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?
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 money 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).
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. 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)
- Boats: Covers regular services on most Swiss lakes (e.g. those of Luzern, Geneva, Brienz, Thun, Biel, Zürich, Konstanz), as well as a few river services
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 Card or 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 Pass
- Boats: Regular service on lakes and rivers covered
- Postal buses (which go just about everywhere trains/lifts don't): Covered
- Urban transit (e.g. trams and city buses): Covered by Swiss Pass
- Museums: The Swiss Pass is valid as a full-fledged Swiss Museum Pass, which includes admission to hundreds of Swiss Museums
- Flexipass half-price extra: The flexipass version of the Swiss Pass also acts as a Half-Fare Travelcard, giving you a 50 percent discount on all transportation taken in between (but not after you've used up) your covered-travel days (great for days focused on high-mountain lifts and short or unplanned side trips, when it's not worth using up one of the pass's travel days)
- Free kids: All single-country Swiss passes sold in the US give you the option to add a free Swiss Family Card to your order (list your kids as fellow travelers when ordering)
- France extra: The Swiss Pass covers trains between Le Châtelard (on the Swiss border) and Chamonix, France
- Liechtenstein: Your Swiss Pass even covers bus travel in Liechtenstein. Go nuts!
As with all European rail passes, "covered" services require use of a travel day on a flexipass, but discounts do not.
What's the difference between a Swiss Pass, Swiss Transfer Ticket, and Swiss Card?
The Swiss Pass is simply a single-country rail pass that works like most other rail passes (though it's unusual in that it covers not just trains but nearly all forms of transportation). You can buy it to be valid either over a span of continuous days (either 4, 8, 15, or 22 days, or one month) or as a flexipass, i.e. for a certain number of days (3, 4, 5, or 6 days) within a one-month window. Outside high season, special discounted versions of this pass may be available.
The Swiss Transfer Ticket and the Swiss Card are both 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). They cover the same train, bus, and boat travel as Swiss Pass (as long as it's along most direct route to/from the border), but neither include urban transit or museum admissions.
The Swiss Card is the pricier of the two, as it acts as a Half-Fare Travelcard as well. Between your two main travel days, you can get 50 percent off any transport (but not museums). While the Swiss Card (like the Swiss Pass) is also sold at a few Swiss airports and border train stations, the Transfer Ticket is only available outside Switzerland.
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:
- Swiss Family Card: Allows children 6–15 to travel free with a parent who has a Swiss point-to-point ticket or a single-country Swiss rail pass (not a multi-country Eurail pass). One Swiss Family Card has space to list seven kids. Both the Swiss Family Card (a.k.a. Junior Travelcard) and the similar Grandchild Travelcard are also sold for 30 SF per kid at Swiss train stations.
- One-Month Half-Fare Travelcard: 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. This 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.
- 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: This regional pass covers the entire Bern–Interlaken–Luzern area — but costs almost as much as a full Swiss Pass. It offers 4 continuous days for 230 SF (about $250), 6 days for 290 SF (about $320), or 8 days for 330 SF (about $365). 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 Pass or discount card, all prices are 25 percent less.
- With Supersaver discounts, you cut ticket prices by half by buying a train ticket online for pre-selected dates and times (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 Pass: Available both as continuous pass and flexipass. No youth discount for flexipass version (go figure). Also sold at Swiss stations.
Swiss Pass Two-Day Off-Peak Special: Must be used before May 31, 2014. Youth discount available for both first and second class, but no saverpass rates. Also sold at Swiss stations. Sale ends April 30, 2014.
Swiss Pass Continuous Pass Sale: Get 25 percent off 4- or 8-day first-class continuous passes (no discount on second-class passes). Good for travel as of April 1, 2014; must be used before May 31, 2014. Also sold at Swiss stations. Sale ends May 20, 2014.
Multi-country Eurail passes: Second-class passes can only be used by travelers under 26; travelers age 26 or older must buy a first-class pass. While single-country passes for Switzerland allow travel within one month, the multi-country passes offer a two-month window.
Austria–Switzerland Eurail Pass: For about the same price as the flexipass version of a first-class Swiss Pass, the Austria–Switzerland Eurail Pass covers two countries and allows you to spread travel over a longer period. Separate, second-class rail passes for each country are cheaper, but you'll use a day of each pass when crossing the border.
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 Pass plus a separate French train ticket. (If you need more of France, you probably do want the two-country pass.)