‘I took a journey on the Heathrow Express and now I’ll always use London Underground instead’ – Callum Marius

As many of us look set to get a winter holiday in for the first time in two years, we’ll be heading to Heathrow en route to the ski slopes, Christmas markets or last glimpses of winter sun around the globe.

Just what is the best way to get to the city’s largest airport is an eternal dilemma I thought I’d take a look at solving in the ‘new normal’ era of post-Covid travel.

There are three ways to get between Central London and Heathrow by train – the fastest and most expensive, the Heathrow Express, the intermediate TfL Rail ( soon to be known as ‘Elizabeth line’ ) and the slowest but cheapest London Underground Piccadilly line.

I spent an afternoon shuttling back and forth so that you don’t have to. The whole experience was rather depressing and expensive as you can imagine, but here’s my ultimate verdict…

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Heathrow Express

The Heathrow Express does exactly what it says on the tin. It gets you from Paddington to Heathrow in 15 minutes, every 15 minutes.

But that’s it. Everything else about it was atrocious.

Paddington station is barely Central London, so for starters if you are not within a short walk of the station, it’s game over because it’s USP (speed) goes right out of the window.

Even if you arrive by Tube, you’ll find the Heathrow Express platforms are a good five-10 minute walk from the Circle (via King’s Cross) and Hammersmith and City line platforms which involves a set of stairs/lifts to get out of the Tube platforms and a ramp to get down to the Heathrow Express.

There are ticket machines next to the platforms but tickets for the Heathrow Express are almost always cheaper online. On the other two routes, the fares are the same whether via Oyster/contactless on the day or bought another way

It’s even longer and involves more escalators/stairs from the Bakerloo, Circle (via Victoria) and District line platforms.

It’s funny, the first Tube trains ran from Paddington in 1863 and changing to/from mainline trains there is just as terrible and long-winded almost 159 years later. It’s a faff. What you can ‘gain’ in time, you will lose in patience and stress.

As for fares, the Heathrow Express is frequently touted to be one of the most expensive rail journeys in the world.

A single ticket bought at the station is an eye-watering £25, or £32 first class meaning it can be as expensive as a flight.

The website will tell you that tickets start from just £5.50, and that is true, but that fare is only available if you purchase it 90 days in advance.

If you are planning your specific train connection to an airports three months before you intend to go, in the ever-changing world of international travel, you are probably just as ridiculous as this fare is.

With a railcard, buying my ticket online a day before travel, I managed to wangle my fare down to £14.50 and then got myself down to Paddington.

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The facilities at the station aren’t bad, but not exactly the most tourist-friendly – no multi-lingual signage and Heathrow Express departures appear on separate panels of the departure screens on the concourse which is somewhat confusing.

The basics of a good train service were there, the train was on time, it was clean, there was realtime information about both the train’s journey and the next departures from Heathrow onboard plus decent seating, with USB ports and WiFi.

I should point out though that the Heathrow Express custom-built trains shown on its website have been replaced by higher than usual standard Class 387 trains which are also used for the Gatwick Express, they are not as spacious or as comfortable as their predecessors, but ‘do the job’ well in fairness.

I took a train just after 5pm on a weekday afternoon so expected a European short haul commuter rush but there wasn’t one.

The train was around a quarter full, no doubt because the time-pressed businessperson or high-end tourist the service is clearly aimed as it not as abundant in the capital right now.

Oh, and most people travelling to the airport are probably priced out of this train des riches.

0 Paddington Tube station busy

Paddington tube station is pretty stressful when connecting to the Heathrow Express/TfL Rail. Ealing Broadway is a more straightforward alternative

Give me Eurostar any day, even the cheap seats on those trains come with a smile from a passing train crew member and a decent view. Here, you get the back of Southall and a bunch of Bob Mortimer “Train Guys” doing business on their phones.

I understand that every major global megacity should have a non-stop link to its largest airport, of course, but this expensive service proposition is far from the best first impression of London for our visitors.

Arriving at Heathrow Terminal 5 bang on 22 minutes after leaving Paddington, I attempted to take a photo of the train to use for this article. When I got my phone out and went to take aim.

“HEEEEEEEYYYYY!” A staff member cried. “Excuse me!” Along came another. Between stepping off the train and exiting the Heathrow Express terminal, four staff members accosted me for attempting to take a photo of a train.

Great for security (although, is it?), terrible for customer experience.

Imagine paying £14.50 and being harassed for taking a photo of a train. If that’s Heathrow Express’ attitude to customer contact, I would rather they would have just spat in my face, because it would have been less invasive and I’d still have £14.50.

