By Rick Steves
Are rail passes a good value for Switzerland?
Rail passes are almost always a smart buy for Switzerland, with its fairly high pay-as-you-go ticket costs and excellent transportation system. Switzerland-only passes are a particularly good deal, as they cover nearly all transport in Switzerland — not only trains, but buses, boats, and many high-mountain lifts — and come in a variety of permutations. Choosing among them needn't be daunting: Just select the rail pass that best matches the area and number of travel days in your travel plans.
How do I see whether a rail pass makes sense for my trip in particular?
Train Fares: Switzerland
Map shows approximate costs, in $US, for one-way, second-class tickets. For first-class fares, add 50 percent.
Use this map to add up approximate pay-as-you-go fares for your itinerary, and compare that cost to the price of a rail pass for the number of days you expect to spend on the train. Also, follow the links below for:
• More tips for figuring out whether a pass makes sense for your trip
• The basics on choosing among rail passes
• More tips on how to save hjmoney by fine-tuning your rail pass
• Advice on deciding between first and second class
• Fare-estimate maps outside Switzerland
• Answers to frequently asked rail-pass questions
Choose one of the passes below to check prices and to buy your pass (orders are fulfilled by Rail Europe).
Note that if you're opting for a single-country Swiss Travel Pass, or a Eurail Global Pass, you'll need to choose between a continuous pass or flexipass when ordering.
Extra tip: A few more deals for Switzerland are also available, but unless they match your needs exactly, one of the passes above is likely to be a better deal.
Do I need to make seat reservations on Swiss trains?
For the most part, you can hop on nearly all Swiss trains with just your rail pass in hand. Designated scenic routes (those with names, such as the Glacier Express), and some international trains (such as to/from France and Italy or night trains through Germany) do require paid seat reservations, as indicated in online train schedules.
What do rail passes cover in Switzerland?
Passes cover nearly all Swiss trains and boats (for an explanation of how the unique Swiss Transfer Ticket works, see "key details" at the bottom of this page). Even specially designated scenic routes are covered (with just one exception: multi-country passes don't cover the biggest stretch of the Glacier Express, though they do get you a discount). Many high-mountain routes, however, such as those served by the Berner Oberland's Jungfraubahn, are only partially covered; discounts vary depending on what kind of pass you have.
Multi-country (Eurail-brand) passes offer the following discounts:
- Berner Oberland: 25 percent off trains and lifts above Interlaken (otherwise tickets cost, from Interlaken, about $10 to Lauterbrunnen, $10 to Grindelwald, $15 to Wengen, $200 round-trip to Jungfraujoch; Schilthornbahn cable car otherwise about $105 round-trip from Stechelberg, $80 with early-morning discount)
- Glacier Express: 25 percent off Brig–Disentis leg (otherwise about $50 in second class, not including reservation fees) and Brig–Zermatt leg (see next)
- Matterhorn area: 25 percent off Brig–Zermatt private train (otherwise about $40 in second class)
- Mt. Rigi: 50 percent off all trains along the slopes of Mt. Rigi (otherwise $25–40 per leg)
- Free kids: Up to two kids age 4–11 travel free with each adult
Switzerland-only rail passes cover much more:
- Berner Oberland: All trains and lifts up to Mürren/Wengen/Grindelwald are covered, then 50 percent off lifts above Mürren and 25 percent off lifts and trains above Wengen and Grindelwald
- Glacier Express: Whole route is covered (though reservation fees are extra; with Swiss Transfer Ticket, route is covered only if it's along most direct route from border)
- Matterhorn area: Brig–Zermatt private train is covered, then 50 percent off trains and lifts above Zermatt
- Mt. Rigi: All Mt. Rigi–area trains covered by Swiss Travel Pass
- Postal buses (which go just about everywhere trains/lifts don't): Covered
- Urban transit (e.g. trams and city buses): Covered by Swiss Travel Pass
- Museums: The Swiss Travel Pass is valid as a full-fledged Swiss Museum Pass, which includes admission to hundreds of Swiss Museums
- Flexipass half-price option: When buying a Swiss Transfer Ticket or the flexipass version of the Swiss Travel Pass, you have the option to buy a one-month Half-Fare Card at half price
- More free kids: With the Swiss Family Card, available free when ordering a single-country Swiss rail pass, up to seven kids age 6–15 can travel free with a parent (list your kids as fellow travelers when ordering)
- France extra: The Swiss Travel Pass covers trains between Le Châtelard (on the Swiss border) and Chamonix, France
- Liechtenstein: Your Swiss Travel Pass even covers bus travel in Liechtenstein. Go nuts!
"Covered" services, including museum admissions, require use of a travel day on a flexipass, but discounts do not — with one exception.
The exception: Discounts on high-mountain lifts and trains do require using up a travel day on a Swiss Travel Pass (but not any of the Eurail-brand passes). If you're getting the Swiss Travel Pass and anticipate taking a lot of high-mountain rides on different days, it could really make sense to also get the one-month Half-Fare Card — for about $65 you'd get half-price on the high-mountain lifts without using up any flexipass travel days.
