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. The Switzerland-only Swiss Travel Pass is a particularly good deal, as it covers nearly all transport in Switzerland — not only trains, but buses, boats, and many high-mountain lifts — and is currently available at 25 percent off its normal price (through July 31, 2021).
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. (The dashed Lugano–Tirano line shows a popular bus connection that's covered by rail passes; dotted lines show two popular boat routes — covered by some passes.)
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
Swiss Half-Fare Card (available for sale later in 2021) → key details
Eurail Global Pass (33 countries; available for sale later in 2021) → read more about this pass
Extra tip: If your trip is primarily Swiss-focused, with just one or two train rides elsewhere in Europe, consider getting a single-country Swiss Travel Pass (which offers far better coverage of Switzerland than a Global Pass) plus separate point-to-point train tickets (usually cheapest if booked in advance online). Note that on direct TGV Lyria trains between France and major Swiss cities seat reservations are required, and fairly expensive (about $35 in second class or $70 in first, in addition to a Eurail Global Pass) — and only a certain number are made availble to passholders for any given train. (And 26/27-year-olds should note that the Swiss Travel Pass's youth cutoff is 26, whereas the Global Pass grants discounts to all travelers under 28.)
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.
Passes cover nearly all Swiss trains. Even specially designated scenic routes are covered, including the entire route of the Glacier Express. Any pass that covers Switzerland also covers these two Swiss-run services through Italy: Brig–Domodossola–Locarno trains and Lugano–Tirano by Bernina Express bus. Many high-mountain routes, however, such as those served by the Berner Oberland's Jungfraubahn, are only partially covered, and discounts vary depending on what kind of pass you have.
Note: As is true on any European rail pass, "covered" services, including museum admissions, require use of a counted travel day on a flexipass. Discounts generally do not (as is the case with the Global Pass), but the Swiss Travel Pass is an exception: Discounts on high-mountain lifts and trains are only available on the counted travel days of this pass.
Eurail Global Passes offer the following discounts, among others:
- Berner Oberland: 25 percent off trains and lifts above Interlaken (without this discount tickets cost, from Interlaken, about $10 to Lauterbrunnen, $10 to Grindelwald, $15 to Wengen, $200 round-trip to the Jungfraujoch; without a rail pass the Schilthornbahn cable car is about $105 round-trip from Stechelberg, $85 from Mürren)
- Mt. Pilatus: 50 percent off all trains and lifts above Kriens/Alpnachstad (full price: $70 for two legs)
- Mt. Rigi: 50 percent off all trains and lifts above Vitznau/Arth-Goldau/Weggis (full price: $25–40 per leg)
- Lake boats: 50 percent off most boat trips, but Lake Thun and Lake Brienz boats are fully covered
- Free kids: Up to two kids age 4–11 travel free with each adult-rate pass
Switzerland-only rail passes cover much more:
- Berner Oberland: All trains and lifts up to Mürren/Wengen/Grindelwald are covered; 50 percent off the Schilthornbahn cable car above Mürren, and 25 percent off lifts and trains above Wengen and Grindelwald
- Mt. Pilatus: 50 percent off (same as Eurail-brand passes)
- Mt. Rigi: All trains and lifts up Mt. Rigi are covered
- Lake boats: Covered
- 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
- More free kids: With the Swiss Family Card, available free by request when ordering a single-country Swiss rail pass, kids age 6–15 can travel free with a parent
- Liechtenstein: Your Swiss Travel Pass even covers bus travel in Liechtenstein. Go nuts!
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.
- Kids: The Junior Travelcard and similar Children's Co-travelcard let kids 6–15 travel free with a parent or grandparent (30 CHF for one child, 60 CHF 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 CHF for one calendar day (or 32 CHF for first class). In Switzerland, all kids under 6 ride free without a ticket (whereas train travel in most of Europe is free only for kids under 4).
- 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, described below.
- 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.