Getting Around Switzerland

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Getting Around Switzerland

By Plane

The following carriers offer domestic flights within Switzerland:

  1. SWISS (Basel/Mulhouse (EuroAirport Swiss), Geneva (Geneve-Cointrin Airport), Lugano Airport, Zurich Airport)
  2. Darwin Airlines (Berne (Belp Airport), Geneva (Geneve-Cointrin Airport), Lugano Airport)
  3. FlyBaboo website (Geneva (Geneve-Cointrin Airport), Lugano Airport)

But in almost every case you will be better off taking the train.

Public Transport

The Swiss will spoil you with fantastic transportation - swift, disturbingly punctual trains, clean buses, and a half dozen different kinds of mountain transport systems, integrated into a coherent system. The discount options and variety of tickets can be bewildering, from half fare cards to multi-day, multi-use tickets good for buses, boats, trains, and even bike rentals. In general there's at least one train or bus per hour on every route, on many routes trains and buses are running every 30 min, or even 15 min, but as with everything in Switzerland the transit runs less often, or at least for a shorter period of the day, on weekends, and especially on Sundays. Authoritative information, routes, and schedules can be found at Swiss Federal Railway's (SBB-CFF-FFS) website, or from a ticket window in any train station.

Tickets

Almost nobody in Switzerland pays full fare for the transit system. At the very least they all have a Half-Fare Card (French: Demi-tarif, German: Halbtax) which saves you 50% on all national buses and trains and gives a discount on local and private transit systems. Press the '1/2' button (in the French speaking part often called tarif reduit) on the ticket machines to indicate you have this card, and be prepared to hand it to the conductor along with your ticket on the train. Annual half fare cards cost CHF 175; visitors from abroad can buy a 1-month Swiss Half-Fare Card cards for CHF120 . You save CHF 62.- on a round-trip ticket from Zurich to Lugano, so if you are planning on traveling a lot, it will quickly pay for itself. Children between ages 6 and below 16 (before the 16th date of birth!) pay 1/2 fare for travel around Switzerland. Children travelling with a paying parent or grandparent can travel for free, if the parents purchased a Junior Card, or the grandparents purchased a Grandchild Travelcard. Parents from abroad in possession of any kind of a valid Swiss Pass/Card/Ticket by the Swiss Travel System can get a Swiss Family Card for free with the same advantages.

The most convenient way to travel with public transport in Switzerland is either a GA travel card (French: Abonnement général, German: Generalabonnament), or for visitors only a Swiss Pass, which grants you access to all national bus (including Swiss PostAuto bus) and rail, all boats, all city transit systems, and the same hefty discount as a half-fare card on privately operated cable cars, funiculars, and ski lifts. Swiss Passes range from CHF 272.- for a 4-day, 2nd class pass to CHF 607.- for a month pass, 2nd class. Like the half-fare, you can buy this from any train station ticket office .

Only two trains in Switzerland require reservations: the Bernina Express, running daily between Chur and Tirano and theGlacier Express running from St. Moritz to Zermatt. Reservations is also recomended for the GoldenPass Line from Montreux to Interlaken and further to Luzern, as well as for the Wilhelm Tell Express from Luzern to Flüelen by boat and further from Flüelen to Lugano or Locarno in Ticino by train.

Normally, you do not have to make reservation for any of the public transport system in Switzerland. Though, there are some exceptions. Besides the mentioned scenic trains, some of the yellow bright Swiss PostAuto bus lines require them as well. If you find a capital R in a square, then seat reservation is compulsory. And of course, it is also compulsory for most of the international connections.

In general, you will always find a free seat, except for rushing hours (departure time about between 6:30 to 8, and about between 17 and 18:30) especially on non-stop connections between the major business cities, and in particular between Zurich and Bern, and between Zurich and Basel in both directions. You can easily check this on the time table by the statistically based occupancy indication. And during winter season at weekends to and from major ski areas, it can be packed as well. But normally, nobody makes a reservation.