If a rail pass doesn't pencil out for your trip, you may be able to shave off the cost of your train tickets with some of these deals:
- One-month Half-Fare Card: Can save you money if you're not getting a rail pass but your Swiss travel adds up to more than $240 in point-to-point tickets. Buy it here or at your first Swiss train station. (If you're buying the flexipass version of the Swiss Travel Pass or the Swiss Transfer Ticket, you can add this card to your order for half price.)
- Kids: The Junior Travelcard and similar Grandchild Travelcard let kids 6–15 travel free with a parent or grandparent (30 SF for one child, 60 SF for two or more kids, good for one year, sold at Swiss train stations). Kids 6–15 can ride in second class with any adult, not necessarily a parent, for 16 SF for one calendar day (or 32 SF for first class).
- Regional passes: While available for many Swiss districts, these make sense only for the rare traveler who's doing a lot of very time- and region-concentrated travel. For most travelers, the only one of these worth considering is the...
- Berner Oberland Pass: Covers the entire Bern–Interlaken–Luzern area — but costs almost as much as a full Swiss Travel Pass. It offers 4 continuous days for 230 SF (about $250), 6 days for 300 SF (about $320), 8 days for 340 SF (about $360), or 10 days for 380 SF (about $400). The highest mountain lifts are either 50 percent off during the validity of the pass or have special prices (e.g., Kleine Scheidegg to the Jungfraujoch, or Mürren to the Schilthorn are 50 percent off). Parts of the Glacier Express and Golden Pass scenic routes are also discounted 50 percent. Also available in first class for 20 percent more; if you have any type of Swiss Travel Pass or discount card, all prices are 25 percent less.
- Advance purchase: You can cut some ticket prices by half by buying a Supersaver ticket online for a pre-selected date and time (seats are limited and refund restrictions apply).
Swiss train tickets are easy to buy in stations or online through the Swiss Federal Railway's site. (If you do buy them online, be aware that the "from" fares displayed on the first screen of the ticket shop are the prices you can get if you have a Half-Fare Card. Without that, you'd choose a rate with "no reduction.") Also see our general tips for buying point-to-point tickets.
Switzerland Rail Passes: Key Details
Single-country Swiss Travel Pass: When ordering, opt either for a pass covering a span of continuous days (either 3, 4, 8, or 15 days) or a flexipass, i.e. for a certain number of days (also 3, 4, 8, or 15 days) within one month (not a calendar month but rather a month that starts with the travel date you enter when purchasing the pass). All Swiss Travel passes are pre-validated for this travel start date (and are not refundable or changeable after that date), so you can skip the usual step of having it first activated at a train station counter. If traveling with your kids, request a free Swiss Family Card when ordering (the card allows up to seven kids age 6–15 to travel free with a parent). Unlike most other rail passes, the Swiss Travel Pass covers not just trains but nearly all forms of transportation — for details, see "What do rail passes cover in Switzerland?" above. Outside high season, special discounted versions of this pass may be available. Also sold at Swiss stations.
The continuous-day Swiss Travel Pass offers an "e-pass" option to print at home. When purchasing an e-pass, you must enter each traveler's birthdate and passport number online. Fall sale: The e-pass version of the first-class continuous-day Swiss Travel Pass is 25% off when you enter the coupon code "SWISS25" at check-out (one coupon code per booking); sale ends at 5pm Eastern Time on November 17, 2015.
Swiss Transfer Ticket: Akin to round-trip tickets between the Swiss border and any given spot in the country: You get two days of train or bus travel, to be used up within a one-month span, from any Swiss border station (or Swiss airport) to any point in Switzerland, then one trip out to any border (or airport). Your two trips don't have to be to or from the same places, but each direction must be completed in one calendar day by the fastest, most direct route (not a scenic detour). It covers the same train, bus, and boat travel as the Swiss Travel Pass (as long as it's along most direct route to/from the border), but doesn't include urban transit or museum admissions. If traveling with your kids, request a free Swiss Family Card when ordering (the card allows up to seven kids age 6–15 to travel free with a parent).
The Swiss Transfer Ticket offers an "e-pass" option to print at home. When purchasing an e-pass, you must enter each traveler's birthdate and passport number online. Fall sale: The e-pass version of the first-class Swiss Transfer Ticket is 25% off when you enter the coupon code "SWISS25" at check-out (one coupon code per booking); sale ends at 5pm Eastern Time on November 17, 2015.
Swiss Half-Fare Card: Gives you 50 percent off on all Swiss trains (including private railways and high-mountain routes, including the Jungfraujoch), postal buses, city trams and buses, mountain lifts, and lake and river boats within a one-month span. If you're buying the flexipass version of the Swiss Travel Pass or the Swiss Transfer Ticket, you can add this card to your order for half price (see the special links for these above).
France–Switzerland Eurail Pass: If your trip is really Swiss-focused with just one train ride in France (e.g., Paris–Basel for $150, or less with advance-purchase discount ticket), consider getting a Swiss Travel Pass plus a separate French train ticket. (If you need more of France, you probably do want the two-country pass.) Seat reservations for passholders are expensive on direct TGV Lyria trains to Swiss cities (about $30 in second class or $70 in first), but cheaper on TGVs within France.