Travelling From London To Glasgow: British Airways vs. Virgin Trains

This year, I started traveling between London and Glasgow fairly regularly. In this article, I will compare and contrast the journey between these two UK cities by high-speed rail operated by Virgin Trains, and the plane journey by British Airways from London Gatwick and to London Heathrow.

virgin train british airways plane
Virgin Trains and British Airways both have over a dozen daily services between London and Glasgow. Photo: Chris McKenna via Wikimedia / Tom Boon / Simple Flying

Other ways of traveling between London and Glasgow

Apart from Virgin Trains and British Airways, a few other options are available for travel between London and Glasgow so I shall get them out of the way first, with reasons why I do not tend to choose these options.

First, there is the Caledonian Sleeper: an overnight sleeper service that runs six times a week. This option is inconvenient for me as I would lose one whole night on traveling, and far too inflexible to combine with work commitments given that it has just one daily departure.

Then there is the British Airways CityFlyer service between London City and Glasgow, which is tempting because of the far larger legroom BA has on its Embraers than its Airbus aircraft. But City Airport is trickier to reach by public transport than Gatwick or Heathrow, and flights departing for Glasgow from City tend to be far more expensive for Friday evening – Sunday afternoon return journeys.

There is also National Express, which is by far the cheapest option. It would cost me less than £6 with my Coachcard, but the journey takes far far too long to justify a weekend trip.

And lastly, there are easyJet flights from Luton, Stansted and Gatwick. While I generally like easyJet, they have a pretty poor on-time performance record on their evening flights. Their turnaround time is so short that any delay on their aircraft at any point in the day has an instant knock-on effect on the flight I would be taking with them late in the evening. British Airways have far more generous turnaround times and more capacity to reassign aircraft to different routes, and so I have never actually been delayed with them.

london at night
The view from the plane: London at night. Photo: Jakov Fabinger, Simple Flying

 

scotland train
The view from the train: Scotland through the window. Photo: Jakov Fabinger, Simple Flying

The journey itself

london euston to glasgow central
The full journey between London Euston and Glasgow Central takes 4.5 hours. Photo: Screenshot via Google Maps
ba flight to glasgow london
The actual flight duration between Gatwick or Heathrow and Glasgow is an hour. Photo: FlightRadar24

The flight is far shorter than the train journey, but this is obviously deceptive. On my last flight out of Gatwick, we waited 20 minutes for the runway to clear of landing aircraft before we could take off. That was as long as a third of the flight time. Taxiing after landing at Heathrow can sometimes take even longer, depending on which runway the aircraft lands on and how far this is from Terminal 5.

Next, reaching Gatwick Airport or even Heathrow by public transport will in most cases take longer than reaching London Euston. In fact, when I used to travel to Gatwick from North London I had to pass through St Pancras, which is right next to Euston.

Perhaps most importantly, if you end up arriving late for your train you simply hop on the next service, which is never more than an hour away in the afternoons. If you are late for your flight, you have a serious issue. This flexibility is even more of an advantage if you find yourself arriving early to the train station, and manage to catch an earlier train. At no extra cost. I managed this several times, especially if the train before the one I was due to take was delayed.

virgin trains empty seats
Empty seats on the train are yours to take if you miss the earlier train. Photo: Jakov Fabinger, Simple Flying

Also, Virgin Trains closes the doors of the high-speed train two minutes before departure. That means you only have to enter Euston station at 17:26 to catch a train departing at 17:30. Compare this against the recommended time of arrival to the airport for domestic flights of two hours before your flight!

Taking the train also eliminates all the hassle of security checks, which cuts time and gives you more freedom to take things with you. Like water! Or all the whiskey you purchase in Scotland that you wish to take down to London without having to pay extra, as you would for hold luggage if you were flying.

BA A320
The load factor for this late Friday evening flight from Gatwick to Glasgow was some 98%. Photo: Jakov Fabinger, Simple Flying

Prices

If you are buying many months in advance, it is definitely worth getting the plane. easyJet sells tickets from Glasgow to London for as low as £22 for both Stansted and Luton. British Airways tickets start from £32 for flights to Gatwick and £37 for Heathrow.

Flights used to be priced in single digits when Ryanair used to fly between London and Glasgow, but this is no longer the case.

Advance train tickets from Euston to Glasgow will sell for as low as £19.80 (e.g. Friday 1 November, with a railcard). But these tickets are not available for purchase more than two and a half months in advance. They are also daytime tickets on workdays, so the Friday night / Sunday afternoon equivalents tend to be more pricey.

google flights glasgow heathrow
Ticket prices for my Sunday evening flight from Glasgow to Heathrow began climbing exponentially a month before the flight, going from £37 to near £400 one-way. Photo: Screenshot, Google Flights

Purchasing a weekend return train ticket just before departure will cost you £90 with a railcard. This is far cheaper than plane tickets, which British Airways pushes up to as high as £400 one-way on the day of departure. The return journey for this weekend would cost an incredible £537 if purchased on Friday morning for a LHR-GLA flight on Friday at 21:30 and GLA-LHR on Sunday at 18:25.

