Switzerland enjoys one of the densest rail systems in the world: It’s hard to find a place so remote that trains don’t go there, although there are a few. It’s also very efficient. And it’s also expensive, per mile, although well worth the price.
The Swiss system includes a mix of direct express servicers, some at least semi high-speed, extensive suburban and local networks around most cities, a large network of narrow-gauge lines, some rack-and-pinion, serving notable scenic routes and destinations, plus cog and cable systems to mountaintops, all linked with extensive commuter public boat systems on major lakes. Switzerland is really big on public transportation.
- Plan Your Trip
This isn’t the place even to start cataloging Swiss attractions and features. Cities, villages, mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes — whatever you want, you get it in Switzerland, with great food available wherever you decide to go. But unless you plan to stay in just one spot, you’ll want to travel around by train, so start by laying out a reasonable itinerary.
Pay particular attention to any of the four main long-haul scenic train trips you might want to take.
- The all-day Glacier Express narrow-gauge, partial rack-and-pinion trip, connecting St. Moritz with Zermatt by way of Brig, Andermatt, Disentis and Chur.
- The Bernina Express (my personal favorite) connecting Chur with Tirano, just across the Italian border.
- The Golden Pass route connecting Luzern with Montreux via Interlaken.
- The new Gotthard Panorama Express, covering the old and very scenic high-pass Gotthard line that express trains now bypass through the 40-mile Gotthard Base Tunnel.
If you’re at all interested in the scenic opportunities on Swill rails, make sure you cover the blockbuster segment between Chur and St. Moritz or Pontresina that is part of both the Glacier Express and Bernina Express routes.
- Lay out the Train Trips
Specify all the intercity the train trips you want to take, along with the length of stay between each trip. List the number of days you will be taking train trips and the total number of days you plan to remain in Switzerland.
- Price the Options
You have four different ways of arranging your Swiss rail travel:
- Buy a railpass
- Buy individual point-to-point tickets at regular prices that you can use on any train.
- Buy discounted point-to-point advance-purchase tickets that limit you to a specific train on a specific day.
- Buy a Swiss half-fare card — currently $128 — that allows you to buy individual tickets at half price.
- Do the Math
Price your trip using each of the four options. The best source of fare information is the official website of the Swiss railways. You will note that the default display for individual tickets shows the fares for folks who have half-fare discount cards — which is apparently how most Swiss travel. So unless you plan to buy a half fare card, you have to go as far as entering name and birth date before you can select the “no discount” box and correct the display.
Here’s a closer look at a specific trip, from Zurich to Lugano in second class on January 31. The first display says 33 chf (Swiss francs), corrected to 66 chf when you don’t have a half price card. But, if you check further, on some trips you find an option to buy a “Supersaver” ticket, valid on only the train/connection you select and nonrefundable; in my test, for 33 chf.
The Swiss website also displays railpass prices. Determine the least expensive pass that covers the trips you want to take within your time constraints.
Figure out which is optimum. If the results are at all close, a railpass can offer additional benefits of flexibility, along with discounts to a whole bunch of museums and attractions.
At some place along the line, you may want to consider first class. First class provides additional room and, on the new Gotthard Panorama Express, the only panorama cars are first class. But second class includes panorama cars on the Glacier and Bernina. First class in Switzerland is comparatively expensive, at about 60 percent more than second. Overall, both classes get the scenery, first gets it more comfortably. Your call.
The conclusion you reach for Switzerland does not apply to any other country, where the relative values vary dramatically, In Japan, for example, a railpass is a no-brainer for just about any trip you can imagine — even a trip that covers only a few main attractions in central Japan. In other countries, however, individual tickets or half-price deals look better. Fortunately, although the conclusions differ, the methodology works anywhere. Try it for your next destination.
— Ed Perkins, editor
For more travel tips from Ed Perkins, see our companion site Ed on Travel