Heathrow: Two Hours of Purgatory

Soooo… Despite all the advice you see on the web, including this blog, you decided to book your flight through Heathrow. Yeah …. I know … it was much cheaper … you could only get frequent flier tickets that went through Heathrow … blah, blah, blah … OK folks, did you NOT think that might have been a clue?!!

After this blog, you will see why I affectionately refer to Heathrow as two hours of Purgatory (I’ve attached a link for those of you who are not Catholic or didn’t have to wade through Dante's Inferno in school). This blog is all about helping you make the best of the situation (one that I have now done quite a few times, for some of your same reasons…I don’t remember having that much fun as a kid to have deserved that much Purgatory 😇).

One note before you proceed, I am a loyal OneWorld customer. Almost all my travel through Heathrow has been on American Airlines (AA), British Airways (BA) and Aer Lingus. Those airlines have given me experience in Terminal 1 (which is no longer in use), Terminal 2, Terminal 3 and Terminal 5. I feel confident that these experiences will correlate to those of you traveling through Terminal 4.

First, if you didn’t book at least a two hour lay over …. you’re toast! Call the airline and see if they’ll let you rebook without a penalty. There is no way they should have let you book a connection of less than 1.5 hours.

Second, the remainder of this blog is going to sound confusing, because it is; especially after traveling 7 to 11 hours on a transatlantic flight, thus the reason for this blog. You DO NOT want Heathrow to be the most memorable part of your travel adventure.

The confusion arises because there are four very large terminals at Heathrow, T2 through T5. If you are traveling in mid-2016, you may be able to see construction crews demolishing T1. You will likely see seasoned travelers with their noses to the window, cheering as the crews bring down the walls of T1. Yes, it was that bad. If it is any consolation, Heathrow is much, much, better now.

If you are traveling on a BA aircraft from North America (not just a British Airways flight number), and you are leaving Heathrow with a BA aircraft, then you have the easiest connection ... most of the time. Most BA flights arrive at T5 and leave from T5, but a few leave or arrive at T3 😞. You may know before you leave North America, but likely you will need to confirm your terminal once you are on the ground at Heathrow.

If you are arriving on an AA aircraft, you will be arriving in T3. If you are departing on an Aer Lingus aircraft then you will be departing from T2... this is the first level of confusion.

When you arrive, you will depart the aircraft as you would expect, via a jetway… most of the time. (More on this later.) You will enter the terminal and follow the Purple signs to “Flight Connections” (not the yellow "Arrivals" signs) At some point you will see signs for “Flight Connections Terminal N” where N is the terminal number where your flight landed. You will also see “Flight Connections X,Y, & Z”, where X, Y, & Z are not the terminal number where you landed. This could be a LONG walk, maybe 10-20 minutes. Along the way you will see monitors where you can check the terminal for your departing flight. So don’t worry if the North American ticket counter did not know your arriving or connecting terminal number at check in. It is also a good idea to re-confirm the terminal number for your connecting flight, even if you think you know.

Connecting to the Same Terminal

Let’s assume (foolishly!) that your connecting flight is in the same terminal where you landed. Usually this is T5, so I will use this terminal as an example. When the purple “Flight Connections” sign become two signs Flight Connections "Terminal 5 " and "Flight Connections Terminals 2, 3 & 4", then follow the Terminal 5 sign. While following the sign, be careful to not get mixed up with the people following the yellow "Arrivals" sign … those actually going to London. This will cost you about half an hour. Here are the steps for getting to your connecting flights:

1. Immigration (only for flights to British Isles including Ireland in T5)

2. Border Patrol

3. Airport Security

Purple Connection Signs with a Monitor to Check Connection Terminals

The Immigration and Border Patrol Maze - BA desk to right

At Immigration they will check your immigration status(surprise!) and stamp your passport. At Border Patrol biometrics of your face are taken. Make sure you hand them the correct boarding card for your next flight, and not your spouse's. The security people at this checkpoint do NOT have a sense of humor, and the security folks at the gate who match up your biometrics before letting you on your flight have even less. You will then go through EU airport security. EU security is similar to TSA, but it is belts off and shoes on ... unless you have boots or other large shoes. If you have liquid duty free items, it must be in a tamper proof duty free bag. They may take it out of the tamper proof bag and test it anyway. They will put it back into a tamper proof bag if you think you will be going through security at a later stop over. Not sure? Ask for the tamper proof bag.

