London is lucky in that at least six airports service the greater London area but nearly all of them are painfully far away from the city centre. London City airport is actually quite close but several restrictions prevent it from being a truly usable international airport. First, it has a short runway, which prevents large aircraft from landing there. This rules out just about any trans-Atlantic flights from using London City. Don’t even think about seeing a Boeing 777 or the Airbus 380 on that tarmac. Second, the airport does not operate during the evenings, ruling out night arrivals and departures.
As such, most international flights arriving from overseas use mostly Heathrow and Gatwick airports. Heathrow is 22km from London and Gatwick is almost 50km from the city centre. You can see why I would have preferred Heathrow. Alas, I had no choice.
By car, it can take upwards to an hour to get from Gatwick to London. Luckily, there are much faster options. There is a train service called Gatwick Express which goes back and forth from the airport to Victoria station in the city centre. Those are the only two stops, so it’s convenient and easy to use. The trip takes about 30 minutes each way. Trains leave every fifteen minutes and run about 20 hours a day. The station is also right in the airport itself.
Gatwick Express isn’t the cheapest way to get to and from the airport but it’s certainly the most convenient and hassle free. I chose this option because I wanted the most stress-free way to enter and leave London. I bought and printed out my return trip tickets before my flight. Doing so saved me a few dollars as it’s more expensive if you buy tickets at the station.
Even in my jet-lagged and tired state after getting off my trans-Atlantic flight, I was easily able to follow the signs and get on the first available Gatwick Express train. My 30 minute ride into London was uneventful and comfortable, allowing me to see some of the English countryside.
My train back to Gatwick on my last day in London had an interesting moment. I was one of the very first people to board this particular train car. So while I was all settled in my seat, more passengers came inside the car and put their luggage away. I lost track of how many people were coming in. I looked at my watch and saw there was about two minutes before the train was going to leave the station for the airport. Seconds later, I saw a middle-aged man jump up from his seat across the aisle from me. He had a piece of paper in his hand and he looked really worried. He was saying something in a language I didn’t understand but he made his way to a guy sitting in front of him. He spoke to the guy in somewhat broken English so I didn’t catch everything he was saying. I did hear him ask something like if this train was actually going to Gatwick. The other dude said yes, this was the train to Gatwick. This set off the middle-aged man in a massive panic. He began speaking in the foreign language again (it sounded eastern European) and ran back to grab his luggage and a bag from the luggage racks. He was in a hell of a hurry because he knew the train was going to leave and there was no stopping it until it got to the airport. All this time it seemed like he was cursing under his breath.
It was clear to me that this man was trying to catch a flight and his flight was definitely not leaving from Gatwick. Yet here he was scrambling to gather up his luggage and trying to get off the train car before it departed. He managed to open the train car door and heaved his stuff out, with him following shortly after. Not 20 seconds later, the train left the station.
His situation falls under one of the worst nightmare travel scenarios, mixing up which airport your flight leaves from. Actually, maybe he didn’t mix that up. Let’s assume for the moment he always knew his flight was leaving from say Heathrow. His mistake might have been buying tickets for the Gatwick Express when he meant to buy tickets for the Heathrow Express, which is a similar train service but leaves from Paddington Station instead. How do you mix that up though?
In any case, it sure looked like that whatever flight he was trying to make, it was not leaving from Gatwick. I felt really sorry for him because it’s not an easy mistake to recover from. If he needed to get to Heathrow, he’d have to get his ass to Paddington Station and then take the train from there. For the other airports like Stansted and Luton, he’d also have to get other stations and then take trains as well, except those ones take longer. Depending on how much time he gave himself, it’s possible he could have made his flight but making a huge boner of a mistake like this doesn’t make it seem likely.
Since that day, I’ve been curious to know what happened to him. Did he make his flight? What exactly did he get confused on? Seeing his situation just reinforces my triple-checking of all parts of my itineraries. I make no assumptions and I leave nothing to chance. One little lapse in judgement or forgotten detail might mean a missed flight. I hope I never have to experience that man’s travel panic myself.