.
posted by grouse at 3:31 PM on April 16, 2012

How about Windsor? It's pretty close. Never been there myself but it does have plenty of trad English ambience. A cab to Windsor is about 30 GBP according to this site, and about 20 GBP the other way. So you'd spend 50 quid getting there and back, versus 34 for the Heathrow Express. But knowing you can control your travel with a cab seems like a good idea to me.
posted by carter at 3:33 PM on April 16, 2012

Actually I'm seeing some other (more expensive) prices for the taxi as well.
posted by carter at 3:35 PM on April 16, 2012

Like vacapinta mentions, you'll have to clear customs in London it isn't as simple as it is in continental Europe.

I did it the other way (flew into Heathrow from the US (same passport queue) and had a flight that night to Paris. It was boring business though and so my coworker and I had meetings with a vendor and then had the rest of the day to goof off. We left our luggage in the Left Luggage at Heathrow (we too the time after collecting our bags to go to the terminal that flight was leaving from). Our plan was to use Heathrow Express round trip, but our meeting with the vendor was in an office park way of the beaten path so we had to take a taxi to the airport. It was 60£ but that was cheaper than the cost of another ticket. We also had the disadvantage of coming in from a long flight overnight from Chicago without a lot of sleep so by about noon local time were feeling pretty run down. We also didn't have time to research and find an authentic place to eat so we ended up eating at McDonalds (which was pretty good actually....my point is when you're on the clock, you might end up going for convenience over getting true local flavor).

We made the flight even w/o the 3 hour warning. Which was good because the time before at Heathrow I had a huge wait for my flight back to the US.

I'd guess a week before the Olympics could either help or hinder your plan. On one hand, they may be staffing up and having more people working than a random day otherwise going through a dry run. On the other hand, I'd imagine a lot of people might visit London before the games to avoid the rush.

So I'm going to say it is a possible but I'd give it a 8.5 on crazy scale. As I'm somewhat of a risk taker, I might do it anyway, but I'd be prepared when I land to decide to not do it if the airport is a zoo. Also be flexible once you leave the airport and keep track of the time so you can start heading back to the airport. If you're a bit late getting to the airport, airline personnel may help you get to the head of the queue, but I don't bet on it. Good luck and make sure you're wearing comfortable shoes.
posted by birdherder at 3:44 PM on April 16, 2012

A lot of the transatlantic flights are also landing at that time. My last few flights into the UK have landed between 7:30 and 8:10, and immigration always seems to get jammed up *right* before I get there. I'm with koahiatamadl on the timing of the Express and the distance to the platform. I'd probably just stay at the airport (or, if wanting a nap, the Yotel Heathrow) unless I had strong evidence the Olympics weren't screwing things up. It's not just customs and security -- the Tube and tourist attractions may already be clogging up as well.

Also I'd go to Simply M&S to get breakfast and bring back lots of lemon curd Greek yogurt for my friends at home.
posted by katemonster at 3:45 PM on April 16, 2012

Have you booked your flight from Paris already? If you take the Eurostar instead, you arrive in Central London at 8:30am.

THIS. If you want a day in London, bail on your Paris > London flight, take the Eurostar to St Pancras 15 minutes from the British Museum, and get the Heathrow Express from Paddington at noon. This will all cost approximately the earth but it's pretty painless and you can do 2 central things.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:47 PM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Complexity Level: 6.5 hours (arriving 8am, departing 3:30pm for the US/home)

Just wanted to point out that that's 7.5 hours.

As people are saying, your whole list is a bit optimistic, and chaos and queues associated with the summer's sporting events may mean the idea has to be dropped at the last minute. However, under normal circumstances, I'd expect you to have a good three hours between arriving at Paddington on the (expensive, be warned) Heathrow Express and departing again by the same route, which is certainly long enough to be worthwhile. That's based on up to an hour for immigration, up to three quarters of an hour to negotiate the train each way, and two hours for check-in and security.

Make sure you know which terminal you're leaving from; travel times vary to the different terminals, with 1-3 being the quickest to reach from central London.

Possibly useful information:

- The Transport for London journey planner reckons it's half an hour from Paddington to the British Museum.

- To save time, you could take an open-top bus tour - there are several; here's one - and nip round all the major sights.

- Along similar lines, you could take a river tour; again, here's one example.

