Arriving somewhere new, navigating from the airport to the city can be daunting – especially when there is a language barrier. Generally travellers desire the most straightforward and hassle-free transfer – but that can come at a cost. This guide assumes you don’t want to stay near the airport, where many major hotel groups offer free shuttle services. We look at airport buses, trains, taxis and limousine services and we’ll be adding more cities over time.

New York City – JFK

NYC cabs

NYC cabs operate to a fixed fare from airports

When you live in Australia, like your humble blogger, flying to NYC is pretty much as far as you can go before you start coming back the other way. It’s a long flight and a trip made even longer by usually having to clear US immigration and customs at LAX and then hope you’re still in time for your connection.

As you’d expect in the US, there’s a plethora of hire cars and limousine services. If you look online you’ll see lots of them offering JFK transfers for less than the regulated NYC taxi fare of $52 plus tolls (and tip, but more on that later). Read the fine print – if your plane is late, your driver will wait for you, and the cost will skyrocket. Some companies offer 45 minutes’ complimentary waiting time for international flights and 30 minutes for domestic. Generally wait time outside this window is billed in 10-minute increments. The expected tip is 20 per cent of the fare.

There is also the ‘AirTrain’ at JFK. This is a bonus if you need to get around the airport, because it’s free within the airport confines. It’s also an extremely cheap way to get into Manhattan. Currently fares start at US$7.25 but, depending where in Manhattan you need to get to, you’ll need to transfer to a Subway train. If you’re toting luggage and particularly if you’re travelling in peak periods, you may decide it’s not worth the hassle.

If you’re looking at a bus transfer, the NYC Airporter runs every 30 minutes and has several drop-off points in Manhattan, including Grand Central and the Port Authority Bus Terminal (in midtown) and Penn Station (further downtown). Again, there are loads of private shuttles you can book. Greedy Girl booked one of these at Los Angeles several years ago – the driver circled the airport until he had a full van adding another 30 minutes to an already long commute into Beverly Hills. Be warned!

But it’s hard to go past the ubiquitous NYC yellow taxi that will drop you exactly where you need to be at a price you can bank on. Things to know:

  • only hail a taxi from the designated rank outside the arrivals area. You can’t ‘book’ yellow cabs in NYC, you can only hail them from a rank or on the street but if you try to go outside the rank system at JFK you risk copping a fair amount of abuse from the taxi controller and other commuters. You may also run the risk of hopping in a car that is not a genuine NYC cab and pay for the experience
  • know your cross street – a street number is virtually useless for taxi drivers in NYC. We stayed at the Grand Hyatt which was on 42nd and Lexington. Telling a taxi driver ‘109 East 42nd Street’ was useless information
  • tip your driver – you don’t want to aggravate a NYC cabbie. Trust me. Tips range from 10 to 20 per cent of the fare. 

London – Heathrow

London Underground

The Tube is the least expensive way to travel from Heathrow

In a city noted for its trains, Heathrow is extremely well serviced by both the Tube (Underground) and the Heathrow Express to Paddington station.

The express train, which costs a minimum of 20 pounds for a one way trip, will get you into central London in around 15 minutes. You will then need to get a connection with the Tube, take a bus, or get a taxi if need be. For tube or bus, you should purchase an Oyster card; single tickets on London public transport can be very expensive. Oyster can’t be used on the Heathrow Express train – you need a separate ticket for that.

Oyster is a smartcard that can be used on all London buses and trains. It requires a five pound deposit (which is refundable) plus the amount of your choosing that acts as a ‘pay as you go’ ticket when you swipe it on the readers. It’s a very worthwhile thing to have – London is a huge city and there are times when you won’t want to travel above ground because of the weather and the traffic, so being able to pop into your nearest tube station and whizz off wherever is a real bonus. Greedy Girl has had her Oyster card since 2007; like all her international smart cards, they reside in the interior pocket of her carry-on bag, ready to be brought out and topped up when required.

You can also buy an Oyster card online, have it pre-loaded with a designated amount of credit, and have it posted to your home address before you travel. Ticket windows are open whenever the Tube is running and you can also buy an Oyster from a vending machine at Underground stations. If you’re happy to pay for shipping and handling fees and prefer the security of knowing you can just jump on a train as soon as you arrive, then go for it.

The trip on the Tube to central London on the Piccadilly line takes the best part of an hour. Beware: this line was built over 100 years ago, has few lifts and lots of stairs.

