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train in switzerland
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Getting Around Switzerland: Transportation Tips

Whoever first said “getting there is half the fun” had to have been talking about getting around Switzerland. Finding a country with greater public transportation than this European gem isn’t easy. The country’s reputation for precision manufacturing extends to its rail and bus systems as well as its roadways and thoroughfares.

Sure, there’s the necessary road construction and occasional traffic jams, but these folks know how to keep people moving in comfort. Switzerland’s public transit network is on time, pristinely clean, orderly and as popular with visitors as it is with locals. Read on to learn more about your best Switzerland transportation options.

Flying to and Around Switzerland

Swiss is the national airline, a part of the Lufthansa and Star Alliance group. Zurich is the main hub with regional airports in Geneva and Basel. It’s such a small country that commercial air travel to other cities in Switzerland is extremely limited and pricey. Trains get you there almost as quickly and cost much less. Most major North American airlines offer flights directly to Zurich and a few to Geneva.


Renting a Car in Switzerland

Most North American rental agencies have offices in the major communities of Switzerland. You’ll save a fair amount of money if you make these arrangements before departing for Europe. You’ll also save a lot of money if you can drive a stick shift rather than an automatic.

To rent a car in Switzerland, you generally must be at least 20 years old; if you are not yet 25 years old, plan to pay a higher rate. Your North American driver’s license is all that is needed, but you’ll need an international driver’s license if you drive into neighboring countries. Those are inexpensive and can be obtained at your AAA office before departing.

When budgeting for a rental car, note that toll roads are common through Europe and, relatively speaking, much more expensive than in North America. Fuel, either diesel or gasoline, can also cost up to four times more than in North America.

Some high-end hotels, such as the Dolder Grand in Zurich, provide complimentary rental cars or have exclusive car services for their guests at limited or no additional charge. The Dolder Grand offers a choice of BMW models.


Getting Around Switzerland by Train

Train travel is by far the best way to travel in Switzerland; it’s economical and popular with both locals and tourists. The stations are clean and equipped with a variety of services, while the trains themselves are punctual, equally clean and comfortable. Although smoking is allowed in many public places in Switzerland, the trains are smoke-free.

Unless you have extremely unusual circumstances that require private vehicles, get on the train and experience life as the locals do. You’ll be exposed to spectacular scenery and a way of life for most Europeans. Two of the world’s most scenic train routes are the Glacier Express and the Bernina Express, which cross through the rugged mountain landscapes, offering up a vision of Switzerland that just can’t be found elsewhere. This is where you might want to splurge and buy seats in the observation cars for unobstructed view of the Alps.

First-class cars are slightly more spacious and provide a better view on the upper level, but second-class tickets will save you quite a bit of money. If you’re traveling with family, children under 16 travel for free in the company of an adult, but be sure to purchase the family tickets.

The best investment any independent traveler to Switzerland can make is the Swiss Pass. In addition to train travel all over the country, this valuable pass includes intercity bus routes, ferry boats on many lakes, tour boats on many rivers and admission to multiple museums around the country. Discounts are offered on select cog railways and funiculars, as well as some special events and festivals.


Getting Around Switzerland by Bus

Taking a bus cross-country in Switzerland is not as efficient and comfortable as taking a train. However, buses are necessary to reach some of the smaller communities not served by rail. The good news is that a bus stop is always within a few hundred meters of the train station. It’s not complicated. The Swiss Pass, referenced above, will be the only ticket you need to combine efficient bus and train transportation in Switzerland.

Some hotels in Lausanne provide complimentary Lausanne Transport Cards upon check-in. These are valid for much of the canton of Vaud, covering metro tram and bus services.


Motorcycle and Bicycle Rentals

Riding a motorcycle through the Swiss Alps is certainly a bucket list experience for many bikers. The winding roadways and abundance of nature here are captivating, but this is not a place for the inexperienced to test their two wheels. Your valid motorcycle license for North America will work in Switzerland, and you must be at least 21 years old.

Bicycling is incredibly popular in Switzerland, particularly in rural areas. Bicycle rental stations are located in more than 80 train stations, and others are available throughout the major cities. Getting around on eco-friendly bicycles is highly encouraged. Even if you’re not a serious cyclist or athlete, rent one for a few hours and explore the lakeshore around Zurich, Lucerne or any of the other lakes, where the land is flat and the views are refreshing.

Taking a bicycle from town to town via train is not much of a problem. You do need to buy a ticket for your bike, which will be carried in a separate car. In the summer months, if you’re going to very popular areas, you should consider reserving the bike ticket in advance.

Helmets for motorcycles or bicycles are not mandatory in Switzerland, but still, a very good idea.


Funiculars and Cable Cars

Visiting Switzerland without taking a ride in a funicular is like coming to Switzerland and not eating chocolate. In the mountainous regions, funiculars and cable cars are as common a mode of transportation as the automobile is in the U.S. Children ride them on a daily basis to school; goods and services are delivered by them as well.

If you want to get to some of the highest peaks without climbing on foot, plan on a funicular ride. In most cases, the funiculars will save you hours of walking or as much time on a bus on narrow roads. Funicular stations are not necessarily near train stations, but they are equally clean and punctual.

About 50 funiculars operate in the steep mountain communities, including the Lavaux wine region, St. Moritz and Lucerne. The steepest funicular in Europe is the Gelmer in southern Switzerland near Innertkirchen.


River and Lake Transportation

Lake cruises are more than an entertaining and relaxing way to spend the day — they are also a peek into the life of many locals. In larger lake communities like Zurich and Geneva, many locals commute by boat to and from work on a daily basis. Hop on a boat and hop off again at one of dozens of little communities around the lakes, many that are not served by train.

Of course, rivers and lakes have been a transportation route for thousands of years. Guided tours can be a route from Point A to Point B while learning about the marine industry of this otherwise landlocked country. Steamer travel is a tradition on Lake Lucerne, and a dinner cruise there is a combination of regional history, spectacular scenery and local cuisine. A Rhine River cruise from Basel shows off the walled city from outside the gates and allows you to experience the ancient lock systems on this famous river.

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–written by Diana Lambdin Meyer

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