Five Things to Love About London’s Heathrow Airport

 

Recently I was reading a list of the world’s best airports (yes, that’s what I do in my spare time), and I noticed that no US airport was anywhere near the top 10. In fact, the top US airport according to the definitive list of the World’s Top 100 Airports is the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Intl Airport at #30.

I have visited pretty much every major city in this country at this point (or so it seems – Thursday’s child has far to go), and I can say from experience that there are some great airports in America. But reading this list made me realize that there was much more to be expected from the airport, and even the airports that I enjoy like Chicago’s O’Hare or  the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport can’t compare to the offerings around the world. My international travel has just begun (yes I’m speaking that into existence). London’s Heathrow is my first experience with a member of the top 10 in the list of world’s best airports. And bellas, I have seen the light!

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Photo credit: cycreation / Shutterstock.com

Let me tell you five things I fell in love with at London’s Heathrow Airport, the kind of things that I hope US airports take into consideration when doing some very necessary overhauls (I’m looking at you LaGuardia. You’re the worst).

#1 – friendly, relaxed customer service.

So many people warned us about England when we were on our way for this trip, everyone said that they would be pickpockets everywhere and super rude British people waiting to cut curious American tourists down with their wit and posh accents. This was not our experience. At ALL. We met so many friendly, helpful, professional people all over London – from cab drivers to waitresses to store clerks, everywhere we went we encountered wonderfully helpful folks. In the airport I was truly taken by how approachable and easy going the TSA and security staff was. Instead of being stern and mean as they can be in the US, in London’s Heathrow the officials we encountered were super cool. I was told that I could keep my shoes on while going through security — these were heavy duty Diesel boots by the way! “No worries – unless your shoes trigger our security system, you have nothing to worry about,” said the officer. Doesn’t that sound like common sense?? I was delighted. Even when my additional phone charger triggered the x-ray for one of our bags, we were not made to feel scared or like something was wrong, it was more like “hang on, let’s check this out and make sure everything is okay.” A relaxed attitude and friendly customer service at this level makes flying so much less stressful.

#2 – high end duty free shopping.

In some US airports you will be hard-pressed to find something to do once you’ve gone past security. There might be a smattering of bookstores or souvenir shops, maybe a few chain stores you are familiar with. When we got past security into London’s Heathrow at the American airlines terminal, I felt like Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music. The hills are alive with places to spend money! When you depart the security terminal you enter a duty-free area that is next level. Top shelf liquors at lofty price points.

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High-end cosmetics and perfume, fashion from some of the world’s most renowned labels. Chanel, Prada, Tom Ford, Clarins…It’s just like a mini mall!

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It’s all better for you to browse and buy as you spend time waiting to find out where your gate will be. Oh yeah that’s another thing, they don’t tell you immediately what gate you’ll be at…just right when it is time for you to head over to it it appears on one of the many information boards in the lobby. There is also an estimated time for you to get to your gate, so if it takes you 20 minutes, you’ll know when you should head over.

#3 – really, really good food options.

I thought MIA had great food options. I thought Minneapolis-St Paul had great food options. I thought O’Hare had great food options. And then Heathrow blew it all out of the water. This is an airport with a glamorous oyster bar. There’s sushi on conveyor belts.

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There were sit down restaurants that offered your choice of Italian, French or traditional pub fare. We spent so much time gawking, we didn’t grab a bite until we had to head to our gate. And even then, I was SO impressed. Pret a Manger is everything in London. And the grab and go food options are so much more sophisticated and intriguing than the USA’s. I went in expecting the typical turkey chili and prosciutto sandwiches I’d find at my nearest Pret on State Street, and instead I found falafel, duck salad, sushi, a variety of wraps and salads in daring and delicious combinations. Well played, Pret. You made our flight home so much more gourmet than it would’ve been.

#4 – Drugstores and bookstores and boutique shopping, oh my!

There have been SO many occasions where I’ve been at an airport and thought to myself – boy, I wish there was a drugstore in here so I could buy some **insert health and wellness or beauty-related essential here**” So many times when I found myself discouraged by the selection of same glossy covered paperbacks. Heathrow has resolved all of that. There’s a Boots drugstore in Heathrow. I was a tad disappointed in their selection of British cosmetics and in their selection of makeup for women of color, but still – full drugstore with plenty to purchase. And the bookstores weren’t these tiny closets of glossy covered best selling action thrillers – there was substantive literary material and e readers for sale. And I LOVE UK magazines, all packaged with cosmetics items for trying! Now THAT is how you lure readers back to print, US magazine editors.

