The Ultimate Guide to Riding Swiss Trains
Trains are an essential part of any visit to Switzerland. Thank England: Many of the routes were designed ages ago by British engineers to highlight the country’s stunning landscapes, and even today new routes and excursions are added periodically.
As a Swiss train rounds a bend, passengers are often faced suddenly with a stunning waterfall, a view of the Alps in the Bernese Oberland, or a deep glacial valley dotted with small farms and herds of dairy cows. There are even special excursions that offer gorgeous vistas in train cars that have panoramic windows, like the Glacier Express, the GoldenPass Line and the Bernina Express. Riding any of these is a spectacular experience.
The challenge, of course, is cost. The website for Swiss trains can be confusing, even for someone like me who lives in Switzerland part of each year. It's taken me quite some time to figure out the best value, but now I'm passing on what I've learned to you.
The Glacier Express. Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images.
Swiss Travel Pass
Start with the top tier: You can buy a first-class or second-class train pass — the Swiss Travel Pass — for three, four, eight or 15 days. This pass also grants you admission to more than 500 museums and exhibitions. The passes are good for almost all public transportation, including city trams, and offer discounted fares on certain mountain cable cars. These are great passes for people who want to travel several places in Switzerland.
Prices range from 765 CHF (about $730) for 15 days on first-class transportation for one adult to 485 CHF ($465) for 15 days on second-class transportation for one adult. Prices are lower, of course, for passes that grant fewer days, with the lowest being the three-day pass, which is 358 CHF ($350) for one adult on first-class transportation and 225 CHF ($220) for one adult on second-class transportation. Bonus: Children from 6 to 15 travel free with a complimentary Family Card if accompanied by at least one parent.
Each of the passes is also priced lower for those under 26, if purchased independently of parents. For those between 16 and 26, prices range from a three-day pass for 305 CHF ($300) in first class and 192 CHF ($190) in second class to a 15-day pass for 652 CHF ($625) in first class and 416 CHF ($400) in second class.
Swiss Travel Pass Flex
Say you aren’t planning to travel all over Switzerland and instead plan to stay in one place with perhaps one or two excursions. There are other options, though they're not always cheaper.
The Swiss Travel Pass Flex gives travelers access to transportation on three, four, eight or 15 non-consecutive days within a single month. Prices range from 412 CHF ($400) for three days for one adult in first class and 259 CHF ($250) for three days in second class to 840 CHF ($805) for 15 days in first class for one adult and 532 CHF ($510) for 15 days in second class. The Swiss Travel Pass Flex also grants access to the same museums and exhibitions as the Swiss Travel Pass. Ultimately, the Swiss Travel Pass Flex is more a matter of convenience than saving money.
Swiss Half Fare Card
Saving money, but not a lot, is the Swiss Half Fare Card. For 120 CHF (a little over $120), you get unlimited half-price access to all transportation and some cable cars. It's good for one month. This is a great possibility if you're staying in one place.
Half-Fare travelcard on SwissPass
Swiss and EU citizens have other options, like 185 CHF for a Half-Fare travelcard via a pre-existing SwissPass for one year. It's confusingly named, but it's distinct from the Swiss Half Fare Card above.
Swiss and European citizens are also eligible for various annual passes that can run into the thousands of Swiss francs.
Swiss Transfer Ticket
Finally, there is the Swiss Transfer Ticket, which allows you to transfer from any Swiss airport or border station to your destination and back. The ticket is valid for one month and costs 247 CHF ($240) for one adult on first-class transportation and 154 CHF ($150) for one adult on second-class transportation.
The Swiss passes can be purchased online in the US, and (with the exception of the Half-Fare travelcard on SwissPass and Swiss-specific offers) are only available for people who aren't residents of Switzerland or Liechtenstein. You can also buy them at airport train stations.
Once you have a pass, you usually don't have to reserve seats except on some of the panoramic journeys. Whatever you do, don't board a train without a ticket. Many trains in Switzerland don't have full-time conductors, operating instead on an honor system buttressed by random checks. If you are caught without a ticket, the fines are steep.