Thursday, 7 April 2011

The Joys of London Luton Airport - A not-so quick Guide

Here is my guide to London Luton airport. How to get there, what to do when you are there and how to make it as painless as possible. This is a long blog post, but, to be honest, the guides out there on the web are pretty awful and non consistent. Even for me, a Londoner, getting to London Luton Airport is a mini-exercise worthy of Sisyphus.

This is Luton Airport, London's fourth largest airport and the fifth busiest airport in the UK. Yep, this airport is busier than the airstrips that serve Birmingham (the UK's second largest city), Edinburgh, Liverpool or Glasgow. And I had the...pleasure...of using the airport recently on my holiday. Despite all the flights I have taken from the UK, this is the very first time I have used Luton Airport.

FACT: Getting between Central London and Luton airport is a difficult and expensive exercise. In fact, Luton airport is the hardest airport to get to from the centre of London (or from anywhere else in the city). The airport's authorities plus the companies that provide public transport to the airport take great delight in making this airport transfer one of the most expensive and least convenient options that I have ever used in all my travels worldwide. And that includes getting to LAX airport.

First of all is the location of London Luton Airport. It is over 30 miles from the centre of London and that means Luton Airport is far from the loving embrace of TfL. Instead, you are in the realms of private bus and train companies who conspire to make as much profit out of your travelling experience to London Luton Airport.

So here goes. Make sure you have your passport, boarding pass, and I hope that cheap airfare was worth it, as you will probably spend just as much money on the airport transfer as you did on the ticket. And depending on where you are flying to, the transfer between the airport and Central London could just be as long as the flight itself.


Getting there and away by Road:

If you have access to a car, then use it. Unfortunately the main access to Luton Airport is via the M1, which is probably the worst motorway in Britain. Luton airport lies just off junction 10 of the M1 but the amount of roadworks combines with the amount of crazed drivers who believe that faster is better means that accidents and tailbacks are frequent. The nearby A1(M) is a little better, and less prone to accidents, but it is a lengthy detour through Bedfordshire between the A1(M) and Luton Airport.

In short, the M1 motorway is the way to get to Luton airport by car but be prepared for long delays, especially if catching an afternoon flight.

Ah, but there is one more thing. Luton has a drop-off charge. Yes, alongside the usual short term and long term parking, to just drop off a friend or relative outside the terminal of London Luton Airport is a £1 charge for a full ten minutes to kiss your loved one goodbye.


I would love to give a time limit but it really does depend on the traffic. Two hours from anywhere in London to Luton Airport should be ample. It could be within an hour if travelling at 2am and it could be four hours or more if stuck in rush hour traffic or on the M25 while trying to get to the M1 motorway.


Getting there and away by Train:

Luton Airport, in theory, should be one of the easiest airports to reach, as it lies on the Thameslink line which serves both North and South London, as well as direct fast trains from St Pancras station. And then here comes the problem. Luton Airport is the only one of London's airports without a train station in the terminal building. The nearest train station is Luton Airport Parkway, which is a ten minute bus ride from London Luton Airport. Yes, there is a regular shuttle bus linking the airport with the Parkway Station. But, you have to pay for this shuttle bus. Yep, that is correct. You pay for a train ticket, and then pay for a bus ticket (£1) from the train station to the airport. Of course you can get around this by actually making sure your ticket says Luton Airport Bus, rather than Parkway, then the £1 is included in the price, but of course, keep your ticket with you to show the driver of the bus.

There are advantages to the train. You avoid the M1 motorway and so are pretty much guaranteed to make it on time, plus at one hour, it should be the quickest way to get from airport to the city. It also runs throughout the night (from St Pancras only) and so you can get to Luton at any time of the day.

The disadvantages are that this is a British train, so reliability is sketchy, plus the route is operated by First, probably the least loved transport company on the UK (it's a very funny link, click on it). The train fares are also extremely complex (and pricey), with fares ranging from £15 to £48 depending on whether you are travelling off peak in 2nd class to peak in first class. Plus you have that annoying shuttle bus, so for people with huge amounts of luggage, the transfer between the train station and the terminal building at Luton Airport is a hassle.

Oh and if travelling on a weekend, watch out for rail replacement bus services which will make your journey hell, and probably longer than getting a coach direct to Luton Airport.


Getting there and away by Coach:

It may seem bewildering, especially with a quick trawl through the internet showing that there are a million bus companies running coach services between London Victoria (calling at Marble Arch, Baker Street, Swiss Cottage and Brent Cross) to London Luton Airport. In reality, you will be getting onto the 757 Greenline commuter coach which starts its long haul from Victoria. All those other competitors are in reality little more than booking agents for the 757 coach.

One important note. If in Victoria, the 757 coach does not go from Victoria Coach station, nor does it go from the Bus Station (which is located outside the main railway station) but it departs from the Colonnades on the side of the Greenline Coach Station on Buckingham Palace Road (nowhere near Buckingham Palace).

