Switzerland does not have an abundance of airports, partly because of the alpine terrain and partly due to the Swiss peoples' own resistance to having planes disturb their peace and quiet. To compensate, Switzerland has one of Europe's best railway systems, linking every major city in the country. This is particularly advantageous for cities such as Bern, the capital; it relies almost exclusively on rail transport to Zurich, Geneva, and Basel for air connections to the rest of the world.
If you want to fly within Switzerland, or from Switzerland to one of about 30 regional cities in Austria, Italy, Germany, or France, Swiss (tel. 0848/700-700; www.swiss.com), a domestic airline, schedules flights from and to Basel and Amsterdam, Geneva and London, and Lugano and Geneva.
Switzerland has excellent roads and superhighways, all marked by clear road signs. Alpine passes are not difficult to cross, except in snowstorms, when they may shut down suddenly. Special rail facilities are provided for drivers wishing to transport their cars through the alpine tunnels of the Albula, Furka, Lotschberg, and Simplon. A timetable highlighting the various rates is available from the Swiss National Tourist Office.
Car Rentals -- Several American companies operate in Switzerland. One of the most reliable firms is Budget (tel. 800/472-3325; www.budget.com); its prices are competitive with those offered by Avis (tel. 800/331-1084; www.avis.com) and Hertz (tel. 800/654-3001; www.hertz.com). Under certain circumstances, the companies offer a discount if you prepay your rental 21 days or more in advance. Budget offers one-way rentals between any two of its more than 20 Swiss offices with no extra drop-off charge. Kemwel Drive Group (tel. 877/820-0668; www.kemwel.com) offers an alternative to more traditional car-rental companies, such as Budget, Hertz, and Avis, that actually own their automobiles outright. Kemwel leases blocks of cars a year in advance at locations throughout Switzerland, then rents them to qualified customers who prepay the entire rental.
Auto Europe (tel. 888/223-5555; www.autoeurope.com) is an equivalent company that leases cars, on an as-needed basis, from larger car-rental companies throughout Europe.
Note that there is a 6.5% government tax on car rentals in Switzerland, in addition to a tax of 12% of the total cost usually imposed for rentals at many of the country's airports, including Zurich. With this in mind, you might choose to skip getting a car at the airport and pick up a vehicle at one of the hundreds of downtown rental agencies run by Budget, Hertz, and Avis.
Automobile Permit -- Apart from the auto and train tunnel trips mentioned above and a toll on the road through the Great St. Bernard Tunnel, there are no toll roads in the country. Instead of tolls, Switzerland levies a single annual fee of 40F per car, or 80F for trailers, motor homes, and RVs, for use of the nation's superhighways; when the fee has been paid, a permit sticker is affixed to the car. Drivers of cars without the permit sticker face a fine of more than twice the permit's cost. Most rental cars come equipped with this certificate. Otherwise, the appropriate permits may be purchased at any post office in Switzerland, at the Customs office at any Swiss border, or from one of the automobile associations.
If you didn't rent your car in Switzerland, you'll probably have to purchase the permit. Permits are available at border crossings and are valid for multiple reentries into Switzerland within the licensed period. To avoid long lines at border crossings, you can buy the permit sticker in advance at the Swiss National Tourist Office in Italy, Austria, or Germany (it is not sold in France). Note: If you drive into Switzerland on a secondary road, you don't need a permit sticker, but if you drive on a Swiss superhighway without one, you risk facing that heavy fine.
Gas -- The cost varies across the country. Gas stations are usually open daily from 8am to 10pm. U.S. gasoline credit cards generally are not accepted for payment. At stations along Swiss autobahns, gas prices are higher than along secondary roads. Autobahn stations usually give 24-hour service, and electronic machines accept 10- and 20-franc Swiss notes.