In addition to the drugstore and bookstores, I was surprised to find myself wandering past clothing stores ranging from Zara to Miu Miu. So if you forget an outfit or an accessory, or you just want to treat yourself, Heathrow is there for you.

#5 – Harrods at Heathrow.

Oh, did you forget to buy souvenirs before headed to the airport? No worries if you’re at Heathrow. You won’t be stuck with silly trinkets that don’t suit the people you plan to gift them to – there’s a HARRODS in there. I was so beyond delighted, since during my trip I was so rushed that I didn’t get to experience the glory of actual Harrods in London. At the airport before departure, I got everything I wanted to commemorate the trip – gorgeous kitchen accessories, delicious British jams and jellies, chocolates and cookies, tea cups and coffee mugs are all there, at a variety of prices (even a few you can afford).

So clearly it’s been a week and I’m still enthralled with Heathrow. But in every experience there are also areas of improvement. What could be improved at this bustling London airport? Three things come immediately to mind.

1 – trams to airport gates. Our gate was as far away as could be – a 20 minute walk, the information board said. I was able to make it fine but I thought of Atlanta’s airport and their efficient, sensible tram system. I saw several older passengers struggling to make it to their gates, and whilst there are trolleys that can drive truly elderly, incapacitated people to their destination, it seemed a quick two or three stop tram on the exterior of the airport could help many more get there even faster.

2- more on the go options en route to the gates. SO glad I asked the cashier at Harrods about food en route to the gates – once you leave the lush lobby area with all the restaurants and stores, there is but one additional café near the gates (as far as I saw). I think a few on-the-go booths would be helpful and would reduce queues as I noticed elsewhere.

3 – this may sound silly but we had an incredibly hard time finding a garbage can near our gate. This might have a security purpose behind it but these were subtle, small and hard to find without asking.

As you can tell I had to think hard to come up with those.

My Heathrow experience made me want to fly into and out of more of the world’s top airports. Here’s hoping more international travel is in my immediate future!

Have you flown out of Heathrow, bellas? What did you love the most? What’s your favorite airport?

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Comments

  1. It is a super nice mall and having been stuck there for about 6 hours after missing a flight before they sent me to a hotel, it was nice to be able to shop around a bit. However, I found the customer service to be HORRIFIC. Much worse than I’ve ever experienced in the US. The reason I missed my flight is because my mascara was still in my luggage. Didn’t know it qualified as a liquid! I told the security guard I was going to miss my flight because they were being so slow, and she told me she didn’t care and it was my fault, regardless of the fact my other flight was an hour late. Not a good experience at all…especially when I ended up having to stay the night in London because they couldn’t get me on another flight to the US that day. Rant over. Shopping is good, customer service is bad! Haha.

  2. I can vouch for Incheon International Airport (Korea) @ number 2 on that list. Movie theater, ice skating rink, live performances, great transit options, clean organized, etc.

  3. I love that Heathrow made it on to the list! I might be a little biased (I’m from London) but the airport is fantastic! Shopping, great food, lots to keep you busy until at least you head to your departure gate. I agree on the tram idea though!

  4. I love Heathrow too! It’s a small city, really. I most love the variety of airport lounges (if you have access) and Kurt Geigers. Buying shoes before a flight is my idea of a great souvenir! And I always hit Boots for the European version of Dove Spray Deodorant and Boots Tea Tree wipes (stuff you can’t get in the States, or if you can it’s costly).

    Bella, I agree with you on the gate and tram situation. I think they can do a better job of letting people know how far away from the central area the gates really are.

    My three other favorites airports are:

    Schipol (Amsterda) (OMG)! You can shop for fresh daffodils, cheese, and liquor before leaving the secure area….if that’s your thing. Don’t stop at the Casino while you are still in the airport area — I’ve never seen anyone leave there happy. Once outside of security, round the mall and find freshly cooked pomme frites, your choice of sauces. Yummy! The train station is located central lobby, so you can grab your train to wherever you are going next without leaving the airport. Amesterdams public transportation system is absolutely fabulous. Fresh chocolate at Leonida’s is always my first stop when arriving, and the last before leaving, for gifts.

