Connecting in Europe’s Hub Airports

If you're connecting through Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport, allow plenty of time between flights.
By Rick Steves

For those just connecting through London, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, or Paris — Europe’s main air-travel hubs — I’ve compiled the key info you need for your layover.

For detailed advice on reaching the city center from each of these airports, see the guidebooks that cover each city.

Connecting in London

Heathrow Airport (LHR)

Heathrow Airport is one of the world’s busiest airports. Think about it: 70 million passengers a year on 470,000 flights from 190 destinations riding 85 airlines, like some kind of global maypole dance.

Orientation

Heathrow has five terminals, numbered T-1 through T-5 (though T-2 is closed for renovation for the first part of 2014). Each terminal is served by different airlines and alliances; for example, T-5 is exclusively for British Air and Iberia Air flights, while T-1 serves mostly Star Alliance flights, such as United and Lufthansa. Screens posted throughout the airport identify which terminal each airline uses; this information should also be printed on your ticket or boarding pass.

To navigate, read signs and ask questions. You can walk between T-1, T-2 (when it’s open), and T-3. From this central hub (called “Heathrow Central”), T-4 and T-5 split off in opposite directions (and are not walkable). To travel between the T-1/T-2/T-3 cluster and either T-4 or T-5, you can take a shuttle bus (free, serves all terminals), or the Tube (requires a ticket, serves all terminals). You can also connect T-1/T-2/T-3 and T-5 by Heathrow Express train (free, every 15–20 minutes, does not serve T-4).

If you’re flying out of Heathrow, it’s critical to confirm which terminal your flight will use (look carefully at your ticket/boarding pass, check online, or call your airline in advance) — because if it’s T-4 or T-5, you’ll need to allow extra time. Taxi drivers generally know which terminal you’ll need based on the airline, but bus drivers may not.

Services

Each terminal has an airport information desk (generally daily 5:00–22:00), exchange bureaus, ATMs, a pharmacy, a VAT refund desk (you must present the VAT claim form from the retailer here to get your tax rebate on items purchased in the EU), and baggage storage (£5/item for up to 4 hours, £8.50/item for 24 hours, daily 6:00–23:00, opens 30–60 minutes earlier in some terminals). Get online 24 hours a day at Heathrow’s Internet access points (at each terminal — T-4’s is up on the mezzanine level). Pay Wi-Fi is available throughout the airport (provided by Boingo). A post office is on the first floor of T-3 (departures area). Each terminal has cheap eateries.

Heathrow’s small “Tourist Information Office” (tourist info shop), even though it’s a for-profit business, is worth a visit if you’re nearby and want to pick up free information: a simple map, the London Planner, and brochures (daily 6:30–22:00, 5-minute walk from T-3 in Tube station, follow signs to Underground; bypass queue for transit info to reach window for London questions).

Getting into the City Center

You have four basic options for traveling the 14 miles between Heathrow Airport and downtown London:

  • Tube: £11 round-trip, 6/hour, about 2 hours round-trip
  • National Express bus to Victoria Coach Station (5-minute walk from Victoria Tube/train station): £11–15 round-trip plus about £5 for connecting Tube fare, 1–2/hour (less frequent from Victoria Station to Heathrow), 1.5–2.5 hours round-trip depending on time of day plus about 10 minutes round-trip for every stop between Tube stations out from Victoria
  • Heathrow Connect express train to Paddington Station: £20 round-trip plus about £5 for connecting Tube fare, 2/hour Mon–Sat, 1–2/hour Sun, 1.5 hours round-trip plus about 10 minutes round-trip for every stop between Tube stations out from Paddington
  • Heathrow Express express train to Paddington Station: £34 round-trip (£5 more if you buy your ticket on board) plus about £5 for connecting Tube fare, 4/hour, 30 minutes round-trip to downtown from Heathrow Central station serving T-1/T-2/T-3, add 15 minutes from T-5 and about 10 minutes round-trip for every stop between Tube stations out from Paddington, daily 5:10–23:48
  • taxi: about £70/group each way, roughly 2 hours round trip — but beware traffic delays

