I’ve been through Heathrow a couple of times this year now, and my patience has snapped. Anyone who cares about cost, comfort, convenience, or getting there on time with their possessions, should start taking extreme measures to avoid routing through Heathrow. They’re trying hard, but they’re failing, it’s just broken. Find another way; even if it’s longer and more expensive, the chances are still that you’ll arrive sooner having spent and suffered less. Yes, it’s that bad. [The comments are boiling over, I’m not the only one who feels this way; can something be done?] [Later: Check the horrifying number reported by Hanan Cohen. I’m serious; I am totally going to find a way around Heathrow.] [Later, still: In the last week of July, Eric Pfanner of the International Herald Tribune ran across this piece and called me for an interview; the story turns out to be about transport privatization in general, and is a good one I think.]

The Facts of the Matter · Here are some things that differentiate Heathrow from good airports:

  • It’s insanely huge. Making any transfer, or merely getting into London, will require walking through endless dingy charmless hallways, dealing with extreme crowding, and in most cases a packed, uncomfortable bus ride. I have learned that to make a connection involving a terminal change with any reliability, you have to budget at least two (very unpleasant) hours.

  • They won’t gate-check strollers, so if you’ve got an infant or two, you’re going to be carrying them down all those hallways by hand.

  • You will go through more security checkpoints. In a (failed) attempt to transfer from one British Airways flight to another, in the same terminal, we went through three separate security checks, each with a lengthy, cramped, line-up.

  • One carry-on only. So if you’ve got a laptop bag and a purse, check one. Or if you’re just traveling for a couple nights and have your briefcase and a soft-sider with the basics, you’re going to be waiting for luggage when you get wherever you’re going.

  • If you’re hungry, there are exactly zero options which are good and affordable. If your budget is like normal people, you can join yet another lengthy packed queue to get a generic Pret a Manger. There are sit-down restaurants, most serving indifferent food at obscene prices. Then there is the champagne-and-smoked salmon bar, which is excellent, where one can eat for the cost of five.

  • It’s too crowded; hard to find a quiet comfy place to sit down.

On the trip from Vancouver to Berlin yesterday, we were two hours late leaving Vancouver (reason unspecified, the plane was there), fought our way through the airport to the Berlin departure gate while they were still loading only to hear “Sorry, you’ve been de-boarded, go back to Flight Connections”. Hours later, we made it to Berlin via Cologne, but our luggage didn’t; it’s still not here. [Update: The next day, it turns out that the luggage is still in London and will be here (they promise) 9PM today; this is hard to understand when it’s a two-hour-flight away.] [And again: The luggage, misplaced Tuesday morning in London, did not arrive in Berlin until Thursday afternoon. Just avoid Heathrow.]

On the other hand: the people who work there, most of them, most of the time, are really trying hard; professional, polite and reasonably efficient. It’s just that what they’re trying to do can’t be done at the scale they’re trying to do it. Do yourself a favor and find another way to get there.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Malcolm Tredinnick (Jul 03 2007, at 20:44)

Haven't had the stroller experience (not children), but all the rest sounds very familiar. I don't think it's just you; Heathrow is not a fun airport to have to move through as part of a long trip.

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From: Jason R Briggs (Jul 03 2007, at 21:25)

Seconded.

But "hard to find a quiet comfy place to sit down"?

I'd say impossible. Admittedly I haven't been through Heathrow for almost 2 years, but I can't recall *ever* finding somewhere reasonable to sit.

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From: Bryce (Jul 03 2007, at 21:26)

And beware of cheap fares that involve transferring from Heathrow to Stansted or Gatwick! Ground transportation is neither cheap nor quick.

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From: BWJones (Jul 03 2007, at 22:58)

We flew through Gatwick a couple of weeks ago and it was not bad. There is even an express train right from Gatwick to Victoria station for much more reasonable cost ($30-40 or so) than the $300-400 it would have cost for a car/taxi given the current exchange rates with the dollar. Security is much easier than Heathrow, customs is much more efficient and traffic around Gatwick is nothing like that of Heathrow.

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From: Anthony B. Coates (Jul 03 2007, at 23:10)

The security at the London airports has been more than a bit frustrating for travellers for a long time now, but you must remember that Glasgow airport was attacked on the weekend, so you may have had the misfortune to go through the security while the UK was at its highest state of security alert.

Cheers, Tony.

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From: Pete Hindle (Jul 03 2007, at 23:46)

Whilst you might think the airport is annoying, the rest of the country is just as bad. I can say this because I'm English.

