Take Flight: A Quick Guide to Air Travel into the UK

Life in the UK
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The first step to taking flight is to book your flight tickets. Nowadays, we can do this online directly with the airline. You can go through Expedia or Booking.com for flight deals but you might be tied in to late/early flight times, long layovers, or inflexible flight changes later. Skyscanner is a great site that lets you compare available flights and fares to almost every destination in the world and lists just about every airline service provider.

There is an abundance of services to the UK, since it is such a popular destination for tourists, business, and students. Sometimes, picking a provider is like a game of trial and error. At a glance, rankings give us a quick idea, like one below by SKYTRAX:

Top 5 Airlines 2017

1.       Qatar Airways

2.       Singapore Airlines

3.       ANA

4.       Emirates

5.       Cathay Pacific

Our personal favourites are Qatar or Singapore Airlines for their onboard service and general flying experience. Some of the criteria could be customer service, flight specifications like the seat sizes and meal options, after-sales service, and layover interval.

While a cheap flight deal is attractive, you need to consider also the layover time, if you have enough time to get to your next gate or if you will be spending four hours lounging around the airport. For instance, Emirates connects in Dubai with a 2-4-hour layover and the second flight is 7 hours long. The first flight from an Asian country is about 5-8 hours long and 3-5 hours long from an African country. Meanwhile, KLM does a 2-hour layover in Amsterdam and another 2-hour flight into UK. This means the first flight is much longer than 10 hours if you're flying in from Asia or Africa. British Airways flies direct to London but you end up with a 13-hour journey, no breaks.

You might be flying into London Heathrow, London Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, or Edinburgh as a student entering the UK to get to your university.


Image Source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2249939/The-UKs-busiest-airports.html

Below are some know-hows on four of UK's busiest airports receiving the most students into the UK. These airports host flights to EU countries and the rest of the world on scheduled and charter flights (charter flights are the ones where you book your package holiday, although some do offer flights only). Students looking to travel to neighbouring European cities like Paris, Rome, and Copenhagen can find flights from EasyJet and RyanAir – budget airlines popular for cheap fares.


London Heathrow is the busiest international airport in the world, with more than 90 airlines flying to over 170 international destinations. If your destination is the city of London, you're likely to arrive at one of its five main terminals. Navigating the airport is not too challenging since Terminals 1,2 & 3 are connected by walkways, with Terminals 4 & 5 accessible via an express free train service. 

Since 1988 Gatwick Airport has had north and south terminals, but only one runway. It is the busiest single runway airport in the world, the second busiest airport in the UK (after London Heathrow), and ranks in the top ten busiest airports in Europe. Once best known as the airport for holidays and charter flights, Gatwick Airport is now a major hub for scheduled services, which now account for over a quarter of the passengers who pass through this airport. Over 80 different airlines operate from Gatwick Airport, serving around 200 destinations around the world and is an alternative port of arrival to Heathrow for some airlines like Emirates.


Manchester Airport is the largest airport in the North of England and the 12th busiest in the world. It has three terminals and is home to over 95 airlines which handle over 23 million passengers every year. Most passengers heading North and to the Midlands of UK tend to fly to Manchester instead of the London airports. It is more central to other cities in UK and less busy than the London airports, though approval to build a second runway means Manchester is expected to become the UK's second busiest airport over the next 15 years.


Serving mostly the Midlands of the UK, Birmingham International Airport is located 10.2 km east of Birmingham in Solihull. It is the sixth busiest airport in the UK, handling over ten million passengers a year. Obviously, you can fly to many other places in the world from Birmingham, linking up with other airlines and destinations from and to other cities. While smaller than the first three on this list, the services offered here are still on par and not to be disregarded either.