- If you take the suggestion to arrive by Eurostar instead, you'll be able to pick up a quite respectable pork pie or Scotch egg at the Sourced Market in St Pancras station. You'll also, as everyone says, have rather more time to play with.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 3:51 PM on April 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Do not bail on your Paris - Heathrow flight if it's on the same ticket as your connecting flight as that would cancel the second flight. Doable as long as you check your luggage through in Paris and get boarding pass for your second flight. That way you only need to get through security in the afternoon.
posted by zeikka at 3:56 PM on April 16, 2012

oneirodynia: "Heathrow advises checking in three hours before an international flight"

Are you able to check-in before you leave the airport? I've done this before in Hong Kong so that I had got through that task and my luggage was dealt with. You then only need to be back at the airport with enough time to clear immigration and go straight to the gate.
posted by dg at 4:09 PM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I did this on an 8-hour stopover (when I was 17 and traveling alone, so way less organised than most adult people). It was fine, if a bit rushed. I checked in for the next flight first and then I just had to be back with an hour to spare.
posted by lollusc at 6:24 PM on April 16, 2012

I would totally do this. I've done this. You're going to have to choose between the items on your wish list, but the only way I wouldn't try is if you first flight was more than 60 minutes late.

As for whether passport control will slow you down too much, why not at least try. You can always go right back into the airport without the jaunt into London if it's too late by the time you're finished there (I've never found London customs to be too bad - long lines but they generally move fast.)

I would rate it a 5, as long as you give your self a bit of a buffer in getting back to the airport.
posted by scrute at 7:14 PM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Be advised that if you decide to ditch the Paris-London leg of your flight in favor of Eurostar, the airline might cancel the rest of your trip.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 8:02 PM on April 16, 2012

I was just in London and the subway (not the heathrow express) was about an hour to King's Cross from Heathrow but there are tonnes of other stops- I had to get to Pancras which is why I went that far. I thought the experience of taking the tube was itself worth the experience.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 10:09 PM on April 16, 2012

Response by poster: Very right about ditching the first leg of my flight for Eurostar, which (sadly) isn't an option.

I'm a little surprised to hear folks say I might have to choose between doing things. I might just not be familiar with the scale of London or what these things entail, but I wouldn't anticipate taking more than 30 mins at the British Museum and then maybe an hour wandering around Westminster. I'm one of those "Oh hey, yep, there's the Rosetta Stone! Let's motor." people. Same with Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. I'm not interested in going on guided tours or even really spending any appreciable time "doing" things. I just want to see as much as possible in a short amount of time and I'm fine if that means I don't get to hum a few bars from Messiah on Handel's grave in Poets Corner. I guess I fully recognize that no matter what I decide to do, it'll be rushed. So I'd rather do a couple things poorly than one thing really well. I'll plan a longer stay in London when I really want to dig in and see the sights.

Basically, I'd like to whet my appetite for London and stoke the fires of my wanderlust to bring me back there again sometime soon. (And see the goddamned Rosetta Stone because it is on my fecking bucket list and I just want to cross it off.)

Does that change the forecast any?

I'm leaning toward "Plan to do it, but be ready to abandon the plan depending on conditions on the ground."

Thanks for the shot in the arm and the smart talking.

Bonus question: if customs/immigration takes longer than expected and I find myself without the time to really get out and explore - what's the likelihood that I can book one of those lounge visits in person. Are they likely to be full and unavailable?
posted by jph at 10:18 PM on April 16, 2012

I can see you're an optimist about time, just like me. Remember, this stuff is not all right next to each other. Getting from one place to another is going to take time, getting through queues for tickets is going to take time, unexpected things are going to happen and take time.

That being said I do think that if you're quick, you could do most of your itinerary, it'll just be a whirlwind. I've done this same thing on layovers in London but it was a longer layover and I only aimed to go to the National Gallery and then wander around a bit. However, I'd been to London quite a bit and so I didn't need to go crazy with it. Good luck, have fun!
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:52 PM on April 16, 2012

Really, I'd just like to jog by the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum. I'd like to take a picture of a guard at Buckingham Palace. I'd like to see Tower Bridge and Big Ben. Eat a meat pie or something.

If this is really your itinerary, I think you are fine. Treehorn+bunny seems to be assuming more than this, since none of this requires tickets or queues. The British Museum is free and there are no queues. I assume for the other things you just want to walk past them. The centre of London is small, and if you are a fast walker, you can do even more than this.

On my 8-hour stopover, mentioned above, I think it took about an hour each way on the tube, an hour-ish to get through customs/check in for the next flight, and left me about 4-5 hours in the city. In that time I saw the Rosetta stone and some mummies at the British museum, fed pigeons in Trafalgar square, saw Buckingham Palace (from the outside, obviously), and went shopping at Harrods.

I realise you only have 6.5 hours, but my Harrods shopping easily took up more than an hour of my itinerary (plus added an extra tube trip), and I also got lost looking for Buckingham Palace (nice police chappie pointed out that it was right behind me), and lost my passport and had to retrace my steps to find it. (As I said, I was young and stupid).

