Sooner or later this happens to us all. London Heathrow likes to claim that it is the world's busiest airport. It is busy, but only the fourth busiest in terms of passenger movements and the 14th and 15th for volume of freight and number of planes1. It is the major hub for British Airways which is infamous for its claim to be the world's favourite airline. Though that depends on how you define 'favourite', of course. But we won't go there.
Time to Spare? Go By Air!
Heathrow is huge, by most European airport standards. London is two or three times the size of Paris and Berlin, and six times the size of Copenhagen and Stockholm. It is no surprise that its major airport is so much larger than most other European airports. Heathrow was designed in the 1950s, and has had bits and pieces added on with duct-tape ever since. If you want a view of how Heathrow was expected to look, feel and operate, watch the movie The VIPs with Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Maggie Smith2. Large empty lounges, clean spaces, Daimlers rolling right up to the main entrance. Such a civilised way to travel, my dear.
So, the Flight is Delayed? What Do You Do?
First of all you need to acknowledge that you are in a sausage machine, and that there is nothing you can do about it at all. Be nice to the staff - they are even more stressed than you are: they have to deal with this every day. Bear in mind that they control where you sit on the plane, where your baggage gets to, and whether or not you can be bumped onto an earlier flight. It is in your interest to be nice to them. It is amazing how much easier it is to keep your sense of humour, or even attain a state of Zen-like calm, if you have given up all hope of changing the situation in any way.
Secondly, if you are travelling, go air-side3 if they will let you. It is a little-known fact that you can go land-side4 again, (you have to ask the security staff nicely, and you will obviously have to be re-screened on the way back, but you can do it). Heathrow is one of the few European airports where the facilities are as good once you have gone through security as they are in the public areas, and there is no point in adding to the stress of last-minute queuing to your delay.
The only exception to the rule of going through security as fast as you can is if you have plenty of time and intend to eat. Eat land-side, and then go air-side.
All Terminals Are Not The Same
A lot depends on whether or not you are stranded in-transit (or after you have already gone through security) and how long you are actually delayed for.
The terminals all link up, both land-side and air-side. It is harder to get to and from T4 than the others. Land-side you have to take the Heathrow Express, which leaves every 15 minutes, so there is only any point in leaving T4 for the relative glories of the other terminals if you are good and stuck for at least an hour and a half. Air-side, there are, it is rumoured, buses.
However T1, T2, and T3 are all within 5 or 10 minutes walking distance of each other and they each have different facilities.
It's Food Jim, But Not As We Know It
The choice of eateries is much better in the public areas, and if you are going to eat, then it is worth doing it before you go through security, if you have the time.
There are also strategically placed cafés near the arrivals gates, which is a remarkably good idea. It makes waiting for a delayed flight much more pleasant, and it is good when they get it right.
Terminal One is surprisingly well served with restaurants. In the public area, there is a Garfunkels, a 'children-friendly' Pub, an Italian, and all in all a good range of choice. (Garfunkels is a haven for people with food problems, they have an excellent salad bar, and a surprisingly wide range of non-themed food). If you are delayed for more than an hour, and are hungry, it is worth the walk to T1 to eat here, because the restaurants are easy to find on the mezzanine level above Departures.
T2 is also fairly simple to navigate, The eateries in the public areas are mainly upstairs, where there is a Pizza Express, as well as another 'relaxing children-friendly pub'5, and a motorway-service style restaurant with airport-style prices.
Terminal Three is well served with another Garfunkels, an Indian, an Italian, and a Harry Ramsdens. Unfortunately T3 is the fifth level of hell, and even though they are in the public areas, these delights are almost impossible to find.
Terminal Four is the poor relation with café-bars and another of those scary pubs, and that is about it. Take the train to T1, and enjoy your meal.
Once you have gone through security you have, cynically enough, less choice and much more cost.
T1 seems to offer a Hobson's choice between Burger King and The Caviar House6. There is also an Italian. But all in all vegetarians at T1 go hungry7, and people with wheat or shellfish allergies get ill. But - hey - it's short-haul, so it's no big deal.
Terminal Two is even worse. Just don't go there.
T3 has TGI-Fridays in the far left-hand corner counter-balancing an extortionately expensive French restaurant in the far right. Oh, and Caviar, again. This is disgraceful, considering that T3 specialises in long-haul, with longer check-in times. However, you do at least have a choice of pubs to numb the pain, and neither of them claim to be child-friendly, which is a mercy. Do you see why it is better to eat before going through security?
T4 is better, with a Maccy Ds, another of those Caviar Houses, an Italian, and a Garfunkels. But the pub here is child-friendly. You have been warned.
There are WH Smiths scattered throughout Heathrow, both in the public areas and through security. The largest is upstairs at the far left hand end of T1, (if you are standing with your back to the exits to the car parks). However the best bookshop as a bookshop is Books Etc which is upstairs, near the restaurants in the public area at Terminal 2. Don't expect '3 for 2' offers though.