On most trains in Switzerland, tickets can no longer be bought on board, so it is recommended to buy tickets before hand. You will get fined, if you have not got a ticket. Swiss Rail kiosks accept credit/debit cards, although they require that a PIN be entered. You can also buy a ticket on the Swiss Federal Railway (SBB-CFF-FFS) website. Or on SBB's smart phone apps for paperless on-the-mobile-phone tickets, but you need to register an account and a credit card first.

A national single rail ticket is always valid the whole calendar day and therefore valid for any train running on the given route during the day, or more precisely from 5AM to 5AM of the next day; train operation, or in general any public transport system in Switzerland, stops for a few hours during the night. A national return rail ticket always costs exactely the double amount of a single ticket. This is not necessarily true for suburban ticket areas of shorter distances, or for cities' local transport systems.

Any national fare does not change for at least a whole year. So there is no need to buy national tickets in advance and therefore you cannot even buy national tickets online earlier than 30 days ahead. There are only very rare occasions to buy national rail tickets with deductions. And they are only available 14 days before travel date. And you can buy them only online, if there are any at all. And they are only valid for the chosen connection/train of a given date and time! All online bought national tickets are not refundable and only valid for one single calendar day of the chosen date.

Travel

Using the trains is easy, although the number of different kinds of trains can be a bit confusing unless you know that the schedules at a Swiss train station are color coded. The yellow sheet is for departures and the white sheet is for arrivals. Faster trains appear on both of these sheets in red, while the trains in black stop at more stations. For long trips it is often easier to use the website, as it will pick transfers for you. You need not fear transfers of five minutes or less. You will make them, provided you know exactly which platform you arrive on and which one you depart from. Many Swiss commute with a one or two minute transfer!

At the track, the signs indicate the destination and departure time. The small numbers and letters along the bottom show you where you can board the train. The letters indicate the zone you should stand in, and the numbers indicate the class. The class (1st or 2nd) is indicated by a "1" or "2" on the side of the car, these correspond with the numbers on the sign. All Swiss trains are non-smoking — this is also indicated on the side of car, as well as inside.

Luggage can be stowed above your seat or in between seats, or on a rack at the end of the car. During busy periods, people often stow large luggage (or skis) in the entrance area in between cars. This is usually fairly safe, but use common sense.

The variety of trains is bewildering at first, but is actually quite simple. The routes the SBB-CFF-FFS website suggests will make much more sense if you understand them. All trains have a one or two letter prefix, followed by a number, for example RE2709, IR2781. Only the prefix, the destination, and the time of departure are important.

  • R (Regio/Régional) trains are local trains. They stop everywhere or almost everywhere, and generally reach into the hinterlands of a major station like Lausanne, but not to the next major station. If you are going to a small town, you may transfer at a large station to an R train for the last leg. Often you can use tickets from city public transit on the S (suburban) system, but ask before trying. For example, Zurich's integrated public transport system includes everything and all, city trams, buses, SBB-CFF-FFS trains, S-Bahn trains, boats and Postbuses as long as you are within its area with a ticket valid for the zones you travel in.
  • RE (RegioExpress) trains generally reach from one major station to the next, touching every town of any importance on the way, but don't stop at every wooden platform beside the tracks.
  • IR (InterRegio) trains are the workhorses of Swiss transit. They reach across two or three cantons, for instance from Geneva, along Lake Geneva through Vaud, and all the way to Brig at the far end of the Valais. They only stop at fairly large towns, usually those that boast three or four rail platforms.
  • IC (InterCity) trains are express trains with restaurant cars. They are sumptuous and comfortable, often putting vaunted services like the TGV to shame, and make runs between major stations, with occasionally stops at a more minor one where tracks diverge.
  • ICN (InterCityNeigezug, or Intercity Tilting Train) trains are the express tilt-trains, as luxurious as the IC trains. They run on major tracks, such as between Geneva (City and Aéroport) - Lausanne - Biel / Bienne - Olten - Zurich (HB) - St. Gallen, Basel (SBB) - Delémont - Biel / Bienne - Lausanne - Geneva (City and Aéroport), Chiasso - Lugano - Bellinzona - St. Gotthard - Arth - Goldau - Luzern - Olten - Basel (SBB), and Zurich (HB) - Zug - Arth - Goldau - St. Gotthard - Bellinzona - Lugano - Chiasso.
  • TGV (Train à grande vitesse) Lyria, French/Swiss high-speed railway connecting Paris (Gare de Lyon) with Geneva, Vallorbe - Lausanne, Neuchâtel - Bern - Thun - Spiez -Interlaken, and Basel - Zurich.
  • ICE (InterCity-Express) trains, German high-speed trains serving Interlaken - Spiez - Bern - Basel, and Zurich - Basel into Germany with direct connections to several German cities, such as Frankfurt, Köln, Dortmund, Hamburg, Kiel, and Berlin, or even to the Dutch Amsterdam.