I think your risk of missing your flight is really really low as long as you remember that the tube DOES sometimes break down or get delayed, and so calculate how much time you need to get back, and leave then, no matter what you are in the middle of.
posted by lollusc at 11:07 PM on April 16, 2012

The week before the Olympics is likely to be crazy busy at Heathrow with people arriving specifically for the Games. Press release about possible delays.

In theory it's do-able but it's also risky, because of things over which you have no control.

You won't know until you reach the immigration area what it's going to be like - I've landed at Heathrow and there's been just our planeload to go through and other times you can hear the hubbub of the vast crowd waiting to be cleared before you even get to immigration, it's so busy. An 8am landing is likely to be busy, because all the red-eyes will be landing.

When you get back to the airport you'll have to go through security, and again, this is a crapshoot as to how long it might take.

Remember, too, that Heathrow is vast, and the walk from the Tube to the terminal takes a good 10-15 minutes and from the Duty-free lounge area to the gate can take 20 minutes. When you get to the gate you have to go through a second security check because Heathrow departure gates are sealed rooms where you have to clear the airline's security (as opposed to the airport's) and then you can't leave again. So you should factor in the time it takes to get through this too. Usually there are two security people for all the passengers at each gate, so it can take a while if you're near the back of the line.
posted by essexjan at 1:02 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Anybody who tells you this is a good idea is a fool. Lines and waiting times at Heathrow to do anything are already hellish and will only become worse as the Olympics approach. Last Friday there were people (well, Cory Doctorow) tweeting that they had been waiting for hours just getting *to* the customs checkpoint.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:43 AM on April 17, 2012

I'd advise going to the TFL website and using the Journey Planner to figure out an itinerary. (I did something similar when I had an hour's stopover in Belgium when changing trains and wanted to see if I could make it to a supermarket/Grand Place.) You should miss the rush hour with those times (you really, really do not want to travel on the tube during the rush hour). Google Maps will help. Buy a day ticket on the tube rather than single fares.

Also, book your Heathrow Express ticket online to save time.

If you have a biometric passport immigration will be much quicker (though I base this on arriving at Heathrow from Sweden).
posted by mippy at 2:44 AM on April 17, 2012

waiting times at Heathrow to do anything are already hellish and will only become worse as the Olympics approach.

I walked through customs in five minutes with my fancy scannable passport (my boyfriend doesn't have one, and had to join the long line) from the separate queue, but then I was a British citizen returning here.
posted by mippy at 2:46 AM on April 17, 2012

NOT doable. Absolutely not. Immigration queues right now, due to staff cutbacks, are 2 hours minimum. It is only going to be worse during the Olympics when all the 'Olympic family' people are being prioritised and you'll be at the back of the line. This has been reported in the media, Border staff are not commenting.
posted by wingless_angel at 3:03 AM on April 17, 2012

(0800-1530=7.5 hours...)

Depends. I flew ORD-LHR last Wed, arriving Thursday at 9AM. I was through immigration in about 10 minutes. I will admit I cheat, because I'm a high time flyer, but others who went through the normal lines took 15-20 minutes.

That's the most likely hangup. The good news is that this hangup will happen *when you hit LHR*. So, if it takes 3 hours, then you know it's a no-go. If it takes ten minutes, then you know you still have time.

Since you are in transit, you will have already checked in and have a boarding pass, so that part of the process is nil. Inbound security check times seem to be very good -- I didn't see any lines at all in either regular or fast track, people were walking up to the belts and putting bags on. Personally, I'd be hitting the line at 90 minutes before at most in that situation, but again, I'm very experienced, have top-tier status, and often fly business (which means FastTrack).

So, what I'd do.

Assume 15 minutes from gate to C&I. Assume 10 minutes once you are past C&I to get to the platform. Assuming 40 minutes to Paddington (that's worst case for T1-3, you just missed a train, have to wait for the next, board, and travel.) So, 0800 landing means your time to Central London is 1:05+ Immigration time. If you spend 30 minutes in line, and land at 0800, you're at Padding at 0935.

Flight is at 1530, boarding will be 45 minutes before that. Assume 45 minutes for security, and, again, 40 minutes worst case HEX time. You are already checked in, and you will have checked every bit of baggage you can, so you're not carrying it and thus, it won't be screened. So, worst case is you need to be at Paddington at about 1330 - 1:20PM. However, the HEX is a scheduled service, so you'll have an exact time you can target.

So, using those assumptions, you have roughly 4.5 hours to do something. At 0930, the tube and traffic will be busy, but not packed. At 1:20PM, the tube will be fine and taxis will be useful to get you back to Paddington.

