London on a six-hour layover
April 19, 2016 2:25 PM   Subscribe

I've lived in New York and Boston and Sydney; I've spent time in France, Greece, Germany, and even a week in Manchester; I've been through Heathrow many times, but I've never set foot in London proper. And now I'm heading to Germany on Friday, and have another layover in Heathrow. But this time it's different: I have a six hour layover, a US passport, and a single carry-on bag, nothing checked. Help me do this.

I arrive at 10 AM on a Saturday on BA, and my connecting flight out (also on BA) is at 4PM. I figure, one hour to get out from the airport to the street, one hour to take public transit somewhere that I can call "London", one hour to walk around, one hour back to the airport, and I still have two hours to get through the airport to my gate.

What should I do? Where should I go, and how? How should I pay? (I'll have credit cards, but they are all chip-and-signature, not chip-and-PIN, in case that matters.) Do I need to get British money?

Unhelpful: "Don't do this, Heathrow is far away and it takes a long time to get anywhere." I know this is tight, and I won't really "see London". The point is to just walk around somewhere representative of London, breathe in the fumes, look at the buildings and the bookstores, and not get run over by people driving on the left. As long as I don't miss my flight out.

Helpful: Take the Tube to station A, walk 2 miles to station B, you'll see X, Y, Z along the way, and then you can head back to the airport like this. It'll cost you the equivalent of $M.

Also super helpful: Don't do this, because there's a complication / immigration rule / strike on Saturday April 23 that will physically prevent you from getting back on your connecting flight. You're much better off doing X and Y at the airport instead.

Hope me, Metafilter!
posted by RedOrGreen to Travel & Transportation around London, England (29 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Get the Heathrow Express to Paddington then tube from Lancaster Gate to Green Park, walk through the park to Buckingham Palace. Get a zone 1 travel card.
posted by KateViolet at 2:39 PM on April 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

Most card machines are chip and pin by the way. So you might want to change up some cash. If you do go to green park Fortnum and Mason is nearby if you are a foodie
posted by KateViolet at 2:41 PM on April 19, 2016

Best answer: Buy a return on the Heathrow Express (£36) and take it to Paddington; go to the Tube ticket office and buy a 1-day Travelcard for zone 1-2 (£7.30).

Get on the no. 23 bus, which takes you past Marble Arch, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Bank of England, St Paul's. Get off wherever you want to wander, depending on how slow the bus is. Wander. If you make it to St Paul's with time to spare, walk down to the river at the Millennium Bridge and either cross there and cross back over Blackfriars Bridge, or stay north of the river and go to Blackfriars tube.

Take the tube back to Paddington, and the Heathrow Express back to Heathrow.
posted by holgate at 2:47 PM on April 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

If you did go to Green Park as Kate Violet suggests you could then walk down birdcage walk atl see Westminster, Big Ben, and the Houses of Parliament. From there walk along the Thames to Charing Cross and take the Bakerloo line directly back to Paddington to get the Heathrow Express.
posted by hazyjane at 2:51 PM on April 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: 10am: Land, I reckon with luck you could be on the Heathrow Express in half an hour, then its 20 mins to Paddington. You can book tickets ahead. So there by 11 is realistic.

You'll want to be checked in by 3pm so being back at Paddington for the Express by 2pm should be plenty of time, giving you three hours to play with.

Paddington you have the tube or a cab rank (around platform 12 I think, up an escalator). Personally I go out of front of the station (the exit is opposite platform 10 or so, down the side of a WHSmith's shop, not as obvious as you might think for a major station, more like a gap than a door) to get a cab myself, its usually quicker to get one and you are closer to all desirable destinations. I would recommend Bakerloo line for a straight run to central London if you wanted the tube but it was inaccessible at Paddington last week so I can't say for sure it will be available for your trip. A cab from Paddington to say Houses of Parliament is about £15-20. If you want major landmarks in a sweep you could consider Paddington-Buckingham Palace, walk up birdcage to HoP, walk up Whitehall (or cross the river and go up the other bank then cross back) for Trafalgar square, you'll be able to see the London eye from there also. then consider getting on the tube at Embankment , zip east on Circle/District (Yellow/Green) and get off at say Blackfriars and you can cross over the millennium bridge (looking out for Tower Bridge down river), peek into the engine hall at Tate Modern, wander past the Globe. the trouble with the latter half of this is that you are going away from Paddington and adding to the time it will take to get back there. Depends what you want to see also.