Overlook of Departures Hall in T5

Elevator to B & C Gates in T5

Some of the Heathrow Shopping

You are now through security and into the Departures Hall. This probably took you 35-50 minutes… if you were lucky! You can now confirm the gate of your departure by looking at the monitors; if it has been posted yet. Some of the gates in T5 require about 15 minutes of transit to another concourse. For these gates, you will need to go down the elevator at the center of the massive Departures Hall and then take a train to Concourse B or C. T5 (with 60 gates) is bigger than most US airports! In general, European airports do not post the exact gate until about 30 minutes before the boarding time, about 1 hour before the scheduled flight departure, so if your gate is not yet posted; find a place to sit and enjoy a beverage, or enjoy the shopping… there is lots and lots and lots of shopping. Some of the shopping is surprisingly high end.

Connecting to a Different Terminal

Now that we have discussed the easy path through Heathrow (the path Murphy will not allow you to take), let’s get realistic! For North American travelers, you will likely be arriving on a North American airline and leaving on a BA aircraft; or an Aer Lingus aircraft. Remember the flight number means nothing, what matters is the name or logo on the tail of the airplane. As of this writing, American Airlines operates out of T3. British Airways mostly operates out of T5, with some flights out of T3. Aer Lingus operates out of T2. If you’re not flying on an aircraft from one of these airlines, then check the terminal for your airline at the Heathrow website.

For the multi-terminal description I will eliminate the need to use Terminal X and Terminal Y in the description by assuming one is arriving on an AA aircraft in T3 and connecting on a BA aircraft in T5. A common variation of this would be arriving on an AA aircraft in T3 and departing on an Aer Lingus aircraft in T2. It should be the same except for the terminal numbers 😉

As in my 1st description, you will depart your arriving aircraft and follow the purple signs to “Flight Connections”. Along the way you will see a bank of monitors to get/confirm the terminal for your connecting flight, and bathrooms. After a 10-15 minute walk, the signs will change from “Flight Connections” to “Flight Connections Terminal 3” and “Flight Connections Terminals 2, 4 & 5”. For an AA to BA connection in T5, follow the appropriate sign to T5.

You will likely go down an escalator and see three queues for buses; one for each of the other terminals. The buses run about every 8-10 minutes. The bus rides can be 10-20 minutes. Yes, 20 minutes. I find the rides fascinating, but I’m the kind of guy who is fascinated by the operations of a complex facility like Heathrow: baggage handling, aircraft maintenance and repair, fueling, and all that stuff.

When you arrive at T5 and depart the bus, you will again see purple signs for “Connecting Flights”. When the signs again become two, “Flight Connections Terminal 5” and “Flight Connections Terminals 2, 3 & 4”, follow the “Flight Connections Terminal 5” sign and proceed through security as I described before (and do not follow the yellow "Arrivals" signs.)

More Connections Signs with Monitors to Look Up Terminals

Connections Signs with Yellow Arrivals Signs for going to London

Be Careful When You See This Sign: Ask if this is the Line for Ireland

If you have been lucky, the time from the departure from your airplane (possibly 20 minutes after you were scheduled to land) to the Departures Hall is 60-90 minutes. Remember you may still have another 10-15 minutes to your airplane.

Fast Track and Lounge Access

For those with airline status, Heathrow is a much, much, much better airport. In reality, status doesn’t start until you are One World Sapphire (Platinum on AA.) Those with Sapphire or higher have access to the "Fast Track" in Heathrow and lounges for international travel (with some restrictions). Status can also be purchased via a First Class or Business Class ticket.