Onboard service

Whether you are flying easyJet, British Airways or taking Virgin Trains, you have to pay for food and drinks. Unless, of course, you are flying in BA Club Europe.

If I am keen to eat and drink during the journey, Virgin Trains is my preferred option. The onboard shop has a wider selection of hot drinks, hot food and cold snacks (and fruit!) than either British Airways or easyJet do. It is also easier to bring your own food onboard for consumption.

virgin trains legroom
Virgin Trains’ legroom is pretty tight for a 5-hour journey, especially if you are not sitting by yourself. Photo: Jakov Fabinger, Simple Flying

 

british airways legroom
British Airways legroom is even worse, but just about adequate for a one-hour flight. Photo: Jakov Fabinger, Simple Flying

WiFi is free and available to all on Virgin Trains, unlike on British Airways or easyJet. But be warned: streaming is not allowed and the speed is fairly slow. I was once on a delayed train where the WiFi was not working at all.

Compensation

Perhaps the best thing about taking the train is that the refund policy is more generous.

For flights, you must be delayed for three hours to claim compensation. You can claim a refund of your full ticket for delays above five hours.

With Virgin Trains, after I once arrived 60 minutes late I got refunded the full ticket price. If the delay had been 30 minutes I would have been compensated a third of my ticket, and if it had been late two hours I would even have been refunded even for the return ticket.

The judgment

So – ultimately – what do I recommend? My choice is the flight, with British Airways. And here is why:

  1. The Avios earned. I got 250 Avios for the Gatwick-Glasgow flight. When I flew Heathrow-Munich I only got 125.
  2. The effort that British Airways puts into on-time performance. I have never been late with them, only early. Granted, I have always been lucky with the weather, but I only ever take flights late in the evening so I am amazed never to have had even a slight delay.
  3. Virgin Trains is more prone to delays, either because signal failures or slow trains being queued in front of their fast service (neither of which they can control), or for their internal issues like the driver needing a break (which delayed us by an hour!) or the train breaking down mid-journey and needing a reboot (no kidding).
  4. Flying is more fragmented: the travel to the airport, the wait, the security, the boarding, the flight, the walk out of the airport, the taxi to the destination… This makes the 6-hour trek from England to Scotland seem shorter and far less painful than being seated in the same seat for five hours. The exception is if you are one of those people who can fall asleep easily. In this case, the train is definitely for you.

What do you think? Would you rather fly or take the train? Let us know in the comments.

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Max

I don’t really trust BA or Virgin as a brand so I would probably hop on an easyJet flight.

Eolosbcn

We’ll I put this discussion in the country I live and I choose train for sure. Let’s say Barcelona to Madrid, 621km and 2h30 in train always in time.

And nearly 4.5h London to Glasgow is a fast train but I don’t think it deserves to be called high speed.

Mark Scott

What is it about us folk in English speaking countries avoiding proper fast rail? Queensland has the fastest regular train in Australia (at a Max of 160kmh on narrow gauge of all things) meanwhile, Canberra to Sydney, which is just over 300km albeit on a 19th Century line, is 4 hours 30m. North America are trying…kind of. All very slack.

Dennis

Might be a silly question, but what about driving? I seriously want to know what it’s like to drive between London and Glasgow and you didn’t mention it.

Darren

Just to add a little service you missed out, Loganair now fly between Glasgow and London Southend and I have used this service regularly since it’s inception. Their one way fares start at £39.99 and for that you get 20kg luggage and an inflight snack plus a cuppa/coffee or soft drink included. The planes are tiny at max 49 passengers which might put some off but I find it perfect as there’s fewer passengers and they have a row of single seats for a single traveller. Staff are always great and the fact it’s like a private jet you’re off… Read more »

Riccardo

Here in Italy, for a trip like this, the train would be the best choice by far. One example: Milan – Naples, almost 700 km in 4h 15m. It took 20 years of heavy investments, with Apennines forcing the railway network to dig costly tunnels, but the benefits are finally evident to everybody.

Tom

LCY trickier to reach by public transport? It’s got its own DLR station! 25 minutes direct train to Bank, or most of central London is just one change of train away (London Bridge 25 minutes, King’s Cross, Victoria and most of the West End 40 minutes). The change from DR to Jubilee at Canning Town is especially easy. Also don’t forget catering is still complimentary on BA CityFlyer flights: hot bacon roll or fresh fruit salad and yogurt at breakfast, and snacks and drinks for the rest of the day. Practically every passenger is knocking back a free G&T on… Read more »

stu

No mention from anyone here about impact of flying vs train for the climate. Why is that?

Tom Boon

Hey Stu, We’ve covered this in previous articles on the same subject.