London Rail Sales: Deal or No Deal?

Lots of travel writers tout the Heathrow Express, Gatwick Express, and Stansted Express as the best ways to get to central London. Normally, those nonstop expresses are fast but very expensive. Currently, however, all three are running "Web Duo" discount promotions for couples traveling together.

The well known Heathrow Express, 15 minutes nonstop from Heathrow Central (terminals one and three) to Paddington Station, is normally $32 each way or $55 round-trip. Some experts might let you in on the "insiders' secret" that the almost-as-fast Heathrow Connect, also to Paddington with a few stops, is a more reasonable $15 each way. However, the choice isn't quite as clear: The Heathrow Express Duo Saver promotion sells round-trips for a couple at $80, total; buy online, in advance, and traveler together both ways.

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The Heathrow Express stops at Heathrow Central and terminal five, but if your flight arrives at terminal four, you have to take a shuttle train to Central. Heathrow Connect stops only at Central, so you have to take shuttles from both four and five. And all three rail stations are separate from—and some distance from—the Underground terminals, so make sure you head for the right rail station.

London Travelcards are not valid on either rail service to/from Heathrow. But if you're planning to buy a Travelcard on the day you arrive, you can buy it at Heathrow, then buy a ticket on Heathrow Connect just to Hayes and Harlington, the first stop, for $9, and your Travelcard is good the rest of the way. You don't have to change at Hayes and Harlington—just have both tickets and stay on the train.

The situation at Gatwick is similar: The regular nonstop rate to Victoria (30 minutes) is $28 each way or $50 round-trip, but the Web Duo price is $82. As with Heathrow, however, slightly slower trains can get you into town for a lot less. Prices vary from one train to another, but advance purchase one-way fares start at $8 to Victoria (no round-trip discount). Also, if your London destination is in another part of downtown, you can take a direct train to Blackfriars, St Pancras, or an intermediate stop starting at $16.

The Stansted Express Web Duo promotion gives two round-trips for $77 (47 minutes each way), compared with a regular round-trip price of $53 each and a stiff one-way price of $37. Few if any flights from North America use Stansted, but if you're flying from there to some other point in the U.K., or on the Continent, EasyJet and RyanAir both use Stansted heavily. Unlike travelers at Heathrow and Gatwick, you have no lower-cost alternative.

In addition to being a few minutes faster, the three airport expresses use cars designed specifically for airport access, with baggage racks and fairly roomy seating even in second class. The slower trains at Heathrow and Gatwick are ordinary commuter runs without any concessions to air travelers—and are likely to be crowded at peak commute times.

The providers don't say how long these duo promotions will last, but if you're heading to London, check to see if they're available for your trip. And whatever you decide, advance-purchase online prices are less than you pay at the airports—even for one-way trips and single travelers.

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