Gatwick Airport (LGW)

More and more flights land at Gatwick Airport, which is halfway between London and the south coast. Gatwick has two terminals, North and South, which are easily connected by a free monorail (two-minute trip, runs 24 hours daily). Note that boarding passes say “Gatwick N” or “Gatwick S” to indicate your terminal. British Airways flights generally use Gatwick North. The Gatwick Express trains stop only at Gatwick South. Schedules in each terminal show only arrivals and departures from that terminal.

Getting into the City Center

Gatwick Express trains are clearly the best way into London from this airport. They shuttle conveniently between Gatwick South and London’s Victoria Station, which is a reasonable walk, or easy Tube ride, from many of London’s iconic sights (£35 round-trip, at least 10 percent cheaper if purchased online, 4/hour, 30 minutes, runs 5:00–24:00 daily).

London’s Other Airports

There’s a small chance you might use Stansted (STN) or the far-to-the-north Luton (LTN) airports, and an even slimmer chance you’re connecting via the tiny-but-central City Airport (LCY) or the far-to-the-east Southend Airport (SEN). Each of these is connected to the city center by train and/or bus.

Connecting London’s Airports by Bus

A handy National Express bus runs between Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, and Luton airports — easier than having to cut through the center of London — although traffic can be bad and can increase travel times.

Buses between Heathrow Airport and...

• Gatwick Airport: 1–6/hour, about 1.25 hours — but allow at least three hours between flights, £25
• Stansted Airport: 1–2/hour, about 1.5 hours, £25
• Luton Airport: roughly hourly, 1–1.5 hours, £21

Connecting in Amsterdam

Schiphol Airport (AMS)

Schiphol (SKIP-pol) Airport is located about 10 miles southwest of Amsterdam’s city center. Like most of Holland, it is user-friendly and below sea level. With an appealing array of shops, eateries, and other time-killing opportunities, Schiphol is a fine place to arrive, depart, or change planes. A truly international airport, Schiphol has done away with Dutch — signs are in English only.

Orientation

Though Schiphol officially has four terminals, it’s really just one big building. You could walk it end to end in about 20 minutes (but allow some time to pass through security checkpoints between certain terminals). All terminals have ATMs, banks, shops, bars, and free Wi-Fi. An inviting shopping and eating zone called Holland Boulevard runs between Terminals 2 and 3.

Services

The ABN/AMRO banks around the airport offer fair exchange rates. Service Point, in Schiphol Plaza at the end of the shopping mall near Terminal 4, is a useful all-purpose service counter that sells SIM cards, has an ATM, and ships packages. 

Convenient luggage lockers are at various points around the airport — allowing you to leave your bag here on a lengthy layover (both short- and long-term lockers, credit card only; biggest bank of lockers near the train station at Schiphol Plaza).

Time-Killing Tips

If you have extra time at Schiphol — and you’re arriving after mid-2015 — check out the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam Schiphol, a little art gallery and museum store on Holland Boulevard, the lively shopping/eating zone between Lounges 2 and 3. The Rijksmuseum loans a dozen or so of its minor masterpieces from the Dutch Golden Age to this unique airport museum, including actual Dutch Masters by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and others (closed until mid-2015; once re-opened: free, daily 7:00–20:00).

Or, to escape the airport crowds, follow signs for the Panorama Terrace to the third floor of Terminal 2, where you’ll find a quieter, full-of-locals cafeteria, a kids’ play area, and a view terrace where you can watch planes come and go while you nurse a coffee. If you plan to visit the terrace on arrival, stop there before you pass through customs.