Fast Track in T5 allows you to proceed to a much shorter line for Border Patrol and Airport Security, but not for immigration. So when transitioning to Ireland, you will be in the "non-EU" line and potentially be behind the person who barely speaks english. You know you are in for a long wait when you overhear the phrase: "What visa?" in broken english. On the way home there is no immigration so this is not a worry. On a busy day this combination can save you 30 minutes. I have not seen a need for this in the other terminals and I’m not sure it is offered. If your boarding pass does not indicate your status, you may need to go to the BA ticket counter just prior to Border Control. Follow all the above directions, and just before they start checking passports, you will see the bank of BA counters along the wall. They will be able to give you a boarding pass that indicates your status and gets you in the Fast Track Line.

When your connection is short, some airlines will give you an orange Express Connection card that allows you to go through the same lines as above. But keep in mind, this only completely works when leaving UK/Ireland. There is no FastTrack Line for Immigration for those who have UK/Ireland connections but you will still be in the shorter security lines.

The lounges at Heathrow are a really, really nice plus, but you have to be flying on a One World airplane AND One World flight number for access. So, if you have a BA airplane and an AA flight number, you will have access to the BA Lounge since both are One World. However, if you have a BA flight number but an Aer Lingus airplane, then you won’t have access to the Aer Lingus Lounge in T2 since Aer Lingus is not a One World member. (Aer Lingus may be joining One World soon as they have recently been acquired by BA's parent company.)

The lounge access starts in the US at your first airport, even if you have a domestic connection. This is very handy, since I always recommend that you do NOT take the last flight to the gateway city for your International/Transatlantic departure. If your initial flight is canceled or there are weather delays, you have flexibility to make an international connection. For better or worse, international flights rarely experience weather delays; even if the rest of the airport is running two hours late, the international flights will most likely take off on time. The extra time in your gateway airport can be a real pain; unless you have access to an airline lounge!

In general, the international airline lounges are nicer than their North American counterparts. For instance, the “low end” British Airways lounge (that comes with my Sapphire) has 6 red wines and 6 white wines available, and they are all “more than adequate”. There is also a full self-service bar, and very good self-service espresso machines. Usually, there is a light version of the current meal, or a snack available…. Lots of power plugs …. Free WIFI … bathrooms with more privacy …. and a great view onto the airplanes or the Departures Hall. And, if you have One World Emerald, I've heard the lounges are even nicer!

If you don’t have status (or not enough), then you might consider buying a 30-day pass for your domestic airline lounge. Be sure to check the conditions regarding additional guests and lounge locations. You wouldn't want to find yourself admitted but having to leave your spouse at the door or discover that you are on a BA aircraft out of an international terminal and you only have access to the Admirals Clubs that are all in the domestic terminals.

You can now purchase credit cards that give you access to the airline lounges of many major airlines across the airline alliances.

Additional General Information

If you don't have an EU passport, you MUST complete a “landing card” if you are connecting to the UK or Ireland. Most flight crews give the directions that you only need to fill out the landing card if you are “landing” (terminating at Heathrow). Our experience has been that Heathrow does Immigration for all Arrivals as well as connections to the UK and Ireland. It is best to do this on the airplane rather than the fog of your Heathrow transfer.

Occasionally, you will exit the plane via a stairway to a bus. With the closure of T1, this situation is much less common, but there are some "remote" gates in T5 that require busing from/to the aircraft. You will then have a 5-10 minute ride to your terminal. Once at the terminal, your path will be similar to exiting the plane via jet way.

Hopefully, I’ve given you enough details that it will lessen the fog of uncertainty of your stay in Purgatory. Remember, at the other end you will be in Ireland, heaven on earth, or at least the closest thing! 😀

See You In The Pub!

Jet Lag Jack

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