In 2012 we decided to do our first “giant” trip that involved planes, trains, and automobiles, multiple weeks, and multiple countries in Europe. We started out in Brussels, headed to a fifth floor (EUROPEAN fifth floor, so really sixth floor. Don’t let them try to fool you) walk-up with narrow curlicue stairs in the Gambetta in Paris, then went off to Madrid, Barcelona, and back to Brussels before flying back to Zambia.
There are many things you can’t plan ahead for while traveling, no matter how dedicated, resourceful, and thorough you try to be. Like, for instance, a rotovirus outbreak.
You can’t plan for a rotovirus outbreak, people. YOU CAN’T PLAN FOR THIS.
This is, I think, my favorite picture we’ve ever taken on any of our travels.
Fresno the Husband wasn’t too up on appearing on the internet (weirdo), but I had to include this picture. Honestly, this picture is what makes the best travel memories – Mr. Dirty popping up in what was supposed to be a picture of just Mom and Dad.
In any case, this picture, ridiculous though it may be, is pretty much what we expect from travel. If you’re in London you see Big Ben, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, and if you have time you hit up Harrod’s. Or maybe you hit up Harrod’s first, I’m certainly not going to judge.
Every year we take a big trip around Christmas time. There are a few reasons for this – first, the kids’ school lets out for about a month around that time and we have a free travel schedule. Second, if you plan your travel right (and far ahead) and aren’t too worried about methods, you can get some seriously excellent travel deals. Third, and this is probably 75% of the reason for us right here, we live in a climate that isn’t very Christmasy and I feel a deep urge to go somewhere pine trees are an indigenous species.
We all have our priorities.
Our first major overseas Christmas trip involved thirty days, three countries, five major cities, two overnight train trips, several smaller train trips, a bout with norovirus, an anti-austerity demonstration in Spain, and business class travel both to and from Europe for under $5000 (not including food).
In my last post, one million days ago because I have been horribly ill, I talked about the lovely airport in Birmingham, England. Completely unrelated, a fighter pilot friend posted the following video on his Facebook page.
Yeah, I’m not feeling so good about Birmingham now.
It seems so simple – passport = travel to other countries. I mean, I can make a reservation from JFK to Moscow on Expedia snippity-snap and take some pictures in Red Square should I so wish, right? RIGHT?
Not really. That fancy passport is pretty awesome, I’ll agree. It is a ticket to quite a lot of interesting places and experiences. But sometimes it takes a little more than showing up with a smile and a blank page waiting for a stamp.
If you’re travelling into England from any distance, there is a reasonably good chance that your flight will be coming into Heathrow Airport. I’m not a big fan of Heathrow because it is huge. Really, really huge. As in, I think the different terminals are in different counties. And the driving is horrifying. As is the parking.
My solution: take the train. There are two options for taking a train to Heathrow. You can either take the Underground (the Tube), or you can take the Heathrow Express. If you ask the Transport for London people, they’ll recommend the Heathrow Express. I recommend the Picadilly line of the Tube, and I’ll tell you why.
When considering taking the train to the airport, most people are balancing three factors: price, time, and convenience. The Heathrow Express loses the contest in at least two categories, and it is a tight argument for the third.
The Heathrow Express costs £21 one way, or £34 for a return ticket. There is also a business class ticket, but I can not, in any way, shape, or form, imagine needing to buy an upgraded ticket for a 15 minute journey on an already nice train. If your travels require you to go somewhere other than Paddington Station, you’ll also need to buy the appropriate Tube ticket for that part of your trip.
The tube from Zone 1 (central London) to Zone 6 (Heathrow) costs £5.50 for a single ticket. If you are an Oyster card holder, or you plan to buy an Oyster card for your visit, the fare is £5.00 during peak times, and £3.00 during non-peak hours. ( For this trip, peak is considered 6:30 am to 9:30 am and 4:00 pm to 7:00 pm.) If you anticipate other Tube travel that day, a Zones 1-6 Day Travel Card is £16.40 if travel begins before 9:30 am Monday through Friday, or £8.90 for any travel after 9:30 am Monday through Friday, or on Saturday, Sundays, or public holidays.
The big selling point for the Heathrow Express is that it is fast. A journey on the Heathrow Express takes about 15 minutes from Paddington Station to the airport. However, the Heathrow Express platform is very inconveniently located. If you are taking the Tube to Paddington, you need to leave at least twenty minutes for getting between the Heathrow Express platform and the Picadilly line platform. Trains leave every 15 minutes for most of the schedule, but as long as every 30 minutes late some evenings and early on Sundays, which can also add to your journey time.
By comparison, the Tube voyage from Paddington Station to Heathrow airport takes approximately one hour as scheduled. Keep in mind that rail works can add to the scheduled time. Trains run at least every 10 minutes, and often more frequently.
While the Heathrow Express is certainly faster when considering the time spent actually travelling on the train, the time savings is much smaller when you consider the transit time at Paddington Station and the less frequent trains. If you are really crunched for every last minute, and you think you can get across Paddington Station quickly even with your luggage, you might choose the Heathrow Express. Otherwise, you’re not gaining much time for the aggrevation we’ll discuss later.
Another time consideration is the hours that the trains run. Neither the Tube or the Heathrow Express run 24 hours per day, so they will not work for very early or very late flights.
The first Underground train from Heathrow to London does not leave the airport until shortly after 5 am, with the exact time depending on your terminal. The last Underground train from Heathrow to London leaves just after midnight, except for Terminal 4 from which the last Tube just after 11 pm. All these times are different on Sunday, too. Be sure to check out the Transport for London website to verify the times for your travel day, and to check for any disruptions to service.
The Heathrow Express service runs (roughly) from 5 am to midnight, depending on your terminal. Check the Heathrow Express website to verify the times for your travel day.
As I’ve said, moving across Paddington Station isn’t easy or fast. This is especially true as they continue to do work on the station. Transferring between the Heathrow Express and the Tube requires either several sets of steep stairs or a long walk and the use of escalators or the lift. I’ve done both, and I’ve enjoyed neither. I’m sure it is fine for those who don’t have luggage, children, or anyone less-abled travelling. But honestly, how many people are going to the airport without any luggage, kids or other encumbrances?
If you are continuing on to other trains, using the Tube can often eliminate a train change because the Picadilly line runs directly to Kings Cross and St. Pancras International train stations. These two stations service many of the major train routes throughout the UK and also across the Chunnel into Europe.
If neither the Tube or the Heathrow Express are working for you, you may want to consider taking a taxi, pre-booking a private car or taking the T9 bus. Both a taxi and a private hire car have the added benefit of picking you up and delivering you to exactly the places you need. Travel times will depend on your destination but will be comparable to the Tube. A taxi to central London will cost between £45 and £70, and a private hire car will cost somewhat less with the bonus of having a fixed price versus the taxi meter.
The bus is cheap, but I can’t recommend it as a good way to start or end a voyage.
Not everyone will agree, and your exact choice will depend on the time of your flights, the members of your party, the amount of your luggage, and your ultimate destation or voyage starting point. There are many options, and one is right for your group. Be sure to consider the Tube if you hear recommendations for the Heathrow Express. And happy travelling!