London taxis are absolutely world-class. Driver knowledge is amazing and they’re a great spot for sitting back and taking in the sights. Get one from Heathrow airport though and you’re looking at a significant hole in your travel budget. The official Transport for London website estimates an average fare to or from Heathrow airport in the range of 45-83 pounds.

Greedy Girl knows of travellers who spent considerably more than that – and anyone who has driven into London on the M4 can attest how busy it can be. If you’d rather spend your budget doing rather more exciting things (like enjoying some of the absolutely spectacular food culture) then save taxi rides for when you really need them – a late night trip back to your hotel, a shorter trip from your hotel to a major train station (such as St Pancras, if you’re heading for a Eurostar connection).

Hong Kong

Hong Kong airport

Hong Kong’s airport express. Simply amazing

The Airport Express in Hong Kong was built specifically for the traveller. It’s fast, clean and offers the ability to check-in luggage at the station. What’s not to love? You can use either the Kowloon side or Hong Kong Island stations and transfers are available to a number of other stations on the MRT system. Fares to go to Kowloon station are currently HK$90 and HK$100 to Hong Kong station.

You may also choose to buy an Octopus smartcard which can be used on almost all public transport throughout Hong Kong, including the Star Ferry and the Peak tram – some taxis even accept Octopus! This remarkable card can also pay for purchases from some retailers. Check out the Octopus website here – it’s a brilliant option and you can buy it at the airport. Of course there are the usual taxi, hire car and bus shuttles available but when the train is this quick and convenient, it’s hard to go past it.

When Greedy Girl was last in Hong Kong, she caught a taxi to the train station from her hotel. The driver was not happy about the train; he wanted to drive the full way to the airport. If you’d prefer to take a cab, average fares are around HK$300.

Singapore’s SMRT system is a relatively recent phenomenon. It’s extremely good – with clean, frequent trains and new lines and stations being added all the time. It does run to Changi airport – but depending on which terminal you’re travelling from, may not be the most convenient option for you because you need to transfer to Terminal 1. It is not a direct service into the heart of Singapore – you will need to make at least one change. This is easier to manage in Singapore if you’re travelling with luggage than many other cities because virtually every station has lift and/or escalator access.

Changi airport is also very well serviced by a number of shuttle buses. Greedy Girl has never used them but most transport in Singapore seems relatively efficient.

Nowadays, our preferred option is just jumping in a taxi. The taxi rank in the terminal servicing  flights from Australia is just outside the arrivals hall. Taxis are plentiful and queues are worked through quickly and efficiently. The trip into Singapore is quick and cheap – around S$30.

Previously, we had booked private airport transfers which also worked quite well and weren’t outrageously expensive for a private car, until the inevitable happened – the flight was delayed, the baggage was even more delayed and when we emerged into the arrivals hall, no driver holding a little sign. They’d given up on us. Heated arguments by phone on trying to get the situation resolved proved absolutely fruitless. Trying to get a refund? Well, what an absolute joke. We couldn’t even get the provider to agree to take us back to the airport free of charge. There’s really no upside to going private when a taxi is quicker, cheaper and just as comfortable.


Paris Metro

You may have to make a number of changes on the Paris Metro

Both Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports are both well serviced by trains, buses, taxis and, of course, private transfers. Greedy Girl has used a combination of train and bus in making transfers previously and found them reasonably straightforward.

Again, if you have heavy luggage, it helps to have a hulking travel buddy because transferring from bus or airport train to the Metro system exposes you to lots of stairs.

Generally, Paris taxis are expensive and charge for a range of extras (see the blog Paris – tips for getting around for more information). A key tip if you choose an airport bus is that many of them don’t have a separate compartment for storing luggage so get on early and claim the available space.

Shanghai is a huge city and its Pudong airport is a long way from the heart of the action. Again, there are a number of standard options – several bus lines, taxis, hire cars and the train. If this is your first visit to Shanghai, Greedy Girl recommends paying a bit extra for a hire car transfer.

While Shanghai is a sophisticated city, English language skills by bus and cab drivers are not generally widespread. Taking the Maglev train is an adventure; it runs into one major central railway station in Shanghai and you can take a subway train from there to your hotel. A quick note about the Shanghai subway – it’s very easy to make transfers between lines, but it helps to know which exit is best once you need to head above ground. Near the Bund and in the Pudong financial district (home to lots of major hotel chains), the stations can be rather large and offer multiple exits.

If you decide to take a taxi, make sure you download one of the handy apps for your smartphone that allow you to enter an address in various languages and then translates it for you into characters. If you don’t have a smartphone, make sure you have your hotel or destination address written in characters.

