Airports have long been black holes for holiday budgets, sucking in your hard-earned cash for everything from boarding-pass printing to replacing the disposable bottles of water you must throw away at security.
This year, merely setting foot on airport land is becoming more expensive, with Gatwick announcing it has increased its forecourt drop-off fee from £5 to £6 for 2024. Fortunately, with a little planning, it’s possible to swerve some of the extra charges and save your pennies for your trip instead.
Here are a few simple hacks for enjoying a more affordable airport experience.
Dodge drop-off fees
While it’s convenient to get dropped off right outside the departure hall doors, it’s costly at every airport. Drop-off charges are £7 at Stansted, £6 at Gatwick, £5 at Heathrow, £5 for just five minutes at Manchester, and £4 for 15 minutes at Birmingham, for example. The good news is that most airports offer free drop-off areas that are a little further away from the terminal buildings.
At Stansted, you get 60 minutes free in the mid-stay carpark, Gatwick’s long-stay car parks offer two hours for free, at Heathrow’s long stay car parks the first 30 minutes are free, and at Manchester there’s a free drop off area on Thorley Lane. All of these car parks provide free shuttle buses that get you to the terminal in five to 10 minutes. Birmingham, meanwhile, offers 15 minutes free at a designated drop-off zone five to 10 minutes’ walk from the terminal.
Take public transport to the airport
Using public transport to travel to the airport is a great way to save on parking costs and, for many travelling to Heathrow, it’s a way to swerve the £12.50 Ulez emissions charge, too.
Not all rail, bus and coach options are made equal when it comes to saving money, so it’s worth comparing options before travelling. For passengers flying out, a trip on the Elizabeth Line is a budget-friendly alternative to the Heathrow Express, costing from £12.80 from Zone 1 and from £13.30 from Zone 2, instead of £25 from Paddington one-way (or £16.50 when booked in advance).
Residents of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, and Bristol can also get to Heathrow on a budget using the Flexibus coach service, on which Bristol-to-Heathrow tickets start at just £7.99, for example.
For Stansted, a National Express coach journey makes a more pocket-friendly alternative to the Stansted Express (at the time of writing a next-day return ticket from Stratford to Stansted cost £20.50 with National Express versus £34.60 on the Stansted Express). However, if you have your heart set on the Stansted Express and are travelling with friends or family, you could save up to a third by booking a group ticket.
For other major UK airports, buses and coaches reign as the most affordable method of getting to the airport from a nearby city. In October 2023, credit card provider thimbl looked at the cheapest ways to get to 12 of the UK’s busiest airports.
It concluded that bus 43 from Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester was the least expensive way of getting to Manchester Airport; buses X1 or X2 from Moor Street in Birmingham were the cheapest ways to get to Birmingham Airport, and bus 500 from Liverpool One was the most affordable way to get to Liverpool Airport.
Book parking in advance
Booking in advance is one of the best ways to save money on airport parking. Holiday Extras recently found their customers saved an average of £191 per trip by pre-booking their parking. Hugo Loudon, chief financial officer of Holiday Extras said: “Even if the trip is a spur-of-the-moment decision, booking ahead by just a day will likely save you some money that can be spent on other important things like flights, hotels, and seeing the sights”.
Using Manchester airport’s official website, we compared the cost of a week’s mid-stay parking when booked a day in advance and four months in advance, and were given prices of £106.99 and £79.99 respectively.
Shopping around should also help you find better deals on parking. You can use comparison sites such as FHR, Holiday Extras, Airparks and TravelSupermarket, or go directly to national third-party providers like Purple Parking for quotes.
These websites often offer additional discounts if you sign up to a mailing list. Purple Parking, for example, offers new subscribers an extra 15 per cent off. Discount codes can also often be found on Martin Lewis’s Money Saving Expert website.
Remember your reusable water bottle
Rather than forking out for an overpriced bottle of water in the departures lounge or on the plane, remember to take an empty reusable bottle to the airport with you and fill it up at one of the free water stations – almost all UK airports now have them. If you’re worried about not having room in your hand luggage, think about investing in a collapsible bottle – there are some available for less than £10.
Pack your own food
Both airport vendors and airlines charge premium prices for food. A snack-size tub of Pringles will set you back three euros (£2.58) on a Ryanair flight compared to £1 at a typical Tesco supermarket, for example. So, taking pre-bought food or a homemade packed lunch to the airport is a great way to save on buying something to eatr airside.
While you can’t take liquids of more than 100ml through security, you can take your own solid food. If you plan to take food on the plane, you should
Sandwiches, crisps, chocolate bars and cakes are all okay. Just skip tubs of dips like hummus and salsa, pots of yogurt over 100ml, soups, and soft cheese, as these are classed as liquids. That said, some UK airports have a new generation of scanners in place that allows you to take containers holding liquid of more than 100ml through security.
Be aware that there are also rules that apply to taking food into other countries. You are not permitted to take any meat or dairy products with you from a non-EU country to an EU country, for example.
Sign up for airport rewards
If you can cope with a little more email traffic, it’s worth signing up for airport newsletters and/or joining airport accounts such as myGatwick. They’ll send you offers and discounts on everything from parking to airport lounges throughout the year. We signed up for Manchester airport’s newsletter and the next day we received an offer for 20 per cent off parking and airport lounges.