Flying To London As A Cheaper Way To Get To France, Belgium, or Amsterdam

Flying to Europe is a fantastic way to spend a family vacation- it’s just that the price of the flights there might make you ponder which one of your kids would best squeeze into a carry-on bag.

Do you go for the cheap flight that arrives at 5am and has 6 connections? Or do you spend the extra $200 and have only 1 layover? Do you feel more comfortable on the legacy carriers or are you fine with flying one of the new pop- up airlines (like the brightly colored planes that my sister- in-law hilariously refers to as the “Lego Friends planes”)?

Adding kids to the mix only increases the number of considerations (and the price) of booking flights. While I am able to motor through a day of sight-seeing after an overnight on a plane (a scenario that is becoming more difficult once I hit 40), a toddler might make you regret that decision in previously unconsidered, yet horrible ways. Plus small differences in price become big differences when booking 4 or 5 tickets versus one. All of this means I spend more time than I ever thought possible using Google Flights to evaluate all of the different ways to get to where I want to go.

Why On Earth Would You Fly To London If You Are Vacationing In France?

Flying with kids has taught me that day flights are worth the extra money if you can swing it. Getting to a hotel for the night, taking a quick shower, and getting a decent night’s sleep is like adding a whole extra day of vacation for me. It also helps with jet lag as you probably got up super early and are ready to go to bed when it is night time at your destination, even if it’s still afternoon for you at home. Day flights mean the whole family is then ready to hit the ground running the next morning, in tune with the place you are visiting.

Unfortunately, flying from most places in the States means multiple connections and overnight flights to get to many destinations in mainland Europe. And you tend to arrive super early in the morning with most cafes/shops/museums not even open yet. Bleary-eyed and time-confused, you then have to figure out how to kill time until you can check into your accommodations and get rid of the luggage. Red- eyes are called that for a reason.

London, however, is relatively easy (and usually less expensive) to get to on a day flight from the States, even if you are flying out of a smaller city like we usually do. And fortunately, it’s fairly easy to simply hop back on a plane at Heathrow the next morning to reach your final destination. For even more fun, take the Eurostar directly to Paris, Lille, Amsterdam, Brussels, Marseilles, Lyon, or Aime la Plagne. From there you can connect to anywhere else in Europe.

The Eurostar has good prices, generous luggage allowances, and drops you in the center of town, all the reasons we love to travel this way. Plus, I love watching the scenery from a train window.

How It Works

Because Heathrow is 45 min from central London, stay at one of the many hotels right by the airport when you arrive. Then wake up in the morning, get a good breakfast, and hop on the Underground to St. Pancras/ Kings Cross Station to catch a Eurostar train across to mainland Europe. Or you can fly back out of Heathrow. Easy-peasy and everybody is ready to start the day well rested and fed.

Map of London Heathrow Terminals and Underground Stations

Map of London Heathrow Terminals and Underground Stations

Where To Stay Near Heathrow

Most of the accommodations line Bath Road just to the north of Heathrow, but there are also clusters of hotels around Terminal 5, Terminal 4, and Hatton Cross. Heathrow subsidizes bus routes to many of the hotels along the roads marking the perimeter of Heathrow, making it a free trip most of the time. This handy website has an easy to read chart listing bus numbers and corresponding hotels.

Heathrow’s Central Bus Station is about a 10 minute walk from Terminals 2 and 3, located right above the Underground Station for Terminals 2 & 3. The way is well- signed. You can also catch a bus out front of Arrivals in Terminals 4 and 5.

It is possible to take the Underground from Heathrow (Central Station between Terminals 2 and 3 or the stations at Terminal 4 and 5) to the Hatton Cross Station and its nearby hotels, but for just a couple more minutes you can ride for free on the bus. Or, if you can afford it, the easiest option is to stay at one of the hotels attached to Terminal 4. Keep in mind that it will cost you for that convenience however.

Our Recommendation

Image courtesy of  Hilton

Image courtesy of Hilton

We like the Hilton Garden Inn London Heathrow because of its location by the Hatton Cross Underground station. It makes traveling into central London the next day much easier. You can get a family room with 2 double beds for under $150 if your kids are under 12. The rooms are pretty small but doable, especially since you are only staying one night. They have connecting rooms as well, so it is a great option for larger families.