    Charles de Gaulle (Paris) is my other favorite, plenty of light, awesome architecture, good food and people watching galore.

    Sangster (MoBay, Jamaica) has been surprising me! They have done many upgrades to the airport, and it is looking better and better.

    • Just came through Heathrow this morning. Stopped at Harrods for cute bags for the girlfriends at home for xmas. Landed in Amsterdam dead tired. Will be shopping there on my way home on Thursday. Then back through Heathrow for a stop at Zara and Ferragamo for basics, shoes and a new wallet. Also a quick visit to Chanel. Then home to New Orleans! The US has a bit to learn from the airports in Europe. No matter where I land I am able to easily maneuver through. I travel by myself for business and it is always a fun experience.

  5. I agree security was very nice at heathrow (even though they took my baby’s diaper cream grrr) but they are lacking one MAJOR thing FREE WIFI!!! I was shocked that you have to pay for it.

  6. One of my favorite pairs of shoes ever came from London Heathrow. Shopping in that place is phenomenal!

  7. I clicked on your link strictly to see if the Korean airport made the list and YES, gawd it is #2! Incheon International Airport ftw!

    I’m telling you Afrobella you have not seen an airport until you have visited Asian airports (Korea, China, Singapore, etc) they do it right. The standard of service is just so much higher. Food for days! People everywhere offering help and clear, readable signs and screens! In multiple languages! The thing I liked the best is not having to take off have my clothes and shoes. We started stripping down and the security agent said “you must be American?”. We all had a good laugh and he assured us that we didn’t need to do such things unless the machines trigged for additional inspection! say what?!

    The thing i liked best may be the shallowest—people looked clean and traveled in style. Nothing too hardcore but everyone had their best casual gear (some had on their finest but that was the exception not the rule), nice shoes (no shower shoe looking flip flops) and respectable luggage. I love that international travelers seem to respect the old skool rules of flying—dress to impress not JUSt for comfort.

  8. I have only been to England 2x and did not have any bad experiences at Heathrow. To get to and from my gate there was the conveyor walkway and I made all my gates in good time. Liked the post though and hope to read more about the “work” side of your trip as well as the tourist side..

  9. Yes, love the Harrod’s at Heathrow, though I’m partial to Marks and Spencers. A few years ago I had a lengthy lay-over in Schiphol (Amsterdam), and after returning from a city tour, and with time to spare, I still was not bored. Bejing and Shanghai are well organized – did not get wet despite pouring rain, which never happens @ JFK.

  10. Heathrow is one of my favorites too! It’s been a few years since I’m been through there but I can tell you that on my first trip out of the country, landing there to the great customer service was a big relief. Also the lay out made it easy for me to find my way around, and then the shops – well, I did more window shopping than anything else but it was a good selection to walk through while on a layover.

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  12. I agree with Dani, you have not travelled until you have experienced Asian airports. As a Brit I should be loyal to Heathrow but it is one of my least favourite airports as it takes forever to get through immigration which is a nightmare with small children. I currently live in Asia and love it here! Heathrow is trying to do what Asian and Middle eastern airports did over a decade ago. Don’t get me wrong, its not awful, but it doesn’t make my top 10 that’s for sure! And you are right, the personnel at American airports really need to learn to be cordial. It really ruins the trip and does not reflect Americans at ALL who are always friendly and very helpful!

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  14. Came across this well written article today and I actually CAN NOT believe LHR made anyone’s best airport list. I will agree, the shopping and food are amazing but within the perks are found the very reason why any traveler must avoid this airport at all costs (unless London is your final destination). Heathrow is the size of a city. Layovers less than 5 days long result in missed connections, tears, and frustration. Say goodbye to your luggage because, as you land safely in France, your panties and toothbrush have landed in the hands of Tokyo’s grateful HND. Good food and great shopping are a diversion craftily created to divert your attention from the fact that you will never reach your destination. Ever. Welcome to the Heathrow zone. (I’m bitter.)

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