The 2012 London Olympics are almost upon us, which means a whole bunch of American families soon will be traveling overseas to support the hometown gang. It also means that thousands upon thousands of family travelers will be descending (literally) upon London Heathrow Airport, the fourth-busiest airport in the world (behind Atlanta, Beijing and Tokyo). In the wake of some recent (and inevitable) bad press, I recently caught up with Carol Stokes, Heathrow’s head of passenger strategy and service, for advice on how these moms, dads and kids can make the best of the experience. Here’s her take.
Q. First off, how many additional travelers do y'all expect to London for this summer's Olympics, and what percentage of those travelers do y'all expect to be families?
A. During the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games period from 27 June to 15 September, Heathrow is expecting around 100,000–120,000 passengers to pass through the airport each day. A normal day at Heathrow usually sees around 95,000 passengers travelling through the airport. We estimate the number of passengers travelling with children under 16 to be around 11 percent of our overall passenger numbers.
Q. I know from personal experience that your airport can be overwhelming. What should first-timers they know about the place to make their maiden voyage as painless as possible?
A. My top recommendations to travelers would be to arrive at the airport at your normal time for check-in (that’s around 3 hours in advance for international flights), and to catch the Heathrow Express (train) to the airport as regular London public transport is expected to be congested during this time.
Q. What, if any, special services (play areas, family restrooms, etc.) does Heathrow offer for families with young kids? Where are these services?
A. Heathrow has a range of services designed just for families. First, we have family lanes in security with wider lanes for strollers, specially trained staff, special signs designed for kids to interact with, and a rainbow-themed archway for children to walk through. We also have play areas in each terminal that include slides, soft play activities and interactive floor toys. There’s also an online service we call “Reserve and Collect” that is designed for parents to be able to pre-order baby food and milk they can pick up once they pass through security. Through this service, pre-ordered packages will be reserved and ready for parents at Heathrow drugstores (Boots) once they arrive at the airport. Of course each of our food and beverage outlets provide highchairs and activity books for children, and during key events, we provide kids- eat-free offers at special outlets in each terminal (parents can check these before they travel at our website).
Q. On the ground in London, what are the best (read: easiest) ways for families to get from Heathrow to downtown?
A. I’ve mentioned it already, but I can’t stress it enough: the Heathrow Express train really is the easiest way for families to travel. The service runs from the airport to London every 15 minutes and takes just 15 minutes. There are elevators down from the airport to the station and no barriers at the entrance, making the transfer of luggage simple. Toilets onboard make the journey even more convenient.
Q. What specific advice can you offer families with young kids who are planning to fly through Heathrow en route to the Olympics this summer?
A. First and foremost, look out for our Journey Team dressed in purple; they are there to help and make your journey as smooth as possible. Also, take your camera and look out the windows, as Heathrow’s terminals offer amazing airfield views to fascinate every child. Finally, enjoy. Heathrow will have a great range of theatre, bands, Olympic mascots, British characters, artwork installations and even table tennis tables for families travelling through the airport during the Games period.