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Transport in Switzerland

Essentials

  • SBB is the federal rail service. Their website (and also app) covers the whole train network, and buses, boats, and cable cars from other companies too. It has timetables, ticket info, and pass info (you can even track your train). The phone app can also serve as a ticket itself. Though be careful with the prices, the default price it shows is always the half-price rather than full fare.
  • However it is sometimes better to look up the timetable for seasonal things like cable cars and boats on their own websites (eg: BLS boats on Brienzersee, or cable cars in the Aletsch region) as when they don’t run the SBB just gives a vague “can’t find the connection” notice.
  • If you want to be very flexible with standard tickets then using the SBB EasyRide or Fairtiq might be worth checking out so you can hop on and off, or change direction without worrying about set buying a ticket at the start.
  • Alternatives like cheap Flix-Bus style city-to-city coaches do not exist. They are trying to get in but the Swiss government is for better or worse keeping the system train dominated.
  • There are a confusing range of passes to choose from for public transport. I have a separate post which tries to make that a bit clearer.

General

  • Public transport will get you just about anywhere you could want to go. It is also beautifully synchronised so that when you get off the train your bus or boat will be waiting for you. Some places are a little awkward or slow to get to compared to driving (notably Gruyères) but mostly it is fine.
  • It is very easy to use. There is no need to reserve (other than the Glacier Express or the odd special train), tickets cost the same at any time of day regardless of how far in advance you buy them, there are no barriers or security to worry about slowing you down. Almost all buses and trains come with a screen showing the next stop(s). The timetable is for the most part the same everyday of the year for all but the most regional bus routes and the platform for each train is set and very rarely changes.
  • SBB staff at the ticket-office and on the trains will speak English. Bus drivers off the beaten path probably won’t. If it is touristy you will almost certainly be safe with English.
  • Trains generally lack a proper luggage area (or it is very limited). Using seats as somewhere to stick your suitcase is generally seen as fine if it isn’t too busy. But try and avoid rush-hour trains if you have a pile of bags to lug around, it won’t be fun.
  • Rush hour trains coming in/out of the cities, or going to the mountains on a Saturday/Sunday morning or back on a Saturday/Sunday afternoon can be very busy. If you have the luxury of time to play with then try and avoid those.
  • For a generally polite and considerate culture the Swiss are annoyingly bad at taking up a seat for themselves and the next for their bag. They will move the bag if asked, but you have to ask – no matter how obviously full the train is. They also don’t really queue to get on public transport. There is a certain art to pushing in on the line, but in such a polite way as to not be aggressive about it.
  • Swiss trains generally run better than just about anywhere but Japan. But connections can still be missed, especially on single-track mountain lines where one delay sets off a chain reaction. There have also been a few major derailments which shut down important stations in the last few years (though they were caused by Italian and German trains). Things will cock up from time to time, but they do work hard to fix it and have people on hand to ask for help.
  • Bigger stations have free Wifi.

Prices and passes

One of the eternal questions is what is more cost effective option as a tourist given only the few days. The only answer really is to make a rough plan of where you plan to go and over how long and then see how the costs compare via each option. I have written about them in this post. If you plan to do much travelling the full pass can easily pay for itself – my mum did a daytrip to St Gallen and the price saved from the 2hr trip each way and the free museums was a third of the price of the 15 day pass.

For the whole country:

  • Standard ticket. Same price regardless of when you buy it. Generally it is open-ended for use starting at 00:00 on the day it was purchased and valid through to 05:00 the next (I have heard you can get on and off as you like aslong as you keep going in the same direction and on the same day, which could save a few franks if visiting multiple places in a row – but double check that). Though regional lines might give you 90 minutes of use across a series of zones, in some cases you might need to validate it (but that is quite rare). Figure 20-40CHF per hour for travel on trains.
  • Supersaver ticket. Bought online or via the app (up to 1 hour before the train leaves). This limits you to a certain train at off-peak times, but it can reduce the price by 70%. You can (or could) combine this with the half-price card for twice the discount. There are a limited number available so you might find that there are not any for popular routes at short notice. Sometimes the 1st class tickets are even cheaper than the 2nd class tickets, so it can be worth checking both.
  • Half-fare card (120CHF per month). Does what it says on the tin, when buying a ticket select the half-price card option and save. This applies on trains, buses, boats and most cable cars. Combine it with the supersaver ticket for 75% savings. This is also a good idea (and MUCH cheaper) for those living or often visiting Switzerland, at 180CHF per year you would be mad not to have it as it can quick repay itself with a few train and cable car rides.
  • Swiss Pass (price varies with various factors. As a rough idea 75CHF per day for 3 days, 32CHF per day for 15 days). Expensive but convenient. Jump on just about any train, bus, tram, and boat without having to worry about buying a ticket. It covers a number of cable-cars too (including the otherwise expensive Schilthorn). A full map showing what is included can be picked up from the SBB or found here (long dashes are tunnels not sections where you must pay separately) the general rule of thumb is if there is a village you get there free – and what it doesn’t cover you get a discount for. It also includes entry to many museums for free too. The version for residents (General Abonnement) is much cheaper per day, but does not cover museums. However it might well pay for itself from the commute alone, making weekend trips a freebie.
  • You can buy a saver single day pass which gets cheaper the further in advance you buy it – down to 30CHF with a half-price pass or 50CHF without if you book 2 months in advance (but it is non-refundable).
  • If you live locally (or ask a local very nicely) you can get community day passes which are limited in number but give you a whole day of travel for 35-45CHF.
  • The SBB has a number of themed or seasonal trip offers with discounts
  • If you are in Switzerland in June/July then you can get 55CHF day passes from the Post. Typically these can be bought from early June and must be used by early July.