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From: Lars Marius Garshol (Jul 03 2007, at 23:49)

I have to agree with your description of Heathrow. I've only ever used Terminal 3, but it's not a pleasant place to be. The best places I've found there are the O'Neill's pub, whose food is not very good, but at least OK priced and edible, and the "secret" quiet room, where you can even lie down and sleep.

Last time I went through, flying out of London, I even had to queue for the first security check in a huge plastic tent *outside* the airport buildings. The only nice part of that experience was a security guard who turned out to speak Norwegian, after having lived 13 years in Oslo. I guess for those of you who don't speak Norwegian there would have been no nice parts...

I've flown through Stanstead several times, and find it to be a completely different experience. It's small, efficient, uncrowded, and there are even some nice places to sit.

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From: Darren (Jul 04 2007, at 00:18)

Amen. Unquestionably the worst airport I've ever traveled through. I do my best to avoid it, but occasionally have no choice. One note I'd add: it's eternally under construction. A bit like Hell.

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From: Dr Nic (Jul 04 2007, at 00:41)

I agree it is possibly the worst international airport I've had to stop at or transfer thru. Ok, the Bangalore airport was bad but my expectations were very low.

"No comfortable places to sit" - we did find one area hidden away (labelled a "quiet area"), in the international terminal. Go towards to low gate numbers. You'll see people slumped all over the place. Keep walking. Look for signs for "quiet area" and you'll want an alcove to the left hand side.

If that area is busy, walk thru it to a set of double doors at the end. We found this area was open, though dark and empty of people. Great for putting a small child to sleep!!

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From: Simon Phipps (Jul 04 2007, at 00:41)

I think you're over-generous, Tim. The airport is designed to maximise BAA's profits and the only thought they have is their customers' (the airlines') convenience. Sometimes.

Key additional criticisms:

* There is no meaningful ground transportation, it's all walking and buses. No light rail means everything is at the mercy of the road network, and when that grid-locks (which it does often) the place halts.

* The security arrangements are specifically designed to insult and humiliate travellers. Always, although you probably had the extra-heavy version as Tony says. In typical British fashion, Jobs-worths are on hand continuously to impose petty rules unneccessarily. In Terminal 2 there's not even a fast-track lane.

* There is no accountability. No-one is responsible for anything that happens. All of the continuous poison that's poured over passengers is kismet, the hand of unseen forces.

Wherever possible I avoid Heathrow. Gatwick isn't a whole lot better really, whatever people here say. The charmless corridors are newer, that's about it. Increasingly I fly to Amsterdam or Germany from Southampton airport and connect.

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From: Nik Clayton (Jul 04 2007, at 01:41)

You're not the only one to feel like this. A couple of recent Guardian articles:

http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/jonathan_glancey/2007/06/the_horror_of_heathrow.html

http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/terence_conran/2007/06/a_terminal_case.html

The latter includes the telling quote: "I remember Richard Rogers telling me when he'd just received the brief from BAA, "They don't want any seating for the public." He realised that if there was only seating in cafes and bars, then in effect people were being obliged to pay to sit down. Whereas if you provide proper seating, then people won't shop as much."

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From: Jón Arnar Guðmundsson (Jul 04 2007, at 03:09)

The Giraffe restaurant in Terminal 1 is the only decent place to eat at Heathrow. It has a healthy menu, at reasonable prices (at least for an airport restaurant). Their Ceasar salat is excellent.

http://www.giraffe.net

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From: Jon (Jul 04 2007, at 03:15)

I've been trying to avoid Heathrow for years and its only getting worse. I've had bad experiences at all 4 terminals at Heathrow. The only time it's tolerable is BA flights from T1 if you're able to get use to the business / first / executive check-in area. I hold the BAA totally responsible. They should be forced to sell off Gatwick and Stansted.

For a recent trip to Helsinki, I went from London City via Amsterdam. It took 5 hours each way but was much less stressful.

There are horror stories of security queues at Gatwick south terminal being as bad as Heathrow. I find Gatwick north terminal is mostly okay.

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From: Claus Dahl (Jul 04 2007, at 03:30)

It is only going to get worse. The airport was recently sold at a pretty ridiculous price. The only reasoning behind the price was that the new owner could hold London and the British government ransom - refusing to improve the airport if not allowed to charge airlines (and passengers) a lot more to pass through.

This is actually happening in a lot of places - it is also currently destroying my home airport in Copenhagen.