Getting into the City Center

Direct, frequent trains to Amsterdam’s Central Station make a quick visit to the city center worth considering (4–6/hour, 15 minutes each way, €5 each way). You can buy tickets at the ticket windows — expect to pay cash unless your credit card has a chip (there are ATMs nearby). The ticket machines accept coins and credit cards with a chip (start the no-brainer transaction by pressing “I want to go to Amsterdam Centraal”). When traveling from Amsterdam Central to Schiphol, trains generally leave every 15 minutes from track 14a.

Connecting in Paris

Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG)

Paris’ main airport has three terminals: T-1, T-2, and T-3. Most flights from the US use T-1 or T-2 (check your ticket, or contact your airline). You can travel between terminals on the free CDGVAL automated shuttle train (departs every 5 minutes, 24/7). Allow 30 minutes to travel between terminals and an hour for total travel time between your gates at T-1 and T-2. Allow plenty of time to connect here — particularly on budget airlines, which can have especially long check-in lines.

Services: All terminals have bright orange airport information desks (called ADP), ATMs (distributeurs), shops, cafés, and bars. The airport offers 15 minutes of free (but slow) Wi-Fi; pay €2 for 30 faster additional minutes. If you are returning home and want a VAT refund, look for tax-refund centers in the check-in area or ask for their location at any ADP information desk.

Terminal 1 (T-1)

This circular terminal has three key floors — arrival (arrivées) on the top floor, and two floors for departures (départs) below. The terminal’s round shape can be confusing — if you feel like you’re going around in circles, you probably are.

Arrival Level (niveau arrivée): After passing through customs, you’ll exit between doors (porte) 34 and 36. Nearby are orange ADP information desks with English-speaking staff, a café, a newsstand, and an ATM. Walk clockwise to find taxis (door 24). To reach the RER suburban train into central Paris, follow CDGVAL signs to the free CDGVAL shuttle train on floor 1.

Departure Level (niveaux départ): Scan the departure screen to find out which hall you should go to for check-in. Halls 1–4 are on floor 2, and 5–6 are downstairs on floor 1. Also on floor 1 are the CDGVAL shuttle train, cafés, a post office (PTT), pharmacy, boutiques, and a handy grocery. Boarding gates and duty-free shopping are located on floor 3, which is only accessible with a boarding pass.

Terminal 2 (T-2)

This long, horseshoe-shaped terminal is divided into six halls, labeled A through F. It’s a busy place, so take a deep breath and follow signage carefully. The orange airport information desks are located near gate 6/8 in each hall. Taxi stops are well signed.

T-2 has a train station, with RER suburban trains into Paris, as well as longer-distance trains to the rest of France (including high-speed TGV trains). It’s located between T-2C/D and T-2E/F, below the Sheraton Hotel (prepare for a long walk to reach your train).

Post offices, pharmacies, and ATMs are all well-signed. T-2E/F has several duty-free shopping arcades, and other T-2 halls have smaller duty-free shops. You can stash your bags at Baggage du Monde, located above the train station in T-2, but it’s pricey (€15/24 hours, daily 6:00-21:30, tel. 01 34 38 58 97).

Getting into the City Center

Buses, airport vans, commuter trains, and taxis link the airport’s terminals with central Paris, and none are all that speedy — I wouldn’t attempt a jaunt into the city except on the longest of layovers.

If you’re trying to make the quickest possible trip into town and back, taxis are worth the extra cost (about €65 each way sans traffic; take only official taxis from well-signed stands). Taxis are less appealing on weekday mornings as traffic into Paris can be bad — in that case, the RER commuter train is likely a better option (4/hour, 30 minutes each way to Gare du Nord, €9.60 each way, buy tickets from machines — coins required; runs 5:00–24:00). For step-by-step instructions on taking the RER into Paris, see Paris by Train.

