The Heathrow Hustle

After five U.S. visits in eight months, Ed lays down some common-sense tips and tricks

I’m standing on Platform 2 of the Heathrow Express / Connect station, 35 minutes after being stood onboard Virgin Atlantic flight VS004.

Heathrow gets a lot of flak. One of the worse airports in the world, and so on. However I feel that’s only the case if you’re not a U.K. or EU citizen.

10 minutes after the jet bridge arrived, I was whisking myself through Passport Control (courtesy of the Electronic Passports that obviate the requirement for a person to check it). The longest wait came at baggage claim – 15 minutes from claiming my spot by the front of the carousel to grabbing my bag and making for the exit.

After that it was a short power walk to Heathrow Express.

It sounds easy, and this is consistent with my experiences at Terminal 3 when flying with Virgin over the last few years.

(Ah perfect, minute 42 and we’re now departing on the Heathrow Express.)

Having said all of this, there are tricks you must employ to get through Heathrow fast, and I can’t speak for non-EU passport holders.

1. Prep your departure in the air.

Before the toilets are locked off (when the seatbelt signs illuminate and stay on until you’re parked at the stand) put everything back in your bag and equip yourself with anything you need land-side (jacket, passport, wallet, etc.). Put all superfluous items away – you won’t need them now.
Also – go pee! You won’t want to be stopping halfway through your Escape from The Terminal if nature calls. Remember what your mother used to say on road trips – you should have gone before you left!

2. Get in line.

Once you’re on the ground, if you have an aisle seat, get up, get your bag, and get in the queue. If you’re a middle-seat passenger you might be lucky but if you’re on the window seat you’ll just have to wait. The good news is that – in my experience with Virgin Atlantic at least – this is a fairly brisk procedure once it gets going.

There’s nothing you can really do once you’re in this queue; just wait patiently for the doors to be opened and for people to filter out onto the jet bridge.* Once there however …

*Don’t forget to thank the staff! They work hard for not necessarily great money, so give them the thanks they deserve.

3. Move fast.

I’m repeatedly struck by how many people get off a plane and amble. There is nothing good about being airside (i.e. behind security) when you’re deplaning. There are no shops to browse, no lounges to relax in. Just long corridors, travelators, and many yellow signs (with a few purple ones for good measure).

You can usually tell the Londoners on the plane – they’re the ones moving at just shy of jogging pace and this, dear reader, is what you should do too. There are a few other key things to consider:

  • Avoid people with children. They move slowly and children are unpredictable, moving chicanes.
  • Avoid people with large carry-on. They’ve already ruined someone’s boarding experience by filling up an overhead bin with their illegal-but-somehow-still-allowed giant case. You bet your ass they’re going to ruin the deplaning experience too.
  • Avoid old people. They move slowly and dither about where to go.
  • Avoid couples. They either take up double the width of the Endless Corridor, or one gets to a checkpoint before the other, then stops and waits for their partner, thus causing congestion.

Basically, avoid everyone. If you spot another Londoner (look for the motion blur – enhanced if you’re bleary from a Red Eye flight) then match their course and speed and go, go, go!

4. Have your passport ready.

This serves two purposes. Firstly it helps disarm the overzealous Passport Control Line Wrangler who might stop you from joining the queue you know perfectly well you need to join. Secondly, with your passport open to the picture page you’ll be ready for the ePassport booths.

5. Play Spot the Green Light.

Despite the obviousness of this – a booth with a red light is in use, a booth with a green light is good to go – I still see people barrel up to the booths then stand there going ‘Uhhhh…’ and holding everyone up, rather than just going straight for one of the green lights.


6. Don’t be a moron.

The requirement is simple; place the photo ID (the shiny bit with the data) onto the reader and let the machine do its thing. It takes 30 seconds – if that – but I’ve seen countless people in there for minutes struggling with this. If this is you, please use a regular Passport Check lane and stop fucking things up for the rest of us.

7. Eyeball your baggage carousel.

Unless you’ve got this far in record time (i.e. You were first off the plane and you ran) then your flight should have been assigned a baggage carousel, which will be displayed on ceiling-mounted screens at the bottom of the escalator in the baggage hall.

Don’t be one of those people that stops and gawks at it for five minutes. You’re an adult. You know what airline you flew with and where it came from. You should probably know your flight number too. It’s all there – scan as you walk, pick out the detail, and move your ass to your carousel.

8. Play Spot the Bag.

There’s not much you can do here other than wait – you’re now at the mercy of The Baggage Handlers. If you were flying a premium class then your baggage might have a priority tag – winning! If not, it’s a lottery, but hope that things are moving well behind the scenes. All you have to do is spot your bag.

It’s yours. It belongs to you, and has been your erstwhile travelling companion. You probably bought it yourself. Don’t be a dick. Pick it out quick sharp, and remove it from the belt. Do not pick up someone else’s bag. If you do (mistakes happen), check the tags and put it back. Don’t walk out of the baggage hall with it, like someone did to me in Miami-Dade a couple of years ago.

9. Be free, grasshopper.

You’re done!! Hoof it out of there through the ‘Nothing to Declare’ customs gate and be on your way. For me, that means Heathrow Express to Paddington, the Bakerloo Line to Baker Street, the Jubilee Line to Canada Water, then a short bus ride home.

I got off the plane at 06:20. It’s now 07:40 and we’re three stops from home. That’s damn good going, even if I say so myself!

My Timeline

[06:20] T +0:      Parked at stand, jet bridge is attached
[06:30] T+10:     Through Passport Control
[06:45] T +25:    Baggage Claimed
[07:02] T +42:    Catch Heathrow Express to London Paddington
[07:18] T +58:    Arrive at Paddington
[07:24] T +64:    Catch Bakerloo Line Southbound to Baker Street
[07:29] T +69:    Catch Jubilee Line Southbound to Canada Water
[07:47] T +77:    Arrive Canada Water, catch bus
[08:02] T +102:  Arrive home (drenched thanks to the sudden influx of winter weather in June)


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