One of my favorite short layovers ever: London Heathrow (LHR). Amazing lounges, easy and efficient public transportation, and endless options to eat/sleep/dine/explore. You can always count on London being a great layover.
Heathrow’s vast array of international flights and fantastic connections means many will have the chance to try it out themselves. Whether it’s a 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7 hour layover in London, don’t worry – there is a lot you can do to have fun!
As an airline pilot flying internationally from New York’s JFK airport, I normally layover in London multiple times per month. Here’s a little foreshadowing, if I haven’t made it obvious already: I love it. It’s an epic city.
And for those not looking to leave Heathrow airport, fret not – the lounges, restaurants, and terminals are world class. You just have to know where to go.
You should read: 5 Suitcases Airline Pilots Use: Why You Need One
Should I leave London-Heathrow Airport (LHR) on a short layover?
That depends. There are many factors in play:
- Is it a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday? These are busy days and security lines will be longer.
- Are there planned strikes by public transportation workers or taxi workers? These are usually announced ahead of time and cause massive delays.
- Is the weather bad enough to create chaos with cancellations, delays, and rebookings?
- Are you arriving on an international flight? Do you need a visa to enter UK territory? If so, going through customs may add time. (US passports are eligible for entry through fast-lane visa-free passport scanners, saving ample time)
- Do you have bags to collect and check back in? Check-in lines could be long, though you can save time by checking them in at a transfer desk before exiting the secure zone.
- Are you arriving at night? This may call for a short hotel layover instead of going out and exploring.
- Do you have Priority Pass and less than 4 hours before your connecting flight? If so, it may make more sense to spend your layover at an excellent free lounge.
This summer is extremely busy, and airports and airlines are suffering from short staffing. Because of this, you can expect long lines at check-in, security, help desks, and more. Plan extra time for this.
What you can do inside London Heathrow International Airport on a layover
For those who prefer not to leave the airport, fret not – there’s a lot to do.
You have 6 terminals to chose from, each offering an array of restaurants, shops, and lounges. Many of these lounges offer free access for Priority Pass members, while others are reserved for business/first class fliers and members. Check below.
Some of the restaurants here are world class, and there’s everything from delicate sushi to fried chicken to feast one.
Many of the lounges have excellent wining and dining, showers, and even spas. The Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse has a wonderful outdoor terrace, while the No1 Lounge has a separate TV Lounge room.
And if you really want to get some exercise, there’s miles of corridors and hallways to explore. If your terminal isn’t enough, it’s super easy to take a bus to another one, though you will likely have to pass through security again if you do.
Best LHR Lounges (and what you need to know first)
Most of the lounges at LHR Heathrow are excellent, and some are even world class. Take the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse for example, boasting everything from Peloton bikes to an outdoor terrace – with champagne and fine dining in between.
Priority Pass members can rejoice – there are several wonderful lounges included for free! The No1 Lounge, for example, features a spa, showers, movie theatre, and a very diverse bar. At this time, the showers are still not operating.
Pro Tip: the No1 Lounge is the best Priority Pass Lounge in Terminal 3. As such, it fills up quick. Make sure to pre-book on the Priority Pass app for 6£ and reserve a spot.
AmEx Platinum members have access to the world-renowned Centurion Lounge in Terminal 3, with top notch fare and a comfortable, but slightly cozy environment.
Lounges at LHR included with Priority Pass
As a benefit to Priority Pass members, Terminal 3 is home to both the Club Aspire Lounge and the No1 Lounge Heathrow complimentary. Both are excellent complimentary options.
Those transiting Terminal 5 can enjoy yet another excellent Club Aspire Lounge.
Lounges at LHR that allow purchase of a day pass
Unless you’re flying in business or first class, you might be worried about finding a nice lounge to relax in between flights. But luckily, most terminals at LHR have at least one lounge that allows purchasing of a day pass.
Here they are, with their respective prices (which may not be 100% up to date):
- Plaza Premium Lounge (£40/3 hours, £65/6 hours)
- Lufthansa Business Lounge ($74)
- United Club ($59)
- No1 Lounge (£36 online)
- Club Aspire (£35 online)
- American Airlines Lounge ($59, currently closed)
- Club Aspire (£40 online)
- Plaza Premium (£35/3 hours, £65/6 hours)
Exclusive airline lounges
Air Canada, American Airlines, Lufthansa, Qantas, SkyTeam (T4), and United all have their own respective lounges. Most of these are reserved for business and first class passengers, but some offer paid options for those flying in economy or comfort.
There are typically also yearly options available for those who travel constantly (and always with the same airline(s).)
The Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse in T3 is particularly worldly, offering multiple restaurants, peloton bikes, showers, a pool table area, and even an outdoor patio with epic views of LHR. Those flying business class on Virgin Atlantic and SkyTeam partners have access.