Verdict: If you are going from near Paddington to Heathrow and need to do it quickly, it’s a lifesaver. If you aren’t, then no, I’d rather walk. 2/10.

TfL Rail/Elizabeth line

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All trains are free to use in between terminals at Heathrow and to/from Hatton Cross on the Piccadilly line. The journey from Central London can vary from £3.30 to £32

The TfL Rail service between Paddington and Heathrow ( called ‘Elizabeth line’ from 2022 ) is the trusty middle option.

Whereas the Heathrow Express does the same journey in 15 minutes, every 15 minutes, TfL Rail does it in 30 minutes, every 30 minutes.

As much as that sounds unappealing, the fare is less than half price of the Heathrow Express at £10.40 off-peak/£11.10 peak.

The train makes six intermediate stops including at Ealing Broadway, which means that if you are travelling from anywhere on the Central line it can make it the quickest option.

The Tube-to-train interchange at Ealing Broadway is also far easier than at Paddington, with a simple hop across platforms there, with lifts or stairs to the airport and a same level cross-platform interchange returning from the airport.

The whole interchange can be done in two minutes, trouncing a more stressful Paddington.

I took a train along the route which was lightly loaded, with plenty of space and ran to time.

The extra stops along the way does mean that the train can fill up but the trains are spacious as they have both longitudinal (sideways) and transverse (forward and backward facing) seating.

There are also USB ports and all of the stations have step-free access meaning if you’re making a journey from West London to the airport, you should consider TfL Rail instead of doubling back via Paddington.

Verdict: Mediocre but in a good way. Best for West London, connecting to the Central line or bringing luggage. 6/10.

London Underground

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The Heathrow posters can be seen next to the doors, marking the extra space luggage too

The Piccadilly line is seen as the poor man’s substitute to get to the airport compared to the other two.

Instead of arriving promptly from Paddington, you spend a good 45 minutes traipsing through Hammersmith, Hounslow, Hatton Cross… lots of places with H.

At £3.30 off-peak/£5.30 peak single though, the only H word to describe the journey is “handy.”

Of course, the Tube is not the most comfortable and does plod its way through West London at a snail’s pace compared to the Heathrow Express, but the Piccadilly line will take you to or connect you with far more useful destinations than the other two options.

As long as you set yourself a good time to catch your flight (as you would anyway), the Piccadilly line will get you there for a reasonable price and without the need to spend ages navigating the maze that is Paddington station.

I returned from my Heathrow Express journey on the Tube.

The Piccadilly line trains are not a patch on the Heathrow Express in terms of modernity but there are posters in the vestibules with Heathrow information on them and unlike the other options you can get a direct train to each terminal from Central London.

TfL Rail doesn’t usually go to Terminal 5 and Heathrow Express doesn’t usually go to Terminal 4 whereas Piccadilly line trains go to both meaning the time penalty and stress of changing trains on the others disappears if you simply get the Tube all the way there.

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If travelling with luggage, the dedicated luggage space is far from ideal though as it’s right next to the doors and I saw a few times where those with luggage had to negotiate with those with pushchairs as to how to share the space.

My journey was quite bumpy and stop-start, with the train making annoying pauses as it waited for a platform at Northfields, Acton Town and Hammersmith but by arriving direct into Central London, I was relieved by it.

From Terminal 5, I made it to Hammersmith in 30 minutes, Earl’s Court in just under 40, Piccadilly Circus in 50 and King’s Cross St Pancras in just over an hour.

Although one could argue the Express is still quicker with the changes at Paddington, by the time you change trains at Heathrow Central if you come from another terminal, then again at Paddington, wait for a Tube and then arrive at your destination, you’ve probably saved only 15 minutes and wasted an extra £20.

0 Cal Piccadilly line

‘Don’t get in a pickle, pick the Piccadilly line!’ says MyLondon’s Transport Correspondent

Piccadilly line trains also operate every 4-8 minutes between Heathrow Central and Central London meaning they come up to three times as often as the Heathrow Express and up to six times as often as TfL Rail meaning the time difference is even further minimised if you take the waiting time for the next train into account.

If you’re reading this and have never travelled to London before, take the Tube, it’s good practice in getting to know us all. It’s authentic and you’ll save spending money.

When I arrived back in Zone 1, I simply tapped out, left the station ready to explore the capital and could use the extra few quid I’d saved by choosing the Tube on whatever I felt like. That’s the way it should be.

Verdict: Better the devil you know. Slow and steady wins the race. 8/10.

What’s your preferred way to travel to Heathrow by train? Tell us in the comments below!

You can read all of MyLondon’s Heathrow-related coverage at our dedicated page here.

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