Driver's License -- U.S. and Canadian driver's licenses are valid in Switzerland, but if you're at least 18 and touring Europe by car, you may want to invest in an international driver's license. Although you may not actually need one, many travelers like the added security blanket of having one, as they are recognized worldwide whereas your local driver's license isn't. In case of an accident, an international driver's license is easier to read among parties who may not understand your local license. In the United States, you can apply for one at any local branch of the American Automobile Association (AAA; tel. 800/AAA-HELP [222-4357] or 407/444-4300; www.aaa.com). Include two 2*2-inch color photographs, a $15 fee, and a photocopy of your state driver's license. Canadians can get the address of the nearest branch of the Canadian Automobile Club by phoning its national office (tel. 613/247-0117; www.caa.ca).
Note that your international driver's license is valid only if accompanied by your home state or provincial driver's license.
In Switzerland, as elsewhere in Europe, to drive a car legally, you must have in your possession an international insurance certificate, known as a Green Card (Carte Verte). Your car-rental agency will provide one as part of your rental contract.
Driving Rules -- The legal minimum age for driving in Switzerland is 18. Note, however, that car-rental companies often set their own minimum age, usually 20 or 21.
Drive on the right side of the road and observe the speed limit for passenger vehicles; it's 120kmph (about 75 mph) on superhighways, 80kmph (about 50 mph) on other highways, and 50kmph (about 30 mph) in cities, towns, and villages, unless otherwise posted. Non-Swiss drivers who exceed the speed limit by 50kmph (about 30 mph) or more are fined 1,200F on the spot. Swiss citizens similarly caught have their driver's licenses revoked.
When driving through tunnels, be sure to turn on and dim your headlights, as required by law. Never pass another car from the right, even on superhighways. Always wear your seat belt. Don't permit children 11 or under to ride in the front seat. And, needless to say, don't drink and drive; driving while under the influence of alcohol is a serious offense in Switzerland.
Breakdowns & Assistance -- The Automobile Club of Switzerland and its branch offices will assist motorists at all times. For help, contact Automobil Club der Schweiz, Wassergasse 39, CH-3000 Bern 13 (tel. 031/328-31-11; www.acs.ch), or Touring Club Suisse, 9, rue Pierre-Fatio, CH-1211 Geneva 3 (tel. 022/417-22-20; www.tcs.ch). The Automobile Club der Schweiz offers 24-hour breakdown service. Motorists in need of help can call tel. 0844/888-111. Most mountain roads have emergency call boxes.
Maps -- Towns, cities, and resorts in Switzerland will provide you with detailed maps of their town plans which will pinpoint walks and locations of museums and monuments. Most of these offices also have touring maps of their immediate regions and will suggest scenic drives or hiking possibilities in their area.
Before going to Switzerland, you can get detailed maps of the country itself. Distances are generally short because the country is small. You can drive from one end to the other in just a matter of hours, but who would want to? There is so much wonder to discover along the way.
The best maps for touring are published by Rand McNally. Call tel. 800/333-0136 for the address of the outlet nearest to you, especially if you live in such cities as New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. If you live in more remote areas, you can download mail order forms by logging onto www.randmcnallystore.com.
Michelin maps are also good and are sold all over Switzerland, in nearly all bookstores and at certain newsstand kiosks. Especially good is Michelin 427 Switzerland. Another excellent map for those who plan extensive touring in Switzerland is published by Hallwag.
The Swiss Federal Railway is noted for its comfort and cleanliness. Most of the electrically operated trains have first- and second-class compartments. International trains link Swiss cities with other European centers. Intercity trains coming from Holland, Scandinavia, and Germany require a change at Basel's station, where a connection is usually available on the same platform. Most intercity trains offer the fastest connections, and since trains leave the Basel station hourly, there's never too long a wait.
You should purchase European train tickets before leaving home, especially when your itinerary is specific and complicated. All tickets are available through your travel agent, through www.swisstravelsystem.com , or through www.myswitzerland.com.
Swiss Pass/Swiss Flexipass -- The most practical and convenient ticket for your trip to Switzerland is the Swiss Pass, which entitles you to unlimited travel on the entire network of the Swiss Federal Railways, as well as on lake steamers and most postal motorcoaches linking Swiss cities and resorts. The Swiss Pass is good for a predetermined number of consecutive days.