There's a left luggage shop at Paddington if you want to leave your hand luggage while running around, its about £12 a piece IIRC, over on the side wall at platform 14 (ish).
posted by biffa at 3:13 PM on April 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think you might be better off looking along the Piccadilly Line and seeing if there is something there which you want to see. While the Heathrow Express is faster into the city centre, it only goes every fifteen minutes or so (I always seem to have to wait at least 20 minutes, but I think the official time is every 15), while the tube goes about every five minutes.

so, take the Piccadilly Line underground from Heathrow to:
-Hyde Park Corner or Green Park and walk through the parks to Buckingham Palace
-Piccadilly Circus or Leicester Square and walk over to Trafalgar Square
-Covent Garden and stroll around the market area.
posted by Azara at 3:13 PM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Piccadilly line is an hour-plus into central London from Heathrow. Even with the most favorable possible timing, HEX will beat it.

I say, from Paddington take the Circle Line to Westminster station, pop out and see Westminster Abbey. Admire Parliament and Big Ben from the outside. That's probably the most "compact" and "classic" trip. Obviously touristy, but the Abbey is beautiful (I think generally more attractive and interesting than the palaces) and it's a bit more of a focal point. Ordinarily I'm of the "amble about and soak in the sights" school, but not on three hours tops. Then have a nice lunch at nearby pub of your choosing, and back off to the airport.

If you're U.S.-based, you can probably get (British) cash from the cashpoints at Heathrow using your U.S. debit card. I believe the HEX machines at Heathrow will take chip and signature cards (that's my surprising memory from last time). The Underground machines are fussier about cards, so it's better to have cash ready for them. With your very short trip I'm not sure it's worth getting an Oyster card. The Abbey, as with most major London sights, is in zone 1.
posted by praemunire at 3:36 PM on April 19, 2016

Seconding Azara. Piccadilly Line is slower but more efficient given your time. Take it to Green Park, walk through Green Park, see Buckingham Palace, walk through St James's Park, Downing Street, Whitehall, Trafalgar Square (look at your watch - you might get some time in the National Gallery), continue up Charing Cross Road to Leicester Square tube station and back on the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow. Journey time is 45-50 minutes on the tube each way, and the walk is about an hour, with some flexibility to explore depending on how everything goes.
posted by cincinnatus c at 3:38 PM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the rather encouraging responses so far - great!

Of note, Heathrow Express has a service warning: Due to Crossrail improvement works, services depart every 30 minutes on Saturdays until the end of May 2016.

So I think I will need to budget up to 30+21 minutes, basically an hour, from Heathrow T5 to Paddington on HEX. (Although optimistically, it could take only half an hour, allowing more moseying.)

Will I need to worry about Immigration giving me the side eye? Are check-in and security lines terrible on the way back in?
posted by RedOrGreen at 3:40 PM on April 19, 2016

My answer reads like you would walk through Downing Street, which obviously isn't on - you would walk past it.
posted by cincinnatus c at 3:42 PM on April 19, 2016

My general experience at Heathrow has been that a) getting out of customs as a non-UK resident can take...a while...and b) the security line on the way back in is very long, although it moves with some celerity. However, the speed of the former really depends on the time of day--I've gone through customs in anything from fifteen minutes to (arrrgh) something closer to an hour.

Checking in at the counter is frequently verrrrrry slooooow especially if you're behind a really big traveling party with twenty bags, like the last time I needed to leave

The last two times I was in the UK (2013 and 2015), the underground ticket machines outside of Heathrow kicked back any and all of my US cards. That will be a YMMV depending on who issued the card, I suspect.
posted by thomas j wise at 3:57 PM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You shouldn't need to check in again, if you are given a boarding pass for your flight from LHR to Germany when you first get to the airport in the US. DO be sure you get that second boarding pass and don't lose it; in case you're accidentally running late you don't want to fall afoul of check-in rules (i did this once, it was Not Fun.)

I've had overnights where I've left LHR and had no issue with customs or immigration so I wouldn't be concerned there.

Lastly-- usually I'd say the HEX is stupidly expensive, but it's exactly what you want.
Oh- and I used my US-issued chip+signature (has a PIN but my bank is dumb and asks for signature first if possible) card two weeks ago to refill my Oyster card. Still, better to have some cash on hand so you don't run into any form of stupid.