Source: http://www.ukairportguides.co.uk/

The most important part to pre-travel is packing your luggage. The UK can be quite strict on what you are allowed to bring in and out of the country. You don’t want to be blacklisted for accidentally packing something you're not meant to. As a general rule, avoid:

-          items that can carry viral strains (raw meat/fish, plants or fruits above a certain weight, live animals),

-          restricted goods (drugs in large volumes),

-          items with value above £270

-          large amounts of cash

If your items get taken away and you feel that it is unjustified, you can ask for your things back or take it to court. For the full list, follow this government link.

When it comes to the actual travelling, as a foreign national, you need to always have your travel documents ready. This is your passport and visa (a sticker vignette in your passport if it’s your first flight to UK; your BRP if you're a current student). At the airport, we recommend you keep your flight booking or tickets in a folder with said passport and visa – accessible easily to you for going through security checks. Doing this ensures you get through ID checks without unpacking your bag every time searching for your documents and makes it easier for the officers. They'll be nicer to you in return!

Now this one is for the new generation: self-check in kiosks! Flights usually allow you to check-in online 48 hours before your flight or more depending on the airline. Should you forget, you can still skip the extremely long and needless check-in queue at the airport counters. Just use the self-check-in stations most large airports are equipped with. The only airlines who don't practice this are budget carriers like RyanAir, who insist that customers check in online before their flights. Then, simply drop off your checked baggage, verify your travel documents, and strut off like you're on the runway.

The second part to these checks are the customs checks. After you've checked in your big luggage, you'll usually be left with a cabin bag and a handbag/backpack/laptop bag. These need to be screened and the process can be tedious and frustrating if you're not prepared to breeze through. Some do's and don'ts are:

DO get to the airport early so you can clear customs quickly. Usually, the earlier you are, the less likely you will be held up at customs check. The queues can be long as everyone on every flight is going through the same screening. You don't want to miss your flight because you were stuck behind someone who didn't follow the next few tips.

- DO put all your liquids (makeup, gels, water bottle, medicine) in one 1L clear zip-lock bag. You could essentially have 10 100ml bottles of water in the zip-lock bag (if you can fit them) and get through but one big 1L bottle of water will hold you up. Also, you can have as many containers of liquids in that 1L bag but each container must be 100ml or less in volume. Even if there's 50ml in a 130ml bottle, they will take your items and trash it. 

- DO put all your electrical cables and items in a single pouch for screening and take your laptop/iPad out of its case beforehand. It goes into a screening bucket and you save time taking them out, arranging them, and putting them back if it's all in one place.

- DON'T wear a belt or complicated shoes/jackets or hats. You'll have to take them off and go through the body scanner multiple times for each item you didn't take off. 

- DON'T carry sharp items that can be construed as weapons. Screwdrivers, Swiss knives, nail clippers, tweezers, toy guns, and such items. There's no negotiation here. You'll never see them again so chuck them into your checked luggage.

- DON'T kick up a fuss at being held up should it happen. The whole process will pass a lot smoother if you keep calm!

You can register for premium security screening at some airports like at Heathrow or Birmingham Airport, but the fees are usually extravagant and so not worth it. Instead, keep calm and plan ahead.

Another thing that trips up many fliers is the baggage allowance. Buying extra checked baggage allowance – the ones you drop off at a counter and claim back at the rotating carousel – can be expensive if you don't buy ahead or if you go over the weight allowance. Airlines are quite strict about sticking to the limit – 23kg is the standard, but Emirates exceptionally allows 30kg per passenger. If you're concerned you've overpacked, there are weighing machine stations at the airport for you to check your bag's weight before queueing at the counter. As mentioned above, you're not allowed sharp items or liquids over 100ml onboard but you can check them in with your bags so be sure to pack them in the right suitcase.

While taking a cabin bag onto the flight with you is optional, we recommend you do; and pack a change of clothes and shoes in them, among other things. A travelling student needs all the luggage space you can get since you're leaving home for the first time for a very long time and will be bringing many things with you. Don't be anxious if your bag gets selected to be opened and checked at customs. Sometimes it's a random selection and other times it's because there's just some ionic charge on your bag that gets picked up by the x-ray scanner mistakenly. Be mindful though when you're moving about with your luggage: never leave your bags out of sight, even if it's to get sugar for your coffee. Other than that, a cabin bag is really handy in case your checked bags get lost, held up or you have a long flight ahead. 