A 4-day pass goes for $398 for first class and $226 in second class; an 8-day pass $489 in first class or $327 in second class; a 15-day pass $591 in first class or $394 in second class; a 22-day pass $682 in first class and $455 in second class; and a 1-month pass $751 in first class or $500 in second class. The Swiss Pass is issued at half price for children ages 6 to 15 (free ages 5 and under).
A variation of the Swiss Pass is the Swiss Flexipass, good for a predetermined number of days to be used anytime during a 30-day period of time. A 3-day pass goes for $324 in first class or $216 in second class; a 4-day pass $392 in first class or $262 in second class; a 5-day pass $454 in first class or $303 in second class; and a 6-day pass $516 in first class or $345 in second class. The Swiss Family Card is just for families traveling together. This card allows children 15 and under to travel free when accompanied by a parent. It's valid when traveling on a Swiss Pass or a Swiss Flexipass. Probably the best part of all about the Swiss Family Card is that it is free. Just request it when you purchase your Swiss Pass from Rail Europe.
An economical alternative is the Swiss Saverpass, which offers five consecutive-day durations to choose from, including 4, 8, 15, or 22 days unlimited travel or 1 month unlimited travel. This pass requires a minimum of two people traveling together at all times and offers the choice of first- or second-class train travel. An individual traveling in first class for 4 days costs $287; 8 days, $416; 15 days, $503; 22 days, $508; or 1 month, $639. The cost in second class is 4 days for $192; 8 days, $279; 15 days, $335; 22 days, $388; or 1 month, $426.
Those under the age of 26 might consider the Swiss Youth Pass, which is a discounted version of the Swiss Pass. This pass also offers 5 consecutive day durations to choose from, including 4, 8, 15, or 22 days unlimited travel or 1 month unlimited travel. A 4-day pass goes for $254 for first class or $170 for second class; 8 days for $367 in first class or $245 in second class; 15 days for $444 in first class or $296 in second class; 22 days for $513 in first class or $342 in second class; or 1 month for $563 in first class or $376 in second class. For information on all Swiss rail passes, see www.swiss-pass.ch.
Swiss Regional Rail Passes -- One of the country's most unusual transportation bargains is offered in the form of regional passes that divide Switzerland into about half a dozen districts. Passes, most of which are good for 5 days of unrestricted rail travel, are offered for the Lake Geneva region, the Graubunden (Grisons), the Ticino, central Switzerland, and the Bernese Oberland, and can be purchased online at www.myswitzerland.com or at rail stations within each region. If you plan to devote a block of days to exploring one of these specific regions, you might find one of these passes great savings.
One of the most popular of these passes is the Bernese Oberland Regional Pass (Regional Pass für das Berner Oberland), which comes in variations of 3 travel days out of 7 calendar days, and 5 travel days out of 15 calendar days. They're available from any railway station in the Bernese Oberland and are sold in Swiss francs. The 3-day option sells for 279F in first class or 230F in second class; the 5-day option sells for 332F in first class or 277F in second class. Either variation allows free transport during the appropriate time frames on all but a handful of the cog railways, buses, cable cars, ferryboats, and SBB trains within the region. Note to holders of either the Swiss Pass or the Swiss Card: If you present either of those documents at the time of purchase, you'll get a 50% discount off the above-mentioned prices.
Swiss Card -- This pass, which, like the Eurailpasses, must be purchased before you leave home, is valid for 1 month, entitling the holder to a free transfer from any Swiss airport or border point to any destination within Switzerland, and a second free transfer from any destination in Switzerland to any Swiss airport or border point. Each transfer has to be completed within 1 day. Additionally, the Swiss Card gives the holder unlimited half-fare trips on the entire Swiss travel system, including trains, postal coaches, lake steamers, and most (not all) excursions to mountaintops. The pass costs $222 for first class and $159 for second class. Children are charged half-price.