Oh, and as you may know from having been through Heathrow before-- T5 has approximately zero charging stations (well, some small integer divided by the large number of passengers is still close to zero), so if you're planning on using a cell to get around in London, you will want to save enough battery that it's still useful if you need it in Germany.
posted by nat at 5:38 PM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also super helpful: Don't do this, because there's a complication / immigration rule / strike on Saturday April 23 that will physically prevent you from getting back on your connecting flight. You're much better off doing X and Y at the airport instead

My one thought is Customs. If you're connecting to another flight, you won't have to go through passport control, just biff on over to your gate. But if you leave the airport, you will and it can take time. An hour the last time I did it. Then you get to do it all over again on your return. Which really only gives you about 3 hours to get downtown and back.

This is what BA says about it:

If you have less than six hours until your flight departs, we strongly recommend that you wait at the airport. If you choose to leave, you will need to pass through passport control (and Customs if applicable). Please note that it is your responsibility to ensure you have all the appropriate documents required to enter the UK.

When you return to the airport, you must check in again as normal for your connecting flight, pass through airport Security and be at the boarding gate at least 20 minutes before the scheduled departure time of your flight.

Based on that, I'd buy a day pass to the BA lounge and chill there. Much less angst.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:58 PM on April 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

If HEX is only running every 30 mins, you might want to take the Heathrow Connect train if it arrives first. It takes slightly longer (30 mins), but given delays might be best - check with the agent. And it's cheaper (also takes you to Paddington, just like HEX).
posted by mollymillions at 7:50 PM on April 19, 2016

Best answer: I do this a lot. (I live in the US, but come through the UK on the way to Europe at least once a month). It's totally doable. First thing, either get the BA app on your phone and check in there, or make sure you have the second flight's boarding pass on paper in your hand. If you're hand-baggage only, this saves a lot of time.

If you're going transatlantic on BA, you're coming into Terminal 5. You might not be leaving again from t5 though, so check this. Some BA european flights leave from t3 instead, and that's a long walk from the tube station on the way back. Add another 30 minutes for that. Yes, it's technically faster to get into London on the HEX, *but* Paddington is a little of a way away from anywhere you'd want to see, and the additional faffing around takes it over the time you save. The Heathrow Connect is definitely out for the same reason.

So it's actually, as people have said, easier and faster to get the tube to Green Park. You can buy a travel card from the machines/person in the window, and you're set. Budget 90 minutes to get to Green Park from touchdown and you'll be ok.

From Green Park tube, you've got Buckingham Palace, Parliament, and all that, to walk to, yes. BUT *right outside* Green Park is the stop for the guided tour buses that circle everything. Jump on the one about to leave and take that for an hour or so. See the sights. Jump off, grab some lunch, get back to any Piccadilly line station (the Citymapper app is good for this) and get back to LHR. From central London that's an hour, give or take. I'm rounding up times here so you don't miss the flights.

Getting UK money from a US card is no problem whatsoever from any ATM. Or you can change US cash from any number of change places at T5 when you arrive.

If you want to be double sure about timings, upgrade your second leg to Business and you get Fasttracked through security when you get back to LHR. But I think you're good if you don't dawdle.

If the idea of the touristy bits doesn't inspire, other stops on the Piccadilly Line might be good: Russell Square for the British Museum. Knightsbridge for Harrods (not worth it at all); South Kensington for the V&A Museum or the Science Museum.

Final thing. If you get on the tube or the HEX for the return journey and you find any delays on the line whatsoever (because of, say, signal failures or someone under a train), bail immediately and get a cab. It'll cost you, but there's nothing worse that watching your day go to hell while waiting for a tube. Do not pause if this happens. Probably will not happen, but if it does, be decisive and spend the money on a black cab.
posted by DangerIsMyMiddleName at 8:07 PM on April 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Paddington is a little of a way away from anywhere you'd want to see, and the additional faffing around takes it over the time you save.

Yes, but not massively so. That's why I suggest a (standard, London, red, double-decker) bus from Paddington following a tour-bus-ish route across bits of Westminster and the City, and not the Tube. I'll happily recommend the Piccadilly line into London in different circumstances, but when time is tight, I'd say you want to get into Zone 1 expensively-fast, and then be above ground for as much time as possible. And let's be honest: Green Park is fine, St James's Park is fine, but Buckingham Palace is a crap palace, always has been, always will be. I walked past it a couple of years ago after drinking gin with friends in Green Park and was as meh about it as I was when I first saw it on a primary school trip.