There are also a number of narrow gauge railways that don't fit this classification that supplement the buses in the hinterlands, such as the line from Nyon to La Cure or the line from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen.

You can bring your bicycle on almost every train and some Postbuses in Switzerland, with two provisos: you must have a ticket for it (available from the ticket machines, CHF 18 (full-fare) for a day pass), and you must get on at a door marked with a bicycle. On ICN trains and some IR trains this is at the very front of the train. Check the time table for every single connection and train you intend to use: if you find an icon with a stroke-through bycicle, then their self-service loading transfer is not allowed. If you find an icon with a bicycle, then a reservation is compulsory (mainly for journeys with Postbuses and international train connections).

As good as the Swiss train system is, if you have a little time, and you only want to travel 1-200 miles, you could try purchasing the world's best footpath maps and walk 10-20 miles a day over some of the most wonderful and clearly-marked paths, whether it is in a valley, through a forest, or over mountains. There are more than 60'000 km well maintained and documented hiking trails.

The trails are well-planned (after a number of centuries, why not?), easy to follow, and the yellow trail signs are actually accurate in their estimate as to how far away the next hamlet, village, town or city is--once you've figured out how many kilometers per hour you walk (easy to determine after a day of hiking).

There are plenty of places to sleep in a tent (but don't pitch one on a seemingly pleasant, flat piece of ground covered by straw--that's where the cows end up sleeping after a lazy day of eating, and they'll gnaw at your tent string supports and lean against your tent sides. And definitey don't do this during a rainstorm!), lots of huts on mountain tops, B & B's on valley floors, or hotels in towns and cities. You could even send your luggage ahead to the next abode and travel very lightly, with the necessary water and Swiss chocolate!

By Car

If you like cars, Switzerland can seem like a bit of a tease. They feature some of the greatest driving roads in the world, but can literally throw you in jail for speeding, even on highways. If you stick to the limits, the back roads/mountain roads will still be a blast to drive on, while ensuring you are not fined or arrested. Driving is the best way to see a wonderful country with outstanding roads.

To use the motorways (known as Autobahnen, Autoroutes, or Autostrade, depending on where you are), vehicles under 3500 kg weight need to buy a "vignette", a sticker which costs 40 CHF that allows you to use the motorways as much as you like for the entire year (more precisely, from 1 December of the preceding year to 31 January of the following, so a 2009 vignette is valid from 1 December 2008 until 31 January 2010). Trailers must have a separate vignette. Avoiding the motorways in order to save the toll price is generally futile; the amount is well worth it, even if you are only transiting. Failure to possess a valid vignette is punishable by a 200 CHF fine and a requirement to purchase a vignette immediately (total fine of 240 CHF). Sharing vignettes is, of course, illegal and subject to the same fines as not having one.

Rentals should have the vignette already paid for that vehicle, but ask to be sure.

Vehicles larger than 3500 kg have to pay a special toll assessed through special on-board units that is applied for all roads, not just the motorways.

Speed limits: 120 km/h on motorways, 80 km/h on normal roads and inside tunnels and 50 km/h inside villages. Vehicles unable to travel at 80 km/h are not permitted on the motorways. Whilst driving "a wee bit too fast" is common on motorways, people tend to stick pretty closely to the other two limits. Fines are hefty and traffic rules are strictly enforced. If stopped by Police, expect to pay your fine on the spot.