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From: Scot (Jul 04 2007, at 03:42)

I went to Heathrow twice in March/April. I didn't have that much of a problem - though it does seem easier to get to Terminal 4 by getting dropped off at Terminal 2/3 and taking the Heathrow Express to Terminal 4 (it's free between terminals) than it is to drive to T4 to get dropped off. It will be worse now thanks to the "terrorists" (I have trouble calling them terrorists, "incompetent idiots" seems more appropriate). Back then there was only one security check.

I suppose all this is going to change once T5 is open - I think a couple of the older terminals are getting closed down.

At the moment, my favourite airport is Amsterdam Schipol - it looks a lot less dingy than Heathrow T4 and has both an Art Gallery and a Casino.

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From: Alasdair Allan (Jul 04 2007, at 03:57)

Heathrow is actually moderately tolerable, much better than for instance LAX, or God forbid, Gatwick which are pest holes. But only so long as you're a frequent flyer. If you have a 50 or 100k card with one of the airlines then you can generally fast track threw security, and air-side the frequent flyer lounges are actually pretty good. Free food and drink, WiFi, and a decent bit of quiet to sit down.

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From: Mark (Jul 04 2007, at 04:39)

I second Tim and disagree with Simon on the staff. The security people in my experience are very polite. I was once pulled out of line because they thought I was carrying a gun in my luggage (as I later learned ... an unfortunate juxtaposition of a roll of quarters and a PDA on the X-ray). The guy was nevertheless completely polite and respectful the whole time.

Also, I've only been to Heathrow once where I had to go into London, but isn't there a train? Simon says there is no ground transportation, but I distinctly remember boarding a train. A lot of walking was involved, but I like walking, especially after a long flight.

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From: Luke Andrews (Jul 04 2007, at 05:45)

Last time I was at Heathrow (in late June), I couldn't change terminals for my connection because the buses were full because they couldn't let anyone out of the buses because there was nowhere for the people to go because the security queues were too long because to change terminals you now have to go through security again (...deep breath...) and the geniuses who have designed all this seem to think it's a great idea for all 4 terminals of connecting passengers to need to go through the same small connecting-passenger security area before they go back to their separate terminals.

Heathrow is broken. I hate Heathrow. I am desperately looking for a reasonably priced flight to Vancouver from Amsterdam because it is about 18 million times less irritating. In Amsterdam, they invested their money into enough equipment and staff that each gate has its own security check point so there are never ever enormous queues. And you can go to the Rijksmuseum <http://www.rijksmuseum.nl/tentoonstellingen/ex_191?lang=en> while you wait for your next flight!

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From: Sylvain Hellegouarch (Jul 04 2007, at 06:25)

I can't agree more with the sad state in which Heathrow airport is, wonder how Terminal 5 will improve things though.

Now the pending question is, why on Earth there is such a high volume of traffic via Heathrow airport alone?

I mean, you have Gatwick, Standstead, Luton, City around that could certainly take more and yet they don't. How come?

In any case, if you can do avoid Heathrow, it's a nightmare.

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From: Dan Creswell (Jul 04 2007, at 07:30)

+1 Tim, and I fear it'll only get worse with the opening of Terminal 5. The surrounding travel infrastructure (trains and roads) simply won't cope.

Of course it's justified as being "better for the economy" but we all know that actually means "lines the shareholders' pockets better but screws the consumer and other members of the public still more".

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From: Anantha (Jul 04 2007, at 07:31)

I beg to differ even though I've never been through Heathrow (LHR). I don't think any airport can be as bad as the mess that is Charles de Gaul (CDG) in Paris. If this is the best France can do then I can understand why they're having difficulty with the A380 not fitting properly at assembly.

No one should connect through this mess of an airport with a less than 4 hour connection time. CDG stands for 'Form for the sake of cute not Form for the sake of function'. Why do countries/cities insist on making a fashion statement with airports? They are a utility for God's sake and as such make them functional. Enough of architects run wild, they are welcome to build their homes any which way they want but design an airport to be efficient.

BTW, this bussing at airports is uniquely European (barring the mess that is Dulles in DC.)

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From: Steve (Jul 04 2007, at 08:27)

I always try to fly from Gatwick although I have the unfortunate task of flying from Heathrow next month - If you want a quiet comfortable place to sit goto the chapel it's always empty

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From: Josh Robb (Jul 04 2007, at 08:41)

I've got to say - that while Heathrow is definitely not ideal - your pain will be multiplied 20x if you choose to fly with BA. To pick a single data point - they have the worst lost luggage record of any European based carrier.