So, really, to me, the only kicker is immigration. If you get through that line quickly, you are fine, if not, you're not. So, really, lets take out the immigration time, and you have 5 hours, *minus* C&I, to be in Central London.

If it takes three hours to get through, you just keep going. If it takes 30 minutes, you go see Big Ben or something. With four hours, I'd just pick one thing, and the South Kensington Museums are pretty close to Paddington. I've walked it in about 20 minutes, but while part of that walk is an easy stroll across a park (Hyde Park, IIRC), there's a maze of twisty little streets by Paddington. So, I'd take the Tube (Circle line anticlockwise) or a taxi.

Finally, if you are changing from BA to another carrier, you will arrive in either T-1 (win) or T-5. T-5 adds 10 minutes to the train journey, but may not have the miles and miles of walking that T-1 and T3 have. Ideally, your US flight leaves from T-1/T-3, add 10 minutes if it's leaving from T-4.
posted by eriko at 6:20 AM on April 17, 2012

With four hours, I'd just pick one thing, and the South Kensington Museums are pretty close to Paddington. I've walked it in about 20 minutes, but while part of that walk is an easy stroll across a park (Hyde Park, IIRC), there's a maze of twisty little streets by Paddington. So, I'd take the Tube (Circle line anticlockwise) or a taxi.

It takes about as long to get to South Kensington as it would to just hop on the Bakerloo line and go to Piccadilly Circus or Charing Cross. I'd recommend the latter if you have made it all the way in.

Also, if you see a Heathrow Express train there, jump on it. Don't waste time trying to get a ticket. You can buy a ticket on the train - though I assume it costs a bit more.
posted by vacapinta at 7:24 AM on April 17, 2012

I'm a little surprised to hear folks say I might have to choose between doing things. I might just not be familiar with the scale of London or what these things entail

Well, for instance, you mentioned both Buckingham Palace and Tower Bridge in your list; they're a good three miles apart, and while it's a pretty interesting walk, it's not really one to try when you're pushed for time. Especially if you're going to want to keep stopping to take photos (you'd find plenty of cause!). That's why I suggested the sightseeing trips.

On the other hand, Buckingham Palace is only about a 15-minute walk from Big Ben, so those two make a good pair.

I find it's easy to underestimate how long it takes to get from A to B in London. Two Tube stations may only be ten minutes apart, but add in the walk between street level and the platforms, and the wait between trains, and you can often double that. Introduce a problem on the line or a station closed due to overcrowding, or a train so full that it's not physically possible to board it, and all bets are off.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 3:43 PM on April 17, 2012

Response by poster: I have a quick follow-up question for anyone who might still be reading this. Assuming that the queues for customs are as incredibly long as everyone says they are right now - how are they handling connecting flights? I mean, many of the flights that I didn't choose to get home had a 45-minute-to-and-hour-and-a-half layover between flights. Would I have just been screwed? Royally (tee hee)? Or is there some system in place to make sure that connecting passengers are actually sent through efficiently enough to make their connections?
posted by jph at 7:08 AM on May 1, 2012

I don't know how London is doing it, specifically, but I have been transferring through other airports when big events mean horrendous queues and waits, and usually there are official people standing around yelling, "anyone on flight XXX?", referring to flights that are closing soon, and if that's you, you get to jump the queue. It's kind of mayhem, and it makes things even slower for the people who still have plenty of time, but it helps a little for the people about to miss flights. And then when/if you do miss your connection, either the airline is nice and puts you on the next one for free (happened to me once) or that's what travel insurance is for (happened to me twice).
posted by lollusc at 5:58 PM on May 1, 2012

Yeah they have a 'Connecting Flights' line that they push people through.

I actually landed in Heathrow this morning (since my last comment in this thread I flew from the UK to San Francisco and back) Besides shuttling Priority passengers through and the Connecting Flights people they also had a sign that said something like "Games Familes? Let us know!" presumably so they could shuttle Olympic athlete families through.
posted by vacapinta at 6:54 AM on May 3, 2012

Response by poster: Just one final little update to let you know how I fared:

I went with the lounge idea. I arrived and went through customs very quickly. And then I spent an hour wandering the concourse looking for an exit, or an information desk - none of which were easily marked. When I finally found the information desk, I wagered that I had squandered whatever cushion of time I had given the Olympic Traffic and my lack of familiarity with the city, and opted to make my way to the other terminal with the lounge.

I sat there, listened to some Adele. Drank some ginger beer. Ate some shortbread cookies. And relaxed. It was a lovely way to wait for my flight.
posted by jph at 1:33 PM on August 2, 2012

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