Far and away the best airport transfers for both of Tokyo’s main airports is the train. This can present some issues if you arrive in Tokyo early in the morning.

Landing at Narita airport (now Tokyo’s second major hub) just as the 6am curfew had passed, you’re in for a bit of a wait if you don’t have a car booked – essentially the first of the Narita Express trains to the city runs at 7.30 and the first of the ‘Limousine Buses’ is even later.

Having said that, you’d need to be very sturdy of pocket to book a car transfer or take a taxi. Average cost for a car pick-up is around 23,000 yen and easily goes up from there. Taxis are also expensive and you are at the mercy of the meter ticking over steadily in a traffic jam.

We picked up a return Narita Express ticket with a Suica card that you can use on Tokyo’s buses and train network. This was an utter bargain for 5,500 yen – and that included 2,000 yen credit for use on the subway. Luckily, there was a ticket office open at the airport (not much else was) because the first attempts to use the ticket machines with an Australian credit card failed abysmally.

The Narita Express has many guises – on the way into Tokyo it made a number of stops and took more than an hour and a half. On the way back, however, it was a true express and went from Tokyo station to Terminal 2 in less than an hour. Trains (like a lot of things in Japan) run like clockwork. All seats on the Narita Express (or NEX) are reserved. Don’t worry about booking a ‘green car’ – effectively first class. The regular seats are comfy and very roomy.

Heading towards Haneda airport, now Tokyo’s busiest (and one of the busiest in the world) is also incredibly easy. You can just use your Suica card and take the Tokyo monorail from Hamamatsucho station – easily accessed through the subway system. It works out to be around 400 yen each way and takes about half an hour.

There’s a bewildering array of train lines and providers in Tokyo – don’t stress about it. There are two ‘smart card’ systems – Suica and Pasmo. Either can be used anywhere and they’re easy to top up by using machines at the stations – just check you have the right machine. It will have either Suica or Pasmo branding on it and where both can be topped up there will be directions to that effect.

The cards require a small deposit, which you can claim back by surrendering the card when you leave Tokyo. The subway and airport trains are too easy to use. Signs and announcements are in English and you can select an English option for the ticket machines too.

Sydney is in the enviable position of having an international airport within close proximity of the city itself. Having said that, airport transfers can be an expensive option. To deal with extremely congested traffic, a number of toll roads and tunnels have been built and the cost of these added to your fare can make a taxi ride into the city very expensive. The quality of taxis also varies considerably in Australia. Some drivers take pride in the service they offer and the cabs are clean, air-conditioned and, er, pleasant smelling but they appear to be in the minority. Taxi fares from the international airport should run around A$50 and from domestic, around A$40 (more for peak times).

You can also book a private car. Some offer flat fees (with a premium for potential delays built in) and others a fee plus a charge for waiting over a certain period. You’d be looking at around A$95 from the international terminal and A$80 from domestic.

The Sydney Air Bus offers a range of options, including family tickets. This can be a cheap option if you’re not in a hurry to get to your destination in the CBD.

The airport train from both the international and domestic terminals is not a designated service – it’s a regular suburban train that just happens to stop at these stations. The current one way fare (for an adult, concession fares are available) from the domestic terminal to the city is A$15.90. From the international terminal, it’s A$16.70. If you need to transfer from international to domestic (or vice versa) you can do so on the train for $5. This is handy to know if your airline doesn’t offer a shuttle.

The train to and from the CBD is reasonably quick – about half an hour but again, the standard of train on this route varies considerably. Some are air-conditioned, others are not. Some offer limited space for travellers with luggage. At peak times, being a standard commuter train, they can be very crowded.

Melbourne airport has its domestic and international terminals in the same building so if you arrive on an international flight and have an onward domestic connection, it’s a breeze. City transfers, however, are limited and expensive.

There is no train link to Melbourne airport. The idea of providing one has been discussed and shelved pretty much ever since the airport was opened in 1970 but with passenger numbers growing at a solid rate, getting in and out of the airport can be a time-consuming and frustrating experience – particularly when travelling at peak times.

You have the choice of taxi, hire car, private car or a range of buses/shuttles. An average taxi fare from the airport to the CBD is currently A$55. Hire cars have a range of fees but you should expect to pay no less than A$75. Private cars are a great option if you can convince someone to give you a lift but the short-term car park at the airport is also pricey. Say your farewells in the car and get them to drop you at the departure level.

SkyBus has a mortgage on bus transfers from Melbourne airport and the current cost for a one-way ticket starts at A$17. There are also several smaller shuttle providers.

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