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From: Simon Phipps (Jul 04 2007, at 11:25)

Mark: Sounds like you don't "do" Heathrow very often. There's Heathrow Express and there's the Underground, but both are long-distance transportation and centrally located on the campus - as you say, a very long way away. Apart from those there's no ground transportation. You can take Heathrow Express between terminals 4 and 1/2/3 but you'd better not be in a hurry since there's only a train every 15 minutes and it will take you 15 to walk there from the terminal.

As to staff, they are usually scrupulously polite, yes. But their assignments are poor. For example,

* To get through security one has to get one's laptop out of the (single) carry-on one is carrying. Do it too early, however, and there are yellow jacketed staff waiting by the line to challenge you to put it away again since it constitutes a second carry-on according to the rules.

* At the X-Ray machines, staff hand out trays one by one just before the machine so that you can't prepare in advance.

* Your bag looks like it might be on th every edge of the standard size? They will pull you aside and insist you force into a sizing frame to prove it is OK.

No flexibility, no discretion, no goal of traveller support.Yes, I avoid CDG and LGW (I don't mind LAX so much), but LHR is a nightmare both to start from and to transit.

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From: Ted (Jul 04 2007, at 13:00)

On your return journey you'll notice that you land in Vancouver at exactly the same local time as you took off from London. The two cities are on similar latitudes (49 and 52) and the aircraft has simply climbed to 10,000 metres and waited there for eight hours until the natural rotation of the Earth has brought Vancouver underneath it - and the airline has the audacity to charge you as if it was flying you 6000 miles !

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From: Mark Cathcart (Jul 04 2007, at 13:07)

Tim, couldn't agree more. I've flown through Heathrow more times than I care to remember, even with the security issues now its almost always better to exit through customs and come in from the outside if you have to change terminals rather than go through flight connections, unless you are on a very tight connection.

The real shame of it was that they could have resolved much of the chaos of Heathrow when building T5. They should have put in a train that operates INSIDE the security zone to transfer passengers between terminals, but that would have cost real money and wouldn't have increased the shopping space hence decreased BAA revenue.

My last blog entries on the subject of Heathrow are here, pretty similar to yours.

http://triman.livejournal.com/67960.html?mode=reply

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From: Jon Ellis (Jul 04 2007, at 16:55)

Although i'm now avoiding international travel when ever possible, i would concur that Heathrow should be avoided at all costs. Amsterdam Schipol, and Frankfurt are sane, clean. Schipol in particular has good connections into the uk. For non-EU passport holders the immigration staff are also a lot less offensive. In the past the staff at Heathrow has done their best to reduce my wife to tears, on numerous occasions, with pointless and surreal questioning. The staffing levels at the non-EU counters is generally ridiculously low...

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From: Ed (Jul 04 2007, at 20:44)

Not to defend Heathrow, but shouldn't the rule be, "Avoid large airports"? As others have pointed out, LAX and JFK and CDG are hardly better. Schiphol is better, but smaller. Is there a good large globally connected airport?

Travelling with small kids is especially hard; our youngest is just out of stroller/pack'n'play age and it made a huge difference last week flying out of LAX. So, some hope.

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From: Joe Zekas (Jul 04 2007, at 21:24)

Yes, Heathrow's miserable.

But - the American Airlines lounges are pleasant, quiet, comfortable places to pass the time if you have an Admirals' Club membership or are eligible for the Flagship Lounge. If you travel even a fair amount, the club membership is well worth the cost in many ways.

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From: Toni Straka (Jul 04 2007, at 22:42)

if you want to get a taste of hell, fly Bermuda-Gatwick, transfer to Heathrow for a connection to Vienna. a total of 8:30 hours of flying take altogether at least 20 hours of travel-time, not including taxis on both ends. Security procedures do not allow to continue on a morning flight which was possible long time ago.

Last time the flight to Vienna was delayed for more than 3 hours. I was not allowed to check my 3 pieces of luggage until 2 hours before the flight.

It is better in business, but for the price difference I get a couple of good nights' sleep in any 5* hotel.

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From: bog (Jul 05 2007, at 03:23)

Heathrow is just another head off the beast that is London's infrastructure.

The Tube stops running every time a leaf falls on the tracks.

Parceforce cannot seem to deliver a package to save their lives.

BT will only rarely show up when they say.

And my Sky+ DVR loses signal every time it rains a bit harder than shower level.