It takes about 15 min on bus 285 or 555 to get to the Hilton Garden Inn from the Central Bus Station at Heathrow and it is a free ride. The biggest downside is that there is nothing nearby for breakfast, so this would be a time to use points or spend the cash to get the hotel’s buffet breakfast. It is a good and extensive buffet that is worth the money. It kept us full for most of the day and we only had to use some granola bars to bridge the gap until an early dinner.

Other Hotel Options

Many of the hotels along Bath Road are on the public bus routes but not near an Underground Station. This means you will have to take the bus back to the Central Bus Station in Heathrow in the morning and walk to the Underground just below the bus station. Some of these bus routes are free and some cost £1.50. Check with the front desk to make sure you know what bus number to take to get the free ones.

I’ve Spent the Night Near Heathrow, Now What?

Step One- Take the Underground to St. Pancras/Kings Cross Station to Catch the Eurostar

We stayed near the Hatton Cross Station so we just had to walk over in the morning and catch a train. One comes by every 5 minutes. If you are staying somewhere that is not next to an station, you will need to catch a bus back to Heathrow to take a train from the Underground Stations at Terminals 5, 4, and Central Station (between Terminals 2 &3).

The Piccadilly Line runs through Heathrow and Hatton Cross on its way to Central London. Get on a train heading towards Cockfosters and it will take you straight to Kings Cross/St. Pancras stations, albeit in 51 minutes and with 20+ stops. But the majority of the trip is above ground so the scenery is nice. And the price is right at £3.10 per adult with contactless payment. (See below for details about using contactless payment). *The price increases to £5.10 during rush hours, Mon- Fri 630am- 930am.

We didn’t have a problem getting the luggage on the Underground although we were traveling on a Saturday morning. I can imagine it is slightly more complicated on a weekday morning. But Heathrow is so far out of London that you can get your seats or carve out a space to stand with your luggage before it gets too crowded. We had 7 people and 7 suitcases/ rolling carry-ons between us and did not have difficulties with escalators or room on the trains but we did put the luggage between our legs when sitting or on our laps.

Kings Cross Station is on your left, St. Pancras Station is on your right.

Kings Cross Station is on your left, St. Pancras Station is on your right.

Other Ways Into Central London From Heathrow

It is possible to take the Airport Express to Paddington Station in Central London and it’s not as expensive as you might think if you buy your tickets online at least 90 days in advance- £12.10 per adult. Kids under 16 are free as well. The benefit being faster travel into Central London and lots more space on the trains. But you must then hop on the Underground to get to Kings Cross/St. Pancras which will cost you £2.40 per adult if you use contactless payment (more on that below).

The Airport Express is a 15 minute ride from Terminals 2 and 3 to Paddington and then it is another 15 minutes on the Underground (take the Circle Line or Hammersmith & City Line) to Kings Cross/ St. Pancras. It might shave 10- 15 minutes total off the trip versus taking the Underground the whole way. Because of the hassle of changing trains and it is much more expensive without saving that much time, we recommend just taking the Underground all the way and skip the Airport Express.

You can take a bus into London but it is not recommended as there are several changes required and the combined trip will take you somewhere between 1.5- 2 hours.

It is also possible to take a taxi from Heathrow to St. Pancras but this is only really an option for people who got in early on Amazon stock, as the price is usually somewhere between £70-£120. Plus with traffic, a taxi ride could take you anywhere between 1-2 hours so not any faster than the Underground for a heck of a lot more money.

Buying Tickets For The Underground

Transport for London (who runs the majority of public transportation in London, including the Underground) uses the Oyster card, a pre-loaded card that deducts the cost of a trip from the amount of money on the card. They try to discourage buying single tickets from the machines at every station by charging twice as much for the same trip if you print out a single ticket. Lately, the turnstiles are also adapted to use credit/ debit cards that are wireless- enabled. These contactless payment cards can be used the same as an Oyster card.

Each turnstile for the Underground has a big circle where the majority of passengers tap their credit/ debit card or their Oyster card to open the gates. You hold your card against the circle for a few seconds until it flashes green and the gates open. Then repeat the process to exit the Underground and it automatically charges the cost of your trip to your card.

Notice the wireless symbol by the numbers 7997. This card can be used for contactless payment. Image courtesy of  American Express .

Notice the wireless symbol by the numbers 7997. This card can be used for contactless payment. Image courtesy of American Express.

We were able to use 3 American credit cards and one British debit card doing this no problem as long as they were contactless payment enabled. Look for the wireless symbol on the card somewhere or call the credit card company to make sure.