After a long and sleepy flight, you will have hopefully arrived at your destination. Entering the UK, you will encounter Border Force who will stamp your passport and check your documents to allow you entry. Before anything else, make sure you fill in a landing card. Flight attendants do hand these out onboard but they are also available before you have to queue for Border Force. These are later processed by Border Force officers so make sure the details are accurate. The queues can be long for non-European passengers so be prepared to wait at least 30 minutes to be served. You could fill out the landing card in this time, or get onto airport free Wi-Fi – blessedly available at most all airports in the modern 21st century. 

Now is a good time to check that your CAS, TB cert and accommodation itinerary are among your documents folder with your passport and ticket stubs. If you're staying at a hotel first or moving into university accommodation straight away, it's advisable to print out any bookings that list the address of your lodging. They just need to know you won't be homeless and planning to skip town later. Here's a quick guide Border Force compiled for students arriving in the UK.

Next, you will shuffle on to pick up your previously check bags at Baggage Reclaim. Check which belt you should wait at following your flight number. This may take some time as the airport staff are working to unload some 1,000 bags. Should your luggage not have been released after everyone seems to have collected theirs, it could have been left behind in transit, when changing planes. No need to worry because the Lost Baggage staff get on it after you fill out a form with your bag details. They aim to trace and return it to you by mail within 21 days. If you have left property on the plane then you will need to contact the airline you travelled with to track your items. If you find your luggage has been damaged due to rough handling or the airline's negligence, the airport has a station where you can get a replacement luggage if you are able to prove the fault lies on the airline. If they fail to do so, you can claim compensation for your items. Do not leave the baggage reclaim area before you have resolved the problem.

Once you've got your stuff together and you're gunning to get into the city, you'll be thinking of how to get there. In the UK, there are many options: coach, airport bus, train, Uber…the list goes on. Your best option depends on how many people are travelling with you and how many bags you've got. How cost effective would a private Uber rate against crowding with other public transport riders? If you're in a big group, you can split the cost of a cab or car rental and drive direct to where you're going. Popular rental services like Rent-A-Car, Enterprise, and Hertz have booths just before the airport exit where you can pick up your keys if you booked in advance, and where you can go to make a new booking. If you're sharing a cab with someone you've just met at the airport, in the name of cost-splitting, the Uber app lets you Fare Split with the other person so you don't have to figure out spare change on your first arrival.

Most universities will arrange a pick-up service for international students, so make sure you keep an eye out for how to book your place. You'll recieve an email over the next few weeks asking you to reserve a seat. It's well worth it as you will get the early opportunity to meet fellow students and university representatives, and it is usually free! If your university has arranged an airport pick-up, watch out for the student ambassadors who will usually be wearing university-coloured sweaters. 

While the tips above are mostly for first-time fliers, we also have a guide for returning students. The key things to have with you are your BRP and passport, really. Now that you are traveling with less luggage than last year, and are more familiar with UK airport culture, you can take things a bit easier and move at your own pace. There's no more rush to get to your university accommodation or hunt down a cab if you're accustomed to airport buses. Instead, maybe look around you for fellow university juniors who seem to be a little lost on their first trip. Offer them a hand with navigating a new city and show them how a seasoned flier carries oneself.

Safe travels!

If you have any further questions or queries about travelling to the UK, contact Team AppUK on info@applicationuk.com, or request our pre-departure handbook.

ApplicationUK's easy-to-use online application portal provides a simple solution to postgraduate application stress. With its smart digital self-assessment tool, personalised application plan, and application tracking system, you can be rest assured that your application will go through smoothly. Our experienced counsellors are also here to provide expert advice, reassurance, and continuous support.


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