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From: Chris (Jul 05 2007, at 03:49)

i'm no friend of Heathrow, though for reasons of geography i travel into/out of terminal three about ten times per year. While i agree with the sentiment--it is generally awful (particularly the endless and soul-destroying hallways you mention)--i wanted to point out at least one inconsistency with my own experiences.

In the past year i've gate-checked a stroller twice, most recently in May '07. Perhaps its the airline's call; we flew Virgin, and it was no trouble at all.

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From: Atul (Jul 05 2007, at 03:54)

You nailed it. Heathrow airport is getting to be the worst airport to make a connection from!

I've had several terrible experiences and just thinking about going via LHR makes my BP go higher. In the past 4 months I've made several trips and without a doubt, LHR offered the worst experiece in connecting.

One time I was heading from Wash.DC to the Persian Gulf via LHR, with a connecting flight in 1 hour 30 mins, changing carrier form BA to BMI. Going thru THREE separate security checks just to transfer the terminal, I made it just as the flight was taking off, while my luggage arrived 2 days late.

The next time, I was heading from the Gulf to Edinburgh, via LHR, changing from BMI to BA, with a laptop bag and a stroller.Because of LHR's stupid rule of NOT ALLOWING more than ONE Cabin Bags, even though the Airlines gladly allow them, I had to exit from the passport control, change the terminal, check in a dinky little bag, waste almost 1 hour, AND MISS MY FLIGHT. All because of one moronic rule. I ended up buying ANOTHER ticket just because I didn't want to spend another 3 hours on that unearthly airport.

I wrote a long complaint letter - I wonder if it ever gets read or implemented.

Clearly, LHR has to adapt to keep its operations smooth. In this security paranoid world, I wonder if it will ever be smooth enough.

Even as I write this, I can feel my blood boil just thinking back on it.

I'll avoid LHR whenever possible, despite my love of England. BA be damned.

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From: ferenc (Jul 05 2007, at 04:05)

Heathrow is the worst!!!

maybe the reason for my disgust ws because I was flying to Incheon airport in Seoul (incredible airport with free wireless)

Heathrow is disgusting and depressing!

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From: Nick C (Jul 05 2007, at 08:43)

Heathrow is horrible, there's no doubt about it. But then there's Milan Malpensa, where things are also pretty bad:

There's seating, but in some areas near the departure gates there are no screens indicating departure times. Which means that if (i.e. when) your flight is delayed, you have to get up every five minutes to check the departure gate itself to see if people have started queuing yet. Not great when you've just gotten off an 8 hour connecting flight.

The internet cafe was closed down when I last went apparently because management was worried about security (i.e. they were worried about people hacking the airports' internal system from the internet cafe - it seems unlikely to me that the internet cafe would be using anything other than a public telephone line to provide internet access, but who knows? Perhaps it was initially set up on the airport's intranet...)

In London Luton airport, which is one big shopping mall with seating at its centre (surrounded by shops), there are no announcements for departures and only 24 inch screens, which means that if (i.e. when) your flight is delayed, you have to get up every 5 mins to get close enough to the screens to read them to check whether a departure gate for your flight has been announced.

Moral: being places is great, travelling to get there (especially by plane) almost never is.

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From: Kevin H (Jul 05 2007, at 10:37)

I knew going into it that travelling internationally on non-direct flights with children would be more difficult than the standard "travelling with children" (which is already a trying experience). But I was entirely unprepared for the degree of misery I was subjecting myself to by including a stopover in Heathrow in that equation.

I may muster the courage to fly into Heathrow if London is my destination, but barring that, I've vowed that I will never fly on another plane scheduled to stop in that accursed airport.

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From: Matt L (Jul 05 2007, at 10:47)

I've never had to transit Heathrow before. I've arrived in T3 a few times, but beyond the dull passage ways and at times overly long lines for immigration, it hasn't been an overly bad experience. A lot of walking, but eventually you make it to the Heathrow Express and begin to zipping your way in to central London, that part I liked.

However I'm 4 days away from having to transit Heathrow on my way to Zurich, and from what I've figured out I have to switch between T3 and T2. I'm suddenly becoming fear-filled about this upcoming experience, fortunately we have 2.5 hours between flights (assuming everything is on time).

As for Standsted, I've had mixed experiences. Last time I went through that airport it was like Mecca during a pilgramage, it was absolute chaos with security lines snaking all the way to the main terminal doors. Actually I've had worse experiences with Stansted then I have with Heathrow (though the way EasyJet and Ryan Air operate might have contributed to those poor experiences).

Next week that track record might all change. Wish me luck with my pending adventures....