Catch some sleep at an LHR Day Room
Though there are no hotels inside the secure area at LHR (which means you’ll have to exit and go through customs/security), there are some on or near the airport that offer day rooms.
Day rooms are my newest dangled “travel hack”, because there’s nothing more refreshing than catching up on rest and taking a shower between flights.
These hotels and many others offer shuttle service. My personal best way to snag a cheap room is on dayuse.com.
Going out and exploring on a short Heathrow layover
Even after having traveled to over 80 countries, I still have to contend that London is one of my favorite cities. And excellent public transport makes it one of the most accessible cities in the world, even on a short layover.
You have so many options on places to go and how to get to them – you can tailor your layover to any level of exploration. I’ve found that even after many, many layovers, London just does not get old. There’s always more to do.
So whether you see a lot or a little, you’ll be glad you did. Here are my recommendations on what to do during your London layover.
Getting to downtown London from LHR – quick!
Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, Piccadilly Circus, Harry Potter. Whatever your rhyme or reason is for visiting London, you’ll be glad to know there is a fantastically fast way to get downtown from LHR airport.
It’s namely the Heathrow Express, offering direct service to downtown in 15 minutes. Though it’s more expensive than the tube (metro/underground), I highly recommend it. The underground/tube often has delays and many stops, making it a much more tedious way to get to London from LHR.
The fare for the Heathrow Express is normally 25£ one way and 37£ return (roundtrip), but here’s a little secret - if you book ahead, you can get fares as low as £5.50 each way!
Renting a car for the day and going more in depth
Though public transportation in London is excellent, you may prefer the flexibility of having your own car. This unlocks the ability to see even more of the area, including:
- The Royal Observatory of Greenwich, located at the Prime Meridian (0 degrees longitude)
- Oxford University and its Museum of Natural History
- The Windsor Castle
- The incredible Brooklands Museum, featuring everything from rockets to the Concorde
- With more time, the coast of Brighton
In my experience, Hertz offers the most reliable and convenient rentals.
Just beware of parking downtown, which is mighty inconvenient and expensive.
Join a free (or cheap) guided tour of the city
London is easily one of the most walkable cities in the world. I would know – I’ve walked close to 100 miles around the city.
But to really learn about the history, culture, and hidden gems of the city, I highly recommend a guided tour – especially if you’re in a hurry.
Otherwise, here’s a sample itinerary I curated for your viewing pleasure:
Some of the sites you won’t want to miss include:
- Buckingham Palace – you can even visit a State Room from 22 July to 2 October and some dates in winter! Changing the Guard, an amazing show, occurs most days at 10:45AM
- Go shopping in the historic area of St. James.
- Hit up Westminster Abbey. Don’t miss out on that giant clock tower they call Big Ben somewhere around there.
- Visit Churchill’s War Rooms for a chilling and enlightening experience
- Ride the London Eye for epic views of the city
- Walk through SoHo and experience London’s most vibrant neighborhood
- Tour the 900-year old Tower of London and learn about the medieval history of the city
- Take an elevator to the top of the Tower Bridge
- Head up the the observation deck at The Shard, that pointy building that rises high above the city skyline
Each of these sites is located near an Underground (Metro/Tube) station, and the order listed above is a good way to do it. Note that it would probably take an entire afternoon (4-6 hours at least) to see all of that in a hurry, so you’ll have to pick and choose.
Many of these can also be seen by Hop On Hop Off bus, if you want to really excel at the tourist thing.
Eat local, classic British fare
Fish n’ chips, a nice meat pie, bangers n’ mash, Shepherd’s Pie – all nice boring British food for you to try.
The Indian food is where it’s really at. Let’s bring the spice and the taste. You won’t find a lack of great Indian food here.
My favorite Indian place? Dishoom, in Kensington, King’s cross, and Carnaby, is excellent. Probably the best in London.
For a great fish n’ chips, the Mayfair Chippy is your spot. And for a local chain with fantastic fare, try the Ivy.
If you want to eat at one of Gordon Ramsay’s excellent dining experiences, make sure to book ahead.
And lastly, great coffee is everywhere. For a unique experience, try Attendant Coffee Roasters, situated in what used to be a Victorian public toilet.
Getting back to Heathrow on time for your next flight
Summer 2022 is unfortunately the year of travel chaos. And that means you’ll have to deal with travel disruptions such as delays, cancellations, late bags, and more.
Heathrow has been particularly hit by the shortages. As a response, the airport authority has implemented a passenger cap of 100,000 passengers per day.
This is both good and bad news. If you’re reading this, it’s probably good news; you’ve already booked your ticket, and this will enable manageable security and checkin lines to make your journey more efficient and comfortable.
However, flight prices have skyrocketed because of the limited availability. Clearly, this is not the ideal solution.
You should still plan to arrive at the airport 3 hours before and international flights and 2 hours before a domestic flight. Whether you use an Uber, rental car, the tube, or the Heathrow Express – always plan in extra time.