I completely agree that if things go pear-shaped with bus or tube, you take a black cab at first opportunity, do not pass go, do not collect £200. And if you have data service, Citymapper is an essential app.
posted by holgate at 8:46 PM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

You'll want cash money if you need an emergency black can to get you back on schedule.
posted by biffa at 10:17 PM on April 19, 2016

HEX being above ground is a good point. There's also a HEX app, so you could buy tickets on that before leaving the US. That'd save you a few minutes staring at the machine in amazement at the price.
posted by DangerIsMyMiddleName at 1:03 AM on April 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Depending on your health and like of walking I would just walk from Paddington Station to westminster. Google suggests this is about an hour walk. I know I stayed in a hotel across the street from Paddington Station on one of my trips to London and ended up walking to Parlaiment through Hyde park past Buckingham Palace pretty much by accident. You go past Marble Arch and Hyde Park Corner (where the loonies are shouting things) and then you're outside the houses of Parlaiment. The tough point would be customs/immigration. On a good day you would be looking at about an hour so depending on train times and the like I would say budget about 2 hours to get to paddington. an Hour walk to see the signts and then head back on the tube to Paddington say another hour to get back. The give you about 4 hours in total of your six hours. As long as you don't dally everything should be fine.
posted by koolkat at 1:58 AM on April 20, 2016

You'll want cash money if you need an emergency black can to get you back on schedule.
Cabs all take cards now, so you should be ok.
You can also use Uber in London if you feel so inclined.

I was just thinking about the logistic planning I would do here. i.e. have a look at the layout of the stations, figure out the route to and from places.

Looking at the TFL website you are all good for tube services. No problem there, no line closures.

Heathrow Express as noted is running at 2tph instead of 4tph leaving at 27 and 57 past.
Not ideal, but still doable.

The number 23 bus plan is a good one.
It leaves from stop H,-0.1756778,18z/data=!4m2!3m1!1s0x48761ab2ea3f28fb:0x8ad4d78df8010357
(Exit the station by "The Pasty shop" turn left. HEX will probably come in on platform 6 or 7)
I'd be tempted to get something to eat and sit on the top deck eating it whilst looking around.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 2:32 AM on April 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: A general tip, wherever you end up going: if you want to grab a fast bite that you can eat as you walk (or perhaps take to a nearby park or churchyard), keep an eye out for Eat, Pret A Manger, Itsu, the West Cornwall Pasty Company, or M&S Simply Food. All of these are fast but a step up from fast food. You'll find one of these (and often several) on pretty much any major street in London.

If you do end up taking Heathrow Express to Paddington, don't just view Paddington Station itself as a waypoint to hurry through. It's a site of major importance to world literature because it is where Paddington Bear met the Brown family. There's a cute statue of Paddington Bear, which makes a good photo op. And if you need to buy souvenirs for any kids in your life, there's a Paddington Bear Shop there.

Personally, I would skip Buckingham Palace. I've always found it to be the only disappointing tourist site in London. Also, if you take any of the tourist hop-on, hop-off bus tours, it will probably take you past Buckingham Palace, and the quick look you get will likely satisfy.

You've gotten a lot of good recommendations for iteneraries that start at Green Park. Here's mine. When you get out of Green Park station, skip Buckingham Palace and instead walk northeast up Piccadilly. You'll pass the following:

• The lovely Burlington Arcade, which has a branch of La Duree where you can get an expensive but very good macaron.

• The Royal Academy of Arts, which often has some sort of interesting free exhibit in its courtyard.

• A lot of attractive and very Londony architecture.

• Fortnum & Mason, a lovely department store full of tea, biscuits, and other things you would expect a lovely London department store to carry.

• The largest bookstore in Europe.

• Piccadilly Circus-- London's version of Times Square.

At that point, you'll be at the Piccadilly Circus tube stop and if you've been browsing in stores and art exhibits along the way, you might have used up your full hour of tourist time. If so, you can take the Piccadilly Line back to Heathrow, which would take about 45 minutes to an hour.

However, If you have have more time, you can keep walking to Trafalgar Square, and perhaps past 10 Downing Street and on to Big Ben/ Parliament. The whole journey -- from Green Park to Piccadilly Circus to Parliament -- would probably take about 30 minutes of steady walking, plus however much time you spent stopping to look at things. You'd end up at Westminster Station, and you'd be about an hour's journey back to Heathrow (changing tube lines once.)