Although the 757 is a Greenline coach, this service does not depart from inside the Greenline coach station. So for those that know Victoria well, the bus stop for the Greenline 757 is on the main road halfway between Victoria Rail station and Victoria Coach Station. Get it yet? All right, here is a map link:

There are two ways to get a ticket. First is to turn up and buy a ticket on the coach. These are pretty big vehicles and so this is a likely option, unless there is a big group of you who want to travel. The price of an open return ticket from the driver is currently £22 to and from London Luton Airport. Bring change, as the drivers can often run out and of course keep the stub which is valid for three months on any Greenline coach day or night. The 757 runs 24 hours a day at intervals from 15 to 30 minutes.

But £22 is expensive. And yes, there is a second, much cheaper way to get a ticket on the 757 Greenline and that is to book online. This is where Easybus, Terravision, National Express and those other great bastions of customer satisfaction and airport transfers kick in. You could get a return trip between Central London and Luton Airport for under £5 (which should also include the cheeky card surcharge). But there are two problems with this.

First of all, you are locked into a specific coach, as in the coach that leaves Victoria at 05:30 in the morning. Or the coach that leaves Luton airport at 15:00 in the afternoon. If you miss your coach (ie: your flight is delayed) then tough luck, your ticket is invalid, although you could try your luck at the customer service counters at Luton airport. What happens if your coach is non-running because it is stuck on traffic on the M1? I hope that you never find out...

Secondly you have to make sure that you print out the ticket. Not the confirmation email you get when making the booking. That means logging onto the website that you booked your ticket on, and printing the physical ticket to show to the driver. Of course, this means you have to create an account with Easybus, Terravision, National Express etc to make sure you can access the ticket to print. Yeah, more spam in your inbox...

You also have the disadvantage of being stuck on the M1. Of course, if there is an accident on the M1 and the driver is forewarned they will use the A1(M) route (which most of them know about) but you do have the problem of missing your flight. Like the car you need at the very least to give yourself at the absolute minimum, two hours to get from Victoria to London Luton Airport. Just for the record it took me two and a half hours to get back from Luton Airport to Victoria yesterday on this very coach. Longer than the plane flight I was on...


Getting there and away by Taxi:

A very expensive option, working out at least to £100. But if there are five of you, and you have been disorganised in booking something in advance, this is the way forward. Again, factor in a lot of time to get up and down the notorious M1 motorway from Central London.


The airlines that use Luton Airport:

Luton airport is the bastion of the cheap budget low cost airlines that have made European air travel affordable to many over the past decade. Easyjet, Ryanair, Wizz and many others have many weird and wonderful destinations from Luton Airport. But there is a reason I have never used Luton Airport before, and that is mainly due to the hassle and expense of the airport transfer.

Whenever I look at a cheap flight I also factor in the cost of the transfer. If the difference between a flight from Luton (or Stansted or Gatwick) is less than £50 what that same destination would cost me from Heathrow, I would go to Heathrow airport, as the airlines that use Heathrow have better customer relations, plus the transfer for me to get to Heathrow is the price of a local bus fare - £1.30, as I live ridiculously close to it.

You also do not have to run the gauntlet with regards to the rules and regulations that the budget airlines have with regards to hand luggage. Plus the cheeky card/fuel/I feel like it surcharges (it can be as much as £7 on the ticket) are usually included in the quote of the Heathrow based airlines.

Also, for a full priced airline, you can check your bag into the hold (for free), which means that you can carry liquids and shaving blades to your final destination, as they are not in your hand baggage. This means that you can save a small fortune (and time) on buying shower gel and shaving implements at your final destination, plus you can carry them back home. The budget airlines always charge for checking in luggage, which means I usually take only hand baggage, which means I have to faff around at my final destination to remain clean.

A budget airline also requires you to pre-print your boarding pass otherwise they will charge you for the privilege of printing one for you at the airport. Some budget airlines allow you to print your boarding pass at the time of booking, while some do not allow you to do so until one week beforehand. Now if your holiday is say, two weeks long, you have to find an internet cafe somewhere while on holiday to print out your boarding pass, and of course, pay what could be an extra quid in that cafe for one sheet of paper. Or get it done at the airport for £10. You can of course pay online in advance (for a discount) to get the airport staff to print out your boarding pass, but then you have to queue up for it...

This boarding pass game is the biggest catch that these airlines have. Do not get caught out by the bas***ds!

The budget airlines are also notorious with cancellations. They will cancel flights on a whim, and so will happily leave you stranded. The full price airlines are more likely (due to the fact they want to retain the facade of service) to get you onto the next flight if they cancel.

A budget airline is exactly that, you get what you pay for. Great if you are young and single or travelling as a couple for a quick holiday to the continent. Not so great if you are with a family in tow, are elderly, disabled or have some plans of real importance at your destination (such as your first holiday in ten years). The budget airlines consider you guys as a pain in the neck, and will make it as difficult as possible for you to get on board.