Internet - or Internot, As The Case May Be
A lot of European airports have wireless Internet zones where you can settle down with your PC, and log into the Internet using a wireless network card and a password you have bought earlier.
Heathrow isn't one of them.
There are a number of adapted Pay-Phone-type-terminals, but these are much more geared to picking up and sending emails8 than to sitting down and surfing. There are, according to the website, Internet Cafés there, though the only ones currently mentioned specifically are at T4. This is a shame. A good wireless network service would make money for the airport, and would keep some of its more articulate punters quiet and in one place during the delays. They should think of it as a pacifier dipped in honey and brandy for business people.
Talking of Business Facilities...
The airlines, of course, all have their own lounges for people travelling Business or First9. There is, however a non-denominational Business Centre in the Queens Building between Terminals One and Two. They will charge you to use it, but it has showers, 'two computer work-stations'10 and all the usual 20th Century gadgets.
Cleanliness and Godliness
It is again a little known fact that it is possible to have a shower at Heathrow. The main showers air-side are located at T3 (though these are currently closed), and T4. There are also air-side showers at the Flight Connections Centre. Land-side showers are located in T1. It is debatable whether or not you would want to use the showers, but by and large the standards of hygiene in the loos at Heathrow are reasonable, so the showers should be reasonable too.
You are surrounded by High Street shops. If you start feeling truly vile there is no reason why you shouldn't go out and get a complete change of clothes. OK - you won't get sale-prices, and the choice is a little bit limited, but you won't be ripped off, either. The part of the airport which is most like a normal High Street shopping mall is the public area in T1, the areas which are least like a normal High Street are through security in Terminals Three and Four, which seem to consist entirely of Harrods and Burberry. But the point is that if you really cannot stand wearing the same clothes a minute longer, you are actually pretty well placed to buy new ones. Likewise, if you don't have any shampoo with you, you are surrounded by Boots11 and the Body Shop. Heathrow is well-favoured with the physical necessities, and this is another thing which they have got right.
If all else fails, there is a chapel near the Bus Station, (opposite the car-park for Terminal Two. There is 'an additional worship facility' - 'for all faiths' - on the ground floor.
How long must a delay be for it to be worth leaving the airport?
This is a tricky one.
The Heathrow Express train to London's Paddington Station advertises itself as running every fifteen minutes and taking fifteen minutes12. Even so, it can take you another fifteen minutes to find it, (there is one central terminus under the main terminal buildings, and a separate terminus for T4). So you really should not consider leaving the airport for any delay less than four hours, (1 hour 30 minutes into Paddington and back, and an hour to get through security and to your gate - there will be queues - which leaves you an hour and a half at the Paddington end of things).
It is worth knowing that there are left-luggage facilities at Paddington, and some airlines also have check-in desks there.
There is a London Underground service to central London, which is considerably cheaper, and which services a much greater variety of destinations. The Underground station is underground, between Terminals One, Two and Three. These trains are likely to be more crowded, and the service takes much longer to get there. This is not advisable, unless you are actually stopping over-night in the UK.
There are buses and coaches from the Central Bus Station, not only to London, but to a wide variety of other local and not-so-local destinations.
If you are travelling on expenses and you are delayed for more than four hours, particularly if you are delayed overnight, it is worth trying to get yourself into one of the airport hotels. Prices range from about £80 per room per night to whatever your accounts department, or the airline at fault, is prepared to pay. Most of them are, however, kitted up with blackout curtains and they all have buses to and from the airport. Never underestimate the benefits of a long hot soak in a bath sipping a large gin and tonic at times like this.
Pretend You Meant to Spend Hours Here All Along...
There is a Viewing Gallery at Terminal Two, (which is currently closed) and a Visitors' Centre in the Bath Road, (ie the A4). It is not advisable to try to go there by Taxi though. London's famous black cabs service Heathrow. (They are the only cabs which can pick up a fare without prior arrangement there, though it is possible to be met by a mini-cab if you pre-book it before you arrive). The taxi driver has had to queue to pick up a fare almost as much as you have had to queue to travel by air, and so they much prefer to pick up someone going into central London, than someone who wants to nip across to the Visitors' Centre.
Killing time at Heathrow is unlikely to be fun, and it certainly isn't cheap, but it can be much more pleasant if you think outside the box they put you into, and use whichever terminal gives you the facilities you want at the time. The key thing, as has already been noted, is to know that you are in the lap of the gods, that there is nothing you can do, and that shouting will only make it worse.
Oh, and to commit to flying from Birmingham next time. Or hubbing at Schiphol. Or going by train. Or boat. Or coach and four. Or balloon. Or having your holiday by video conference. Or anything rather than go via LHR.
The BAA website13 is extremely informative most of the time, misleading some of the time - it repeats the 'busiest airport' myth - and inadvertently entertaining the rest of the time. It is worth visiting. Unlike the airport.