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From: Ben Lings (Jul 05 2007, at 15:33)

Fly point-to-point at all costs... Heathrow's not bad for leaving from or arriving at as a final destination.

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From: Hanan Cohen (Jul 05 2007, at 23:26)

In the blog Architectures of Control in Design (http://architectures.danlockton.co.uk/2007/07/06/the-terminal-bench/) I read this from the Guardian (http://arts.guardian.co.uk/art/news/story/0,,2103884,00.html)

Flying from the new Heathrow Terminal 5 and facing a lengthy delay? No worries. Take a seat and enjoy the spectacular views through the glass walls: Windsor castle in one direction; the Wembley Arch, the London Eye and the Gherkin visible on the horizon in the other.

But you had better be quick, because the vast Richard Rogers-designed terminal, due to open at 4am on March 27 next year, has only 700 seats. That’s much less than two jumbo loads, in an airport designed to handle up to 30 million passengers a year.

There will be more chairs available but they will be inside cafes, bars and restaurants. Taking the weight off your feet will cost at least a cup of coffee.

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From: Tim Trautmann (Jul 06 2007, at 00:40)

I highly recommend modern, clean Munich Airport for your European connection needs.

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From: elly parker (Jul 06 2007, at 02:54)

I regularly transit via Heathrow when flying from Dublin to Phoenix for work. It's sooo much better than Charles de Gaulle which took me on a 20 min bus ride from one terminal to another recently so that I could pass through security in another part of the terminal. My flight left from the gate next to the one I came in on, but I nearly missed it!

BA lost my luggage once going into Phoenix. I was told before I left the flight (no queueing at baggage claim in vain) and was given a $50 disposable visa card to get any bits and pieces I needed.

I've also seen people gate check strollers frequently on the Phoenix flight, that must be an airline rule, not an airport one.

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From: Bob Aman (Jul 06 2007, at 02:58)

I'm afraid I have to join in on the Heathrow Hatefest. I've been through Heathrow exactly once. That was once too many. I'm sadly committed to go through it again in August for my return flight. Most of the issues you raised manifested themselves during my 8 hour stay in Heathrow. Even the quietest corner of Heathrow is still noisy. All of the shops want to see your boarding pass, which I consider to be an unnecessary invasion of privacy. The internet terminals in the airport are buggy; one of them took my credit card, then failed to actually work. I got a voucher from one of the repair folks that eventually came by, but of course the voucher was for quite a bit less than what the machine ate. Those are all tiny problems in comparison to the complete and utter lack of food worth eating in the terminal. I eventually resigned myself to a shrink-wrapped sandwich at Starbucks. I was talking to a few friends the other day about the problems with Heathrow, and we all agreed that from now on, Amsterdam would be selected over London. Heathrow just sucks.

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From: Elliotte Rusty Harold (Jul 06 2007, at 06:12)

Haven't been through Heathrow lately, and never transferred there; but I don't remember it being so bad. However I do recall that it made a *huge* difference who you flew on. When I was on British Air or Virgin, the terminals were convenient and interesting (well, as interesting as airline terminals can be) and the security lines were short and fast. When I flew American, the lines were invariably hideous, the terminals awful, the staff rude, and the whole experience just uniformly unpleasant.

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From: Tim Bray (Jul 06 2007, at 07:50)

On gate-checks: Yes, you can gate-check on your way *out* of Heathrow, just not on the way into it. When you're checking in at Vancouver or Cleveland or Tokyo on your way to Heathrow, they'll let you take it down to the plane, but then it goes in the luggage and you won't see it until you see your luggage again. So you'll do the long walk through Heathrow baby in arms.

When, on this trip, I found out about it and complained, the BA woman said "Oh, at Heathrow they're just too busy to bring strollers to the plane". They're too busy to get my business, too.

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From: Casper (Jul 06 2007, at 20:15)

Agreed. That's why I always try to go over Amsterdam/Shiphol. Its almost as big, but newer, cleaner, less crowded and just a he// of a lot better.

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From: David Bergin (Jul 07 2007, at 03:12)

Tim, I have to agree with Casper. You should consider Amsterdam Schipol for connection purposes. It's quite a pleasant place for an airport; nice relaxation seats and it even hosts a small part of the world famous Rijksmuseum collection. See http://www.rijksmuseum.nl/tentoonstellingen/ex_191?lang=en. A very nice way to kill an hour.

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From: Jonas (Jul 07 2007, at 16:28)

I second Munich. It's very clean, pleasant, has nice staff in my experience and a lot of quick check-in terminals that you can use if you have an "e-ticket", which means that you can skip the line entirely.