My advice to you is to pack light, put it in one bag, carry it with you on board and have some cash at the other end to find a chemist so you can top up on toiletries. As the destinations served by these airlines are mostly in Europe, what you can buy at home is easily available where you will land. And do not forget to print out that boarding pass.

One thing that is annoying is the flight itself. To make up for the fact that the ticket is so cheap, the airlines bombard you with spending temptations such as buying drinks and snacks while on board, onward travel for your destination or lousy presents. While all airlines do this to make extra cash, some of the budget airlines have their stewards/stewardesses on the tannoy every five minutes trying to gouge out your wallet. And you would be surprised at the amount of people on a prissy two hour flight who really cannot go without their cup of coffee...

Easyjet in particular is really irritating for this, and to try and get a bit of sleep on their flights is almost impossible. I am one of the lucky people who finds it quite easy to sleep on a flight, unless some annoying twat is announcing there is an 'Oystercard for sale along with the last bacon cheese toastie'...


London Luton Airport itself:

London Luton Airport is no architectural gem, but it is handily small (by London standards anyway) which means you are not going to go on a huge walk around the terminal to get to your gate. Saying that, at peak times it does get crowded and as in every other airport in the UK, security can be a hassle.

However, I was pleasantly surprised when I got to Luton Airport. Security was quick and easy. I have done it plenty of times before, so I know what is required. Shoes, belts and watches off, empty the coins out of my pockets and put mobiles and laptops into the trays provided along with my jacket. It took me ten minutes from entering the queue to get my belongings scanned, my (pre-printed) boarding pass checked before I was in the departure lounge.

That is the quickest anywhwere in the world. And that is partly due to the fact that the bulk of travellers are like me, young, single or couples and without children who have regularly travelled before and so know the score. However, if you do need a plastic bag for your liquids, the airport will charge you £1 for the privallege. Bring your own plastic bags or leave your cosmetics behind!

The eateries are fairly bog standard:

Coffee shops on both sides of security, and a burger outlet next to the check-in desks. A little bit above the prices you find on the high street, but it is what you expect. Take some sandwiches with you if you want to eat cheaply.

There are some free (for UK debit card holders) cashpoints in the Departures and Arrivals hall, as well as the usual rip-off money exchangers offering awful rates. The toilets can get packed at peak times, so watch out if you are caught short and use the facilities before security if you have the time.

The gates are not that far from the security zone, but the airlines rarely advertise the gate until twenty minutes before the gate officially closes. This will mean a mad scramble to the gate itself and a lot of jostling as people push, fight and shove to get in before you. Relax, join the tidal wave and wait for everyone else to shove themselves onto the plane. You normally walk out from the gate to the plane, but there are occasional bus transfers from the gate if the plane is parked far out on the apron.

On arrival, Passport Control was fairly quick, but that was probably due to the fact that I was on one of the first flights arriving at Luton Airport that morning. I could easily see this getting crowded later on during the day.

There are plenty of information booths in he arrivals hall, plus the ticket booths selling coach rides or train rides into London or across the rest of the country.


So that is it. A very long guide to London's fourth airport. Yes, I know, it is f**king ridiculous that this city has five airports, but that is what us capitalist pigs believe in. Choice. Unfortunately, as you have seen here, London Luton Airport is not the choice of someone who has made it in this world.

If you are young, travel light and are well prepared with your bookings and are happy to waste a little time on lingering, than London Luton Airport, plus the airlines that use it are a cheap and easy way to explore Europe.

However, if you have a family and are prone to bouts of poor organisation, then opt for something else. By the time you go through the hassle and hidden costs of using Luton Airport, then it would work out about the same to use the airlines out of Heathrow. But whatever you are doing, or wherever your are going, then one thing left to say from me to you. Good luck and bon voyage!


Just for the record, the plane flight cost me £45 return (including all surcharges) and took me one and a bit hours one way. The coach ride from Victoria to the airport cost me £12 including the booking fees, and yes, I was on time for every part of my journey. I spent a few quid on razor blades when I got to my destination, all in all, £60.

It took me one hour 20 mins to get to Luton (at 5am) when I left for my holiday.

On the way back, it was two and a half hours to get back from Luton airport to Central London (in rush hour, with an accident on the M1).

My journey yesterday was one hour 20 mins for the flight, and four hours to get from Luton airport to my home in South London, all on public transport.

I carried hand luggage throughout the journey.


Charles Michel Duke (often called El Director) is an imbecilic film maker who delights in travelling to as many places as possible while not making films (a rare event) in the hope that someday he will be able to merge his two passions of travelling and film making into one ball of awesomeness. He has used four out of London's five airports on his travels to 33 countries worldwide, all of them destinations south of Edinburgh. Listening to him is like listening to a tumble dryer spin round and round. Endless...

1 comment:

magiceye said...

phew.. just reading about it is tiring!