Alternatively, you could reverse the walking tour, and start off at Westminster, then walk up to Piccadilly Circus, etc. That way, you'd end up at Green Park station. If you had extra time, you could then walk through the park and see the Palace, but if you were in a rush, you could skip it and just take the Tube back to Heathrow.

Finally, I will just say that London is an amazing city, and pretty much anywhere you go in central London, you'll see something interesting. So don't worry too much about the details. Pick whatever sites seems like they will fit in your schedule, and I guarantee you'll end up enjoying it.
posted by yankeefog at 2:43 AM on April 20, 2016 [4 favorites]

Couple of points:

1) All cabs don't take cards yet. Many do. You'll want to ask before getting in (or look for the sticker on the window that has Visa/MC/AMEX logos). It may take awhile for an available card-capable cab to stop for you, so be aware.

2) If you are forced to take a black cab, it's not cheap. I took one from Westminster Bridge (a hotel right at the foot) to T5 at LHR this last week and it ran GBP80 (with a small gratuity, which was unnecessary). Took about an hour and ten in mid-morning (10am) traffic, for point of reference.

In short, I'd probably have GBP120 in my pocket for a black cab in case of dire emergency to get back to the airport. It's probably your smartest insurance policy to make this crazy scheme workable.
posted by GamblingBlues at 3:28 AM on April 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Footnotes to some comments above about Paddington: the Bakerloo tube line is not stopping at that station at the moment (it resumes in August). Passengers are being directed to Edgware Road instead, which is not far away, but that's probably extra time you can't afford to lose. The alternative, the Circle and District lines, can be slow.

Also, because of building works at the station the Paddington Bear shop is not open just now, though I think they have a market stall type thing set up somewhere at the station selling part of the range.
posted by FavourableChicken at 5:27 AM on April 20, 2016

I don't think it's worth the risk of a missed flight. Six hours is not enough.

Yes, if the Heathrow Express is running, you can get to Paddington, go walkabout for a bit, then go back to Heathrow, and get in queue to check in all over again.

The Tube took an hour to get in last time I used it. Ditto taxis. (It's London. There's traffic.)
posted by justcorbly at 6:21 AM on April 20, 2016

I've been in London cabs with the sticker to say they take cards and when I've tried to pay with the card they declined to accept it. One insisted I get money from an ATM.
posted by biffa at 7:54 AM on April 20, 2016

Buying pounds at your departure airport will save time locating an ATM in Heathrow.

Quickest I've ever made it through Passport Control at Heathrow is approx 45 minutes, with the clock starting when I got there, not when the flight arrived.
posted by justcorbly at 9:23 AM on April 20, 2016

Tomorrow is St George's Day, and also the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. Trafalgar Square, mentioned by a few people in the thread, will be hosting a free festival from midday till 6pm, celebrating both events with music, food, and sonnets. I don't know whether that's something you would want to seek out or to avoid, but either way, worth being aware of!
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 10:55 PM on April 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you to all the wonderful responders in the thread. But boo, hiss, it didn't work out after all.

I was on an American Airlines codeshare on British Airways, and for whatever stupid reason, American couldn't issue me a boarding pass for the London-Frankfurt segment at Syracuse, but neither could British Airways at Boston. At Heathrow, after struggling for a longish while, the BA agent threw up his hands and just re-booked me - but on a flight that left an hour earlier. So - late arrival at Heathrow, struggle with boarding passes, and early departure by an hour - my 6 hour layover was cut down to 4 hours, which just wasn't enough.

So alas, I spent the time in the cavernous Terminal 5 hall, eating, napping, and snorting at the parade of Gucci, Hermes, Coach, Prada, Veneza Bottega, Cartier, Tiffany, Fortnum & Mason, all elbow to elbow. (How on earth do all of those stores stay in business?)

Anyway. Maybe next time.
posted by RedOrGreen at 1:03 AM on April 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh well.
Thanks for reporting back. I was wondering all Saturday how your exciting London dash about adventure was working out.
I really like the idea of adventures like that (I once organised a flight from London to Marseille for lunch, and then back 5 hours later, simply because the flights were on a loss leader basically free offer)

As you say, Next Time!
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 3:59 AM on April 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

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