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From: Gavin (Jul 07 2007, at 16:48)

Heathrow is fine as long as you are not transiting. Otherwise just forget it. My recent Barcelona - Cork trip via Heathrow (was a nightmare. They allowed me to get beyond the 'point of no return in T1 (the bomb shelter/gutter) before informing us what we had known for hours - the flight was delayed for 'at least' three hours. This at 8.30 pm at night.

Flight connections should of course be renamed to security hell. I agree with the necessity for security, but why do they 1. have so few staff, 2. allow their staff to mickey about in front of you while you KNOW you are going to miss your flight, 3. have the JFK-Immigration queueing style, which is an absolute unmitigated disaster...

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From: Lee Shepstone (Jul 08 2007, at 10:53)

I travel *alot* for work (around 80 flights last year) and about 95% of my flights are from/to heathrow. I don't seem to have nearly as bad experiences as described in this thread, in fact I really like Heathrow. But that is probably because 90% of my flights are on BA.

I think one has to understand that Heathrow is actually like 4 little airports clustered together (soon to be 5). The way in which Heathrow evolved means that each terminal operates like it's own little airport, and some of them are the size of small airports. The new Terminal 5 will be one of the worlds largest airports just by itself. So your experience will be largely dictated by which terminal you use. Terminal 1 and Terminal 4 are excellent, and predominantly BA. Terminal 2 and 3 cater to most other carriers, and all the US ones. These terminals are not very nice at all. If you are a BA silver/gold or business/first customers, Terminal one has this special check-in where you beat ALL the queues, and you go through a special BA-only security line where I have never seen more than 10 person line even at rush hour flights in the morning.

And yes, getting between terminals is a long walk down to the Heathrow Express, but it is easy. The Heathrow express is free, fast and a clean way to get between the terminals. The only down side is that it can be a little bit of a walk to get to the Heathrow Express, depending on which terminal you're at.

Also, we just flew in from Chicago on BA, and we had our Stroller and Car seat checked on the plane, and it was waiting for us when we got off the plain at Terminal 4. The stroller thing seems to be airline dependent, and not airport policy.

Overall, travelling through terminal 1 and 4 on BA is a pleasure. I would highly recommend keeping on the same airline if you need to transfer (and that will mean you often stay in the same terminal)..but this would mean you need to fly a European carrier from the US or Canada.

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From: Matěj Cepl (Jul 12 2007, at 03:34)

I have to stand in the defense of LHR. I was living as an international student in Boston for six years (returned on the September 11 last year) and although every huge airports suck LHR is by far better than others. I have never had a problem with checking in a stroller (or a pushchair if you wish), and I found breakfast places just delightful. Yes, they are expensive but everything in UK is (have you seen prices on computers -- they seem to have same numbers albeit in pounds instead of dollars).

Comparing it to most American airports (where personal is usually paid half and it shows; most of the US staff seem to look for job at Cinnabon as a promotion, not only the security people; http://www.govexec.com/dailyfed/0901/092001p1.htm) at least people at Heathrow are decent. Have you been flying O'Hare lately?

And of course I have to join in hate of DeGaulle airport; CDG is just the worst place to be, ever.

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From: Mick Huisking (Jul 12 2007, at 16:11)

I flew through Heathrow a few weeks back on a family vacation to Italy, and then did the Gatwick to Heathrow shuffle on our return last week.

The outbound transition was pretty painless (we did allow 3 and 1/2 hours), but did involve a whole lot of walking, and waiting. Checking the baby's stroller wasn't that big of a deal either with United or BMI.

The way back was a big pain. We arranged to stay at a hotel near Gatwick and hire a ride to Heathrow the next morning. The ride from Gatwick to Heathrow was the highlight of the travel... We booked a ride from a company called "Celtic Private Hire" to get us from the hotel to Heathrow (which is like 45 miles away) The driver (Keith) picked us up on time, parked, and escorted us down to the check-in area. No hassle, and lower cost than catching the bus!

Keith had also suggested that we allow a couple of extra hours above-and-beyond the 3 that I was giving ourselves (good advice!) so we had arrived with about 4 1/2 hours to spare -- and we needed 'em! There was a mixup with the taxes that needed to be paid on the infant ticket, and some baggage check-in hassles including having to take my son's soccer ball back down to the check in area to check it as "luggage" instead of carry-on. Which meant having to traverse through 2 security checks once again! (United made it all right in the end -- a bump up in class and the entire middle row on a 777)

The people who work at Heathrow were overall very kind and did try to assist us the best they could. However, I will try to find a non-stop to Italy next time.