The blood alcohol concentration limit is 0.05%. As in every country, do not drink and drive, as you will lose your license for several months if you are cited and a heavy fine may be imposed.

Driving is on the right side of the road everywhere in Switzerland, just like in most of Europe. Be aware that the priority to right rule exists everywhere in Switzerland on any street, if not indicated otherwise. I.e. that at intersections, priority is given to the driver on the right except when driving on a road with right of way indicated by a Priority Road (German: Hauptstrasse, French: route principale, Italien: strada principale) sign (yellow square with a broad white border sitting on one of its edges [28] ). One exception is when merging into traffic circles (roundabouts), where priority is given to the drivers being within the roundabout. But this is no exception to the 'priority of right' rule, since the street signs indicate that the traffic circles entering vehicle has no right of priority.

Pass on the left, not the right, on motorways as well. When passing, do not cross a double or even a single white line. When completing a passing manoeuvre, you must signal with your vehicle's right indicator before you re-enter the right lane. Actually you have to flash (indicators) all the time when you change your direction or lane.

You are not allowed to pass trams (normally only on the right side) at a tram stop, if there is no passenger island on which pedestrians can wait. If a pedestrian wants to cross the road on a respectively marked place (pedestrian crossing: yellow stripes on the street), then any car approaching must stop and give priority to the pedestrians. This is a general law valid anywhere in Switzerland, but especially applicable for tram stops. Do not stop on a pedestrian crossing, even during rush hours.

You must always give way to police, ambulances, fire engines, and buses pulling out have priority.

At traffic lights and railway crossings, you must switch off your engines ("Für bessere Luft - Motor abstellen!", "Coupez le moteur!") to avoid traffic pollution.

Dipped headlights are strongly recommended at all times.

Six tips for mountain roads:

  • Honk if you're on a small road and you don't see around the bend.
  • The Postal Bus (bright yellow) always has priority. You can hear it approaching by means of its distinct three tone horn
  • The car driving uphill has priority over the car driving downhill.
  • Don't even think about driving as fast as the locals: they know every bend, you don't.
  • In general, drive at a speed which allows you to stop within the distance you can see, in order to be safe; and drive so that you would be happy to meet yourself coming the other way!
  • During Winter, although most vehicles are equipped with winter tires (not to be mismatched with all-season tires or even summer tires; winter tires request by Swiss law at least a tread depth of 4mm and are made of different rubber), it may be required to apply chains to the wheels of your car if driving in an area with snow on the street. Autos rented in Switzerland are routinely supplied with tire chains, but ask. Some mountain roads, towns and villages may require chains. Illustrated signs showing snow chains will be posted at the beginning of the route. If chains are requested, winter tires are not sufficient at all! Failure to obey may incur a fine. Service stations located on these routes may provide a chain installation service, for a fee. It's worth the expense, since an inexperienced driver can be tortured for an hour or more, sometimes in terrible weather, learning to self-install tire chains. Don't assume all roads are open; higher altitude moutain passes (ex: Gotthard, Furka, Grimsel, Oberalp, Julier) will be closed for part or all of the winter. Check that a mountain road or pass is open before driving, or you may encounter a red multilingual "CLOSED" sign at the beginning of the route.

Don't Think You'll Speed Undeterred

If you get fined but not stopped (e.g. caught by a Speed Camera) the police will send you the fine even if you live abroad. In Switzerland, speeding is not a violation of a traffic code but a Legal Offence, if you fail to comply there is a good chance that an international rogatory will be issued and you have to go to court in your home country. This is enforced by most countries, including all of Europe, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and many countries in South America and Asia. Failure to comply can result in a warrant being issued for your arrest by your home country.

Also, starting from 2007, Switzerland banned all GPS appliances with built-in speed cameras databases as they are equipped with "Radar Detectors".

