If you’re planning on taking a vacation in Switzerland anytime soon, make sure you take a moment to acquaint yourself with the fabulous Swiss train system. They are so convenient and far-reaching that you’ll hardly ever miss your Prius while you’re over there. In almost every instance, wherever you want to go in Switzerland, a train (or an easy bus connection) will get you there. So, step 1 at being an Untourist in Switzerland is to rely on the trains – don’t rent a car.
Having heard that advice, and following it as the gospel (as you usually do :P), you may be tempted to check out Schweizerische Bundesbahnen (SBB – the Swiss rail system) online and buy some 1st class rail tickets for your trip.
Whoa, there. Hold the caboose.
If you really want to get a feel for the typical Swiss experience, ride 2nd class. Now, while you may think 2nd class means standing room only in the car with the chicken coop (that’s what I thought before I got there), think again. Taking 2nd class rail travel in Switzerland is just like buying a ticket for the Metro in DC, the T in Boston or the subway in New York…except with nicer trains that are always on time. It’s just the ticket you have to buy to even ride the train.
Admittedly, the term “2nd class” has a bit of a different connotation for me as an American but, I assure you, Swiss rail travel at any class is a 1st class experience.
What 2nd class really means in the Swiss rail lexicon is that you’ll be traveling in a passenger car that is less expensive, has more people and offers a bit less leg room. If you are planning on being an Untourist while in Switzerland though, 2nd class is the best way to rub elbows with the Swiss everyperson.
That’s not to say that 1st class is off limits, by any means. In fact, if you’re feeling particularly private/tired/annoyed/etc. one day and just want some peace and quiet, a first class upgrade (that can be made online, over the phone or at the ticket counter) may be your day’s panacea. Riding in 1st class gives you more privacy & space, as well as a bit more luxurious (not necessarily more comfortable, though) seating.
Aside from having loads of luggage (which I don’t recommend for any vacation!), wanting some privacy, or facing a long journey, I wouldn’t recommend upgrading to 1st class as it’s not quite worth the price, if you ask me.
One way that many Untourists make Swiss train travel even better is by purchasing a Swiss Pass. A Swiss Pass not only gives you unlimited travel on Swiss trains, but also trains, buses and boats on the SBB system. You can transfer between any and all of these to check out the whole country. As if that weren’t enough, the Swiss Pass gives you access to over 400 museums during your trip!
The Swiss Pass is really a great deal and, while Rail Europe’s description is helpful, I think Rick Steves’ breakdown is much more thorough. As with your everyday rail tickets, Swiss Passes come in 1st class (from $493/adult) and 2nd class (from $308/adult) versions.
A LITTLE EXTRA: When you take an Untour to Switzerland, a Swiss Pass is included in the price!
What’s your experience with the Swiss rail system?