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From: Adam Dodsworth (Jul 12 2007, at 16:19)

For frequent (50K+ miles/year travelers) LHR is much better than USA airports in terms of services, fastrak and lounges. Try rushing through ORD or compare servives to LAX. The thing I love about LHR (at least Terminal 3) is the truly international feel about the place. Sorry but for me LHR is one of the best! Safe flying!

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From: Meg Karayiannis (Jul 13 2007, at 09:45)

Having lived in France for a few years our family had multiple opportunities to go thru Heathrow. Gradually it has deteriorated to its current state. Sadly, but all comments are true and more. They have all these overworked/unprepared employees gripped with the reality that they may encounter a terrioritst or be the reason one got thru. Can't imagine the pressure!

Knowing this, we avoided Heathrow this trip and connected thru JFK. I hadn't gone this way for more than 15 years and was without children. On our return to the US weather kept our plane from arriving on time hence delayed our departure making us spend the night in New York. For anyone english speaking, this airport is a nightmare! I can't imagine being non-english speaking and trying to navigate that mess!! The prices for a room were robbery and people completely unhelpful or kind. Riding the train, getting on and off was a war, people unwilling to help me with my bags seeing as I was with 2 kids. The worse part of all...... military personnel everywhere with machine guns talking on cell phones!! Way to be on the look out boys! Heathrow doesn't hold the corner on horrible!

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From: Hugo Duncan (Aug 02 2007, at 03:22)

I flew out of Heathrow two weeks ago. BA had decided to let people into the airport one flight at a time!

There were tents erected on the concourse in front of terminal 4, and very zealous guys guarding the entrances, only allowing you in when your flight was next in line. I spent 45 minutes waiting outside the terminal!

The checkin inside still had a 30min queue, but the time through security was only 5 minutes.

The reason? to reduce the number of people who missed their flights. Effective? I don't know, but there still seemed to be a good number of people getting angry because they were not allowed onto their flights, or were being refered to the "ticket desk".

Next week I get to experience terminal 3.

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From: Matt L. (Aug 02 2007, at 14:24)

I read the original post a week before we left for Zurich via Heathrow, my first time having to transfer in London, and I had a cold chill down my spine.

After arriving in Heathrow, we're forced to sit in the plane for 30 minutes because we're told a Virgin Atlantic plane is sitting in our gate and there's nowhere else for us to go.

Our 2.5 hour connection from T3 to T2 suddenly becomes even tighter. The connection itself wasn't too bad, but we arrive in Zurich to find our luggage missing.

Nearly 24 hours go by and there's no sign of it. We head to the airport on our way out of the city to see if we can harass someone there. We quite accidentally find it had arrived on a plane just 30 minutes earlier (my bag is spinning on the baggage carosile, looking very lonely), but no one had bothered to update the computer system in Heathrow that it was found and on the way. They just through it on the next plane to Zurich to let them sort it out there.

I was terrified our bags would suffer the same fate coming home, fortunately they made it back to Vancouver. But flying through Heathrow - definitely not something I want to do again. I like arriving in Heathrow and catching the Heathrow Express in to town, but connecting through it is something I plan to avoid doing ever again.

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From: Steve Giovannetti (Aug 02 2007, at 15:34)

I flew through Gatwick in July and it was a perfectly reasonable experience. I didn't use mass transit as I was picking up my family at Stanstead and then on to Oxford. Gatwick was not crowded, had reasonable services, and the car rental agents were right outside the main exit of the international arrivals terminal. I'll be using Gatwick from now on considering the post and the comments.

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From: Anthony B. Coates (Aug 03 2007, at 03:55)

I just heard from someone yesterday that they had to go through 3 lots of security recently when changing planes at Frankfurt. So that particular woe may not be unique to Heathrow.

Cheers, Tony.

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From: adrian.miley@gmail.com (Aug 05 2007, at 12:58)

Unfortunately the blame can fall squarely in the shoulders of your basic british citizen.

The potential problem was recognised 15 years ago and a proposal to build Terminal 5 went for planning permission. It tooks over *12 years* (yes 12!) for the planning inquiry to be completed due to pressure groups arguing against the need for expansion.

Basically, when a public inquiry takes place, the rules over here gives anyone who has a viewpoint the right to voice it at the inquiry. Something like 150,000 people had something to say.

Result, Heathrow is a nightmare and T5 is still years away.

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