To return to the airport by RER from central Paris, allow plenty of time to get to your departure gate (plan for a 10-minute Métro or bus ride to the closest RER station serving line B, a 15-minute wait for your train, a 30-minute train ride, plus walking time through the stations and airport). Your Métro or bus ticket is not valid on the RER train to the airport; buy the ticket from a clerk or the machines (coins only) at the RER-B station. When you catch your train, make sure the sign over the platform shows Aéroport Roissy-Charles de Gaulle as a stop served. (The line splits, so not every line B train serves the airport.) If you’re not clear, ask another rider, "Air-o-por sharl duh gaul?" Once at the airport, hop out either at T-2 or T-1/3 (where you can connect to T-1 or T-3 on the CDGVAL shuttle).

Orly Airport (ORY)

This easy-to-navigate airport feels small, but has all the services you’d expect at a major airport: ATMs and currency exchange, cafés, shops, post offices, and more.

Orly-entation

Orly has two terminals: Ouest (west) and Sud (south). Air France and a few other carriers arrive at Ouest; most others use Sud. At both terminals, arrivals are on the ground level (level 0) and departures are on level 1. You can connect the two terminals with the free Orlyval shuttle train (well signed) or with any of the shuttle buses that also travel into downtown Paris.

Services

Both terminals have red tourist information desks. There are also orange ADP information desks (near baggage claim) with information on flights, public transit into Paris, and help with other airport-related questions. Both terminals offer 15 minutes of free Wi-Fi (€2/30 minutes of faster Wi-Fi). At the Sud terminal, you can get online for free at McDonald’s (departure level).

Getting into the City Center

Shuttle buses (navettes), the RER, and taxis connect Paris with either terminal:

  • “Les Cars” Air France bus #1: €20 round-trip, 4/hour, 40 minutes to Invalides Métro stop (with quick access to the Eiffel Tower and Orsay and Louvre museums), buy ticket from driver or save 10 percent by booking your tickets online — be sure to print out your tickets and bring them with you (buses depart from Ouest arrival level exit B-C or Sud exit L — look for signs to navettes)
  • Orlybus: €7.50 one-way, 3/hour, 30 minutes (goes directly to the Denfert-Rochereau Métro and RER-B stations, with access to the Luxembourg Garden area and Notre-Dame Cathedral)
  • Orlyval shuttle train: €11.65 one-way, 6/hour, 40 minutes, buy ticket before boarding (lands you at Antony RER-B station, with access to the same areas as the Orlybus; well signed and leaves from the departure level at both terminals)
  • Taxi: Allow €40 and 30 minutes each way for a taxi into central Paris (taxi stands are located outside the Ouest terminal exit B, and to the far right as you leave the Sud terminal at exit M)

Beauvais Airport (BVA)

Budget airlines such as Ryanair use this small airport, offering dirt-cheap airfares but leaving you 50 miles north of Paris. The airport is basic, waiting areas are crowded, and services are sparse, but improvements are gradually on the way.

Connecting Paris’ Airports

Between Charles de Gaulle and Orly

“Les Cars” Air France bus #3 directly and conveniently links Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports (€21, stops at Charles de Gaulle T-1 and T-2 and Orly Ouest exit B-C or Sud exit L, roughly 2/hour, 1 hour, runs 5:45–23:00).

RER line B connects Charles de Gaulle and Orly but requires a transfer to the Orlyval train. It isn’t as easy as the Air France bus mentioned above, though it’s faster when there’s traffic (€19, 5/hour, 1.5 hours). This line splits at both ends: Heading from Charles de Gaulle to Orly, take trains that serve the Antony stop (direction: St-Rémy-les-Chevreuse), then transfer to Orlyval shuttle train; heading from Orly to Charles de Gaulle, take trains that end at the airport — Aéroport Charles de Gaulle-Roissy, not Mitry-Claye.

Taxis are easiest, but pricey (about €80 and one hour between Charles de Gaulle and Orly).

Between Charles de Gaulle and Beauvais

RER line B connects Charles de Gaulle and Beauvais airports via train. From CDG, take the RER-B to Gare du Nord (see "Charles de Gaulle Airport: Getting into the City Center," above), catch a train to Beauvais, and then a shuttle bus (€4.50, 6/day, 30 minutes) or local bus #12 (€1, 12/day, 30 minutes) from the station to Beauvais Airport.

