Guide to Train Travel in Switzerland
The rail network in Switzerland is world class: punctual, comfortable and efficient; it is a sleek, stylish way to travel and outstandingly user-friendly. The world-famous Glacier Express and Bernina Express trains are only the most famous of a vast family of routes that hook over, scale around and disappear through Switzerland’s spectacular mountains. I have recently returning from travelling by train around this spectacular country, here is what I learnt from my trip:
Getting to Switzerland
The best way to get to Switzerland is to catch the Eurostar to Paris and connect to the high speed Lyria TGV service, which will get you to Geneva and Basel in 3 hours 30 minutes, Lausanne in around 4 hours and to Zurich and Bern in under 5 hours. Trains for Geneva, Lausanne and Bern leave from Gare de Lyon and those for Bern and Geneva use Gare de l'Est. Return Eurostar fares to Paris start from £69 in second class and £189 in first class and tickets for onward journeys into Switzerland start from £50 to Basel, Geneva and Bern, and form £68 to Zurich.
Travelling within Switzerland
This is where it gets a little trickier, but only because the Swiss Travel System has formulated some excellent passes and multi-journey tickets to suit whatever travel combination you come up with. In Switzerland most train, bus and boat routes are included in the Swiss Travel Network but there are also some shorter private lines, principally in the mountains.
A range of Family Cards (for travel with parents) and Junior Travelcards can be purchased, which allow children under the age of 16 to travel for free.
The Swiss Pass: this allows you unlimited travel on consecutive days within the Swiss Travel Network, the use of trams and buses in 37 cities and a 50% reduction on tickets for most mountain trains and cable cars. There are a number of periods of validity: 4, 8, 15, 22 days or a month. For two or more adults travelling together there is an additional 15% discount on booking and children travelling accompanied by a parent with a Swiss Pass go free. A Youth Swiss Pass is available for people under the age of 26, with a 25% reduction from the full price.
The Swiss Flexi-Pass: This pass is valid for travel on 3, 4, 5 or 6 days within a month. On the days (within the month) that you haven't chosen to use your pass you are entitled to a 50% reduction on train, bus and boat fares as well as on most mountain connections. Just like the Swiss Pass, on days of travel you can use bus and tram services in 37 cities and children go free with a parent. In the same way, if you're travelling with more than one person then you are entitled to 15% reduction on Swiss Flexi-Pass. I used the Flexi-Pass for a great trip in 2008 when I hopped between ski resorts on the 4 day pass, allowing a friend and I to make the most of bad weather by travelling on days when we had an excuse not to head up the mountain!
Swiss Transfer Ticket: this entitles you to one return journey from your first Swiss train station to any destination in Switzerland so long as the return leg is completed within a month. Again children travel free when accompanied by a parent.
Swiss Card: this multi-ticket offers you the same benefits as the Swiss Transfer ticket and 50% discounts on other tickets during your trip, and is valid for a month. There is also a 15% reduction for couple or group purchases.
Swiss Half-Fare Card: valid for a month, this entitles you to a 50% reduction on trains, buses and train and most mountain trains and cable cars.
Whilst I’ve covered the main ticket types, there is an array of other tickets, passes and reductions available for train (and other) travel within Switzerland – including straightforward single fares. If you want to explore what the other ticket options may be, the helpful staff at ticket offices in the country’s train stations are there to help you choose the right one for you.
Travelling with bikes and other luggage
On the train you can take your bike for free if it is bagged, whilst for fully assembled bicycles you will need to buy a separate ticket that costs between 5 to 10 Swiss Francs depending on the length of your journey. Not all trains let you take bikes (bagged or assembled) so if you are unsure check for 'VT' (bagged bikes not allowed) or the bike logo for assembled bikes (or ask in advance at the ticket office). Travelling by bus with a bicycle is easier because there are hooks at the back of the vehicle from which you can hang your bike during the journey with a bicycle ticket. Bike tickets are valid for the day on buses and trains so you don't need to worry about getting separate tickets for different legs of a journey.
There's never a problem with skis and normal-sized luggage, so you can take as much as you want but remember that you'll have to carry it yourself.
The easiest way to buy and compare ticket prices is to handle your journey in 2 or 3 legs, 3 legs if you are continuing your journey after arriving at a major city on the Lyria TGV. For the London - Paris leg book through Eurostar up to 90 days before your departure date to seek the cheapest tickets and to buy Lyria TGV tickets go to TGV Europe. If you need to make one more journey to get to your destination beyond Bern, Basel, Zurich or Geneva you have two options: you can either buy The Swiss Transfer Ticket or purchase return tickets upon arrival in Switzerland from your first train station. This Swiss Transfer Ticket makes sense when your final leg is a major part of you journey but go to SBB (Swiss Federal Railways) to see whether it would be cheaper to buy specific tickets. Alternatively you can book tickets for the whole journey through Rail Europe.
Check the Swiss Travel System's Price Overview of multi-journey tickets in Switzerland.