It was 8:45 PM, and Rebekah and I were pulling away from the gate at DFW International Airport and heading to London. Seated next to me, Rebekah was tired from all the preparation. I was trying not to bounce off the walls with excitement. Sipping a Newcastle Brown Ale shortly after takeoff, Europe was beckoning me! Our time in London would be short. With an eight hour Heathrow layover, we would have three hours in downtown London. An hour delay at DFW Airport now meant 60 minutes less in London. You may ask, “Why does an eight hour layover turn into only three hours in central London?” In short, plan on 5 hours for Immigration/Border Control (1 hour), transportation to the city center (1 hour), and transportation from the city center back to Heathrow (1 hour), arriving approximately 2 hours prior to your flight’s departure time. We found an excellent article on Trip Advisor breaking down the times and possible sight-seeing options. If you only have a few hours, I strongly recommend focusing on one destination in London, and fully enjoy that one destination. There is no way you can see everything in London in a few hours; we chose The National Gallery. The National Gallery is free, located in a great part of town with easy connections and we love art! Plan your itinerary before leaving home, as you do not want to use your precious time looking up options once you arrive.
Step One: Immigration/Border Control. We were very fortunate here, giving up just 5 minutes instead of the scheduled hour. We were making up some time lost in the flight delay. If possible, check your bags all the way through to your final destination. Since our bags were checked to Prague, we did not have to spend time picking them up. If we had luggage, I am sure our Immigration time would have been much longer. Besides, you don’t want to carry your bags around London.
Step Two: Transportation to downtown London. Here, you have two options. The newer, faster, more expensive option is the Heathrow Express (HEX). The second option is the traditional Underground Piccadilly Line (Dark Blue Line). See the map of the Underground above for more information. We chose the latter based on what we had read in the Trip Advisor article. Following signs from Immigration, we easily found the Underground station, and purchased RETURN trip tickets from a machine for $15.00 each (£8.90). We used a credit card instead of converting dollars to pounds.
Step Three: Enjoy central London. In 45 minutes, we emerged from the Underground station in the heart of Piccadilly Circus. Piccadilly Circus is the Times Square of London. Broadway show posters plaster buildings. Pizza Hut, KFC, TGI Friday’s, Dunkin’ Donuts and other “wonderful” American contributions to Europe cuisine clamor for business. Hundreds of people mill about. Remember, any time you are around crowds, keep an extra careful eye on your belongings. Bypassing the crowds, we headed to Trafalgar Square on foot. Passing a statue of William Shakespeare in Leicester Square, we asked directions from a friendly police officer. With a few more turns, we arrived at Trafalgar Square. Staying focused on the goal at hand, we proceeded directly to The National Gallery. After all this, we had two and a half hours at the Gallery. Heading back to Heathrow, we exited the museum and were greeted with a light rain. Big Ben came into view for the first time; it will have to wait for our next London visit.
Step Four: Return transportation to Heathrow Airport. We easily found Piccadilly Circus, and boarded our train back to the airport. Before getting on the Underground, check to see from which terminal your flight departs. There are three stops for Heathrow, Terminal 1,2 and 3; Terminal 4; and Terminal 5. Not all of the trains go to all of the stations. Our connecting flight to Prague departed from Terminal 3, the first stop. Again, the return trip took 45 minutes.
Step Five: Security. The last step for a successful layover trip to London is clearing security on your way back. Following the signs from the Underground, we made our way through a very detailed security check point. Once inside the secure area, we sampled gin and tonics at the Duty Free shops, killing the remainder of our layover before making our way to the gate. At Heathrow, gates are not assigned until 60 minutes prior to departure, so spend time in the mall-like common area.
Well, was all of that hassle worth it? Definitely! There are risks involved, but overall, we experienced an extra destination for a small amount of money and no extra time. If you plan appropriately, and leave enough time for the return trip, 3 hours in London will be much more rewarding than 8 hours in the terminal. If you have any questions, feel free to post in the comments section, and we will do our best to assist you with your upcoming plans.