Val d’Europe (VEA) buses run between Beauvais and Charles de Gaulle, en route to Disneyland (€16, 2–3/day, 1–1.5 hours).

Taxis are easiest, but pricey (about €120 and an hour between Charles de Gaulle and Beauvais).

Between Orly and Beauvais

RER line B connects Orly and Beauvais airports via train. From Orly, take the Orlybus or Orlyval shuttle train (see "Orly Airport: Getting into the City Center," above) to the RER-B and ride it all the way to Gare du Nord; from there, catch a train to Beauvais, and then a shuttle bus (€4.50, 6/day, 30 minutes) or local bus #12 (€1, 12/day, 30 minutes) from the station to Beauvais Airport.

Taxis are easier, but pricey (about €160 and 1.5 hours between Orly and Beauvais).

Connecting in Frankfurt

Frankfurt Airport (FRA)

Frankfurt’s airport (Flughafen), just a few stops by S-Bahn from the city center, has its own long-distance train station, which makes it a snap to connect from a flight to other German cities.

Orientation

There are two separate terminals (know your terminal — check your ticket or the airport website). Terminal 1, a multi-level maze of check-in counters and shops, is linked to the train station. Terminal 2 is small and quiet, with few services. A Skytrain connects the two terminals in less than five minutes. Pick up the free brochure Your Airport Guide for a map and detailed information.

Services

The airport has three baggage-storage desks (Gepäckausbewahrung, €7/day per bag; the branch in Terminal 1B, level 1 is open 24 hours, others daily 6:00–22:00). There is a post office (in Terminal 1B, level 1, Mon–Fri 9:00–19:00, Sat–Sun 11:00–18:00), a pharmacy (in Terminal 1B, level 2, and also in Terminal 2, daily 7:00–21:00), a 24-hour medical clinic (on level 1 between terminals 1B and 1C), public showers (Terminal 1B, level 2, near the pharmacy, €6, shampoo and towel included, open 24 hours), and expensive Wi-Fi (for free Wi-Fi, try Starbucks in the long-distance train station). A good-sized, fairly priced supermarket is handy for last-minute shopping for European treats (Terminal 1C, level 0, daily 6:00–22:00; tricky to find: Go down the escalators from the underpass on level 1 between terminals 1B and 1C, or up the escalators from train platforms 1–3). Take advantage of the luggage carts, ingeniously designed to ride on the airport’s escalators (and even all the way up to, but not into, the Skytrain; €2 deposit is refunded when you return your cart). But heed the instructions on the carts and at the escalator entrances. There are customs desks in both terminals for VAT refunds (daily 7:00–21:00; after hours, ask the information desk to page a customs officer for you). There’s even McBeer at three McDonald’s; one allegedly is among Europe’s largest. (McWelcome to Germany.) Long-distance trains leave from the airport’s Fernbahnhof (platforms 4–7).

Getting into the City Center

It’s a 12-minute train ride on the S-Bahn into Frankfurt’s main train station (Hauptbahnhof); trains depart from platforms 1–3 (4/hour, €4.35 each way, ride included in €10 Frankfurt Card and €8.50 individual/€15 group version of all-day Tageskarte Frankfurt transit pass, but not in cheaper group version of Tageskarte Frankfurt). From the Hauptbahnhof you’re a quick walk or U-Bahn ride to the Römerberg, Frankfurt’s central market square. Figure about €25 for a taxi from the airport into town.

“Frankfurt” Hahn Airport (HHN)

This smaller airport, misleadingly classified as a “Frankfurt” airport for marketing purposes, is an unlikely spot for a layover, and you won’t be making a quick foray into downtown Frankfurt from here, as it’s a nearly two-hour drive away. (Regular buses connect Frankfurt Hahn Airport to Bullay (for trains to Cochem), Trier, Mainz, Cologne, and Frankfurt.)