Capital One Venture cards and American Express Hilton Honors were the credit cards that worked for us, plus we had a British TSB debit card that was wireless-enabled. We walked right up to the turnstiles and held the credit card to the big circle until the gates opened.

If you have to buy single- journey tickets from the machine, they cost twice as much. Walk up to the machine, input destination and payment, and it will spit out a small, rectangular ticket. Insert the ticket into the turnstile and it will pop out again with a time stamp. Keep this ticket with you as you need to insert it again at the turnstile at the end of your journey to exit the Underground.

You can buy Oyster cards from the machines that also work to tap on/ off, but as you need to pre-load them with a chunk of cash, it doesn’t make sense to use them for this one journey. Unless of course, you know you will be returning to London in the near future, in which case, go for it. Oyster cards will save you money if you are taking several journeys and don’t have contactless payment abilities with your credit card. Don’t worry about buying the Visitor Oyster cards online ahead of time as they aren’t that different from regular Oyster cards available at the machines in each Underground station.

Underground Travel With Kids

Kids under 11 travel free on the Underground with a paying adult and one adult can take up to four kids. Just have them walk through the turnstile with you.

Kids ages 11-16 can get a youth discounted single ticket available from the ticket machines, just make sure to keep up with it as you will need to insert it again on the way out. You cannot get youth discounted travel using contactless payment as it automatically deducts an adult fare based off the distance you traveled when you tap off.

The youth discounted tickets are typically the same price as an adult contactless fare. For example, the adult fare from Hatton Cross to Kings Cross/ St. Pancras was £3.10 using contactless payment, £6 if you bought an adult single ticket from the machine, and £3 for a youth discounted single ticket from the machine.

If you decide to get Oyster cards because you are returning to London in the near future and don’t have contactless payment available from your credit card, then it is possible to get a youth discount loaded onto the Oyster card but an attendant will have to help you and check ID. We have had good luck with the Underground attendants as they have been cheerful and readily available when we have made a mockery of the ticket buying process on a previous trip. It really isn’t that hard to figure out, we just had several people that all thought that they knew what to do and turns out nobody did. The attendants quickly sorted us though, and got us on our way.

This website has good explanations of the Oyster card and frequently asked questions.

Step Two- Take the Eurostar to Mainland Europe

When you get off the Underground at Kings Cross/ St. Pancras, walk up top and admire the view of St. Pancras, an older, Victorian station. If you have a moment, stop at the famous Platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross where you can ogle the people willing to wait in line for an hour or more just to take their picture with a wand and a luggage trolley disappearing into a brick wall.

You’ll find many cafes and convenience stores in and around these two stations. You can grab breakfast if you didn’t eat at your hotel, or buy some sweeties for the train. We are partial to Smarties and Crunchies and a bacon roll to go. Healthy eating, I know.

Walking into St. Pancras Station. They have added a new addition to the older Victorian section.

Walking into St. Pancras Station. They have added a new addition to the older Victorian section.

Once you enter St. Pancras, follow the signs for Eurostar and be prepared to pass through immigration/customs and airport-like security before you get to the waiting area. It is kind of a pain but it does mean that you can just exit the train at your destination without further hassles.

The waiting area is not my favorite as it can be crowded and there is not enough seating if several trains are leaving close together. Do your best to carve out a space, even on the floor if you have to. You won’t be the only ones. The bathrooms are nice though and there is free WiFi.

When boarding is announced for your train, everyone will make a mad rush for the escalators leading to the platforms. If being on the train first matters to you, then find seats or stand near the doors to the escalators while you wait. But since your ticket comes with assigned seats on the train and there is usually lots of luggage space on these trains, it is not imperative that you be first to board.

If you are a novice to train travel, find your seat by looking for the coach or car number on your ticket first. It will tell you in which train car your seat is located. Then just look for the corresponding number outside the doors to the car when you board. There is nothing worse than getting all settled in your seats, only to have to then pack up everything and move because you are in Seat 42 in Car #4 instead of Seat 42 in Car #5. Pay attention.

The Eurostar seats are nice, roomy, have free WiFi, and the trip is quite enjoyable. You’ll also find a dining car but you’ll probably want to stay away from its hefty prices. Most of the trip is above ground as it only takes about 25 minutes to cross under the English Channel at 160 km/h. The kids get a kick out of thinking how much water they are going under.

Outside the Eurostar in St. Pancras station. There is a mad rush to board but then the platform kinda clears out. The escalators up from the waiting room are on the left, behind the attendant.