For more information on Swiss railway passes, visit www.swisstravelsystem.ch or call Switzerland Tourism at tel. 212/757-5944.
Eurailpasses -- The Eurail Global Pass allows you unlimited travel in 18 Eurail-affiliated countries. You can travel on any of the days within the validity period, which is available for 15 days, 21 days, 1 month, 2 months, 3 months, and some other possibilities as well. Prices for first-class adult travel are $449 for 15 days, $579 for 21 days, $719 for 1 month, $1,019 for 2 months, and $1,259 for 3 months. Children 4 to 11 pay half fare; those 3 and under travel for free.
A Eurail Global Pass Saver, also valid for first-class travel in 18 countries, offers a special deal for two or more people traveling together. This pass costs $585 for 15 days, $759 for 21 days, $939 for 1 month, $1,329 for 2 months, and $1,649 for 3 months.
A Eurail Global Youth Pass for those 12 to 25 allows second-class travel in 18 countries. This pass costs $449 for 15 days, $579 for 21 days, $719 for 1 month, $1,019 for 2 months, and $1,259 for 3 months.
A Eurail Selectpass offers unlimited travel on the national rail networks of any three, four, or five bordering countries out of the 22 Eurail nations linked by train or ship. Two or more passengers can travel together for big discounts, getting 5, 6, 8, 10, or 15 days of rail travel within any 2-month period on the national rail networks of any three, four, or five adjoining Eurail countries linked by train or ship. A sample fare: For 5 days in 2 months, you pay $439 for three countries.
If you're 25 or under, you can avail yourself of a Eurail Global Pass Youth Flexi. In second class, you get 10 days of travel in 2 months for $529, or 15 days in 2 months for $695. For that, you get to travel in 18 European countries, including Switzerland.
For Switzerland only, there is a Swiss Saver Flexipass, granting you 3 days of travel in 1 month for $276 in first class or $184 in second class. This pass is also available for 4, 5, 6, or 8 days of travel in 1 month. These prices are based on two or more passengers traveling together.
Travel agents in all towns and railway agents in major North American cities sell all these tickets, but the biggest supplier is Rail Europe (tel. 877/272-RAIL [272-7245]); www.raileurope.com), which can also give you informational brochures.
Many different rail passes are available in the United Kingdom for travel in Britain and continental Europe. Stop in at the International Rail Centre, Victoria Station, London SWIV 1JY (tel. 0870/5848-848 in the U.K.). Some of the most popular passes, including InterRail and Euro Youth, are offered only to travelers 25 years of age and under; these allow unlimited second-class travel through most European countries.
Interrail -- European travelers can travel throughout Europe for up to 1 month by train with the InterRail ticket. In your home country, you get a 50% reduction on the normal price. Only supplements, reservations, and special trains like the Eurostar cost extra. The ticket is sold at all European travel agents or viawww.swisstravelsystem.com. All you need is a passport and the fee, of course.
Rail Bargains -- In Switzerland, children 16 and under -- if accompanied by at least one adult -- travel free on national rail lines. This family travel plan is valid for the purchase of Swiss Passes, Swiss Flexi Passes, Swiss Cards, and point-to-point tickets.
The extremely dense network covered by the Swiss postal buses is useful for trips into the mountains. Hopping on one of the popular yellow buses is a much safer and more comfortable way of seeing the Alps than trying to do your own driving in those regions.
In the summer, passenger boats sail on Switzerland's major lakes and rivers. More than 100 boats, with accommodations for 60,000 passengers, operate on the lakes and along stretches of the Rhine and the Aare; most of them have dining. Evening trips, with music and dancing, are also quite popular. The old paddle-steamers on the lakes of Brienz, Geneva, Lucerne, and Zurich, dating from before World War I, are particularly attractive and romantic.
Remember that your Swiss Pass or Swiss Card (half-fare travel card) entitles you to unlimited travel on lake steamers.