For certain regions

  • You can get regional travel passes which cover all transport and cable cars in specific areas (Eg: the Jungfrau region, or the Tell pass around Luzern). If you are spending a number of days purely in one area and plan to be active going up on cable cars then this could be well worth it.
  • To go into a bit more detail for example the Jungfrau travel pass for the region during the warmer months (April – October) which includes unlimited free rides on the public transport and mountain transport (but just an approx. 50% discount on Eigergletcher to Jungfraujoch, and 25% discount from Mürren to Schilthorn). The effective cost per day reduces with the length of the pass you buy from 60CHF to 38CHF (with 5-8 day passes unlocking further destinations around Interlaken for free). Though 8 days is rather overkill for such a small area. Even at the highest rate 60CHF isn’t too bad, a round trip up most of the mountain transport options will cost that much by itself so it would be easy to break even. During Ski season there is the Hiking and sledding pass which is even a bit cheaper. But does not cover many ski lifts, so like the name says it is suited to winter walking and sledding (or just scenic views). They have a useful price listing that includes round tours to help give you an idea of prices for comparison
  • Local tourist areas also tend to give Guest Cards for the duration of your stay in “official” accommodation (hotels, guest houses, etc). These offer free/discounted public transport, cable cars, and other activities/shopping in the area. Eg: Interlaken.

Forms of transport

  • Trains. Not just owned by the federal SBB there are a number of other companies but they all work together and integrate seamlessly to provide a fantastic user experience.
  • Mountain train. Your tiny and slow train which crawls up to Jungfraujoch, Gornergrat and numerous other high places. Passes give you a discount but never a full free ride.
  • Postbus. Distinct yellow buses which serve anywhere that the trains don’t. These are wonderfully friendly and relaxed – the drivers joke with the locals and sometimes you wait a few minutes whilst a friend of the driver runs to catch the bus. They are also generally pretty cheap for what you get given that some of them take you up really high and remote spots. There are even a few double-decker bus routes.
  • Boats are slow but scenic ways to get around. Often if you buy a ticket you can hop on and off as you like so long as you keep going in the same direction to your endpoint.
  • Intercity and long distance bus services do not exist beyond a few links from cities to other countries. Though Flix-Bus is fighting to be allowed in.
  • City transport is bus/trams. Zürich did think about building an underground but decided it was a rather pointless idea.
  • Biking/cycling is common all over the country in both city and countryside. There are a number of national and local routes.
  • Hiking is easy and the whole country is contected by almost endless footpaths.
  • There are even national (if a little limited) canoe and rollerblade routes.

Especially nice routes

I now have a whole post dedicated to scenic train rides.

  • The Bernina Express from Chur to Tirano. This is far too nice to just blow through, spend a few days hopping on and off.
  • The Glacier Express route. Again this is far better spent jumping on and off to see various places along the way – not least the Aletsch glacier which is so close but so far from the trainline. I would never want to do it as a single 8 hour trip.
  • St Gallen to Appenzell. I just love the Appenzellerland landscape and architecture.
  • Centovalli bahn. Connecting Locarno to Domodossola in Italy. Not the most dramatic but utterly charming.
  • The old Gotthard route via Gossenchen. The way it climbs and spirals and loops back on itself is wonderful and confusing the first time. This was the old Milan-Zürich line but it is now partly replaced by the Gotthard base tunnel so you see far less mountain. This is now done either as regional trains, or at weekends on the Gotthard weekender trains.
  • Lauterbrunnen to Kleine Scheidegg. If I could wipe an experience from my memory and relive it for the first time again it would be this.
  • Montreux to Luzern (Golden line). Super famous and touristy but for a good reason.
  • Lausanne to Montreux. Vineyards, lake and mountains.

Driving

I am far less of an expert here.

  • Your headlights need to be on at all times. If nothing else remember this.
  • You need a vignette to drive on the autobahns. Something like 40CHF per year with no shorter options.
  • Fines for speeding and other traffic offenses are seriously expensive (even by Swiss standards).
  • Expect busy roads going to/from the mountains at the weekends during summer and ski season.
  • A few major tourist spots are car-free (Zermatt, Wengen. Mürren) but there is parking at the transport connections next to them and you wouldn’t need (or want) to drive in them anyway.
  • Expect long-waits for the Gotthard tunnel at weekends and especially on Holiday weekends. Reporting the length of the queue at the Gotthard during holidays is part of Swiss culture.
  • The Swiss are generally considerate and calm drivers. Though being at the crossroads of Europe expect a mix of drivers from a number of different countries.

Hitchhiking

No idea. Probably as safe as it is going to get.


Random points

  • The Swiss train system was designed by the British, and so the trains drive on the left.
  • Fribourg has the best transport system, by virtue of every announcement being preceded by a heavenly harp chord.
  • Just about the whole country can do a daytrip to go skiing at the weekends. You need to watch out for ski poles and skis being swung carelessly around when changing trains during the winter.
  • Swiss men doing their military service are a common sight on Friday and Sunday afternoons. The sight of a carriage full of men in military outfits with a beer in one hand and a rifle in the other (unloaded) is slightly strange at first. On which note Sunday evening trains can be something of a busy nightmare – try and avoid travelling then.
  • Sometimes you will be stood on the platform and see a train transporting tanks and other serious military material around. This gives you the strange feeling that you are witnessing the prelude to an invasion of France or Germany.
  • The Gotthard base tunnel is a wonderfully exciting way to experience 20 minutes of darkness during the daytime. The fuss and excitement in the 2 years leading up to the opening was hard to believe.
  • On intercity trains the end cars are designated as family zones, this is mostly meaningless except in the double-decker trains where the top floor of the end cars is literally a playground.
  • Some people might defend the German DB as also being high quality. But who has the piss take song written about them.