How to Use Swiss Trains and the Swiss Travel Pass

Zurich HB train station

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Switzerland's rail system is among the most modern and efficient in Europe. It includes commuter trains, long-distance routes connecting Swiss cities and connecting Switzerland to the rest of Europe, and smaller trains that stop at quaint towns and villages. It also includes scenic trains that pass through stunning landscapes and mountain ranges, as well as cogwheel trains and funiculars that connect to high-altitude mountain towns. The broader Swiss public transport system is also comprised of buses, boats, and even some ski gondolas and cable cars.

Visitors to Switzerland who don't wish to rent a car will find that the Swiss travel system can take them just about anywhere in the country they want to go. We'll allow, however, that the system for planning and booking travel is not the most intuitive for first-time users—there's an extensive range of choices for tickets and travel passes, plus more than one site for purchasing. We'll help you make sense of it below.

Read on for a guide to using Swiss trains and other forms of transportation, plus information on whether the Swiss Travel Pass is the right deal for your journey to Switzerland.

Taking the Train in Switzerland

If you are only taking a few train trips in Switzerland, you can most likely get by with point-to-point tickets, as opposed to a travel pass. To buy these, you'll use the Swiss Federal Railways (abbreviated SBB) website. SBB runs regional (R, RE, and IR) trains throughout the country, as well as S-Bahn commuter trains and IC and ICN intercity trains. Regional trains are slower but stop at all or most stations, regardless of size. S-Bahn commuter trains offer frequent service between cities and their suburbs and may connect cities that are in relative proximity. Fast intercity trains stop at major towns but do not serve smaller municipalities.

Purchasing Tickets

The SBB website sells one-way or round-trip tickets between Swiss cities, as well as the City Ticket, which includes travel to a city—Bern, for example—plus a one-day travel pass for public transportation in that city. To use the site for a single trip, follow these steps:

  • Select a point-to-point ticket. Insert your point-to-point destinations, and select a date of travel up to two months in advance.
  • Select your preferred train time/route and enter passenger information. Options will appear, including the City Ticket and upgrades to First Class. On shorter train rides, you probably don't need to spend the extra money—30 percent or more—for the First Class coach, as Second Class on Swiss trains is comfortable and clean. First Class seats are larger and farther apart from one another, and the coaches are usually less crowded, which may be preferable on a longer trip. Note that when SBB initially calculates a fare, it does so with the assumption that you have the half-fare Travelcard, a discount card that must be purchased. Since you probably won't be traveling with this card (see more below), you have to select "No discount" in the discount cards field—and your ticket price will double as a result.
  • Complete your purchase with a credit card. You will be issued a voucher, which you can either print out or keep on your handheld device.
  • Persons with disabilities can, when searching for tickets, select "Barrier-free travel" from the pull-down menu labeled "Standard view" to see only trains that have wheelchair accessible carriages.
  • Supersaver tickets are available on select routes and times and can offer discounts of up to 70 percent.
  • Kids travel free. Children up to 16 years of age travel free with a parent, so long as that parent has a valid ticket. But you must pick up a Swiss Family Card before traveling—it's available at every station or point of sale.

If you've purchased your tickets online, you will not have a seat reservation, which is generally not required on domestic Swiss trains. Simply climb aboard a first- or second-class carriage, depending on your ticket class, and find a seat. Once the train is underway, a conductor will come by and scan your ticket. A digital sign inside each coach shows the next station, so you should have plenty of time to gather luggage and exit the train when it stops.

Each train seat or group of seats is fitted with an electrical outlet and may have a USB charger. Intercity trains may have restaurants with tableside service, or bars offering drinks and light snacks, including hot items. Long-distance intercity trains have a family coach as the first or last car—it's a kid-friendly coach with games and a soft play area.

If you prefer to purchase tickets in-person or on the same day of travel, you can do so at the SBB counter or office in any Swiss train station. For a surcharge, you can also reserve seats when you purchase, which is not possible online. Alternatively, if you can proceed without human assistance, you can buy tickets from SBB machines in all stations.

Other Forms of Transportation

Small towns and mountain locations not served by trains are connected with a series of cogwheel trains, funiculars, and cablecars, as well as buses run by PostBus, a subsidiary of Swiss Post. Across Switzerland's many lakes, tour boats and ferries carry leisure and commuter passengers. There are also a handful of famous scenic train rides in Switzerland which require special tickets and reserved seats.

  • Boat service on Swiss lakes is usually administered locally or regionally around the lake. In Zurich, for example, boat travel can be purchased from ZVV, the Zurich Transportation Network, which runs the city's buses, trams, trains, and boat services.
  • Cogwheel trains, funiculars, and cablecars are either run by the local/regional authority or by private entities—the latter, especially when they connect to ski resorts.
  • The Bernina Express and Glacier Express scenic mountain trains are run by the Rhaetian Railway service, but can also be purchased through the SBB website. Tickets for the Golden Pass train between Montreux and Lucerne can be bought on the Golden Pass website.
  • Bus tickets for buses run by PostBus can be purchased through the SBB site, which will automatically suggest bus travel when train travel is not available.

Swiss Travel Pass: What's Included & How Much It Costs

If you are planning to do a lot of traveling within Switzerland and want to try out its many forms of transportation, the Swiss Travel Pass may be worth the investment. The pass is available only to visitors from outside Switzerland and includes free travel on almost the entire network of trains, boats, cogwheels, funiculars, and more. Those not free with the pass are deeply discounted. The pass also includes free public transportation in more than 90 Swiss cities and towns and free admission to more than 500 museums across the country.

Current Prices for Swiss Travel Pass (As of April 2020)
  Second Class First Class
Three-day pass CHF 232 CHF 369
Four-day pass CHF 281 CHF 447
Eight-day pass CHF 418 CHF 663
15-day pass CHF 513 CHF 810
Prices are shown in Swiss francs (CHF). Current conversion rate is CHF 1 is equal to $1.05. Travel days must be consecutive.

Swiss Travel Passes also allow for free travel for children, but as with regular rail passes, families need to pick up the Swiss Family Card before they initiate travel. The pass, while expensive, simplifies the travel process for visitors. If you prefer not to travel over three, four, eight, or 15 consecutive days, the Flex Pass allows for a set number of days of travel within 30 days and is well-suited to those planning a more extended stay in Switzerland.

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