According to some GPS navigator producers, it is advised to remove the Swiss radar database while driving in the country as the police may give you a fine and impound your device even if it is turned off and placed in the trunk of your vehicle!

Some examples of fines by failing to follow traffic rules

  • driver license not at disposal: CHF 20.-
  • Exeeding the valid parking period (<2h): CHF 40.-, (2h<t<4h): CHF 60.-, (4h<t<10h): CHF 100.-
  • On a pedestrian crossing, parking: CHF 120.-, stopping: CHF 80.-, even during rush hours: CHF 60.-
  • Ignoring pedestrian's right of way on pedestrian crossings: CHF 140.-
  • On a bicycle lane, parking: CHF 120.-, stopping: CHF 80.-
  • On the yellow stripe before a pedestrian crossing, parking: CHF 120.-, stopping: CHF 80.-
  • Not adjusting snow chains when requested: CHF 100.-
  • Not following directions by arrows either printed on the street, given by sign posts, or traffic lights: CHF 100.-
  • Driving on a bus lane or on a tram trail: CHF 60.-
  • Not correctly stopping at a stop sign: CHF 60.-
  • Ignoring traffic lights (red light, and direction indicators): CHF 250.-
  • Ignoring flashing (yellow) traffic lights: CHF 250.-
  • Using of a mobile phone without speakerphone: CHF 100.-
  • Not using seat belts by any passenger: CHF 60.-
  • Unsecured children of age below 12 (special seat for children): CHF 60.-
  • Not flashing when requested (also requested when leaving roundabouts): CHF 100.-, misusing of flashing: CHF 40.-
  • Not stopping to flash after manoeuvre: CHF 100.-
  • More passengers than allowed: CHF 60.-
  • Dirty licence plates: CHF 60.-
  • Driving with insufficient tires: CHF 100.-
  • Driving too fast (minus the measurement uncertainty)
    • Within cities, towns and villages (speed limit: 50 km/h):
      • 1-5 hm/: CHF 40.-
      • 6-10 km/h: CHF 120.-
      • 11-15 km/h: CHF 250.-
      • above 15 km/h: juridictional decision
    • outside of cities, towns, and villages (speed limit: 80 km/h), or on highways (standard speed limit 100 km/h):
      • 1-5 hm/: CHF 40.-
      • 6-10 km/h: CHF 100.-
      • 11-15 km/h: CHF 160.-
      • 16-20 km/h: CHF 240.-
      • above 20 km/h: juridictional decision
    • on motorways (standard speed limit: 120 km/h):
      • 1-5 hm/: CHF 20.-
      • 6-10 km/h: CHF 60.-
      • 11-15 km/h: CHF 120.-
      • 16-20 km/h: CHF 180.-
      • 21-25 hm/: CHF 260.-
      • above 25 km/h: juridictional decision

Bicycle

Veloland Schweiz has built up an extensive network of long distance cycle trails all across the country. There are many Swiss cities where you can rent bicycles if that is your means of traveling and you can even rent electric bicycles. During the summer it is quite common for cities to offer bicycle 'rental' for free!

Cycling in cities is pretty safe, at least compared to other countries, and very common. If you decide to bicycle in a city, understand that (in most cities) you will share the road with public transport. Beware of tram tracks which can get your wheel stuck and send you flying into traffic, of the trams themselves which travel these tracks frequently (and may scare you into getting stuck into the track as just noted), and the buses, which make frequent stops in the rightmost lane.

In-line Skating

Besides the main types of transportation, the adventurous person can see Switzerland by in-line skating. There are three routes, measuring a combined 600-plus kilometers designed specifically for in-line skating throughout the country. They are the Rhine route, the Rhone route, and the Mittelland route. These are also scenic tours. Most of the routes are flat, with slight ascents and descents. The Mittelland route runs from Zurich airport to Neuenburg in the northwest; the Rhine route runs from Bad Ragaz to Schaffhausen in the northeastern section of the country. Finally, the Rhone route extends from Brig to Geneva. This is a great way to see both the country-side and cityscapes of this beautiful nation.

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