Outside the Eurostar in St. Pancras station. There is a mad rush to board but then the platform kinda clears out. The escalators up from the waiting room are on the left, behind the attendant.

Buying Tickets for the Eurostar

Book tickets ahead of time on Eurostar’s website. You have to book for a specific train and it costs money to change your ticket so be sure to allow yourself plenty of time to get into St. Pancras in the morning.

A 2.5 hour trip to Paris Gare du Nord from London will cost about $80-120 for an adult and under $100 for a youth (under 12). Price depends on the times, with the morning trains usually the most expensive. Kids under 4 travel free. A 4 hour trip to Amsterdam from London will probably cost you under $100 for an adult or around $70 for a kid under 12. Even the 6.5 hour trip to Marseilles will set you back less than $100 per adult and $64 per youth.

We usually just go for the Standard ticket which means the seats are a little less plush and you have to buy your own food. Each of the 3 ticket classes gets 2 pieces of luggage plus a carry- on. The more expensive classes get you food onboard or access to pre- boarding lounges, plus nicer seats. *Kid Tickets come with an allowance for 1 piece of luggage plus a carry-on.

Try for the 4 seats around a table when booking and opt for forward- facing if you can. See the seating charts on the website to help you.

Step 3- Arrive at Your Destination

Hop off the train and enjoy being in the center of town and not having to go through customs or wait for luggage pick- up because, hey, you’ve already done all of that! You are ready to hit the ground running.

Check into your hotel or connect to another train to get to your final destination and have a wonderful vacation! Don’t forget to look for the special deals you can get in some destination cities with your Eurostar ticket, like 2 for 1 Museum Entry.

How This Worked For Us On Our Last Trip

We took our family (3 adults, 4 kids) to visit the battlefields of World War One in northern France in March 2019 for one week, using Lille as a base.

Here’s How It Broke Down

  • Flights into London and out of Lyon- $800 per person for a total of $5600. Both sets of flights were day flights, which worked out fantastic. We got up very early for the departure but arrived in London at 845pm with decent layover times and only one connection. On the way back home, we flew out of Lyon at 10am, had 2 connections, and were back in Tennessee by 7pm. It was worth going a little out of our way for the flights alone, without even considering how much cheaper they were.

  • Overnight at the Hilton Garden Inn Heathrow- $220 for 2 rooms

  • Underground tickets from Hatton Cross into St. Pancras/Kings Cross station- £3.10 X 4 tickets with contactless payment, one £3 youth single ticket purchased from the machine, and two kids that traveled free since they were under 12. Converted in dollars that works out to about $20. Without contactless payment it would have been £6 X 4 plus a £3 youth ticket for $35 total.

  • Eurostar tickets from St. Pancras to Lille were $77 for everyone 12 and older, and $66 for the kids under 12. For our family, that worked out to 4 X $77 and 3 X $66 = $506.

  • TGV tickets to Lyon from Lille were 90 euros for everyone 12 and over, and 50 euros for kids under 12. For us that works out to 90 euros X 4 tickets and 3 tickets X 50 euros for a total of $573.

  • 3 rooms at a hotel near the airport in Lyon was 187 euros total or $210 US.

  • Add everything up, convert it all into dollars, and we get a total of $7129.

To Compare, If We Had Flown Directly to France

  • Flights from Knoxville, Tennessee to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris for 7 people in March 2019- $ 1500 per person for a total of $10,500.

  • Train roundtrip between Lille and Charles de Gaulle airport at about $50 a person

  • Total of $10,850

So you can see we saved $3000 by being flexible on the flights, plus we got great day flights that really minimized jet lag. And we got to enjoy seeing a little bit of London and Lyon, two terrific destinations in their own right. We also love train travel as a great way to see the country.

Taking trains between the two destinations was not difficult either, as we left our hotel by Heathrow at 9am after a huge breakfast, and we were in our rental car heading out of Lille, France to the WW1 memorials before 2pm. The TGV from Lille to Lyon takes about 3 hours and there are multiple trains a day. Taking a train from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris to Lille takes about an hour anyway and while driving a car is faster, you will spend a considerable amount of money on tolls.

So you see, going a little out of your way isn’t as crazy as you might think and can often save you a lot of money. It can even be more fun than flying direct as everybody gets a good nights sleep, jet lag is minimized, and what kid doesn’t like riding on a train?

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